First-Timer’s Guide To Lake of the Woods
By Tom Gelb
I started hunting muskies on Lake of the Woods about 25 years ago. My first impression remains with me today ” almost every spot looks good!
Up to that time, my musky experiences had been almost entirely on small to medium size lakes in Wisconsin. Locating fishy spots was a challenge, particularly before sonar. But to explore a small lake and locate weeds, rocks, logs and points took a matter of hours and provided a good starting point to pinpoint musky locations. These spots were fished repeatedly and the winners eventually were evident.
But my first LOTW experience required a different approach as even a small part of the lake was larger than the lakes I’d fished back home, and as I said, almost everything looked good. To learn as much as possible in a short period of time, I fished as many spots as I could as fast as I could. I concentrated on weeds, rocks and points, using lures that could be fished rapidly in an attempt to locate active fish.
As my first few trips were in late spring and summer, bucktails were my primary fish-locating tool.If a spot looked really good, or a musky was seen or caught, that spot went on my list and was visited continually as I expanded my fishing area. In the beginning I was fishing almost entirely new spots every day with repeats representing a very small percentage of spots visited.
Even then, I would try to pre-plan my day and the areas I would fish, but always looking for desirable new spots as they presented themselves.
After years of exploring, a trip to LOTW now involves a detailed pre-planned milk run, every day. A few new spots are always included, along with old spots that look very good but have never produced. I have found that fish locations change, with hot areas turning cold and cold areas turning hot.
After years of fishing the same waters, I have classified spots that I fish in a few simple categories:
Super spots: Remains consistently productive with fish of all sizes seen and usually caught.
Good spots: Usually productive, but only an occasional super fish.
One upon a time: Spot has produced only super fish, but rarely.
Never: Looks great, but never produced
Don’t bother: I gave up! (Maybe you can get one here!)
Lake of the Woods remains one of my favorite waters to this day. The fishery is on the upswing thanks to a 54-inch size limit and numerous good year classes of fish, and it seems the lake is becoming more popular with anglers each year. With that in mind, let’s explore how a first-timer should attack this giant lake.
LOTW Through The Season
Early in the season, green cabbage weeds are a prime holding area. Look for cabbage in front of sand bays, in saddles between islands, in narrows between small islands and shore and of course at the mouth of shallow weedy bays. If rocks are present along with the weeds, all the better. As the season progresses, some of the same spots will remain good, but areas along rock shores, rock reefs, small rock islands, points and underwater bars will now hold active fish. Saddles between small islands even without weed cover can also be excellent. The best advice I can give is to keep exploring new places trying to understand where fish are and why they are there.
As the lake comes into bloom in late August, a good reminder is to use more hot colors to make your lure more visible as long as this condition exists. As the season extends later into fall, some spots may remain good, but with the fish locating farther off the structure or cover, but still adjacent to their summer haunts. Explore other areas, as some spots that did not hold fish early in the season may now be productive. It may take a season or so to understand seasonal movement to and from different types of areas. I don’t believe there is any shortcut to attaining this knowledge other than try and try again!
The point of all this is obvious: I fish my “super” and “good” spots the majority of the time. But it also means that the “never” and the “once upon a time” places are also fished and after years of fishing, a few eventually have become good producers but some still have not.
Spots change over time, becoming hot or cold for no apparent reason. I continue to work most of them, but at a lower frequency.
I have found daily weather conditions to be a most important determinant in connecting with big muskies in these waters. Cloud cover with frontal movement in low light conditions, and periods before and during a storm with a falling barometer and thunderstorm activity, are best. This is the prime time to attack fish recently spotted, super spots and particularly those spots that look good, but have never produced.
Trying a new spot, new lure, new color or new technique when weather conditions are very unfavorable (east wind, bright sun, etc.) proves nothing and can lead you to false conclusions. The time to try something new is when conditions are at their best. I also believe strongly that during each day there are key times that may increase fish activity ” moonrise and moonset, moon overhead and moon underfoot ” even with very poor weather conditions. Know when these key times occur when you go on the water every day. Don’t forget, with very poor conditions, always fish the best time of that day ” sunset. Exploit these conditions ” don’t let them exploit you!
Fishing this lake over and over can create fishing patterns that on some occasions do not yield favorable results. Conditions not necessarily obvious to us affect musky activity and location, and always fishing the same way can result in missed opportunities. Here are a few suggestions that help in expanding your knowledge of these waters:
“On occasion, even under favorable conditions, muskies are absent or only small ones are evident on your best spots. When this occurs, try moving out from these spots toward deeper or open water. A place to start is about two cast lengths out from your normal (previously successful) position for fishing a particular spot. Start here and work your way parallel to your “normal” route as muskies may have moved out and may be suspended off, but adjacent, to structure. Another approach is to have one person casting to the “spot” and the other casting out. This may not be far enough away, but it’s an easy way to start. If you draw a blank, spend some time a little farther out.
Even with this approach, sometimes the muskies remain elusive. As a general rule, I have found weeds are usually productive right from the start of the season and will remain so through the summer. Deeper areas with rocks and particularly deep water points become better as the season progresses, and become great in the fall. But sometimes early in the season, the shallower weedy areas produce nothing or only small fish. When this happens, don’t overlook deeper rocky areas that you would consider fall spots. Fishing these locations in the early part of the season has saved the day for me on many occasions.
“ Occasionally conditions develop that make areas that were previously difficult now fishable. Many bays have very extensive and very thick weeds. These areas have water depths of from three to eight feet, but are usually so weed-choked that they are impossible to fish. It is my belief that many of these areas hold fish most of the season up until the weeds start dying in the fall. These waters, with the depths shaded from the sun, provide an undisturbed pasture for many large muskies. The fish in these areas are usually only accessible when they occasionally venture to the open edge of the weeds. On a few occasions, I have experienced high water conditions that allow these waters to be fished. If water is high, be sure to check these weedy areas. There may now be 1 to 2 feet of water over the tops of the weeds. Move back in and fish over the tops of the now-submerged weeds. Also look for small open areas well back in the previously-unfishable area. Keep your eyes open for these conditions as some real giants can be caught.
“ In most heavily-fished waters, observing schooling muskies is quite rare. But in LOTW, muskies will school almost any time of year. Two super fish hunting together have been observed on many occasions. These concentrations may be small packs containing from two to five fish and/or larger groups containing substantially greater numbers. Smaller packs are usually composed of similar-size fish while large groups are usually made up of mixed sizes from small to very large. Grouping of small packs or large groups have been observed as being both tight and loose. Two super fish may be hunting within a few feet of each other or as far as 100 feet apart. The point of this discussion is simply that if you see a super fish (or any fish for that matter) don’t assume it is alone. Another fish may be nearby and ready to hit. Don’t quit or move to another spot just because you catch or raise one. Work the location where the fish was seen and the areas adjacent to it before you depart. Current conditions must be somewhat favorable or you would not have seen the first one. You may have come across one of those rare musky concentrations. There may be more, so don’t run off without really working the area.
“ LOTW muskies of all sizes relate to baitfish at various times. This can occur from early in the season well through the late fall.
Walleyes, perch and crappie fisherman provide excellent clues. Walleyes will follow schools of shiners, which sometimes are in great abundance.
Muskies definitely are attracted to these walleye concentrations. Watch for groups of boats walleye fishing and observe what they are catching. Muskies will feed on everything from cigar- to lunker-size walleyes. If I observe a group of walleye fisherman in an area for a few days and then on my next pass by they are all gone, I immediately investigate.
What caused those walleyes to depart? It could have been the movement of the baitfish, but it also could be a visit from Ms. Big. Casting the area or making a few trolling passes where the fisherman were can really pay off. If there is some closely related structure such as a rock bar or point, also give this a try. Similar situations can exist with very large and concentrated schools of shiners, crappies and perch.
“ Always watch for fish concentrations on your locator when you are motoring from spot to spot and you may find your own musky feed lot.
However you locate baitfish, remember they are great magnets for big active muskies ” they may help you locate a once in a lifetime musky concentration. Keep your eyes open for these conditions.
There are literally hundreds of musky lures available that will catch big fish at one time or another in LOTW. Despite the vast availability of lures, I have narrowed down my selection to a relatively few. Over time, lures once on my list have been replaced by newer more modern designs.
The number of lures I currently use is less than a dozen with a few color options of each. Sampling my historical records and my memory, lures on my current list represent over 90 percent of total muskies caught and 97 percent of Ms. Bigs from LOTW in the last 25 years. With two exceptions, all of these lures have caught good fish in every month of LOTW’s open season.
For those of you who have not ventured forth on this vast fishery, I have tried to present a simplified approach to help you get started.
These suggestions only represent the tip of the iceberg. Conditions are always changing and flexibility is a must.
With time, you too will find your own “super” spots and “good” spots ” they’ll be super or good because of the many muskies you will have caught.
Field Editor Tom Gelb lives near Conover, Wisconsin.
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