By Matt Gunkel
A year ago in January, as I straightened out my musky boxes to make room for new purchases at the musky shows, I let my mind wander back to the great experiences from the previous season.Â 2010 had been my best musky year by a long shot but I could not help but hope for an even better 2011. I began to think of what I wanted to accomplish in the coming season. After quite a bit of contemplation, I realized I could group all my goals under a simple thesis: â€œbecome a better musky fisherman.â€ I decided to tackle a number of ideas, but the biggest challenge and most thought-provoking endeavor was to explore â€œnewâ€ waters, those on which Iâ€™d never before fished.
In my opinion, exploring new lakes alone â€” or with a friend who also has never fished the particular water â€” is the most beneficial. While it certainly is great to have friends who will take you out to lakes they know well and put you on fish, there is little to no learning curve when this occurs.Â When exploring a new lake, it is important to keep an open mind and be willing to try different techniques and depths. With this established I have outlined a rubric that I have successfully used to prepare for fishing a new lake.
Research & Preparation
The first asset a musky fisherman needs to preplan fishing a new lake is a paper map. Take the time to study and memorize the breaklines and structure; it will allow you to put together the three-dimensional picture of what is below your boat much easier when you are on the lake. Learn the acreage and depth of the lake, as well as the type of lake in which you will be fishing. Determining whether it is oligotrophic, mesotrophic, or eutrophic will give you a good idea of the water clarity to expect. In addition to the map, learn what the muskies are eating in this water. In particular, the size of the forage is very important, because it will be a great indicator of the size of lures that will prove most effective.
Research using the Internet will also prove to be very helpful. If it is a publicly-stocked lake, read the stocking reports and available description of the lake and its musky population. By comparing the number of stocked fish against the acreage of the lake it can be determined whether it is managed as a trophy lake or action lake. Extrapolating growth rates based on total years stocked and numbers stocked in particular years will also give you an idea of what the maximum size of muskies in this water, as well as the most common size class that can be expected.
Search Internet musky forums to find out if other anglers are catching muskies from this lake. Pay attention to the time of year and specific water temperatures when musky fishermen are having success, as each lake has its own idiosyncrasies when muskies may be most vulnerable to being caught. If much of the above-described information is not available, do not let that discourage you. I have found other indicators that can provide clues. Most Midwestern lakes have bass, and if a particular water consistently produces large bass it has the potential to produce large muskies as well. If this lake also has a healthy population of shad, crappies and/or bluegills, this is a definitive sign of a quality ecosystem, one which will support the growth of large predators.
While researching lakes around the lower Midwest last winter, I found many lakes have little to no information available. I also found some of the descriptions provided to be inaccurate or out-of-date. One lake in particular was said to have a panfish forage base and be completely void of shad. Believing this fact on my first trip to this lake, I noticed tight clusters of baitfish in water less than 10 feet deep in the early spring. This display on the graph looked exactly like shad, and on my second trip to the lake my suspicion was validated as shad followed my lure to the boat many times. In my experience, the less information available on a lake the better opportunity a musky angler has to find his/her â€œLake X.â€
After all the research is done, the most important factor to having success on a new lake is wisely choosing the time period. Lower Midwestern musky lakes, rivers, and reservoirs typically have open water from March through mid-December. The prespawn period and period immediately before ice-up are the most challenging and inconsistent times to catch muskies in this southern range. Fishing a new lake at these times generally will not lead to a true assessment of the quality of the musky fishery. Chose the warm water period in spring/summer, when water temperatures run from 60 to 75 degrees or when temperatures begin to decline in fall and range from 75 to 50 degrees.
On The Water
After all the research, trip planning, and daydreaming about fishing a new lake, your boat has finally been launched and you are ready to fish. Now what? Instead of immediately casting around the launch, take at least 30 minutes to idle around the lake. Scan the shorelines for visible structure and watch your graph. Idle your boat along the edges of the primary and secondary breaklines of the lake. Weave on and off the shallow edge or â€œfirst breakâ€ and allow your boat to run over the deeper edge that falls into the main basin. Notice locations that are holding baitfish, and give special consideration to the depth at which the bait is located. Pay attention to wind direction and changes in water clarity in different sections of the lake. Note changes in foliage on the lakeâ€™s bank; these will give you clues to changes in bottom composition which muskies use as travel routes. This preliminary â€œcheckâ€ of the lake will provide many clues to what may prove to determine the dayâ€™s pattern. Integrate as many of these environmental factors as possible when beginning to formulate a preliminary pattern.
After initially looking over the lake, determine your top five spots for the start of the day. Based on your previous research, pick one of your confidence baits that matches the general size of the forage.
Starting off at a new lake, I will typically cast a spinnerbait, my favorite being a baby or regular Simms Schoolâ€™N Shad or a glider like a Drifter Hellhound when fishing in water under 65 degrees. In water over 65 degrees I would cast a Llungen DC10 or SS Shad. In both situations, especially with the water over 65 degrees, my retrieve speed would be very fast. In fishing a new lake, a faster retrieve means more casts, and more casts means more opportunities to figure out a pattern.
When fishing a lake for the first time, I like to concentrate on the shallows. Every musky lake I have ever fished has muskies that spend the majority of the spring, summer, and fall in shallow water. Shallow muskies are most often there because they are following their food source, and therefore should be active at some time throughout the day. Another advantage to fishing shallow is the exact casting presentations described above using fast-moving lures is most efficient in shallow water.
Along with the off-the-water preparation, talking to fisherman you see on the water can provide a great deal of information, and speed up the learning curve greatly. When meeting other fishermen, do not worry if they are not targeting muskies. Ask them about the bluegills, crappies, bass, or walleyes in the lake. Ask them how big the bass and walleyes get in this lake. Ask if they ever catch accidental muskies. Also, notice where the panfishermen concentrate their efforts and take a mental note of this spot. If the spot looks nondescript it is a safe bet there is submerged vegetation, timber, or fish cribs. All of this will hold muskies as well.
During the 2011 season I ended up fishing numerous new lakes and figured out two new patterns while fishing them. The first lake I fished in early season during the prespawn period, breaking my rule against fishing new waters then. This particular lake is a small southern reservoir with extensive standing timber, laydowns, weed growth, and great water clarity. Arriving at the lake I was greeted with partly sunny skies with highs in the high 40s, winds northwest 20 to 35mph, and water temperatures in the low 50s. I knew most muskies should be moving into shallow water to begin the spawning process and my plan was to target shallow creek arms used as spawning grounds and then to distinguish whether to concentrate on wood, weeds, or a combination of both. My friend and I switched off throwing Rat-L-Traps, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and gliders. By the end of the first day we had only moved two muskies but both reacted to panfish-colored glidebaits in the middle section of long creek arms. Both muskies were located very tight to the bank in less than two feet of water and were positioned adjacent to large laydowns. I also noticed both of these spots contained very little old weed growth and the surface temperature was several degrees warmer than both the main lake basin and other large creek arms. Being able to pinpoint this pattern and concentrate on four creek arms for the rest of the trip allowed for a successful next few days.
The second lake I explored was a small, deep, natural lake with great water clarity. This lake had virtually no information available except that it was stocked with muskies. The forage was unknown and no one I knew or had ever spoken with targeted muskies here. To me that meant one thing â€” uneducated muskies. My first trip to this lake was on a summer day with highs temperatures reaching the 90-degree mark, a high pressure system bright blue sky, and a gusty 10 to 20 mph south wind. As I dropped my boat into the lake I studied the landscape above the water. I checked my graph to see the surface temperature at 70 degrees and noticed deep, lush weed growth, standing timber, and very sharp breaklines. I idled around for a short time and noticed large schools of baitfish in the upper water column situated right off the weed line and first breakline. Since I had not been tipped off to any particularly effective lure and I knew I would be fishing alone for the beginning of the trip, I snapped on a DC-10 in black/nickel. Fishing this double-10 bucktail with a high speed reel allowed me to cover a significant amount of water by myself. I targeted windblown weedlines, weeds and standing timber combination, and keyed in on inside turns and main lake points.
It did not take long to develop a definitive pattern. In the first four hours of fishing 92 1/2 inches of musky hit the net and I finished off the day hooking another high 30-inch musky. All of these fish came from spots with weeds and standing timber, and two of the fish were located on the inside turn of the weedline. The most important aspect which I focused on after the first fish was to target only weed/wood shorelines that were getting directly hit by wind and immediately adjacent to the deepest water in the lake. As any reader of Musky Hunter knows: clear water + speed + wind + bait + weed growth = big fish, and this equation certainly proved true for this trip and many subsequent trips.
I believe without a doubt that the off-the-water research, watching the local weather patterns, and using prior knowledge helped me gain an idea of what to expect when I first explored each of these lakes. I do not believe either of the above described patterns is ground-breaking or incredibly intuitive, but the ability to define exactly why each fish was occupying a particular spot allowed me to develop a precise pattern. After this, simply duplicating these factors allowed me to make a presentation to the maximum number of active fish. Both of these patterns will surely be productive and lead to many musky catches in the 2012 season. Using prior knowledge and research, current conditions, and certain lake tendencies to integrate many variables into a definitive pattern will lead to more and much larger muskies in your future.
Matthew Gunkel is four-time musky tournament winner and former Illinois state champion. He recently graduated from SIU with a masters of dcience in microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry. He currently resides in Carbondale, Illinois.