By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
We’ve reached my favorite part of the musky season — when waters begin to cool at the outset of fall. Fishing for muskies in extremely shallow water — at depths as shallow as six feet of water and less — is arguably the hottest and most predictable musky pattern to be found.
Think about it. We’ve all heard of the “dog days of August,” when water temperatures soar. While this is a joy for pleasure boaters and a boon to the tourism industry, it leaves musky fishing streaky, at best. During early to mid August you’re going to work for every musky you catch.
But just as the seasons begin to change, so does the fishing action. I emcee the National Championship Musky Open, the largest musky tournament in the world which draws around 1,300 anglers to Eagle River, Wisconsin, each August. In the days before the tournament each year many of the local guides are concerned about how tough the musky fishing has been. Many of them predict the tournament anglers will struggle. But then comes a huge cold front that knocks water temperatures down into the upper 60s — just like this year — and suddenly there’s a good bite and lots of muskies get caught, and hundreds of tournament anglers go home happy. This illustrates precisely what I’m talking about.
This shallow water bite continues until the lakes turn over, typically when water temperatures fall to the mid to low 50s. Depending on the year, this can provide as much as a two-month window of opportunity.
Just what the muskies find in the shallow water — outside of water in their preferred temperature range — is uncertain. Certainly the thickest weeds in the waterbody exist there, and they’ll contain lots of forage. And don’t forget rushes along the shoreline. But you don’t need weeds for this bite to occur because I’ve caught hundreds of muskies from rocky structure and shorelines during this time period. A bright sun will warm the shallows, but I’ve experienced great fishing in overcast. Wind on a spot helps — especially over rocks — but is not necessary for weed spots.
This pattern exists regardless of musky strain you’re fishing. There’s always lots of talk comparing the Wisconsin and Minnesota musky strains, but despite their differences they both bite in shallow water weeds and rocks in the early fall.
Do all the muskies in the waterbody head for the shallows? I have no idea and it’s impossible to prove this one way or the other, but certainly those that are shallow are active and those that are in deep water (if they are indeed there) are not. Just remember “six-and-in” and you should be okay. This pattern is consistent, and usually there will be at least one feeding window each day.
Besides the simplicity of this pattern is the ease at which the muskies can be caught. Finesse tactics take a back seat to an in-your-face presentation. Big, high-riding bucktails like Mepps’ new Musky Flashabou or a Double Cowgirl are terrific provided their blades aren’t bogged down by sloppy weeds. If your in-line bucktails aren’t coming through weed-free enough for your liking, switch to a safety-pin spinnerbait and root ’em out. It’s important that your spinnerbaits have single, upward-riding hooks, for they’ll slide through clingy vegetation and rushes, and can be easily cleared with a hard rod snap.
Topwaters are fine, as are shallow-running crankbaits and giant plastics like the BullDawg — big baits mean lots of water movement, and shallow, pre-turnover muskies really seem to home in on this. In thick weeds, lots of water movement can mean the difference in muskies finding your bait or not.
I’ve been targeting this pre-turnover bite for a long time, and the action really hasn’t changed. For example, on September 10, 1998, it took nothing more than bucktails and topwaters to produce the best musky fishing day of my life. The water temperature was 66 degrees as a partner and I cast to shallow rock structures that had a moderate southwest wind blowing onto them. By nightfall we had boated 16 muskies up to 45 1/2 inches, plus a bonus 40-inch northern pike. When we trailered the boat that night we were slime-covered, sore and tired, but happy. Remarkably, we were the only boat casting for muskies that day on the entire lake.
Nothing is guaranteed in musky fishing, but this pattern is the closest I’ve seen to a sure thing. Try it, and I think you’ll agree.