May 10, 2016

Early Season Muskies!! Think: Slow/Small/Shallow 

At the very first hint of rivers and lakes starting to open up, I start thinking about our plan of attack for the earliest part of the upcoming musky season opener! Nothing excites me more that the anticipation of hunting the “King of Freshwater!”

By this time, your equipment should already be checked and ready to go (great wintertime activities!) So I won’t go into that topic here. Instead, I want to talk specifically about spot selection and best tactics.

Spot Selection

Three key elements will determine where to spend your time when targeting early season muskies; forage base, warmer water and cover.   First, forage availability. Simply put, if there’s little or no baitfish in the areas you are fishing, your chances for success are low. Muskies follow the forage. Remember that throughout the season. Early on, baitfish hatches occur frequently and are an almost exclusively shallow event. Large schools of minnows, shiners and newly hatched panfish can all be found roaming shallow cover. This in turn attracts musky forage; perch, crappies, walleye, bass and pike. The muskies won’t be far.

Secondly, warmer water. This actually has a lot to do with baitfish hatches, kicking off the rest of the food chain reaction. Shallow bays and inlets, especially those with a “muck” bottom are really tough to beat, as far as best early season locations go. Bays like this on the North end of the lakes tend to warm up slightly faster. Add these structural elements and you have a winner: newly emerging vegetation, old timber, stumps and brush piles, with deep water access nearby. Creek inlets are worth checking also, but watch your temp gauge, as they can also be introducing colder water to the system. 

Lastly, cover. Muskies are generally “ambush” predators and will gravitate to the cover which provides them with the best feeding opportunity. Cabbage weed, or “pond” weed, is number one in my book, as far as premiere vegetation. Now don’t get me wrong here, we’ve caught many nice muskies in other vegetation and different types of cover, but cabbage weeds seem to be our best and most consistent producer. Other vegetation such as coontail, bulrushes, sandgrass and even lily pads can be excellent options, especially during early season when cover options may be limited.

Wood of all types should never be overlooked either. Our favorite is shoreline downed timber and trees. They offer excellent concealment for muskies, as they can easily blend in with almost perfectly shaped camouflage. Shoreline timber also absorbs lots of sunlight, which equates back to the warm water factor. Stumps, stump fields and brush piles offer many of these desirable features also.

Rocks, such as rock points, reefs and large solitary boulders can also be a factor early on, due to their ability to radiate heat into the water. We’ve had some excellent musky action finding shallow rock areas, as they will also attract baitfish and other forage such as crawfish.

Location, location, location

Now that I’ve listed some of the premiere real estate for early season muskies, it’s time to break out your maps and start marking areas to investigate and set up your game plan. While identifying these areas on your maps, also take note of the depths and depth contours. I prefer shallower “flats” with gradual slopes towards deeper water. Steeper transitions and drop-offs are better as the season progresses and especially in the fall.

When I say shallow, the actual depth will be determined by several factors. If weather has been warm and sunny for a period with temps on the rise, action can be found in 3 feet of water or less. If it has been trending the other direction, with low or dropping air temps, this can tend to push fish slightly deeper and you will want to explore depths 3 feet and deeper at this time.

Weed growth is usually best very shallow early on, but if there has been an extended cold front, very shallow water will also cool down very quickly, sometimes pushing fish out of the weeds and once again, slightly deeper.

Always be on the lookout for any signs of baitfish activity. This will also help you determine roughly what depth musky action will be found. Watching for signs of baitfish activity includes any surface commotion, bass and pike feeding activity (swirls and boils on or near the surface) and also, one of my favorites---watching for panfishermen having lots of action! This latter can be highly productive, as fishermen catching crappies and perch will not only clue you in on two of the preferred forage species, but the action of catching panfish can be a huge feeding stimulus for lethargic muskies in cooler water. Vibrations from struggling prey can often create a feeding response from our favorite game fish.

With some spots now identified and a mindset of watching for any surface activity, let’s talk tactics.

Best Tactics

Early season is one of the times when water will be at its clearest point. This, combined with the fact that we will be targeting fish utilizing the shallower or shallowest part of the water column, calls for a stealthy approach. Try to keep the sun off your back, as to not present a silhouette of danger from above so to speak. I also prefer dressing in light colored clothing and hats for the very same reason. Not enough people take clothing choices in to consideration, but it will help spook less fish!

A longer rod with a reel spooled with 50 to 65 lb. superbraid allows for longer casts to present lures from a greater distance, which can be a very big key in the shallows. Some people have started using the fluorocarbon leaders as of late, but I still prefer 175 to 195 lb. single strand wire leaders for my musky fishing, especially in heavy cover. Let’s just call it a trust factor….

Lure selection at this time is fairly straight forward. I prefer to keep things smaller at first, mainly because the water will still be cold and fish may be lethargic for some time yet. Style of lure to choose is really based on confidence. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of success using 6 to 7 inch minnow style baits using a twitch-pause-twitch-twitch-pause retrieve, which can be deadly at this time. Smaller glider style jerk baits are also an excellent choice in the spring. Fudally’s Reef Hawg and Mantas are the preferred styles in our boat. They have a pronounced side to side glide action using a 6 to 10 inch downward twitch on the rod tip during the retrieve. Longer pauses during your retrieve can often be too much for Mr. Mean to resist. One trick we’ve used over the years is to weight both minnow style and glider jerk baits for nearly a  neutral or very slow rise buoyancy. We use something called “SureBond,” which I believe is a type of welding product and can be found at most hardware stores. It has nice weight, but is very pliable and easy to use for each lure application. Simply cut to length and wrap some around the hook shaft, looking for balance. You don’t want your lure to sink fast, but instead just hover or slowly rise towards the surface.

If the fish seem to be in a more aggressive or positive mood, you can cover water quickly by stepping to smaller sized musky spinnerbaits and inline bucktails. Even if the fish are in a somewhat negative mood, these types of lures are still great search lures. At very least they can help you key in on where the fish are holding. Following muskies will sooner or later become feeding muskies. Sometimes timing is everything… always remember that! Here again, smaller “blade baits” are the preferred choice. Slow to medium retrieve speeds will be best right now, but don’t be afraid to turn up the heat if you’re getting lots of follows! Speed can be an excellent triggering tactic now and throughout the entire season! When determining when to use spinnerbait style versus inline bucktails, remember this: the thicker the cover, the better spinnerbaits will handle the situation. Timber, stumps and brush, as well as all thick weed situations, heavily favor spinnerbaits. They simply penetrate cover better than lures with treble hooks.

Last, but certainly not least in our early season lure choices, are topwaters. Slowly presented topwaters can be devastating in early season! Our experience has shown us that a slow “walk the dog” style topwater can be just the ticket for putting early season muskies in the boat. They can be fished VERY slowly and paused for extended periods, remaining almost motionless and at times are simply irresistible targets. Creeper styles can also be presented slowly, but we’ve found them to be better once the water temps begin to rise. So never overlook or avoid trying topwaters for early season muskies, you could be missing some explosive action!

Preferred color choices early are some of the natural patterns, such as perch and crappie, are a great starting point to capitalize on the clear water period. However, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try some of the wilder colors out there. After all, that’s part of the fun of musky fishing!

So we’ve covered a lot of ground here, now it’s time to get some maps of good musky lakes and rivers (shallow, stained and weedy if possible!), identify the structure and forage base in the system and put together a solid game plan with lures and approaches I’ve described here. Be stealthy, dress in light colors and make long casts. Use speed—slow and fast—as your ally and get out there and enjoy some early season musky action! See you on the water!