By Tony Grant, Field Editor
Is the off-season too long of a wait to get your musky fix? Whether it’s on your bucket list or you’re just looking to kick off your season early with a trip down to the South, reservoirs offer unlimited musky fishing potential.
Over the past five years, southern musky fishing has become more and more intriguing to anglers all across musky country. Thanks to the Internet, today’s anglers view evidence of the quality musky fisheries the South has to offer. Musky anglers are heading in increasing numbers to those waters in Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, West Virginia and even as far south as Tennessee.
As a musky lodge owner in Kentucky at Cave Run Lake Reservoir and a traveling tournament angler, I am fortunate to see first hand just how many different ways our favorite fish can be captured. The reservoirs’ versatility enables musky anglers to use dozens of tactics with many different styles and techniques. Here are my 10 favorite ways to catch early season muskies in the South.
1. Sloping Shorelines
One of my clients’ most successful spots are steep shorelines that lead into bays or coves. Downed timber is a bonus but not mandatory. Muskies will be found concentrated all through these areas although fallen timber deserves extra time with multiple casts. Landing a cast directly at the water’s edge is important as the fish tend to lay tight right against the bank before the rapid drop into deep water. With water temperatures from 45 to 60 degrees muskies along these drops tend to be the most active. Bait selection is somewhat simple as glide baits have always worked best.
My favorite lures are Jerkos, Hellhounds, Mantas and my personal favorite, the Sledge, whose erratic side-to-side/up-and-down movement just under the surface seem to be music to a musky’s ear. A longer, faster-tipped rod will produce less fatigue when working a Sledge; my favorite here is the Lamiglas LGM 8-6 XH model wish has plenty of backbone yet still offers the necessary tip action. Another factor that favors the Sledge is its buoyancy, which helps control it in timber. Larger twitchbaits like the Shallow Invader and 10-inch Jakes run a close second to gliders, especially in the vicinity of fallen trees. Cast from different angles and you just might be surprised on the fourth or fifth cast to the same tree. Watch the shoreline for the stumps of fallen trees. Many of the laydowns are submerged so stumps will tip you off to their location.
2. Creek Channels
My clients and I have landed some of our biggest muskies during both the pre- and post-spawn periods while focusing on creek channels that center most coves and bays on southern reservoirs. This is a big fish spot, and a few years back I won first place in the Cabin Fever Challunge on Green River Lake in Kentucky with a near 40-pounder caught from a bend in the old river channel on a Sledge. This experience has steered me to many quality early season muskies utilizing old creek channels in major spawning bays; in fact, two years ago a client caught a musky just few pounds shy of the 40-pound mark on Cave Run under the same scenario.
It is my experience that bigger fish hang in or closely near the creek channels and only move shallow just before the actual spawning act, then back out to it afterward. This pattern has held true for me on Illinois waters as well, including Shelbyville Lake where partner Dave Schultz and I won first place in the Spring Classic, and on Kinkaid Lake during several of the Musky Road Rules Schools. Erratic-moving baits worked along and across these channels produce the best results. I’ve done well on crankbaits, big rubber, Jerkos and my spring go-to bait, the Sledge.
3. Open Water Trolling
Many visualize open water trolling as those deeper open basins in the middle of the lake. Muskies can be found there, but the deep water adjacent to nearby structure is where you will find the most consistently-productive areas on southern reservoirs almost year-round. Whether the cover/structure consists of weeds, timber or a swift break in many different depths the deepest water close by will be well worth your pursuit.
Search out the areas where you mark good quantities of baitfish, then concentrate on those areas covering 300 to 400 yards on each side of the baitfish. Make multiple passes with different lures at different depths and keep an eye on the forage depth, then run baits just over and right through the middle of these ranges. Varying your lure sizes will help find results much quicker. Multiple lines are legal on most all southern reservoirs.
4. Shallow Water Trolling
Not everybody gets excited about trolling but it can be the one of the most action-packed patterns you’ll come across. During pre- and post-spawn, southern muskies tend to stay shallow for weeks and short-line trolling is an effective presentation for them. Line length is crucial. Start by using a 3-foot trolling leader like those by Stealth Tackle. At times the length of that leader is all I have out which keeps my lure a foot under the surface allowing me to troll very shallow. Keep your drag loose so the fish can take line; a tighter drag tends to pull the lure from the musky’s mouth with such short lines.
I like to start at 2.75 mph and gradually speed up from there. Line lengths from 3 to 15 feet behind the leader is the norm. Multiple lines allow you to cover several depths. A proven shallow trolling tactic that is very popular in the South is grinding larger baits such as jointed Believers across the bottom on shallow mud or sand flats. Keep in mind that shad are the main diet of the southern musky and their size generally ranges from 3 to 8 inches, so your lure choice should be based on that fact. Since shad are typically shallow in the spring, that’s where you should start. Try Tuff Shads, Li’l Ernies, Leos, Marshads, and Wileys, and don’t overlook bass-sized lures. Trolled rattlebaits can also be effective.
I know you’ve heard this a lot, but lipless, rattling crankbaits are a consistent producer during the early season on southern reservoirs. My clients and I have landed somewhere around 1,000 muskies on rattlebaits over my 20-plus-year career, and the pattern is still going strong. Pre-spawn fish are most vulnerable to this technique. Downsizing to bass-style equipment, from rod and reel to line and leader, will outproduce heavier musky gear. Lighter stuff simply produces more sound and vibration needed for southern muskies to locate the lure under stained water conditions. Try 1- or 1 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Traps or the Rattlin’ Shad.
However, when approaching areas with thick weeds or timber, try the Fat Belly Rattler whose unique design allows it to run just under the surface with the same vibration and noise. This lure can also come in handy on highly pressured waters during the spring period.
6. Rising Water
You can hardly talk about southern reservoirs without mentioning high water. These reservoirs were built for flood control and many times they are over their normal levels during the early season. More often than not this means poor visibility as southern waters can muddy-up to almost an over-creamed-coffee look. Noise and vibration become key ingredients to locating active fish, as well as fishing shallow water. Muskies always follow the water up. They simply rise with the water level, staying the same depth from the surface. Fish the same spots where you caught fish previously regardless of their current depth.
In 2011, tremendous floods were the norm, yet my clients and I caught nearly two dozen muskies over 40 feet of water on topwaters. These fish were located in the same spots as normal weather years just 25 feet above their typical depths!
7. Falling Water
Probably the toughest fishing you will encounter on a southern reservoir is when the water is falling. Determining whether to troll or cast can become your biggest decision at this point but both can produce. While trolling, keep your lures exceptionally tight to flooded trees, vegetation and even the shoreline. If casting, “slow-rollin’” a spinnerbait may be the most effective method of all. Slow-rollin’ is nothing more than allowing your spinnerbait to move very slowly across the structure or bottom contour. The trick is keeping your bait in the most productive areas for the longest amount of time on each cast.
Fluttering — rather than spinning — blades is the key ingredient. The gentle movement and sounds made while using this method will create more follows than any other lure in your boat. Creek channels are magnets to feeding muskies at this time. Work your spinnerbait slowly, following the bottom contour and then, as the lure approaches the boat, give it a “rip” just before it enters the first turn of the figure-8. This sudden movement near the boat accounts for a big percentage of our strikes.
8. Water Intake
Incoming water is a big attractor for not only many types of baitfish but muskies as well, and they’re common in southern reservoirs. The catch here is you will find the best results when fresh water is passing or has recently passed through. A water intake area can consist of culverts for drainage, tunnels that connect two areas of water or natural springs above or below the lake’s surface; anywhere fresh water enters the area. Concentrate not only on the areas where the water enters but nearby structures.
Pre-spawn fish will generally always be present and can be taken on a variety of lures. My favorites include gliders like the Hellhound, Slammer and Phantom, twitchbaits like Cranes, Shallow Invaders and Tyrant Tackle’s Czar and, of course, rattlebaits like the Rattlin’ Shad and Fat Belly Rattler. Post-spawn calls for a little different bait selection. Rubber becomes a big factor and we do best with Bull Dawgs, Medussas and Red October tubes. A topwater could also surprise you.
9. The Bottom
Often overlooked yet common, muskies sometimes hug the bottom and the early season may be one of the best times to try this approach. This is one of the toughest patterns to give enough time to find some success because it means a slow, finesse-type presentation that simply is not the style of anglers chasing muskies. Almost certainly the best way to cover large areas is slow-rolling spinnerbaits as close to the bottom as possible, but this method doesn’t always work and many times just might not be your best presentation for those fish lying on the bottom. Jigging with a Bait Rigs Esox Cobra tipped with a curly or flap tail may just be what it takes to get their attention.
One pattern that seems to almost always produce just about anywhere they are available is marinas. Generally snuggled back in bays or inlets, these common areas can be loaded with fish and waters in the South are no different. These areas are nothing more than manmade structure. At Cave Run, marina areas have always been spots where local anglers spend a great deal of time.
At least five of the PMTT qualifiers on Cave Run have been won in marina areas and in 1999 my friend, Gregg Thomas, and his partner, Dave Grochowski, won the PMTT Championship on Lake Kinkaid while fishing the marina. Gregg and I had been advised by local guide Al Nutty to fish the marina … Gregg listened while I did not. From that day forward I never pass up marinas.
With all these different patterns in mind where should you start on your next visit to a southern reservoir? Take time to look for big concentrations of baitfish, pay attention to water clarity, determine whether the water levels are falling or rising, then experiment with a few of the things I have mentioned. But most importantly don’t pull the trigger too quickly on any of the presentations. Give them some time and you may just find some awesome success on the southern waters. The reservoirs of the South’s unique early season give anglers a great opportunity to kick off their year early. Great numbers and size of muskies both can be found but one of its best assets is the many different techniques that can be used.