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Early Season Guide to Southern Muskies

By Tony Grant, Field Editor

Have you ever thought of kicking off your musky fishing season in the South before the snow has melted in the North? Action fires up on most southern waters as early as late February, and muskies are at their heaviest and eager to feed.

Southern reservoirs offer an amazingly exciting early season thats runs through post-spawn. Let’s look at a game plan to productively extend your musky season on some of the great waters of the South. 

Mike Ross and Tony Grant show off a nice, pre-spawn musky.

Pre-Spawn Transition

Out of the gate during this early season, muskies have made or are making the transition to their spawning areas. They follow river and creek channels to coves, bays and mudflats to (in most cases) “go through the motions” of spawning. Natural reproduction by muskies in most southern reservoirs is minimal and stocking is responsible for most of the muskies you will encounter.

I like to start fishing on points leading into coves and bays and creek arms, as the muskies use these for staging. Most southern waters are “highland” reservoirs, so the banks entering these areas will mainly be steep. My clients and I typically find success casting gliders, crankbaits and twitchbaits to such shorelines.

When selecting glide baits, it seems flat-sided models outproduce the rounded models during the pre-spawn period, through there always are exceptions. My personal favorite is the Hellhound and Sledge, but Hot Tails, Phantoms, Twisted Suckers and the new Shum Shum bait have consistently but fish in my boat.

For twitchbaits, my choices are Cranes, Shallow Invaders, Coatney Baits, 007 Lures, Jakes and ShallowRaiders — just add some twitches to them. All of these lures have minimal forward motion, which keeps them tight to shore longer, which is important because muskies prefer to stay very close to such steeper shorelines where the water is just a bit warmer as they work toward spawning areas.

When encountering lay-down timber (a prime holding area), make multiple casts from different angles. Concentrate on keeping your bait in the cover. The Sledge is excellent here as rod tip pulls lower the bait into the timber, and on the pause the bait rises backward, ready for your next pull yet staying in the strike zone longer.

Color selection is often key as southern waters vary in clarity. Spring run-off colors the water, so orange and chartreuse baits are very effective — but don’t overlook shad patterns in clearer water. Another effective solution to the darker spring water of the South is a bait with flash and water movement. My clients and I have found really good success with the jointed 4Play swimbait from Savage Gear. Its flashy movement with a stop-and-start retrieve is exactly what it takes to move fish some days.

Once we get farther back into the bays and my fishfinder reads seven feet and less, we change our presentation drastically because lures with noise and vibration are the most effective in shallow water. Fan-casting with rattlebaits like the Rattlin’ Shad, Fat Belly Rattler and Rat-L-Traps account for a big percentage of muskies during the early pre-spawn period. Keep your rod tips up and crank quickly as the muskies may be in as little as a foot of water.

When using rattlebaits, it’s very important to downsize all your equipment because the small hooks on these lures can be pulled out from a hooked fish’s jaw with conventional musky tackle. Today’s market offers rattlebait-friendly rods and reels, but a heavy bass flipping stick set-up will work. Line and leader should also be dropped in size, I like 50- to 65-pound test Hi Seas line combined with a Stealth spring leader. The smaller wire leader with no swivel allows the maximum vibration of your lure while minimizing fouled baits and hang-ups.

Some anglers find good production from spoons and smaller gliders during this period.

Trolling can be very productive during the pre-spawn period, but the defining factor is to stay shallow. A short-line presentation over water eight feet and less is your best bet, but get as shallow as you can.

Threadfin shad are the main food base so use lures four to six inches in length. With three to 15 feet of line out from your rod tip, run smaller baits like Tuff Shads, Wileys, Li’l Ernies, Baby DepthRaiders, BattleShads and Marshads. The same rattlebaits I talked about earlier can also be trolled very effectively — with 18 to 30 feet of line out your rattlebait will stay just below the surface so you can get extremely shallow.

Whether trolling or casting, work areas at multiple times of the day. Often muskies seem to wait for the sunshine before they move into the skinny, warming water. Afternoons generally outproduce early mornings.

Post-Spawn

After the spawn, southern muskies are more scattered and can be found almost anywhere throughout the system. As the water warms into the 60s, start your efforts on points that lead out of spawning areas. Casting and trolling can both be very effective. Concentrate your efforts on the inside turns of the point but don’t overlook the shallowest water on the tips of such points.

Muskies will hang out near or on structure, weeds, drop-offs and timber. Weeds and timber are very similar — finding irregularities in their edges will pay big dividends. Mud flats and their edges hold muskies, and finding twists and turns in the contour are crucial. Some of these spots constantly hold fish.

The best bet baits for casting include topwaters like the Fat Bastard, TopRaider and buzzbaits. Blade baits by Grim Reaper, Llungen Lures and Musky Mayhem are great producers for inconsistent weed, timber and contour edges. As weeds develop, try rapidly retrieving smaller blade baits like Showgirls or Mepps over the top.

Speed is often a huge factor, so change until you find what they want. As muskies stabilize on edges of the structure, try a mid-size rubber presentation. Allow your BullDawgs, Medussas and Red October tubes to sink slightly before you begin your retrieve.

While trolling, don’t forget that matching the size of your lures to the shad is important. Sometimes even bass-size lures can be what it takes to have multiple fish days when muskies are feeding on younger schools of shad. I’ve had good success with a couple of southern-made lures like the Mad Shad, Smutty Dogs and Big Chimney lures.

The post-spawn period produces some very big fish on southern waters for trollers each year. Search water depths from six to 25 feet, but be sure to run your baits both high and low in the water column. Add larger baits like Believers, Jakes, Wileys and Grandmas to the mix when fishing deeper water.

Southern reservoirs offer some tremendous early season musky fishing opportunities. Learning how different pre- and post-spawn fishing are from other times of the year will be your key to success. Follow some of the guidelines this article has laid out and you may discover how to successfully extend your musky fishing season.

For more about Field Editor Tony Grant, visit www.tonygrantoutdoors.com 

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