May 10, 2015
By: Jim Stroede
It was the third morning of a five day guide job. I was with some of my favorite people to fish with. We caught muskies each of the previous two days on a few smaller lakes near Hayward. This morning, I decided to take them to a larger body of water in hopes of connecting with a bigger fish.
After fishing a weedy flat, a shoreline drop off with wood cover, and a rocky peninsula, all without even seeing a fish, I circled a small off-shore hump that was topped off with green cabbage. All the while, my casters bombarded the cover, once again to no avail.
While steering the trolling motor off into deeper water, I spent the next thirty seconds or so contemplating my next move as my casters continued working the bucktail/twitchbait 1-2 punch I’d set them up with. Rocks?.... Weeds? ….Wood?....Changing lakes?....I’m thinking, what’s our best choice?
Just then, the angler on the front deck set the hook on what looked to be a better fish! I glanced down at my Lowrance to see that we were out over 22 feet of water. “Hmmm! That’s strange,” I thought. We’re a good two cast lengths away from any cover at all, over open water. After a nice fight, where the fish stayed down deep, the musky finally came out from under the boat. I slid the net under a healthy 46 incher that proved to be the biggest fish of the week.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that late morning catch a few years ago ended up being repeated again and again on numerous different lakes near my home around Hayward. That one catch, that one fish, actually clued me into a trend; which was an opportunity to catch more fish in a new (to me) way.
That fish was a trendsetter. By stumbling onto that fish by accident, I then began to extend the areas or spots I had been fishing to include nearby open water. No longer were we always pulling the trolling motor after fishing cover. I was in fact, now starting and finishing some spots purposely out over open water.
Fishing muskies over open water hasn’t become a magical bonanza or jackpot of giant fish every time, but it is a viable option. An option that is very well worth the effort in spring, summer, and fall. At times, the only fish we catch in an outing is the open water fish. We’ve put nice fish in the boat, both casting and trolling following this trend.
The 46 incher caught that morning wasn’t the only trendsetter I’ve come across either, let me share a couple other trendsetting moments with you.
No longer vertically challenged
In the fall of 2013, I did a half day outing with another Hayward Guide Service member. It was a cold October morning, one of those that chills you right to the bone. A morning you really would rather not be getting your hands wet casting and holding a frozen metal reel. In my boat that morning, we tossed deep diving crankbaits and big rubber. We came up empty; no muskies, no follows, nothing.
Back at the boat landing we met up with the other boat. They hadn’t done much either, but they did boat one small fish on a Fuzzy Duzzit. “Hmmm…,” I said to myself, “I haven’t tried vertical jigging in a while, maybe I should incorporate that into what we do tomorrow morning.” That night, back at home, I dug up a couple of Fuzzy’s, sharpened the hooks and was ready to give them an honest try the next day.
My clients that morning were fairly new to musky fishing, having only tried it a few times with very little success. We headed out to a mid-sized lake known for a better than average number of scrappy hard fighting fish. Once again, we casted big baits in conjunction with running a couple of quick-strike rigged live suckers. This time, I decided to jig the Fuzzy Duzzit off the back of the boat.
On our second spot, after about 45 minutes into the day, I got hooked up on the fuzzy. As is standard practice in my boat, I passed the rod off to one of my guests and he finished the fight, leading the 40 incher head first into my oversized net. After high fives, a few pictures and a quick and effective release, my boat partners for the day both wanted to give jigging a try. We ended up catching two more muskies that day, one on the jig and one on a sucker.
From that day forward, I’ve added vertical jigging to my casting regiment, spring, summer, and fall, with good results. Heck, I’ve even got one jig that’s caught more than three dozen muskies alone.
Why is vertical jigging so effective at times? I truly believe it’s a combination of things. First, it’s something fish in my area just don’t see much of. Mainly because not many people will stick with it long enough to fully realize its potential. Secondly, it’s really not that exciting of a fishing method compared to casting. For the most part, musky fishermen love working lures, imparting just the right action or moves on a bait to trick a big fish into slamming it. That’s a big part of the fun for most of us. Jigging doesn’t fit that mold, it’s just a methodical bouncing up and down of a lure, seemingly without much skill necessary at all.
While anyone can jig vertically, it does require paying attention to a few details that will up the odds of catching fish. First of all, just like any other lure, you’ve got to keep the bait in the strike zone for a fish to hit it. In the fall, we might be fishing in as much as 24 feet and the muskies will be right down on the bottom unwilling to move much at all to grab a bait. In this case, maintaining close contact with the bottom is vital. A bait three feet too high often just won’t get bit, plain and simple.
Conversely, in the summer, we could be fishing along a deep weed line where the weeds grow out past 16 feet, yet at that deep edge the weeds are only four feet off bottom. Under these conditions, you may want that jig swimming along at the eleven or twelve foot mark, close to the structure yet not chronically bogged down in the weeds. Know where that jig is all the time, it matters!
Using fluorocarbon leaders is a good idea with most vertical jigging lures, I like a long two to three foot chunk of flouro for jigging. Also, don’t be afraid to jig in shallow water. Seriously, we’ve caught muskies vertically jigging in as little as six feet of water!
Getting picky about picking baits
Everybody has their favorite or “go-to” colors of musky baits; clear water colors and dark water colors, different baits for sunny conditions and overcast conditions. I’ve known musky fishermen who wouldn’t dream of launching the boat without carrying hundreds of baits with them of all shapes and sizes, and of course, all the possible color combinations known to mankind. Is it necessary to bring along all of this stuff every time out? No.
I tend error on the side of simplicity most of the time. Stick with what’s been working for you over the long haul and you’ll be fine, most often. Well, ok, I guess I do bring a few odd ball baits with me, but I’m not as bad as a lot of folks I know!
Trying something new can work out now and then. When I’m trying a new bait or a different color, I make sure it sticks with my overall game plan. For example, if I know there are catchable numbers of good fish, located on weedy shallow flats, it’s likely the wrong time to break out a new deep diving crankbait just because it’s something different. That move would likely only get you more practice at cleaning weeds off an ineffective presentation choice than anything else.
Instead, in this scenario, if we’re looking for a new wrinkle to trip a few more fish, I’m more inclined to try an off beat color on a bucktail or spinnerbait, or to try adding a soft plastic trailer for a different look and feel. Matching presentation type to the fish location still applies, even when trying something different.
I’ve got a couple lakes in my area that I rely heavily on off beat colors. Don’t get me wrong, we still boat fish on more conventional choices based, on water color and such. It’s just that the other colors work surprisingly well lots of the time.
About a decade or so ago, I was fishing with a fella who just loved to change baits. I mean every twenty minutes he was asking me for a new lure to try. His brother meanwhile was rock solid, patiently sticking with the walleye colored jerkbait I had given him to start the day.
Having never fished with these guys before, I tried to be both the gracious host by letting him try different new options while still maintaining the course of putting him in the best possible position to boat a musky… not so easy. My plan going into the day was to have them cast bucktails and dive/rise jerkbaits over newly developing weeds, near deep water main basin areas. If my caster in the bow of the boat wanted to change lures frequently, I was going to oblige, but try to convince him to stick with the bucktail. I let him try orange and black, silver and black, chartreuse and orange, large bucktails, smaller bucktails, just about everything I had in the boat until I noticed a pearl bladed white deer hair model I’d made just for fun. Second cast with the white on white and bang! He catches a nice healthy 42” tiger. “Hmmm…” I’m thinking. “Just a coincidence? Did we just happen across a hot fish that would have grabbed any color bucktail or was it at least in part due to the white on white combo?” I think it was really a little of both. By the way he didn’t ask to change lures after that!
The white on white bucktail has since become a staple in my arsenal on that lake, a trend of sorts, resulting in numerous nice catches. Far too many muskies have fallen victim to it to be a fluke. That lake is one of the more heavily pressured lakes in my area, and I believe the unusual color combo stands out to the fish as different, yet very agreeable to them.
This isn’t the only lure color trend I know of. On another lake we fish bronze/brass blades with brown hair and it is easily the best color, hands down, all season long. Another long-standing trend of this type is the green blade/ black hair trend on the Chippewa Flowage. That trend has been going on for years there, resulting in thousands of muskies caught.
As with anything in fishing, when something different or new and unusual happens, it’s up to us to take note of it. To see if it’s a one time occurrence or if there’s something more to it than that. It may be a trend to follow. A trend can be anything at all, from keying in on wind induced current areas on a single outing or over the course of a few days, to something as lasting as a green bladed bucktail on the Chippewa Flowage.
Recognizing and following trends in musky fishing will absolutely up the catch rates for you and your boat partners this season and in seasons to come. Keeping an open mind and paying attention to details is key to discovering some of your own trendsetting moments.
Jim Stroede guides in the Hayward Wisconsin area, and can be reached at 715-520-7043, or through his website; www.jimstroedefishing.com