Forget their reputation. Muskies ARE predictable.
"These are difficult animals to find and to catch. In addition, you are dealing with a relatively small population," said guide and outdoor educator, Gord Pyzer, who recently retired from being the district manager of natural resources at Kenora, Ontario. "But, muskies are pattern-able. In fact, they are so pattern-able, it's frightening."
That may be hard to believe for most anglers, who count themselves lucky to even see one fish per trip. But, you become a convert when you listen to Pyzer, whose personal-best muskie weighed 57 pounds. He tells of boating a 40, a 28 and a 25 pound muskie in one 12-hour period while filming a television show last fall. That same trip, he had another follow from a fish estimated in the high "40s." Montreal guide, Marc Thorpe, who has a 51-1/2 pounder to his credit, recounts similar tales of multi-fish days.
And, why not? Radio-implant studies by such renowned experts as John Casselman of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Ed Crossman of the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto have proven muskies are extremely territorial. They resemble other animals, such as whitetail deer, in that they prefer to inhabit small spaces. They feel secure and in control, when they know every tree and scrub, every place to hide or to eat on the edge between field and forest. Learn their habits, anticipate their movements and they become easier to intercept time and time again.
Muskies establish two home ranges over the course of a year. Each range may span 50 to 400 acres in size. One area is occupied in summer after water temperature rises above 60 degrees. Fish begin staging in their winter ranges later in the fall at water temperatures of 40 degrees and below. Muskies are on the move during two transition periods. The first movement comes when the water rises to between 40 and 60 degrees in the spring after spawning and drops again from 60 to 40 degrees in early autumn.
Both Pyzer and Thorpe will cast for them early in the season. Pyzer prefers that tactic throughout the remainder of the year. But, Thorpe likes to precision troll. Either way, the challenge of locating muskies on huge lakes like the million-acre Lake of the Woods or Lake Seul can be lessened when you divide each body of water into smaller parcels using some basic principles of structure fishing. While in their ranges, muskies will often be found on points, bars, humps, saddles or rocky shoals. Check out cover like weed edges, weed points or big weed beds, where they exist. Muskies use portions of their territory for feeding and others for resting. One tracking study showed they sometimes move very shallow at times, even in mid-day, where warm water helps to digest their food. What spots are used on any given day will depend on factors such as wind direction, wave action, sunlight and forage movements. Use the same principles on your own home waters.
"The reality is that they can be tough animals to catch," Pyzer said. "But, we'll run and gun to 40 different spots that we know have a very-high percentage of chance that they will hold fish. …You don't fish for muskies. You hunt them."
Thorpe admits the highest percentages of muskies are caught in weedy bays during their foray to the shallows to find food. But, he thinks that may be only because that's where most people are spending the bulk of their time hunting for them. That doesn't change the fact that muskies often suspend over water 20, 30, 40 feet deep and more.
"The big fatties are down there, and they are less shy," Thorpe said. "You just have to have confidence in what you are doing. …There's always fish in the weeds. Bigger fish will come up into shallow areas to chase bait fish. But, it's a very small window and then they are right back out into deep water."
Shallow or deep, casting or trolling, the point is this; When you catch a fish, take out your lake map, find other places with similar features, go there and repeat the presentation.
In order to cast, the "pool-cue" mentality is out. Start with a 7 or 7-1/2 foot graphite rod that will handle a 1 to 3 ounce bait, like St. Croix's PM72MHF. It must have backbone, yet have a limber, fast-action tip in order to impart the proper action. Choose 45 pound Dacron line or 25 pound mono with a 12-inch metal leader. Pyzer recommends using casting rods with reels with both right-hand and left-hand retrieves. Alternate to rest sore shoulders.
Take an array of baits including topwaters; bucktails, big spinnerbaits, jerkbaits and crankbaits. A complete arsenal allows you to sift the water column from top to bottom and offer muskies a choice. Forget that favorite lure stuff. Let the muskies tell you what they want. Depth and lure action is more important than color, although blacks, fluorescent reds and fire tiger are good bets to start with.
Don't be discouraged when you merely entice a "follow." That fish just sent you a signal - "I'm ready to go." Think about what you did right to get the fish's attention, and what you can do differently to trigger a strike next time. Fine-tuning presentations will often get that same muskie the next time. "If I raise a fish, I will catch it. It's a 'gimme,' " said Pyzer. "It may not be today, not tomorrow, but in the course of a three or four day period, I will catch it. We may come back in a few hours from a different direction. We may throw something a little different, a bucktail instead of a crankbait, or something a little bigger or smaller, maybe a different color." Vary the speed of the retrieve. Don't assume that cold water demands slow speeds, or that a fast pace is best in hot water. End every cast with a sharp "L" turn or a complete figure 8 and keep your eye just a few feet behind the lure for a follow. Upon sighting a fish, keep your lure moving to entice a strike. Use large enough circles in your figure 8 to allow the fish ample room to turn with the bait.
Trolling is a good method for anyone to cover unfamiliar water fast. Use three set-ups to cover a wide range of depths.
First, Thorpe alternates in early spring between casting and trolling over emerging weeds with top water baits 20 to 50 feet behind the boat at 1-1/2 mph. For shallow water weed or mud flats, use 63 pound Dacron and try speed trolling spinnerbaits at 4 to 8 mph. Keel weighted sinkers with two eyelets on each end will provide the weight to keep your lures down. Tie the Dacron from you rod to a Sampo 60# test snap swivel and attach it to one eye. To the other, tie a 120 pound monofilament shock leader about 5 feet long. Run one rod with 16 ounces of weight right behind the boat in the prop wash. The second rod should be run with 10 to 12 ounces of weight 10 to 15 feet behind the boat. .
Depending on the number of people in the boat and the number of rods that the law allows, the third rod should be run 20 to 25 feet behind with 8 ounces of weight. The fourth rod should be run with NO weight and be let out 35 to 50 feet behind the boat until the spinnerbait does not break the surface. Deep diving 2 ounce Colorado spinnerbaits, like Lindy's Giant Tandem, work best with this set up. The weights will cut right through the weeds. Separate your lines by using rods that vary in length from 5-1/2 to 7 feet.
He works his second set-up while contour trolling breaklines with spinnerbaits or shallow running cranks. The only difference from flats fishing is that your inside rods toward shallower water should carry the heaviest weights and be run right below the boat. The outside rods nearer to deep water use the lighter weights and run them a little further back. Add another rod on the far outside with NO weight and run the bait 35 to 50 feet behind the boat. Trolling 4 to 8 mph, this spacing puts baits at 2 feet, 4 feet, 6 feet and 8 feet down inside to out. After catching a second muskie from the same depth, change up your other rods to target them at that depth.
Lastly, for deeper fish, use 40-pound wire line on heavy-duty rods equipped with rollers or silicone carbide tips that can stand up to the abuse. Without any stretch in the main line, a shock absorber of 120 pound test, 5 foot long, monofilament leader is needed to lend flexibility because strikes are violent.
Start by using your electronics to locate schools of forage. Muskies will lurk right below. Like most species, muskies feed upward. Try putting crankbaits at that depth or slightly higher. With smaller crankbaits, let out 120 to 150 feet of wire to get it down to about 27 feet. Let out about 70 feet of line with larger, deep diving baits, like the new Big M crankbait from Lindy.
Follow contour breaklines on lakes and reservoirs. On rivers, look for current breaks where walleyes and other fish gather. Concentrate on river bends, and check out points, rock bars or weed edges and subtle breaks near deeper water. They may not look like much, but they offer muskies protection from current. Try sharper breaks near weed flats. Troll both up or downstream. Crash baits right over the top of a point or hump. Do figure 8's, not with your rod, but with your boat to test different depths and lure speeds. Vary your trolling speeds.
Success increases as fishermen learn more. Catching more and more fish makes it critical to practice conservation, especially where muskies are concerned. Trophy fish are too valuable to be caught just once. Get a graphite replica rather than an actual mount. Take pictures, a measurement of the length and girth and let it go. Even so, muskies are fragile, and proper handling is crucial. Use a cradle or a very large net. Get the fish back into the water as soon as possible. Support its weight with a hand on its midsection at all times. Revive it before releasing.
For muskies that you won't forget, contact Thorpe by phoning 450-975-4942 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call Pyzer at 807-468-4898 or e-mail him at email@example.com .