Opening Day Matters
By Dennis Radloff, Contributing Writer
I used to hesitate when considering early season musky fishing for a variety of reasons. Cold water temperatures make for a tough bite. Early season cold fronts make for a tough bite. Bluebird skies make for a tough bite. Locating fish consistently can be difficult. The list can go on, and while all of the listed conditions are synonymous with early season musky fishing I have learned one important lesson ” the best way to find, and stay on muskies all season long, begins with Opening Day.
For me, Opening Day begins a week before the actual opener. I like to start scouting by checking water temperatures and looking for muskies present in an area. Often times on these scouting adventures I will find water temperatures in the low to mid 50-degree range, and by traveling though these shallow bays at slow speeds can literally see the spawn/post-spawn muskies in the area. I used to wonder how I would know if muskies were still spawning, but this can easily be determined by early season scouting.
Generally, when the water temperatures are in the 55-degree range, it’s safe to assume muskies are still spawning. Another sure indication of active spawn patterns is the visual sighting of muskies that are still “paired up.” Here’s where you can begin that seasonal pattern of finding, and following, some of the big females present in any system. When spawning muskies are “paired up,” you will find a male and a female together. The female is always going to be the bigger of the pair and the only reason you will see them in pairs in the early season is to spawn. Some seasons when the water temperatures are warmer, in the upper 50s and into the lower 60s, you will usually notice a presence of smaller males in spawning areas without any sight of the bigger females, who will always evacuate the shallow spawning areas first. Even when early season patterns are ahead of schedule due to warmer weather, the presence of male muskies still indicates where the big females were not long before. By identifying this region you are well on your way to following these fish for the rest of the season by targeting the next migration move.
Let’s start by identifying what these patterns are. Typical migration can best be described as Spawn, Post Spawn, Transition, and Peak Summer. Knowing these migration patterns and how to target muskies for each pattern will keep you in the hunt all season long.
Whether you should fish for spawning muskies depends largely on how they’re propagated. In many locations where natural reproduction sustains or enhances the population, muskies are protected during the spawn. However, in the southern reaches of the musky’s range they’re usually sustained by stocking, and the season will be open.
A typical spawn region will be the tail end of a secluded shallow bay. Usually adjacent to the main lake, these shallow bays will have a depth of 10 feet or less and most often the optimal depths for spawning seem to be four feet and less. The shallow, soft bottom bays offer the earliest warm water opportunities for spawning, and are usually secluded from the disturbance of main lake traffic and wave action. Finding these areas will offer some excellent opportunity at big muskies, however triggering a spawning musky may be one of the toughest challenges of all.
Slow is the main factor in any presentation this time of the season. Water temperatures are still in the low to mid 50-degree range, and the muskies are spending all their energy on the process of spawning. Slow, twitch-style or glide-style presentations can be most effective since you can stop or pause periodically throughout the retrieve. The easy-to-locate presentation offered in this manner lends to the sluggish responses often conveyed by muskies under these conditions, and the “re-engagement” of the retrieve after the pause is what usually triggers a strike. One of my favorites is the Drop Belly Slammer because it has terrific hang time on the pause and glides nicely with light rod tip twitches.
Once spawning is complete, the first movement made by post-spawn muskies is into the deeper adjacent waters of the spawning bay. The new submergent weeds can be a great location because they will be holding baitfish and it does not require moving far from where the muskies just finished spawning. In addition to the new weeds, other factors to look for in these post-spawn regions include sand flats, rock bottom, or timber. On sunny days, hard bottom or timber in shallow water will absorb extra heat from overhead sunlight, creating water temperature increases. Now, some of those “high sky” conditions we usually would chalk up to unfavorable musky weather are becoming a bonus factor.
Anytime you can find warmer water near new weed growth in the early season, you are usually going to find the big female muskies in search of food in an effort to recover all the energy and body mass exhausted while spawning.
Continuing with the same twitch and glide techniques will work in these areas along with slow rolling small bucktails. Smaller double No. 8 blade bucktails can be retrieved slowly while getting good lift allowing a slow presentation over the shallow weeds.
When water temperatures continue to climb through the 60-degree range and as fish activity increases day by day early season muskies will begin to transition toward main lake structure. The “transition” area is the entire shoreline from the mouth of the bay (including the mouth of the bay) to the main lake point. A noteworthy tip regarding these transition spots can be made during seasons that begin with unseasonably warm temperatures like we had in 2012. When our season started last year, water temperatures we already in the low 60-degree range and spawning had been finished for a couple of weeks. While there were plenty of male muskies present in the shallow spawning regions, the larger females where not present. They had already moved out and were relating to these deeper transition areas.
Targeting active fish on these transitions can be achieved with a variety of presentations, but my favorite is a jerkbait. Many transition spots on the waters I fish are either a main shoreline edge or a deep weed edge. I like a weighted Suick because it can make contact with weeds or bang into structure without getting fouled. The ripping action of this lure will clear any weeds from the hooks keeping the presentation clean, and the blunt nose works great for contacting rocks and timber without getting snagged.
Main lake structure like islands, bars, humps, and even open water eventually become peak summer locations when water temperatures rise through the 70-degree range. A main lake island adjacent to the spawning area with open water adjacent to the deep edge is nearly a perfect spot. Peak summer muskies will utilize the island and the open water on a daily basis, depending on water temperatures and bait fish movements. Peak surface temperature periods, which can range into the mid 80s, are when most muskies will evacuate structure altogether and suspend over the deeper waters, taking advantage of cooler water temperatures down around the thermocline. Schools of suspended baitfish over deeper open waters will always have nearby active muskies.
Casting large profile lures like Magnum or Pounder BullDawgs and counting them down into the depth range of the schools of baitfish can yield some big rewards. Use your sonar to determine the depth of the baitfish. When you cast a BullDawg into deep open water, leave the reel in free spool as the lure sinks so line can continue to feed off the spool. These lures will sink at the rate of about one foot per second, so a 20-count will get you into the 20-foot range. While there’s no wrong way to work a BullDawg, I like to retrieve mine with hard rips, with a pause and drop between the rips. When the lure is getting close to the boat it will still be down in the 10- to 12-foot depth range and for the final approach I will rip it straight up toward boatside, always finishing with a series of at least four or five figure-8s. Many times I have found these deeper fish will come straight up to strike the figure-8 after a deep follow to the boat ” some of the most exciting casting action I have ever experienced! It does, however, require maintaining confidence in your electronics and believing there are muskies hanging around the baitfish you are marking.
A word of caution I like to give in regard to peak summer musky fishing is the potential of delayed mortality under severe conditions. The summer of 2012 was one of the hottest on record with many days in the upper 90s, and even into the 100s at times. We saw surface water temperatures in the upper 80s which were 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the thermocline. During extreme conditions like this, I stop targeting muskies altogether because catching, fighting, and such a fast climate temperature change can create fatal stress for the fish.
Notes & Tips
When selecting lure colors, water clarity and forage base should always be taken into consideration. Matching available forage with similar lures in clear water systems is always a solid starting point. If the waters are stained or dirty, then brighter lures colors like firetiger can make a better profile with better visibility.
Water depths and clarity will also have a significant factor, especially during early season, in regard to how fast water temperatures will warm. Shallower waters will warm faster than deeper lakes, and darker waters will warm faster than clear waters. North shorelines will usually be warmest because they will be getting more direct sunlight throughout the course of the day. When heading out for an opening day musky hunt, keep some of these factors in mind, especially in a region with a variety of lakes to choose from. The smaller and shallower lakes will offer the best action first due to having the warmest waters available. You can even use these smaller lakes as a gauge for when to make a move to a bigger favorite lake. When I start seeing muskies migrating through the transition regions on a small lake, then I know the spawn and post-spawn regions on larger lakes are probably starting to heat up and offer better action.
Getting out for the opener is going to put you face to face with some of the biggest muskies in any water and essentially get you on track to follow them all season long.
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