By Joe Bucher, Editor Emeritus
I relate back to my days as a guide quite often in articles. To this day, it is the foundation of my musky memories and knowledge. Admittedly, I still rely on it a lot in my writing since it involved so many experiences over time.
During a recent seminar, someone in the audience asked me why some anglers are considerably more successful than others. As I attempted to answer this question, I realized that perhaps we’ve made musky fishing way more complicated than it needs to be.
Is it really that difficult? Is musky success, particularly with bigger fish, unattainable to the masses? Do we really need all these new lures, electronics and other gadgets that are on the market today? Could I answer this guy’s question in a simple way?
Inside this article, I hope to answer these questions with a focus on an ultra-simple approach. Some might even argue it is too simple. Yet my intention here is to cut through all the hype and concentrate more on what I think really matters. As I contemplate my own successes over time, three simple keys to my musky success continue to surface above all other aspects. I hope to share those with you throughout this discussion.
By the way, I doubt this philosophy will ever change. Guiding full-time for muskies throughout the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s gave me some great insights into the sport that I still rely on today. It has been written by many that experience is the best teacher. These same three simple keys to success float to the top in almost every case. Let’s take a look at them more closely.
1. Mastery Of Basic Skills
As my guiding reputation grew as well as my daily fee went up, the pressure to produce also increased. I distinctly remember the first time a prospective client asked me on an inquiry phone call about my daily fee: “Wow! For that price, do you guarantee fish?” Usually, I am not very witty, but I did come up with the perfect answer. It’s one that I continue to use today when recommending other guides. My response was, “I can guarantee you that I will put the boat over muskies the entire time you are on the water, but can you guarantee me that you can catch them?”
Think about my response for a few moments. No matter how good a guide is, no matter how good the water is, no matter how good the lure you are using is — it doesn’t matter if the angler can’t effectively cast without backlashes. In addition, success is doubtful if one can’t work lures with some degree of proficiency. I have witnessed so many fishing scenarios where I have put anglers on top of hot, active fish in the absolute primest conditions, yet their own ineptness prevented them from success. This is as true in the panfish, bass and walleye world as well as in the big game musky business.
Sadly, there are still far too many anglers out there who blame the guide, the weather, and the water for their lack of success. This is one sport where money doesn’t necessarily buy success. It must be earned. While time spent fishing good spots is certainly a big factor, it still takes a back seat to the basics of mastering skills. In fact, another common question I used to get when guiding, particularly when the action was slow, was: “How come that guy you were fishing with yesterday always seems to catch ’em?” While I admit that some fishing days are definitely better than others, anglers who consistently catch fish seem to do so no matter what the conditions. Their skills are simply more refined, which makes it easier for them to take advantage of all possible opportunities.
So what exactly are these skills and how do you make yourself a more skillful musky angler? Just like a golfer must practice often with a variety of clubs, taking a wide range of shots on a vast array of terrains, so must the musky angler.
First and foremost is mastering the simplest art of casting large baitcast gear. I am amazed, still to this day, how many musky anglers have terrible casting form. With all the great gear that’s out there today, you’d think that the basics of baitcasting would truly be mastered by the masses. Yet, I still see plenty of bad casting form and lots of backlashes. Once again, it doesn’t matter how much that rod and reel cost, you still have to learn how to actually use them. But it goes much further than that.
No matter how many lures you own, it matters little if you don’t learn when to snap them on, and how to work them. I am still convinced that many of the most successful musky anglers today fish with a very limited selection of baits. While they might own quite a few lures, they actually use only a select handful of them successfully. Some of this is confidence-driven, while some of it is also conditions-correlated.
As an example, look at how many musky anglers are having success on large, twin-bladed, tinsel tail bucktails. While this is an overly-simplified scenario, anglers fishing these baits successfully for lunker ’lunges have learned when to snap these things on and how to work them. The results have been outstanding.
For any angler reading this and looking for a key to more success, I’d highly recommend they pay more attention to the mastery of one rod/reel, and one lure. Match that to a specific time of the year on a spot you know well and you’re bound to have a much higher degree of success than a scattergun approach of fishing a wide range of rods/reels and lures over all kinds of unfamiliar terrain. As overly simple as this sounds, it is probably the way most successful musky anglers approach the sport.
2. Lean On One Lake
Are there magic musky waters out there capable of producing big fish better than where you are fishing? Absolutely. If you are fortunate enough to live close to some of these hot fisheries like Green Bay, Lake Vermillion, Mille Lacs or Lake of the Woods, your scorecard at year’s end is sure to look better than someone less fortunate. If you have the time and resources to fish these great fisheries once or twice a season, then you also are likely to do well.
However, there are those local gems (hot local lakes) that produce a good fish or two each and every season. Certainly not in the overall numbers that some of these aforementioned ones will, but nonetheless, they are more accessible and can be fished on a more regular basis. The best thing you can do for your musky score is to pick a productive local lake and really learn it well. In fact, I’d suggest you totally dedicate yourself to that local lake, river or reservoir until you know it well enough to drive around it in complete darkness. Granted, this may take years to learn it that well, but it is worth it.
Not only does it take time on the water to learn a lake well, it also requires research from other avenues. Keep tabs on this local lake from as many angles as you can. Keep your ears and eyes open for evidence of recent catches from this lake. Also, watch other anglers and how they fish it while you are doing your thing. You will often learn as much by watching as you will by fishing. Make it a point to learn everything you can about the underwater terrain while paying close attention to where muskies seem to hang out on a regular basis.
Never overestimate how much you know about your chosen lake. There is always more to learn, and different ways to catch muskies on any given outing. You simply have to make it a goal to learn much more about this lake than you ever thought was possible. This is where good maps and good electronics can indeed make a difference. However, even the best maps rarely have the real details marked on them. You have to learn these details through hard work and a watchful eye on both the sonar, other anglers, and your surroundings. Today’s modern electronics have made it far easier to learn water than what guys like me had to go through a few years back. The learning curve has been shortened a great deal.
The advent of GPS has made a huge difference in the angler’s ability to precisely mark the exact location of the best fishing spots. If you haven’t made an investment in a sonar system with GPS, I’d suggest you do so. Also, load it with the very latest in aftermarket map card technology. This provides you with great contour map readouts right alongside your sonar display. When you raise a big musky, or simply find a really good-looking spot, it can be quickly yet precisely marked on your map with a simple push of the waypoint quick-save button. You can then return to that exact spot time and again.
While I did not have this technology to rely on throughout most of my fishing career and had to instead use landmark triangulation and/or marking buoys, I am totally sold on the effectiveness of this new technology and how much it can help any angler. It is particularly efficient for the musky angler because we cover so much more water than most. The run-and-gun machine-gun casting style of most musky maniacs is tailor-made for maximizing the use of high quality sonar and GPS. Purchase the best unit you can afford, and really learn how to use it. You won’t regret it.
3. Time Your Trips
No matter where you fish muskies, whether it is mostly local or a long distance trek, you will quickly learn that during certain times each month, and certain seasons throughout any year, muskies are definitely more susceptible on any water.
These monthly and seasonal peaks differ dramatically at times from one water to another. That is why it is essential to concentrate on one lake initially, until you learn this timing secret. The trick here is to study these patterns over years so you can nail down the best producing days. If you pay attention to trends, it’s a fairly sure bet that a few common denominators will emerge.
Understand there will always be some variables in this equation. Weather varies from one year to the next, as do moon phases and other factors. Also, you will most surely have good trips and bad trips. Mother Nature can always throw a “curve ball” into the best-laid plans. A nasty cold front that roars in at the beginning of a trip, no matter how well this same time produced in past years, is bound to slow things down a bit. Sometimes it even shuts them down completely. There’s nothing you can do about this except to fish through it. In fact, this is often when you learn new things about a lake and once in a while even discover a brand new pattern. When this happens, you’ve struck gold for sure.
Planning trips around moon peaks is something I have written about in the pages of Musky Hunter since its inception. However, on a more local scale it is often better to simply watch the weather. For example, if your local summer weather has been dominated by successive cold fronts, but this suddenly shifts to a hot, muggy, humid spell for three to five days, it’s almost a guarantee that this will trigger a big bite. A quick trip to your favorite local lake every evening for a few hours of casting on the top five or six spots is likely to yield big time results. A forecast for periodic thunderstorms and frontal activity immediately following this big hot spell is sure to yield some outstanding action in spurts all day long, particularly a few hours before the storm actually arrives. Of course, the key here is to react as quickly as you can. That is why it is good to have a local lake, river or reservoir in your game plan. Being able to move quickly is the secret to success. Quite often, the action in this instance is short-lived, but intense.
Windy weather is an underrated trigger on some local lakes, while dead flat calm conditions create the bite on others. This leads us back to learning the lake well, and understanding unique idiosyncracies that fit to your particular lake. For example, there are two lakes I fish regularly that react differently to both of these weather extremes. When it is flat, I will almost surely get action on my favorite darkly-stained, shallow, clay-based lake. In fact, it appears that the muskies prefer this condition above all others. But, when the wind whistles wildly out of the west, this lake goes completely dead. However, the lake next door, a deeper, clearer one with lots of shallow rocky reefs, seems to wake up. Heaving bucktails over rock reefs so shallow that the waves boil over them works wonders on these days. You will only learn these things by spending lots of time on the water. Each lake not only has its monthly and seasonal timing, it also has its unique local weather timing.
In summary, I like to keep things simple and I believe it is one of the keys to success with muskies. If you discipline yourself to master the basic arts of casting, working lures, and performing good figure-8’s along with working hard on your boat control skills you are bound to be way more productive. Instead of running from lake to lake, lock-in on one body of water and learn it intimately. Challenge yourself to learn it better than you ever thought possible. This too, will result in more opportunities at muskies.
Finally, do your homework on timing, and take full advantage of every opportunity you have. Most of you have very busy schedules in your daily lives and very limited amounts of time to enjoy musky fishing on extended trips. When you get that opportunity, you want to make the most of it. By studying the patterns of productivity on your target lake I am certain you will eventually narrow down those odds and put yourself on the water at the best possible time.
Editor Emeritus Joe Bucher is the host of the “Fishing with Joe Bucher” TV show. He lives near Eagle River, Wisconsin.