Winter Muskies Made Easy
By Matt Gunkel
Warm, cold, warm, cold, warm, cold. Sound familiar? This up-and-down weather pattern could easily describe spring, summer or fall in any area of the country you chase muskies. As we all know, unstable weather leads to tough bites, right? What if I told you that during certain time periods on southern reservoirs, cold fronts will not change the bite or even the location of groups of fish? What if I told you that the most productive bait also does not change?
This time period is winter and over the last few seasons I have found it to be the most predictable, consistent “bite” of the entire year in the southern musky range.
The “winter” period of southern reservoir fishing can be defined as December through mid-February. Water temperatures will not fluctuate greatly and 40 to 45 degrees is the norm during these 2 1/2 months. The cold water and short solar periods of winter mean slow metabolisms and minimal musky movement throughout the day.
In winter, there are two distinct populations of muskies in reservoirs — those located in large, deep, open basin areas and those that spend the winter in mid-depths adjacent to spawning grounds. We are going to focus on the second group.
The large population of reservoir muskies that spend all winter adjacent to spawning grounds is the most predictable population in any reservoir. They do not exhibit the pelagic nature as do the groups of muskies in deep, open basins chasing shad. Once located, these fish will stay put until the latter part of February when they begin their spawning migrations.
So, what do these areas look like and what should you expect when fishing a southern reservoir in January when you normally wouldn’t fish it until April?
During December through mid-February, your favorite springtime stumpfield, flat, or roadbed will often be dry due to drawdown, which is the lowering of the lake in anticipation of spring rainfall and rising water levels.
Drawdown typically occurs from October to December. Drawdown means drastically different things as you move from the flatlands of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio and move east to the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. On my home waters of Lake Kinkaid as well as Caesar’s Creek, there is a drawdown of only three feet to winter pool, while Cave Run draws down six feet for winter pool, and the Caney Fork system normally draws down 15 feet but I have seen it as low as 22 feet below pool. While these will all change the exact spots you fish, the principles remain the same.
Earlier, I mentioned “mid-depths” which can be defined as eight to 20 feet. In southern reservoirs this is relatively shallow water but drastically different from the one to three feet of water that springtime muskies will spend a lot of time occupying. Areas adjacent to spawning grounds in mid-depths can be broken down as creek arms, breaks adjacent to main lake flats, and deep timber flats.
The most productive areas during winter are complex creek arms with standing timber, laydowns, and sufficient depth of 20 feet or more. All of the creek arms that are consistently productive in March, April and May will have muskies in winter as well. However, during the cold water months you should target the deeper water near the mouth of the creek or the slowest sloping secondary points inside the mouth of the cove. In these habitats you will find shad most of the winter along with crappies and bluegills.
Lowland reservoirs with minimal drawdown will maintain weed growth during this period which will also increase the overall biodiversity of the creek. Many of these creeks will have springs that consistently spit out water in the 55- to 60-degree range which will slightly warm the surrounding area. This is rarely noticeable on your transducer in the top couple feet of water, but can be found by taking temperatures at the bottom of the creek.
One secondary area that will hold muskies throughout the winter will be the first break adjacent to large main lake gravel, sand or rock flats. The hard bottom is very important in the cold water period and muskies are often visible via side imaging in eight to 12 feet of water with their bellies pressed directly on the bottom. Another secondary area includes deep timber flats that maintain eight to 12 feet of depth and fall off into 20 feet or more. These can be located inside creek arms or along main lake shorelines.
One Bait Stands Out
The simplicity of this entire winter southern reservoir musky fishing is that one bait dominates — the one-ounce Tony Grant/Llungen Lures Rattlin’ Shad. As I began to develop this pattern I cast, trolled, and jigged dozens of other baits that normally produce throughout the year, and the Rattlin’ Shad with the loud knocking rattles was always what produced muskies! This pattern is so consistent that I will fish three deep in my boat during this time of year with everyone throwing different-colored Rattlin’ Shads. The colors I always start with are a white variation, a red variation and firetiger. Over the years redhead, lemonhead, white/pink top, white/orange belly, bourbon, red craw, chrome/blue, chrome/black and firetiger have all been top producers in my boat. I have always found that more flash — whether it be chrome paint or reflective prism tape — is very important in dirty water.
The overall effectiveness of the one-ounce Rattlin’ Shad can be explained by science, versatility, and overall ease of use. First, in the cold-water period, rattling baits have always been most effective for all species of gamefish. The small profile mimics the threadfin and gizzard shad, and makes for a very easy meal for any predator. Also, the amount of noise the loud-knocking Rattlin’ Shad makes cannot be matched by any other baits in its size class.
The versatility can be explained through the physical characteristics of a four-inch Rattlin’ Shad. The bait is small, compact and sinks fast. It can be deflected off standing timber, ripped through weeds, and bumped off gravel and rocks. The Rattlin’ Shad can occupy the upper, middle, or lower portion of the water column effectively down to 15 feet. During the winter months, a medium retrieve with a reel picking up 26 to 28 inches of line per crank will typically have the bait come in six to eight feet down. When targeting deeper depths I always count down the rattlebait to the bottom before I start my retrieve and then slow down to keep it running 12 to 15 feet down.
I believe the loud knocking Rattlin’ Shad shines over all other rattling baits because of its ability to make consistent vibration and sound even at the slowest retrieve speeds. The two largest winter muskies in my boat have come doing this exact technique of “slow-rolling” the Rattlin’ Shad. This is the exact opposite of the shallow water speed retrieves which consistently produce muskies in March and April.
In addition to its versatility in running at several depths, the Rattlin’ Shad is effective in all water colors ranging from high clarity to very muddy. Some of the very biggest muskies I have landed or netted have come in December, January and February in water 12 to 15 feet deep with less than six inches of visibility.
Finally, in the winter, most musky anglers are not in typical “casting shape.” Reeling a small bait at a slow to medium pace is a technique an angler of any age, size or skill level can perform. The terminal tackle needed to fish the Rattlin’ Shad adds to the ease of this pattern. A moderate action, 7-foot-10 to eight-foot heavy bass (swimbait style) rod paired with a smaller 200- to 300-size baitcasting reel which pulls in 26 to 28 inches per turn is best suited for this application. A direct connection from the main line to the solid wire leader and then from the leader to the split ring on the Rattlin’ Shad is necessary to get the right action. Stealth Tackle makes a “Spring Leader” exactly for this application.
Instead of dreaming of catching muskies all winter in 2020, take a trip or try this on your local water. You will be glad you did!
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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