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Solar Muskies

By Joe Bucher, Editor Emeritus

Without question, the most popular method of musky casting on many Minnesota and Canadian waters is holding a boat off a wave-pounded, rocky shoreline, and burning twin-ten bucktails. Arguably, more big fish are taken with this single tactic than with any other method during the summer. The technique covers a ton of water in a day’s fishing and just plain catches big fish.

Ironically, this craze has created a false impression that muskies no longer ever hang out in quiet coves, backwater bays, and any other calm stretch of water. A large majority of musky hunters today actually disregard all other patterns and focus instead on the wind/waves/rock deal. It’s as if wave-washed rocks are the only place that now holds fish. However, my experiences suggest nothing could be farther from the truth. Plenty of toothy critters still can be found in warm, quiet hideaways. In fact, I firmly believe muskies can be caught from such spots when all else fails, and it might have very little to do with fishing pressure or baitfish. It has a lot more to do with the sun.

The sun’s heat — the solar effect — is a major factor in the daily life of nearly all aquatic creatures. Discounting the impact of solar light and heat on all fish, muskies included, could be a significant misfire in your angling gameplan. Solar light and heat makes plants grow, plankton react, and water temperatures rise. The rise in water temperature, no matter how subtle, is probably the biggest trigger of gamefish like muskies.

Other than increased light, recognizable solar effects are hard to perceive out over open areas that are windswept and wave-pounded. Yet, solar effects can be downright profound in areas out of the wind over a period of hours inside any given day. Once you know what to look for, and when to check, you will be amazed at that fantastic transformation that can take place in a single small cove. But it all depends upon how much sunlight is exposed. In other words, the fewer clouds the better. This is particularly true when the preceding night was cold.

The old bass fishermen in me knows the importance of solar heat all too well. My experiences suggest many of the things I learned as a bass angler also apply well to muskies. That’s why I am always checking and rechecking favorite coves and bays throughout a given day of fishing. Many anglers make the mistake of thinking the solar bite is only important in the springtime. However, both solar light and heat can have dramatic positive effects on fish activity in the summertime, as well. This is especially true during a colder-than-normal summer weather pattern.

Solar Geometry & Lake Topography
Angles and overall geometry constantly come into play with regard to the solar influence, too. Two key things to lock onto here are wind direction and sun angle. Both are bound to change throughout the day. Both have an incredible bearing where and when a spot is likely to warm up. For example, if the wind is out of a westerly direction in the morning, east-facing coves are likely to be the first warm up since the rising sun will hit them first. By mid morning, one of these east-facing coves could produce some action.

Coves and bays on the eastern side of a lake, island, or large point are, of course, west-facing and will be shaded early in the day. During hot, dog day summers with very warm nights, these shadier pockets might be the ticket. But they will remain significantly cooler for a longer period of time after a chilly summer night simply due to sun angle and wave action. Conversely, a warming trend with its accompanying southeasterly breeze is more likely to have a mid to late afternoon bite since it will take that long for these calm waters at this angle to receive ample amounts of sunlight. Quite often, these spots are deadly right near sunset — after they’ve had an entire day to collect the sun’s rays. Records indicate I’ve done best on north-facing coves and bays later in the day on a southerly wind for this reason.

Cold Front Coves
My absolute favorite cold front coves — spring, summer and fall — are positioned on the north to northwest sections (facing south) of a lake, large point, or big island stretch. These little gems are naturally situated so that a dry, chilly, northwest wind, typical of most post-frontal bluebird days, cannot wind-chill them down. Instead, they begin receiving valuable solar sun rays by mid morning, and then all afternoon long, when the overall heat index is sure to be at its highest.

The bank and overall topography in any given cove or bay also has a bearing on its potential productivity as well as its solar conductivity. For example, a smaller, squared-off cove with moderately high rocky banks on three sides is sure to protect it better from wind -chilling effects than one with a flatter, marshy terrain. For instance, if there are two potential coves on a north shoreline, but one has a marshy backwater while the other has a wall of trees or a steeper rocky terrain, it’s almost a sure bet that the marshy one will have some wind tunneled toward it and therefore some waves, as well.

Chilly, gusty winds will pick up momentum somewhere way in the very back of these marshy areas and follow a tunnel of sorts right through the cove and out into the main lake. This chills down the whole area and reduces its potential. Cold front winds simply can’t penetrate the other cove with the wall of trees or rocky backdrop. The wind whips harmlessly over the top but never reaches the water. Sunlight has a chance to penetrate these waters and eventually warm this isolated section of the lake up.

The depth and angle of any cover inside a cove or bay also factors into the whole equation. While most musky hunters are overly eager to find deep submerged weed growth in such spots, it is often the shallower emergent cover that holds the fish in a cold front. Why? The answer is actually quite obvious. Anything above the water gets more direct sunlight. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a single deadhead, a laydown log, fallen tree, patch of reeds, lily pads, or tiny bed of cabbage weeds. In some cases, it might even be a single weed stalk.

I’ve run into this scenario several times. Fan-casting all over a cove might draw a complete blank, yet one precise cast over one protruding tassel of cabbage produces a big swirl and a hot follow from an active fish. I’ve had the same positive result casting near an isolated stick. Big boulders with a portion sticking out of the water can be equally deadly in this situation. Perhaps these spots are collecting enough additional solar heat that are sure to attract baitfish concentrations. It’s an odd phenomenon as to why a large gamefish will predictably hunker next to such a seemingly insignificant spot, but it happens with surprising regularity.

What may be hardest for some to grasp is that it doesn’t take a cold front for these coves and bays to be good. They can be just as productive for muskies during peak summer weather patterns. Activity in these spots is sure to vary according to prevailing weather. Early or late in the day might be more fruitful if a blast of real hot flat weather occurs. The solar impact is still in play. It simply has a negative effect during peak heat and light. But it is bound to create an incredible dawn/dusk bite. The only way to know for sure is to check these spots throughout the day.

Backyard BBQ
Fellow Musky Hunter writer Spence Petros and I fish a lot together for muskies nearly every summer. On one of our most recent summer trips, we had fished several favorite rocky, wind-swept areas with no luck. As with any Petros/Bucher musky outing, a constant analytical discussion occurs both when we are successful as well as when we are not catching fish. We’re both constantly seeking answers as well as trying to define a possible pattern. In fact, Spence just recently wrote “Develop A Pattern” in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Musky Hunter.

Just as we were finishing up a fishless run over a rocky point with nice wave action, I suggested we continue on around the bend and hit the backside bay that was out of the strong southeast wind. A quick burst of the trolling motor, and we were now in a completely different environment — warm, still water, with thick weeds. Almost simultaneously, we both picked up rods with TopRaiders on them. I stuck with the surface bait, lead-casting off the bow, while Spence alternately pitched several other lure options. Nearly ten minutes or so later, we were in the heart of the backside bay with no action yet, when I noticed a single isolated weed tassel protruding above the surface at 1 o’clock. I eased the trolling motor hard right, while firing a long-bomb cast past the target, and then immediately cranked vigorously to get the lure’s tail churning. Just as my trusty old blackbird TopRaider passed within inches of that single weed tassel, a four-foot missile launched out of water engulfing the entire bait!

The action was all captured on camera for my TV show as the wild musky tailwalked like a tarpon in slow motion. What a strike! After the battle, photos and release, Spence and I made note of how much warmer both the air and the water was in this backside cove. The analysis then shifted to how perfect this spot was situated — being right off a large open water area. Finally, we both agreed that many of today’s musky hunters wouldn’t have wasted their time with a spot like this during mid August. Yet, it produced our best fish of the day.

Blazing Saddles
Saddles, which are small high spots between a land point and an island, are certainly no secret to musky anglers. When a saddle contains weeds, it can be a super spot for sure. However, some neglect to fish real small shallow saddles that are protected from the wind and hard to reach. Yet, one or two well-placed casts with the right bait late in the day, when the solar effect is sure to have done its job, might produce surprising results.

Enter my friend Spence one more time only in this instance, he made the right cast with the right bait. On a gusty windy afternoon, we started a casting pass along a small island with a point and a tiny saddle in between that was just out of the wind. I was probing the depths with a crankbait along the outside rocky rims of this island area, Spence backed me up with long casts over shallow flats areas with his favorite Mag Tinsel Buchertail. As we slipped near the backside of the island, the small saddle with junky grass appeared. It was only big enough for one or two casts and the lure had to be worked quickly near the surface to avoid getting fouled in the grass. Moments after Spence’s lure hit the water, a torpedo appeared out of nowhere cruising over the shallow sand bar after his bulging Mag T. Spence spotted the fish almost instantly and cranked vigorously to keep the fish on the chase. Nose-to-the-bait, a fat four-footer shadowed the Mag T all the way to the boat. Spence immediately swept into an elongated figure-8, resulting in boatside explosion. Minutes later, I slipped the net under another big summer solar musky.

Summarily, solar light and heat are nothing new to spring anglers, but few consider their positive effects in midsummer. Never underestimate the power of the sun and how important it is to the daily movements of muskies. A quiet, lifeless cove in the early part of the day might become wild with action by midday. It’s amazing what a few hours of sunlight can do no matter what the season.

Editor Emeritus Joe Bucher is the host of the “Fishing with Joe Bucher” TV show.
He lives near Eagle River, Wisconsin.

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