Muskies: Go With The Flow
By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
The musky moved quickly from the side but then slowed as it turned to follow the topwater toward the boat. Thick across the back, the fish appeared short but its great length became readily apparent as it sank beneath the lure, rather than engage the figure-8.
“That fish looked like a railroad tie,” I joked to my partner, Musky Hunter Research Editor Jordan Weeks. “If we get favorable conditions in the next couple days, maybe we’ll get a shot at it. She’d be a fun one to catch because she’d make anybody’s season.”
That musky was the only one we saw that evening as the north wind blew itself out and the sun settled into a cool evening. When we awoke the next day, we were greeted by a white sky and a southwest wind, the kind of conditions a musky hunter lives for. The day went almost according to script. A nice musky was caught, then another. Other fish followed and didn’t strike. As the sun burned a small hole in the white sky at mid afternoon, a 50-incher rocketed toward my bucktail from the right and somehow didn’t grab the bait. Its ferocious, mouth-open attack, and just-as-sudden disappearance, left my knees shaking.
“We’ve got to go back on that big fish,” I told Jordan. “The sun’s coming out and that might be the condition change it wants.”
We cast at the northwest corner of the island where the musky had been located the evening before without success, then worked around a westward-pointing rock bar. I cast once, twice, then three times into the wave-buffeted inside corner of the rock bar when she attacked, completely inhaling the bucktail.
I set the hook and the fish responded by charging the boat and then swapping ends, throwing water all the way. The sheer power of the big fish was incredible as she took line against my drag and tried to reach deep water. When that didn’t work, she swam past the bow of the boat, again peeling line. My trolling motor’s skeg banged into the shallow rocks as I worked her back and she swam by the bow again with authority, glowing in the sunlight. I briefly picked up my net but then dropped it as she powered toward the stern where she came half out of the water and rolled back toward the bow. At this point her strength was ebbing, so I got my net in position and quickly scooped her up to end the battle.
After easing my boat away from the rocks with the trolling motor, I was able to pop the hooks out more easily than I expected. After holding her up for the camera I eased the fish back into the lake and she swam off strongly.
When you’re filming a DVD about how to use wind and current to improve your musky fishing success, this musky couldn’t have been a more fitting catch. Not only was it a monster, but the fish had repositioned itself about 30 feet from where she had been located the evening before to take advantage of the new water flow.
Using wind and current to your advantage is one of the few things that has not changed in the nearly 30 years of Musky Hunter’s existence. It was then, and remains, one of the most fundamental keys to successful musky fishing, yet is perhaps the least understood. If I’m going fishing on a day without wind or current I feel completely useless. Of course, that’s not always the case, but wind and current are valuable assets any day on the water.
Current is nothing more than water movement, either wind-induced or natural current as it flows through a river or reservoir. Muskies evolved as river fish, and use water flow to enhance feeding opportunities much the same way as walleyes or trout. What does water movement do? The stronger it is, the more difficult it is for smaller fish to swim, so of course it makes them easier prey in areas where water is moving.
Secondly, it tends to concentrate plankton, which is an important food for smaller fish. Water movement also diffuses light penetration, which means a musky has a more difficult time distinguishing your lure from a real baitfish so it’s more prone to make a mistake. I have always believed that the most active muskies will move to the head of structure or cover that has water flowing over, into and/or around it, regardless if this water movement is from wind or natural current. Some muskies, especially larger fish, will seek out eddy areas where current washing around a structure pools up — perhaps the eddy effect makes it easier for them to feed.
Water movement not only makes muskies more catchable, but it tends to make the water you’re fishing “smaller” — instead of fishing an entire structure, I need only fish the upwind or upcurrent side, or the eddies. I position my boat slightly upstream of where water is flowing around the structure or cover, then work around all the key areas, placing casts where active muskies should be holding. When I’m done with these areas, I’m off to the next spot, rather than fishing all around the structure in downwind or downcurrent areas and wasting time where there still may be muskies, but they’re likely not as active. If you spend a greater portion of your day casting to active muskies, you catch more muskies.
Water flow helps make you much more efficient. In many cases you can predict where a musky will be holding. In fact, when Jordan Weeks was conducting his radio-telemetry study in northern Wisconsin a few years ago, he was able to predict where certain muskies would be in their home range based on the day’s winds. A few times, all the transmitter-carrying fish in the lake would be positioned along a weed edge that had wind blowing onto it.
Where to Fish
I always consider wind before current typically because wind will affect more areas and give me more options for the day. If there’s no wind I look to current.
In northern Wisconsin where I live, there are about 350 musky lakes within an hour’s drive. I pick my lake for the day, or if I’m fishing a big water in Minnesota or Canada I pick the region of the lake for the day, according to wind direction. I want to fish lakes or areas where I will have numerous opportunities to use water movement. Some lakes are better in certain winds, due largely to key areas being buffeted by favorable winds.
I look for any structure or cover where moving water is colliding with it, fish the upwind side, then move to the next similar location. If the wind switches, don’t go chasing the wind from one side of the structure to the other. A wind switch can be a terrific trigger that will make a musky you’ve seen earlier finally bite, so if you notice one occurring it’s smart to drop everything and go back to that musky, or to another good spot. The musky that you’ve seen earlier likely will not have repositioned itself on structure immediately following a wind shift, but it will often move slightly to take advantage of this new wind direction.
Natural current flowing through a waterbody is a whole lot more subtle and difficult for fishermen to notice, but believe me, muskies know about it. Reservoirs have dams that back up the water, so take note of where the dam is located and that’s the direction the water is flowing. When wind is minimal while fishing a reservoir, it’s still wise to fish on the upstream side of structure or cover, or the side that’s away from the dam.
Classic current areas are constrictions of landforms that force the water flow between tighter areas., thus accentuating the current. I fish the lead edges of structure where the current is flowing onto and past it, just as I would fish wind because, after all, it’s just water flow. Remember, the tighter the landform constriction the greater the effect of the current.
Rivers are greatly overlooked by musky fishermen, perhaps because fluctuating water levels, erosion or sediment buildup can quickly transform safe areas into hazardous. This results in relatively uneducated, more easily catchable muskies.
Regardless of a river’s size, key areas in rivers are anything that will allow a musky to use water flow to feed. Points of islands, both on the upstream and downstream ends, are extremely important, as are fallen trees. Manmade docks should not be overlooked, nor should the dredged channel from an abandoned dock. Often these are a deep water slot in an otherwise featureless flat. Weed-covered flats are important, and if they’re expansive, look for thicker clumps of weeds, or fish weeds near the deeper channel for the biggest fish.
As water cools in the fall, fish will relate to the main channel and will often winter in deep holes or at the base of dams. Large rivers that flow into the Great Lakes offer a tremendous opportunity for giant muskies. Massive numbers of baitfish, plus the opportunity to hide out from anglers in the big lake, combine to allow these fish to grow into beasts. The Lower Fox River and Green Bay, and the Detroit River, are examples of fantastic river fisheries within a short drive of major population areas.
As you learn to fish in wind and current, you’ll find special situations in which musky fishing can be phenomenal.
There’s the seiche effect, which is current that is caused by the settling out of water after a prolonged blow in one direction, or by seismic, atmospheric or lunar effect. A “reverse current” is caused by strong winds blowing in the opposite direction of the natural flow through a river or reservoir, and if it’s prolonged, the backside of structures may turn on with active muskies. When that wind dies the rush of water resuming its normal flow can be river-like and trigger a brief but phenomenal bite.
Another special situation occurs when strong wind pushes water into an otherwise weedy bay, which can tip over weed tops while at the same time stack water into the bay, creating a zone of fishable water over the weeds where none existed before. Now you can fish for muskies that may not have seen a lure since the weeds grew too thick weeks before.
Prolonged wind in a certain direction can even create a special situation in open water areas by stacking plankton to the windward side. Suspended baitfish such as ciscoes and gizzard shad will follow the plankton and become concentrated on the windy side. Of course, muskies will be right there with them.
Since moving water will move your boat, you need to counteract this movement by properly positioning your boat to make the most casts in the best locations.
In my book there is no such thing as a “perfect drift” or a “good drift,” because leaving your boat control to the vagaries of water movement just isn’t good enough. Good boat control requires a lot of hard work, especially in stronger wind or current.
I usually start down-wind or down-current and use my trolling motor to slowly pull my boat into the water flow, which allows for more precise location. Eventually, as you fish around the front of the structure, you’ll need to turn broadside to the wind or current and drift slightly, but use the trolling motor to slow your boat’s movement to place more casts where they need to be.
Efficient boat control also requires practice, but there are a few things you should consider to make your job easier:
• Fiberglass boats are much easier to control in wind than aluminum because the hulls can be molded to place more of the keel beneath the water’s surface. Aluminum boats may weigh the same, but because their hulls can only be bent so much they tend to sit higher on the water and catch more wind. Some boats have their gas tanks and battery storage beneath the floor to further lower the boat’s center of gravity and make them less affected by wind.
• Always buy the most powerful 24- or 36-volt trolling motor you can afford, and rig it with 31-series batteries so you’ll have plenty of power to last all day.
• If you’ll be in heavy wind or current, fill your boat’s gas tank at the start of the day. The extra weight will make a noticeable difference.
• When you stop to fish a spot, make sure your outboard’s skeg is straight. If it’s turned left or right, your boat will constantly be fighting against your efforts on the trolling motor. Fishing in wind or current can be a lot of work, but it’s the best way I know to make musky fishing easier.
I firmly believe the most active muskies will be right there with their noses in the flowing water, and contacting more active muskies usually results in more caught. Make the effort to fish in wind and current this season and you’ll quickly find out why I go with the flow.
Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine.
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