Secrets For Success In Clear Water
By Jim Saric, Editor
I have always had a love/hate relationship with clear water. Some of my best days have come from such waters, and so have some of my worst. But the largest muskies I’ve seen live in such deep, clear waters, so it keeps me coming back. To make matters worse we all know that overcast skies and southwest winds can produce the best action from muskies on such clear water, but the sad truth is that on those bright, flat, calm days when nothing should happen, I have caught, lost and seen some giant muskies.
Growing up fishing such waters, I hated those sunny and calm days; actually, I really wasn’t a big fan of any sunny day, because I knew the action was most likely going to be slow. However, that little voice in my head would always remind me of a big musky either caught or, even worse, a big musky lost on such a day. Not to mention, those sunny days were historically the days I would see some of the biggest fish of the season. Fishing clear water during the summer months is never easy, but it is also overrated in difficulty.
Clear water, like any water type, has its share of obvious patterns and productive areas. Weeds can be just as productive in clear water as stained or dark water, the edges are just deeper. Many rock humps will hold muskies in clear water, including deeper humps, and there are many fish that suspend in open water all season. Of course, night fishing can be extremely deadly. We have covered many of these topics in past issues of Musky Hunter. However, there are several summer patterns that have produced for me in clear waters throughout the years that haven’t received much coverage, that you just have to check out this season.
Many clear waters are not extremely fertile. There are some with outstanding growth where muskies frequent the weedbeds. Yet in even the more fertile, clear waters, large sand flats exist that go virtually untouched. After all, what does a sand flat have to offer a musky? Aren’t they essentially featureless pieces of structure? This is the way most anglers feel about sand flats so they avoid fishing them. In fact, on the clear waters of Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, chain of lakes where I grew up fishing, I went out of my way to confirm to others that those “featureless” sand flats weren’t worth fishing. IN the meantime, I spent many hours fishing these areas and caught numerous muskies.
Sand flats are either large mid-lake humps, shoreline-connected bars or just large flats that have little cover. Sometimes they have a few sparse patches of weeds or grass, and a few sections of scattered boulders. However, the majority of these areas are sand. These large, “blonde”-colored sand flats can appear scary when cutting across a lake as they can come from nowhere and appear just below the surface in the gin-clear water. Don’t be fooled by the featureless nature of these flats. These sand bars have patches of grass that frequently hold perch. These smaller perch are prime prey for muskies and as a result many muskies hunt these sand flats. Muskies don’t seem to hold on these flats, but rather cruise by and eat. It is a matter of checking several sand flats and making contact with a cruising fish. If the sand flat is extremely large, it may be necessary to locate the areas of grass and focus your efforts on those sections of the flat.
To further increase your odds, focus on the upwind and inside turn areas of these flats. Depending on the wind direction, I’ll check the map and try to find an areas where the wind is blowing into an inside turn on a sand flat. These areas really seem to hold big muskies, especially post-spawn females in early summer. I remember one early summer catching several nice muskies in the 40-inch range throughout the week, but being more frustrated with the fact that we were seeing two or three 30-pound class fish each day and were not able to boat one. All the muskies were relating to these large sand flats, with the big girls located at the inside turns.
A crib typically is a wooden, bush-filled structure placed on lakes during the winter months and allowed to sink to the bottom as the ice melts. Cribs can be baitfish magnets, especially when placed on areas of sterile bottom. IN many clear waters, cribs are placed on the sand flats mentioned above, but they are just as frequently placed on rock bars, rock humps, and along steep-breaking shorelines. Many maps will indicate the approximate location of the cribs, although finding deeper cribs can be difficult. Of course if you troll a lure by one it will most surely get hung, which is the way I tend to find most deeper cribs, though I hate sacrificing crankbaits for such missions.
To find cribs in water less that 18 feet, I use a combination of map and information from the local DNR to help locate their position. One needs a flat, sunny day and a good pair of sunglasses for spotting the cribs, but they can be relatively easy to find. Once found, make a note of a shoreline marker or use your GPS to mark the position. Cribs can be natural stopping points for muskies.
A flat with several cribs could consistently hold muskies as baitfish constantly move in and out and between the cribs, which make for easy pickings for the muskies. Although many of us know these areas exist, like sand flats, few take the time to locate the cribs and use their location to help focus efforts when casting a particular structural element. I have taken a tremendous amount of muskies from clear water when fishing areas containing cribs. It seems a lone crib on a flat isn’t always the best, but a series of cribs scattered along the breakline of a featureless flat can make a spot absolutely fantastic.
One final piece of advice for fishing crib areas is that muskies commonly suspend away from the cribs over deep water. Therefore, when fishing such areas, make sure one angler is casting toward open water at all times while working the boat along the breakline. There may often be an active musky shallow, but over the years I have caught equally as many fish casting to open water in these areas.
How can muskies be lying in shallow bulrushes in three to five feet of water in midsummer, during bright daylight, in gin clear water? That was the question I was asking myself after I boated a 44-inch hybrid musky that ended up winning a musky tournament for my father and I that weekend. The key to the shallow bulrush or reed pattern is weather conditions. Through the years this shallow pattern has produced on numerous clear waters during the heat of summer. However, the most important ingredient is wind. Strong winds, warm surface temperatures and sunny days have resulted in my most consistent catches from this shallow cover. The best bulrush areas seem to grow in a hard sand bottom mixed with some boulders and very little weed growth. Frequently in midsummer it is not uncommon to see schools of minnows in the shallow reeds. I think the strong winds just make the ambush opportunities better for muskies as they can corral and hunt prey more effectively.
Many clear waters have large areas of bulrushes. Focus on those points projecting closest to deep water as they seem to be best. My approach is to fish several bulrush points first, concentrating on those closest to deep water. If one of the points is holding a fish, and you will know quickly as these fish are extremely active in windy conditions, other points most likely will also be holding muskies. I have had few follows in bulrushes during this time. Once all points have been fished go back and more thoroughly fish the area that produced the fish and look for other turns or thicker patches of bulrushes to hold more muskies.
I’ve fished this shallow water bulrush pattern for years and used various lures, but none even comes close to a spinnerbait. The Stanley Musky Boss with within Colorado blades that thump hard, create tremendous flash and actually push the bulrushes away from the lure, is incredible in this situation. It is important to make rocket casts to these areas to power the bait through the cover.
SHALLOW, SUSPENDED FISH
We all know that muskies suspend in open water regardless of clarity, but many anglers aren’t aware of how shallow the muskies suspend. IN early summer, baitfish freely roam the shallow portion of open water feeding on plankton. Later, in the summer months, the baitfish will be much deeper and only in the evenings do they venture shallower. As a result, in early summer the muskies can be found suspending very high in the water column. Actually, this is an easy time to fish below the muskies. Regardless of the fact that your sonar may read 50-plus feet, the muskies are typically suspended less than 22 feet below the surface with many in the top 10 feet! Catching muskies casting or trolling large minnowbaits such as 8- and 10-inch Jakes, bucktails, even jerkbaits is the norm at this time. Deeper running crankbaits will also produce at this time, but the shallower running lures can be equally effective. Even more amazing is how certain portions of a basin tend to hold baitfish and muskies, year after year. Obviously there are exceptions, but just like many shallow water structures tend to consistently hold muskies, depending on the wind and weather conditions certain sections of the basin may also hold muskies.
Rather than just randomly fishing open water, look for funnel or neck-down areas adjacent to the deep basin. Also, a series of humps or island clusters adjacent to deep water can be natural areas to concentrate packs of feeding muskies. However, it is always worth the time to cruise the basin looking for schools of baitfish. Large clouds of balled-up baitfish in five to 20 feet of water are a sure sign that active and catchable, high riding, suspended muskies are present. Start a drift upwind of the school and systematically make several passes. Combining deeper structural elements, natural funnels and balls of baitfish usually means a sure sign of a suspended musky bite. Whenever I am cruising across the basin of a clear water in early summer between casting structural elements, I am searching and hoping to find such a situation. If the shallow structure fishing is dead, my search for open water fish becomes more focused and if a bunch of shallow bait is found, in most cases I drop all other plans and check it out.
We all fish rock humps in our favorite waters, but in clear waters there is a brief period of early summer where big muskies relate to rock humps in big numbers. This shallow rock pattern occurs in clear waters with minimal weed growth. Years ago, my friend Joe Bucher turned me on to this pattern, and I’ve been fishing it in various clear waters ever since.
Before the thermocline is well established, and typically around the same time that the muskies are suspended high, muskies will use rock humps – particularly those that top off shallower than 15 feet as areas to feed in packs and corral schools of ciscoes. IT is not uncommon to catch and see several muskies working an individual hump. The timing of this usually occurs around the first week of July in northern Wisconsin so one can adapt the point of reference for their own waters. These muskies are post-spawn and it is a great chance to catch a large fish.
Crankbaits, jerkbaits, and large minnowbaits are most effective when fishing rock humps as again the fish are not that deep. Diver-style jerkbaits such as Bobbie Baits get the call here and deep running crankbaits such as Ernies and DepthRaiders are preferred.
When searching for productive humps look for several humps that are relatively close to one another. Isolated smaller humps can be productive, but they seem to be more hit or miss. However, large humps or clusters tend to hold more fish and thus are more consistent.
Overcast days tend to be best for fishing rock humps. Focus on the upwind side of the humps and pay attention to the fingers or projections present. I prefer to approach these humps from a distance and quietly move in with my trolling motor while casting. At the end of the hump, make a few more casts over open-water for shallow, suspended muskies. This approach to the humps puts one in a position to catch muskies relating to the entire hump area.
Summer is often a time many musky hunters choose to fish shallow, stained waters in an effort to increase action. In many cases this is a solid approach, but there is another musky myth that the clear waters are too cold to fish early, or too tough in midsummer. These clear waters can be tougher, but the payoff can often be better. Check out the obvious patterns and try some of these I’ve described that are not so obvious.
I have been fishing such waters for over 20 years across North America and many of the same patterns hold true. It is just a matter of paying your dues and having the desire to catch a big musky. If you are really after a big fish, and aren’t afraid to suffer for a few days when times are tough, it is just a matter of time until lightning strikes and you’re holding a giant fish. Clear waters in summer is the place where it can happen, but you’ve got to fish them to make it happen.
New River – Southwest Virginia High Water has dominated this week, but we are normalizing. Water temps have fallen back…
This article originally appeared in the April/May 1994 issue of Musky Hunter. To see more classic articles like this, subscribe…
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