Early Season Night Strategies
By Jim Saric, Editor
It was mid-afternoon and I was starting to feel really warm. The morning had been cool and the day before I had worn every sweatshirt and jacket I had. Early summer often experiences crazy swings in temperature, and the good news was the forecast called for a warming trend.
I took off my sweatshirt and for a moment it felt like August. I took a long look at the weed flat we were fishing to get my bearings and fired a bomb cast across the top of the flat and the newly emergent weeds. About a third of the way into my retrieve I felt my blade stop spinning. I set the hook but there was nothing. I looked toward where I thought my bucktail was located and there was a giant boil. My stomach turned as I thought I either had a strike and missed the fish, or the fish was just engaging my lure. I tried varying the speed of the bucktail, but something wasn’t right. The blade wasn’t spinning. I kept quickly snapping my wrist trying to get the bucktail to spin, while reeling quickly. If the fish was following the lure I was hoping the instantaneous spinning of the blade might trigger a strike.
This continued with the retrieve all the way to the boat until I realized what had happened. The fish never followed the lure to the boat, or at least I never saw it. I pulled my bucktail out of the water and it looked strange. The back hook was stuck in the clevis of the bucktail’s blade. I asked myself “how did that happen?” Could it be one of those physical impossibilities that always seem to randomly occur when musky fishing? As soon as I unhooked the lure, I realized exactly what had happened. The lure was bent in half. To be more specific, the lure was curved in the perfect shape of a big musky’s jaw. I was just sick. A big fish had hit my bucktail, bent it in half, and I missed it.
I told my buddy Tom what had happened, and he just laughed. He had noticed something was going on as I frantically tried to get the bait to work during the cast. The particular spot we were fishing was not really a big fish spot. Over the years we had caught a couple big muskies from it, but we had called it “the sanctuary,” as it often held lots of smaller fish, and it was fun to pop in there and have some action from time-to-time. Unfortunately, this year it seemed we couldn’t even catch a musky from this spot. Conditions change from year to year and that can change how muskies use spots. One lesson I have learned throughout the years is that if an “action” spot goes dead, it means one of two things ” either it has been burned out by others fishing it or there is a real big fish on the spot. It was too early in the summer for the spot to be burned out, and after the strike I had missed there was no question that there was a big fish on the spot.
We continued fishing other spots throughout the day, and Tom actually boated a nice 50-incher early that evening. We were pretty fired up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that big bend in my bucktail earlier in the day. The evening stayed warm and at sunset we were still in short sleeve shirts. On our way back to the boat ramp, we agreed to make one last stop at the spot where I had missed the fish earlier. Tom didn’t mind, because he already had a big day. It was about 10 p.m. when we pulled up to the spot, and flat calm. Tom was fishing a small tail-rotating topwater, trying to minimize the noise in the calm conditions. We were just approaching the waypoint on my Lowrance 332 where the fish had hit earlier, when the water exploded and Tom yelled he had the fish. I could see the silhouette of the giant fish break water. It was awesome despite the darkness. After several power runs close to the boat, I was finally able to net her. She was indeed a giant, and most likely the fish that had hit my bucktail earlier that day.
Tom was pretty ecstatic with his second 50-inch class fish of the day … or, should I say, night. This fish had hit under total darkness, we were the only ones on the water, and the last boat left at the ramp. Sure fishing after dark later in the summer, was the norm here, but in early summer the night bite is often ignored.
When can you catch muskies after dark in early summer? The answer really is anytime. However, there are some situations to increase your odds and there are some techniques and approaches that differ when fishing after dark in early summer as opposed to later in the summer or fall. Taking advantage of these factors can often put you on some bigger fish before everyone else jumps into the game.
The above-mentioned story started out discussing the weather, because the one key that usually dictates success after dark in early summer is heat and humidity. If you have a warm day, and more importantly a warm evening with humidity, chances are you are going to have a good night bite. I’ll go so far as to say that the humidity may be just as important to early season success as the temperature. This is important to consider as your early season trip unfolds. If the evening feels warm and humid, start rethinking the late night and early morning plans. Spending a couple hours fishing into dark might be the difference-maker in your trip. On the flipside, even if it is hot during the day, if you lose the humidity in the evening and have to put on a jacket at dark, chances are the night bite may not happen.
Besides considering any daily weather pattern, you should also consider the weather pattern the week before you arrive. Be sure to check the weather on the Internet each day the week before your trip to get a feel for the weather pattern. Two to three days of warm and stable weather before you arrive might signal the night bite could be happening. A week of cooler weather might mean your only nighttime opportunities might depend upon a particularly warm and humid day during your trip.
Another straight-forward thing to consider is how the fish are reacting on a particular evening. Never leave biting fish if you can help it. If you are catching muskies and having lots of follows in the evening, don’t think that just because it is dark and you no longer can see the follows that the muskies are done feeding. Muskies can feed extremely efficiently after dark, and once again the days the fish are biting into dark are the days when you need to fish that extra hour or so into dark.
One particular evening we were fishing along an island with a rocky point that extended into the main lake. The island was pretty large and with the calm conditions we decided to fish the entire island, as we had seen fish in multiple locations on previous days at this particular spot. We decided to make this our last spot of the evening before dark. We fished the spot slowly and thoroughly. During this pass we caught a 42-incher, a 46-incher and lost another. It was now dark and we were planning to head in, but given the results it was time for a rewind. In other words, we decided to refish the area again. Just because we caught two and lost another did not mean those were the only fish on the spot. I like to think that maybe that is just the beginning of the wave of a pack of muskies on the spot. You have read in past issues of Musky Hunter that muskies feed in packs and that is true. Remember that you don’t always catch every one of the pack the first time through.
Now, we needed to get back to camp, so we refished the spot a little faster than I would have liked; however, I am certainly glad we did a rewind on this spot. At the tip of the point, my Swimmin Joe was stopped cold. I set the hook hard and in the darkness all I could feel was the bouncing of my St. Croix rod, as I struggled to keep the line tight when the fish charged the boat. The fish made several short but powerful runs within 15 feet of the boat, I couldn’t seem to move the fish, and we couldn’t see the fish. Finally, the fish just appeared at boatside. My friend John quickly netted the fish and we were all in awe of the big belly on this early season musky. This 50 1/2-inch inch fish had the stomach of musky you might typically not see until October or November.
We were really excited as we headed back to camp because the big musky had capped an incredible evening of fishing. Simply, we never would have caught that fish had we not refished the spot. Yet, we all said to ourselves what would have we caught had we kept fishing that night and/or did a rewind on the spot again.
I am sure many of you have fished a particular spot during the day, caught fish and went back and refished the spot again, particularly if you had several follows. At night seeing the follows can be difficult, but if you have some action, don’t be afraid to rewind the situation. Usually the results are all good!
My selection of night lures has never been that large. For the most part they consist of a jointed crankbait, a couple bucktails, a couple topwaters and maybe a soft plastic or a jerkbait. All of the baits are black to enhance their silhouette. However, I do carry a couple white/silver patterns for those bright, moonlit nights that appear more like dusk conditions than true total darkness. Despite the limited lure selection, there are some lures that usually shine in early summer. While I still catch fish on a deep running crankbait such as a DepthRaider, I tend to catch more muskies on that lure in mid-summer and into early fall. My early summer favorites are bucktails, topwaters and minnowbaits. I think the fact that the vegetation is still growing and muskies easily roam the tops of flats in early summer is what makes the bucktail such a great night lure after dark. Any bucktail with a big colorado or similar blade works well at this time. Even a spinnerbait such as a Lindy M/G is an excellent choice at this time as it produces tremendous vibration, which is a huge plus for fishing after dark. No need for a fast retrieve at this time after dark. A medium-speed retrieve usually is perfect.
Jointed minnowbaits or the hard/soft plastic crankbaits such as the Shallow Invader or Swimmin’ Joe are naturals for fishing after dark in early summer. The vibration from the lip, rubber tail and of course the ability to work these lures around cover really makes them excellent tools for fishing after dark. Plus, it seems when the muskies eat them, they are hooked. A straight crank with just a slow to medium retrieve is all that is needed at this time.
Tiny topwaters usually seem to be the key after dark at this time. The lure doesn’t have to be real small, but a prop-style lure such as a Salmo Turbo Jack Jr. or a TopRaider is perfect size at this time. These single-bladed top waters can be fish slowly at this time, which is key. I really prefer to slow the bait down at night in early season, to let the fish find the lure, and ultimately not resist the slow moving, but constant popping of the tail. You’ll need to slow your boat speed to really fish some spots and these lures correctly after dark, but the extra time is usually time well spent.
Fishing after dark has always been a passion of mine. Although I love watching a musky hit a topwater lure during the day, there is something about the anticipation of a strike in total darkness. It is just you and your senses. Plus, fishing after dark at this time often means fishing with little competition. As the number of musky anglers grows it is more important to fish different waters and try new techniques, to gain an edge on the crowds. One way to gain this edge is to push the envelope on a particular bite.
Although a particular water you fish may have many boats fishing after dark in midsummer, in early summer the water may not see nearly the traffic. Watch the conditions along with the attitude of the fish and be the first in your area to check the night bite. It might just pay off as the best move you make all season.
Jim Saric is Editor of Musky Hunter Magazine.
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