By Jim Saric, Editor
Traveling across the musky range, fishing new musky waters and trying to dial in a pattern to film a television show is a pretty good gig. During summer you rarely hear me complain, as it beats sitting behind a desk, though last summers heat was pretty unbearable at times. Regardless, I’ll take the long days of summer, extended feeding windows and even the heat over the short feeding windows and cold of fall. Sure, fall musky fishing is great, but whoever said musky fishing is a fall activity obviously never had their topwater lure chased down and annihilated during the summer.
I really enjoy fishing new water, as there is something about the challenge and reward when you figure out a new bite. My friend and Musky Hunter ad representative Charlie Buhler and I were fishing in Ontario last summer in search of some big ‘lunge. On our first day of the trip, conditions were warm and sunny with clouds developing, but by the end of the day we had been soaked with rain. The air temperature had dropped 20 degrees and the front included a big wind shift. We did manage to catch four smaller muskies that day, but I felt that we had missed the opportunity to capitalize on some premier fishing conditions. I am sure others had caught some big ones that day. So, the evening was bittersweet.
It was unseasonably cold the next morning, and after fishing several spots without a follow, we knew it was going to be one of those days when any bite was going to be tough to get and you just knew that there was going to be a boatside strike or a nipper involved! As the morning turned into afternoon, the winds continued to howl, but the air and water temperatures managed to warm a little. Still, we wore our wear rain gear to feel comfortable, and decided to return to a spot where we had seen a couple bigger fish the previous day right before dinner. We were confident that the evening would provide the best fishing, but we needed to check our only known big fish spot.
We methodically worked our way along this weed flat and midway through the retrieve Charlie’s Cowgirl got smoked. His rod doubled and the fish put on a battle second-to-none. It was incredible to watch and I had to keep chasing the fish with the trolling motor to try to keep the musky from getting upwind of the boat. The musky made several power-runs away from the boat and tossed Charlie around like a rag doll! Charlie finally was able to steer the fish to the net and we quickly boated, photographed and released the 52-incher. It was an awesome turn of events to make the day.
Being persistent and sticking with the plan really paid off. Later that evening we managed to catch a couple more muskies and ended up filming an incredible episode of The Musky Hunter. It was just one of many summer memories where having a plan and switching gears due to weather or fish activity resulted in turning a poor or average day into an incredible day. If you want to turn your summer catches around for the better, here are five summer strategies I incorporate every day on the water.
1. Piscatorial Purpose
I meet lots of anglers and have lots of musky discussion in the evenings, particularly with anglers who attend our University of Esox schools. One sense I get is that some anglers don’t fish with a purpose or plan. It’s easy to get in the habit of simply going out fishing, randomly fishing spots without assessing what’s happening on the water. Sometimes this approach works; however, it makes much more sense and your odds of catching muskies increase when you simply fish with a purpose. Start each day with a select sequence of spots in mind as well as lures to use at each. This is similar to any football offense starting the game with a group of predetermined plays. In the musky world, your approach might be to fish two weed areas, two rock areas and then check a section of a smaller basin for open water muskies. Your lure choices may be dictated by weather conditions, water clarity and cover, but regardless you should have a few lures in mind to start.
As you are fishing you may have to deviate from your initial purpose or game plan. It may be after the first two weed spots that you catch fish and have several follows. At that point, I would scrap the plan to fish rock spots, and keep fishing weeds to help refine the pattern. This way you are maximizing your time when the fish may be active and potentially feeding at weed-related spots. When the action begins to slow down, then start fishing some rocks spots, etc.
Likewise, if you think the weather conditions my initially have the muskies in a funk, but after fishing the first two spots you determine that the fish are active, fish with a purpose of moving fast, covering water and catching as many muskies as possible, knowing the feeding window won’t last. This could mean changing your initial lure choice to something more conducive to fishing faster.
2. Lure Change Disorder (LCD)
Which lure to cast to a spot and how long to use it are two of the most frequently asked questions I receive. Part of the answer to those questions directly relates to what was just discussed above about your purpose and what are you trying to achieve on the water. However, one thing I do recommend is to not get a case of LCD.
We have all fished with someone who suffers from LCD. The question for those afflicted with this is not what lure to use on a particular spot, but how [ital]many[close ital] lures they will fish on the spot. I have watched some anglers literally spend more time searching and switching lures than actually fishing a spot. In one instance while spending 15 minutes fishing a spot, I counted one particular angler in my boat make only four casts with three different lures. That’s an extreme case of LCD and a simple reason why you many not catch as many fish.
Try to simplify lure choice and give your bait time to produce. If you are fishing with a partner, consider the fact that you are fishing as a team. If one of you casts a bucktail while the other casts a topwater on a spot, there’s no need to change lures on the spot €” if the muskies start following or biting one lure type, then switch. Until that time you and your partner are trying to determine what lure category the muskies want. As a general rule I try to give a lure two or three spots to see what it can do. The exception is when you simply just have no confidence in a particular lure or something happens that day that sets off the this lure is totally wrong siren in your head. Musky fishing is a lot about confidence, but you’ll have no opportunity to develop any confidence if you don’t give a lure time to produce.
On the other end of the spectrum, don’t force-feed the muskies a particular lure. I think this is actually more common than LCD. We all get in the habit of having history on a spot and potentially sticking with a lure too long. After a few hours, someone in the boat needs to take one for the team and start experimenting. It could cost you a bite, but I always believe at the end of the day we celebrate what the boat catches. If your lure switch results in getting a bite that’s great, and if it means everyone switches and you catch several, you look like a hero!
3. Time Management
I have mentioned this topic before in other articles, but I can’t stress the importance of managing your time throughout the day. Summer days may be long, but there is a time to fish slower and a time to fish faster. Also, there are times to take a break and times to stay on the water. All of this needs to be considered as time management.
Actually, even if you are great with multiple lure presentations, if you mismanage your time you will miss musky opportunities. When all of a sudden the muskies start showing up on one, two or even three spots in a row, you need to pick up the pace and start moving faster while fishing. Don’t waste a lot of time between spots, changing lures, taking breaks, etc. You’ll have time to celebrate when the fishing slows or the day is over. You want to focus on catching muskies as fast as possible in hope of contacting a big one. Spending too much time on a spot can result in wasted opportunities elsewhere.
If you have been fishing for hours and nothing is happening it may be time to slow your boat speed and spend more time fishing a particular spot, rather than gunning through a bunch of areas. Also, this could be a natural time for a break, if there is no change in the weather in sight. It’s a great way to recharge your mental batteries and get ready for the evening. While on the subject of breaks, I am a big proponent of taking a break sometime during the day, as you need to be sharp when the muskies are most likely to bite. On the other hand, if you have decided that you are going to stop for lunch at 1 p.m. and moonrise is at 1:30 p.m., you better let your stomach growl a little longer. If the fish suddenly get active at that time you want to be fishing and not eating. Plan a break in your schedule, but have some flexibility to move meal times so you can maximize your time fishing during the most productive times.
4. Total Concentration
So what do you talk about in the boat? First rule of fishing is that what happens in the boat, stays in the boat! We all talk about lots of subjects in the boat, some serious and others hilarious. Also, I fish with some boat partners who are constantly chatting and making conversation, and others who are silent as a mouse when we are working a spot. It doesn’t matter how much you talk as long as you concentrate on your lure presentation.
I am all for musky fishing to be fun, but you still need to remember why you are on the water. Nothing upsets me more than when on a tough day someone is jabbering away and the lure is pulled from the water without a properly executed figure-8, and then a huge splash occurs boatside. We had worked so hard to get that opportunity and it was lost simply due to lack of focus or concentration.
It’s important to stay sharp and focused throughout the day. On days when the muskies are everywhere, staying focused and concentrating is easy because you know a bite is coming €” it’s just matter of when. Yet, the majority of days we may go hours without a strike or follow and you still need to be ready. So, to stay focused, try breaking up the cadence on your retrieve as it makes you pay closer attention to your lure. Try different figure-8 maneuvers even though there is no musky following. I’ll even try a few practice hooksets during the day just to keep the blood pumping and remind me what to do when a strike occurs.
On long days in summer it’s easy to get in a rut and not pay attention to your lure and presentation. There is no question, the best musky anglers I fish with every year are focused on every cast, or at a minimum, every time the lure approaches the boat. They will chat, but if they sense there is a fish following, or if suddenly we encounter a group of active fish, things get quiet in the boat.
One last point regarding concentration €” pay close attention to what is happening when you do hook a musky. Focus on what the fish is doing. If it stays deep, keep your rod up. If it’s on the surface get your rod tip in the water. Also, analyze how and where it’s hooked, as that will help you dictate whether you need to get that fish in the boat sooner or not. It all comes down to focus and concentration.
5. Environmental Awareness
When musky fishing, we are often looking down in the water, to see if there is a big green fish lurking behind our lure. That’s almost always a sound approach as you must be ready to react when a musky shows itself. However, sometimes we get tunnel vision and focus only on our lure and not what’s happening around us. It’s important to remain aware of what’s happening in the environment around you.
Pay attention to the building haze or a potentially approaching storm. Keep track of the wind direction as well as the wind speed. Any of these obvious signs or changes can trigger differences in musky activity. Further, such environmental changes often require checking out a particular spot that may have held a big musky earlier in the day or the previous day. These changes might be what it takes to trigger the musky to bite.
It also pays to watch for groups of birds feeding on the surface where there may be schools of suspended baitfish, or even area where loons are heavily feeding. These be signs that an open water bite could be happening right behind you!
While on the subject of awareness, look around for concentrations of perch and walleye anglers. If you are not having success in an area, you may have better luck fishing where they are catching perch and walleyes. I do not want to follow a crowd of boats, but I am also not one to ignore them, either. If you are struggling, and notice several other musky boats working areas that are entirely different than you are fishing, you might want to check out that pattern. However, if you are having success, I have always believed it’s better to remain focused on what you are doing that particular day, but still keep track of what else is happening. Who knows … you may later meet up with one of those anglers and learn they did much better than you. It’s just data to consider for the next day. Any successful musky angler needs to be aware of what others may be doing on the water because things can change from day to day, and your pattern may go away.
One final thing to consider or pay attention to is the frequency of musky encounters. If you start fishing and muskies seem to be appearing everywhere, assume that they are biting and put on a topwater or bucktail. Fish fast to cover water and catch as many as you can. If, suddenly, you stop encountering muskies on two or three spots, you may need to slow down and/or switch lures. Keeping track of where and when you encounter muskies makes you more alert of how the muskies are responding, and you need to react accordingly.
Summertime is a rollercoaster of semi-predictable periods of slow or intense fishing. We all know that mornings, evening and overcast conditions will increase musky activity throughout summer. Yet it’s those in-between periods where you need to make adjustments in your location, lure speed or action to get another bite. Other times, it’s simply a matter of maintaining your concentration and catching that one musky that finally follows your lure after hours of nothing, and nips in a figure-8. Look and think beyond lures and spots this summer and consider maximizing the above-mentioned musky strategies, and your summer catches will be much more consistent.
Jim Saric is Editor of Musky Hunter magazine and the host of The Musky Hunter TV show.