This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of Musky Hunter.
By Vance Kaloz
In my experience as a musky fisherman, the most important thing anglers can learn to do is to turn around. By this I mean turning back and revisiting a promising location. It may sound simple, but many people neglect it, which hurts their shot at catching muskies.
I too rarely took this step when I started musky fishing. I had to learn to do it, and once I did, I started having a lot more success. I want to share this lesson with you. It is straightforward but can lead to big results. In this article, I will explain why turning around is effective, when you should do it, and how to do it. Along the way, I will include some fishing stories to back up my beliefs.
When I was a greenhorn, I took my share of losses on the water. Beatings, I like to call them, but I did not consider beatings to be the end of the world. I counted follows as victories. If I saw a musky swimming in the water next to my boat — even if it had no interest in my lure — I thought “that’s a win.” At least I was in the right area. As I later came to understand, this recognition itself is very important. Soon, though, follows and sightings did not satisfy. I wanted the musky in my boat. And that is where the temptation to “run and gun” comes in.
I did not yet realize that once I found the right spot, I had to keep going back to it. I had to develop the ability to turn around. The problem is that when I did turn around, I saw a giant lake with many spots. I would imagine places out there even more promising than the one I was fishing. And so I got lost in a run and gun pattern which, as you know, is a big part of the mentality in musky fishing. That was beaten into my head and was hard to shake. In reality, if I had a follow, I should have stuck around and fished it.
And that is what I do these days as I guide on New York’s Chautauqua Lake for Muddy Creek Fishing Guides. While I am confident in the technique, I often run into clients who doubt it … at first, anyway.
Why This Spot?
Last summer I hit the water on a nice July day with not much wind, and started off trolling with client Vickie Banks. We worked an area for nearly three hours without a hit, but I kept going back and forth. After a while, Vickie looked at me and asked “Why this spot?” She was starting to wonder why we were giving this spot so much time without any hits.
At that point in the charter, you can feel that the clients are really questioning why we are still in this area. All guides feel this. Anybody fishing feels this. This area was about 300 yards long, a small spot on a 13,500-acre lake. You can’t help but wonder if there is a spot that might be better. But I kept on and ignored the temptation to move. There was a lot of bait in this water, but for whatever reason the muskies were not cooperating. It just wasn’t their time to bite.
I said “Just give it a minute.” I kept working it with confidence — turning around, and going back through the area. By the end of the day, after turning around and around, Vickie had her best day on the water. She went eight for 11 with her personal best 50 1/2-incher.
Years ago, I would have just left because I didn’t get a hit. Nothing happening, so move on. But I had developed the mental toughness to keep trying what I knew — what all signs said — was a good spot. Now I am not saying that turning around is the cure to prevent future beatings. Musky fishing is difficult. But as with any difficult task, the key is to improve your chances any way you can. And if it is something as simple as turning around and going back through, that’s what I implore you to do.
You might wonder why turning around is so important. Catching muskies isn’t impossible without it. For all the bad days you might have running and gunning, every once in a while you have a good one. So why do anything differently? There’s an old saying in musky fishing that 90 percent of the fish are caught by 10 percent of the fisherman. And I’m a firm believer in that. And I think the reason is that those 10 percent have the wherewithal to turn around. They work areas hard, they keep coming back and eventually the muskies start biting. Such anglers are rewarded with success that far outpaces those who want to keep moving to new areas. This is no coincidence. Their patience and confidence leads to their success.
Knowing this, you might ask why don’t more people keep going back through a good area. I ask myself this question, especially when old clients and friends ask me where to start on the lake. I give them a spot that I think is promising, but later I see them disregard the area almost as soon as they arrive. They blow right past it. Run and gun. They didn’t get a hit in that area initially, so they move on quickly. They didn’t turn around and go back through.
I think one of the biggest reasons people do not turn around is that we want instant gratification. This temptation is understandable — there’s only so much daylight, even in summer. But you have to bear in mind that while a good spot might take a while to produce, leaving it to start searching for an even better spot just means you are less likely to find the gratification at all. And if you catch something, it will generally be because of luck, which doesn’t help you improve your odds for the future.
So turning around improves your chances and gives you an opportunity to hone your skills, which includes having patience in a spot and confidence in your judgment. Your judgment is the subject of the next question: how do you know when you’ve found a spot that demands turning around?
Find The Clues
Remember that lakes are big, but they can fish small. You have to keep an eye on your immediate surroundings. Here are some things for which experience has taught me to look. Visually look in the water and at your graph. Do you see giant balls of baitfish? Weeds? Baitfish on the surface? Baitfish in the weeds? Birds of prey pecking at the surface? Consider history books, moon phases, and prior experiences on the water. Do you see areas that look fishy? They are probably holding active or inactive muskies. That’s a starting point in determining whether you want to stick around.
Once you’ve decided the spot looks good, be confident and commit. Even in a fishy area, you have to put in time. I have had many days on the lake with clients when we fish the morning and break for lunch without success. A tough day, so far. The client will ask what the plan is for the afternoon. I will say that we are going to go right back to that area. Often, they don’t understand. We spent the morning in an area with some of the clues mentioned above, but we didn’t get a hit. They are tempted to pull away, because they feel like we are wasting time.
But I see it as fishing with efficiency. I am not wasting time, I am waiting for the window. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when. After we go back, the clients are all smiles because we lit it up — a banner day, which came from fishing the small area, not searching the whole lake.
And in terms of technical ability, keeping to a small area is easier now than ever. Today’s graphs make turning around simple. Whether it’s a weedbed, a shoal, or an open flat, you can easily see where you’ve been previously, whether trolling or casting. Because turning around is really about efficiency, you can and should use these tools to improve your chances. When you are trolling, check to see whether your strike zone has changed. This happens often and for a few reasons, and you will have to take action in response. Maybe the baitfish moved up or down in the water column, or the depth of the lake bottom has changed. If one of these is the reason, you should adjust your lure’s running depth by letting more or less line out.
Another reason could be a change in the wind. This affects your speed, which affects the depth of your lure. In this case, you must adjust your speed to make the depth consistent with your first pass-through. These tactics will keep your baits punched to the depth you intend.
Casting is a bit different. Often on your first time through with your bait of choice you don’t see anything. Try changing things up a bit. Say the first time you ran it tucked in tight to a weedline, breakline, or point, and didn’t get a strike. When you go back through, maybe keep the boat out a little bit deeper. Maybe the fish need to see something a little bit longer.
My preference for this is a dive-and- rise, or something that is going to pause in the water column. For this, my favorite is the Fat AZ Raptor Jerk Bait. This has turned a lot of bad days into good ones for my clients and me. If you run these spots long enough, and if you consistently hit these fishy areas efficiently, the muskies there will eventually go. Whether it is an active or inactive fish, they can’t resist forever. You will have success. That is the mental game of musky fishing. That is what you have to keep telling yourself — they can’t resist, they will eventually go. Again, even though this is simple, it is not always easy to actually do. It can be mentally challenging.
This reminds of my biggest test this season for turning around. My wife, Lori, and I had hit the water and decided to troll. It was the full moon and history holds that this is a good time to fish. When we left the protected area of the lake, I quickly realized we were in some very serious weather — 40 mph winds and four-foot waves, but I was going with them so it didn’t seem so bad. I looked at my graph and saw some bait balls suspended 10 feet off the bottom. I quickly grabbed my fishing rod, synched up with a Zach Baker Bait, easily put it in my Fat AZ musky rod holder and tipped it with ease into the down-rod position. At that point I felt good about the day because it was a full moon and we were ready to go.
Unfortunately, when I turned to my wife, I noticed she was pale as a ghost with sea sickness. But she livened up quickly when the rod started singing and she reeled in the first musky of the day. This continued to happen for some time. Obviously this was a good spot, and I wanted to turn around and go back through. The thing was, when I did I was taking four-footers against the bow which were washing down the boat completely.
Running back at trolling speed, I was taking on so much water that the cockpit of the boat looked like a wading pool. The conditions were not ideal for curing sea sickness, of which my wife was already suffering. Even though searching would have been more comfortable at that point, I wanted to turn around and run the spot again. So I reeled in the trolling spread, killed the kicker motor, fired up the big motor, turned into the waves and drove comfortably over them. I then turned around, set the trolling spread, set the same Baker Bait and Fat AZ musky rod holder and rode with the waves again, turned to my wife in confidence and said “Full moon. Big ones.” I was trying to make light of the situation. We ran that line again. She stuck it out, and was rewarded with the biggest fish she’s ever caught in her life.
The message is that once you’ve found the spot, there’s no excuse not to turn around. The idea is not sexy. It seems too simple, because it is. Just turn around. It can take you from a bad to a banner day. From one end of the spectrum to the other. Even if you are sea sick, you will be happy you did it.
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