By Joe Bucher, Editor Emeritus
For some reason, the majority of musky hunters have always related muskies to weeds. In fact, it is still a sure bet that most musky anglers today spend the bulk of their time pounding weeds as their sole target. However, more are learning that rocks indeed hold plenty of muskies — including some real lunkers — in most waters.
Disciplining yourself to check rocks from time to time is sure to pay off in a big way. I learned a long time ago to always check both shallow as well as mid-depth rocks on every lake I chase muskies. These lessons were first learned when I was guiding full time for walleyes where I often encountered accidental big muskies while anchored on a midlake rock hump. It gave me an early confidence in rocks that has paid off handsomely ever since.
Probably the best rock musky patterns I’ve encountered occur on waters where there is a noticeable lack of weed growth. This is almost a no brainer since it is obvious that the fish have no choice but to utilize the rocks — it’s all that is available to them. Lakes like this exist all across North America. Anytime you encounter a water that lacks weeds, but is peppered with midlake reefs, you can bet your best fishing rod that muskies will be all over rocks from spring through mid fall. The depth they hold at on any given rock structure might vary with the water temperature, water clarity and the weather conditions. Warm water tends to pull the fish up shallower. Stained or turbid water usually encourages muskies to move shallower on rocks, too. However, a good wave chop invigorates muskies to slip up onto shallow cresting rocks on clear lakes, as well. The stronger the wave action, the shallower the fish are likely to be.
Speaking of strong wind and big waves, late last summer Rich Belanger from St. Croix Rods and I encountered a great rock pattern that seemed to get better and better as the wind picked up. In the course of a week, we managed to boat several big fish including one of the thickest, heaviest 52-inchers I’ve ever seen during the summer period. It had the girth of a late fall lunker. I’ve rarely seen a musky with a girth like this during the summertime. Waves were crashing into the nearby shoreline and rocking my boat dangerously. I could barely stand on the deck to work the trolling motor, let alone cast and work a lure effectively.
When the fish chomped on my jointed perch ShallowRaider, I had all I could do keep the boat off the rocks while battling this brute. Admittedly, I was a bit worried about being able to safely land her without falling in or crashing the boat into shoreline rocks. Rich and I both worked feverishly to keep the boat off the shore while the battle ensued. Luckily, it all ended up working out and she was successfully landed and released.
Perhaps the funniest part of this catch was the fact that it was the very first musky I’d ever taken from this spot. I had fished it occasionally, but never scored a single time beforehand. Yet, I kept telling myself that this spot should produce a big musky. Everything looked right. A rock point with an extended underwater projection surrounded by deep open water offered up all the right ingredients for a monster musky. I don’t believe I’d ever fished this spot previously in a real strong “blow” with big waves. Now I will always stop to fish it when the waves are crashing in!
Lakes with ample weed growth can also produce a good rock bite in certain situations. Weeds might hold the majority of muskies, but rocks are sure to offer a few big ones. Weeds generally get all the fishing pressure, while rocks get virtually none. This scenario can provide a unique opportunity since it actually isolates both the big fish and the pressure. One can confidently fish high-pressured waters in situations like this and expect to find the masses pounding weeds, while the lone rock hump or two in the middle of the lake goes untouched.
Dead-flat, calm conditions rarely produce consistent musky action on rocks. Wind and wave action appear to activate rock-holding muskies, as well as draw forage to the vicinity. The current and water action boiling around shallow rocks, in particular, seems to be a winner. Take away the wind and wave action, and the pattern weakens. Even when muskies are sighted on shallow rocks during these conditions, it’s a good bet that they are not very active. The lack of wave action seems to kill their aggression.
However, I have occasionally caught some good muskies casting topwater lures over shallow rocks just before dark on calm days. The window is short, but when conditions are less than ideal, it might be the only way to tag a musky off rocks during such periods.
While I’ve certainly caught a few muskies on rocks during overcast, it is bright sunny weather with wind that seems to be far more productive with rock-oriented muskies. It’s not that I haven’t taken a few nice muskies off rocks on dark overcast or after dark; it’s just that I have done far better on sunny days with wind. When the water is coffee-stained, this bright sunny condition seems to be an even more critical factor. For some odd reason, sunlight seems to draw muskies up on rocks.
Lure choices for rock muskies is fairly simple. Try anything that runs effectively without hanging up. In most instances a traditional in-line spinner of some kind is my first choice. One simply can’t go wrong in most cases casting a favorite bucktail spinner or twin-bladed tinsel-style lure over rocks. They are deadly. When rocks top out at four feet or less, topwater lures can be really productive, too, particularly late in the day.
The most underrated rock lure is the minnowbait. From big 9- to 10-inch, slab-sided minnowbaits worked in a jerkbait fashion, to a simple jointed version like my 7-inch Shallowraider cranked in a fairly straight non-aggressive manner — they seem to produce rock muskies when other baits do not. I especially like to fish the jointed ShallowRaider after a cold front passes because it catches muskies that are more bottom tight and less apt to chase down a higher-riding spinner. They key in the retrieve with this lure is to tick the rocks occasionally.
Time of day is sometimes a factor in topwater productivity, but not always. While many wait for the change of light conditions in the early evening to try their luck with a surface lure, some of the biggest fish have come on rocks during midday. Many mistakenly avoid topwaters when there’s a noticeable chop on the water’s surface. Experienced anglers know that this is a prime condition for big fish on propeller-style baits. In fact, muskies have a tendency to strike more than follow a topwater lure in such conditions.
Late summer through early fall is definitely prime time for rock musky action. I’ve consistently caught my biggest muskies off rocks during the month of August and early September. Yet, I have also had some superb fall outings casting rock humps with jerkbaits and crankbaits on bright sunny October afternoons. August and September are certainly the most consistent, though.
Finally, it’s worth noting that lakes with a predominance of rock are an excellent change-up when other nearby waters become weed choked in the late summer period. Clean rocky lakes are a savior at this time of year. They seem to be at their best when all the weedy waters go stale. There’s no place I’d rather be during a prime weather conditions in August or September than on one of my favorite rocky musky lakes.
Another bonus is that your lures are nearly always free of weeds, grass and other debris on these clean rocky waters. While I’ve surely had my fun over the years pounding weed slop in the late summer for big fish, it is always a challenge to keep a bait working in such conditions. It is bound to get fouled up with some sort of vegetation on nearly every cast. Keeping it weed-free is a constant battle and physically demanding. Most of the time, this is not an issue with rock muskies.
Rocks are a solid producer of August and September muskies and should always be checked out no matter where you fish. However, if I were you, I’d make it a point to seek out waters where rocks are the predominant structure of the lake for any late summer early fall trip. Trim your engine up before starting any drift or casting pass over rocks and make sure you have a powerful trolling motor with a good charge on the battery. Seek out those spots with the wind pounding into them and start casting!
Editor Emeritus Joe Bucher is the host of the Fishing With Joe Bucher TV show. He lives near Eagle River, Wisconsin.