Fishing for muskies means hunting the top predator, the biggest, baddest, toothiest creature in a body of water’s food chain. Anglers who stubbornly pursue them possess the confidence that their very next cast could erupt into a fierce battle with one of these powerful beasts. Sure, muskies have earned their reputation for being difficult to catch, but perhaps 90 percent of what a musky fisherman needs to know boils down to just a handful of key tips—tips that can put muskies on your line with regularity.
Muskies spawn in the shallows when the springtime water temperature rises to around 49 degrees. They remain sluggish during the post-spawn period, and only gradually develop their famous voracious appetite as the water warms toward the preferred temperature of 70 degrees. They prefer to eat soft-rayed species of fish like ciscoes, suckers, carp, minnows and bullheads. Where abundant, yellow perch are also important forage. Muskies are especially drawn to already-injured baitfish (an easy meal), but won’t turn down a frog or duckling either.
When water temperatures begin to drop again in the fall, muskies seek out warm pockets until the lake turns over. Fishing slows down during the week or so after turnover, but then picks back up again, as the best trophy fishing occurs during the month before the lake ices over.
Lure selection depends largely on what prey is predominant in the lake or river, and prevailing weather patterns may dictate a fast or slow presentation.
To choose the best lure for a given situation, first consider what depth the fish are likely to be at, given the structure or cover present. The closer your lure passes by a musky’s nose, the more likely it will strike. Of the lures that run at the target depth, choose the one that has the highest hooking percentage, such as a large bucktail spinner. Big plugs have a lower hooking percentage, yet they come into their own when a slow retrieve is desired.
Lure color is less important, but you can’t go wrong using a color pattern that matches one of the main baitfish muskies feed upon in a lake. In murky waters, plugs featuring fluorescing perch colors and bucktail patterns that include chartreuse or fluorescent orange colors work great. In clear waters, reliable lure color patterns mimic suckers, ciscoes or whitefish, and the best colors are typically silver, black, and gray.
A favorite hunting technique of hungry muskies is to slip into a weedbed and wait for an unsuspecting baitfish to swim by. Pondweed, also known as cabbage, provides them with the perfect ambush cover.
Approach a cabbage bed slowly and quietly, examining it for irregularities. Work any holes, gaps, points and extra dense clumps by casting a lure beyond each feature and retrieving it past the target. Where the weeds almost reach the surface, use a bucktail or surface bait. Where they still have several feet to grow before reaching the surface, twitch a glider over their tips or sweep a floating/diving bait down until it strikes weeds, and then let it float clear before sweeping it downward again.
Fallen shoreline trees and stump fields attract baitfish and provide muskies with great ambush cover. Work these areas hard early in the spring, when shallows hold the warmest water in the lake. On sunny days especially, muskies go shallow to bask in the warm spring sunshine.
Though the "fish of 10,000 casts" claim may sometimes hold true, a fish like this tiger musky is worth the wait for most anglers.
Last spring, my son and I spent a morning on a shallow reservoir just downstream from a deep lake. The two-foot deep water was choked with stumps and fallen timber. Picking our way through with a trolling motor required constant zigzagging and frequent backing out of dead ends, but we saw muskies all morning long. Suddenly, as I retrieved my bucktail between a stump and log, I felt the distinctive tug of a big fish. The musky tried to return to the stump and I battled back. Then she headed for the log. For the next several adrenalin-filled minutes, the big fish torpedoed from one potential snag to another before we eventually brought her to the net.
Drop-offs, Humps And Points
Steep drop-offs parallel to a shoreline will also hold muskies, especially on lakes lacking weed cover. Sections with submerged trees or fishcribs are particularly prime, as are breaks that begin at the edges of bulrush fields. Underwater humps are sometimes overlooked, because they require more time to locate than other musky-attracting features. Those that are covered with weeds are best in summer, while rock-covered ones are best in fall. If the water is very murky, look for humps or weed tops 6 to 8 feet down. If the water is extremely clear, look for humps that top out 20 to 30 feet down. Cast not only over these underwater hills, but also around them, where muskies may suspend between feeding forays. Points that turn into bars that jut out into deep water draw muskies year-round. Even better yet is a bar that dips down and then rises back out of the water again, creating a saddle. These often are found between islands, or between an island and the mainland. Sometimes, muskies will suspend over the deep end of the bar between feeding junkets.
Learning to respect the resource at a young age helps ensure good musky fishing will continue in the future.
A couple years ago, my son and I were fishing a tournament that our circle of friends organizes twice annually, the Musky Mania Invitational. With just a half-hour left in the contest, we saw Dale Peterson motor out to deep water off a bar tip. On his first cast there, he tied into the contest-winning 44-incher that had been suspended 15 feet off the bottom.
On windy days, the wind pushes surface water to the downwind side of a lake. Look for neckdown areas within a lake, such as where two points approach each other, or corridors between lakes in a chain. A current develops in such spots, drawing baitfish, which in turn draw muskies. These areas are also good after the wind has subsided, as the current reverses to equalize the water level.
Inlet bays hold muskies for a variety of reasons. In spring, water at the inlet’s mouth is warmer than the main lake. During summer, the stream becomes important in a lake with dense vegetation because it carries in supplemental oxygen. In clear lakes lacking much vegetation, such an inlet is also important because its current attracts feeding baitfish.
Often the best spot in a lake is where multiple structures exist close to one another. The overall effect of a cluster is greater than the sum of the individual parts. For example, if a musky can cruise past a wind-crossed point adjacent to a weed-covered hump on its way to an island with fallen trees in the water, it knows it will be able to find something to eat somewhere along the way without having to cover a lot of distance.
Few scenarios in freshwater fishing can match the drama that a monster musky produces when hooked.
Storm fronts affect muskies dramatically. As a storm front rolls in muskies feed aggressively. The more severe the approaching storm, the greater the feeding frenzy. After the cold front passes through, muskies are a little deeper and more sluggish. Now use smaller lures retrieved at a slower speed.
Big Ones Cause Mayhem
During our most recent fall tournament, die-hards Gary Borkowski and Gordie Shaw were drifting alongside one of the few cabbage patches to remain green. While casting to the weeds and dragging a sucker behind a quick-strike harness, Gary noticed his bobber moving sideways. He grabbed his rod and realized that the fish had already angled the line beneath the boat. As Gordie used the trolling motor to spin the boat around to allow Gary a good hook-set angle, the fish peeled out line with a strong, steady pull. Suddenly, they realized it was the trolling motor that was peeling out Gary’s line, not the fish.
Gary reached into the water and grabbed the line between the trolling motor and fish. He fought the 47-inch, 30-pound-plus tiger musky barehanded while Gordie removed the prop from the trolling motor, untangled Gary’s line, and wound the badly frayed line back onto Gary’s rod. Until now, the tiger had pretty much been drifting along with the boat, but when Gary set the hook, the peaceful truce turned into an all-out battle on short line. After netting the trophy, they took a few quick photos, then returned her to the lake where she continues to challenge other musky hunters.
Anglers need not be overwhelmed by the abundance of musky fishing theories, situational rules and complex guidelines they read or hear about. Sure, some of the finer points do enhance a fisherman’s odds, but an average angler possessing a solid understanding of just the basics can consistently catch muskies, too.