Pieces of the Big Musky Puzzle
By Steve Heiting
September 10, 1998, will forever stand out in my memory as well as my musky catch records. I hope to experience another day like it, but I doubt that I’ll ever enjoy such a great day again.
On that day my buddy, Kevin Schmidt, and I caught 16 muskies ranging in size from 34 to 45 1/2 inches in length. Eight of these fish were over 40 inches, and another two were just shy at 39 1/2 inches. It was the kind of day every musky hunter dreams of experiencing, yet few do.
In the years since I’ve tried to understand what went right that day in an attempt to duplicate the success. Sure, the muskies were hot and we didn’t see another boat containing musky anglers all day, so we were able to take full advantage of the feeding spree. But what set the fish off?
Warm, windy conditions were a part of it, but our observations of the conditions failed to reveal any “smoking gun.” The only thing that did stand out was the action occurred during a last quarter moon, the period that occurs between the full moon and new moon periods.
An event like this certainly flies in the face of the records of Joe Bucher, whose detailed catch data of more than 2,000 muskies led to the creation of Joe Bucher’s Moon Secrets, which appear in every issue of Musky Hunter . Joe’s records indicate that the best musky times occur during the full and new moon periods, and the effectiveness of the first and last quarter moon periods was considerably less. Joe once told me his moon charts are even more effective when targeting larger muskies, those measuring 40 inches or longer.
So, what gives? Was September 10 an anomaly, something unlikely to be repeated anytime soon? At the time I wasn’t sure what to believe, but I decided to pay more attention to the “lesser” moon periods. Five years later, my own records indicate that the last quarter moon period has been given a bum steer, and that the first quarter moon period, for lack of a better term, sucks. While my sample of muskies considered for this statement is but a fraction of Joe’s data base, the last quarter moon period is a time for musky fishing you should consider when planning trips.
First, I tallied all the muskies measuring 40 inches or longer in my boat from 1998 through 2002, then broke them out according to moon period. Then I threw out the eight 40-inchers caught on September 10, 1998, so those fish didn’t skew the results. With four moon periods per month, obviously an “average” moon period should account for 25 percent of the 40-inch and better muskies in my boat during the past five years.
The full moon period produced the most muskies in my sample and accounted for 34.7 percent of my total of fish over 40 inches. Next up was the last quarter moon, with 33.3 percent, new moon at 22.7 percent, and first quarter moon at 9.3 percent.
Are these totals skewed by my having scheduled fishing trips to prime big fish waters around full and new moons? Yes and no. I spend two to three weeks in Canada each season, but two of those weeks are locked into the same week of the year, regardless of moon period. Other trips, regardless of destination, were often scheduled to coincide with the full or new moon.
Why is the last quarter moon a prime time, at least in my experience? I really don’t know, but it is curious to note that some full-time guides on famous waters in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada have told me they can tell when a prime moon period occurs by the amount of fishing pressure they see. Has fishing pressure conditioned big muskies to feed more regularly during what formerly were non-prime times? I can’t say for sure, but it is interesting conjecture.
I must admit that in 2001 I started scheduling trips around last quarter moons. The pinnacle occurred in September of that year when Jim Saric and I boated four quality fish during a filming session booked during a last quarter moon. These fish were topped by a 51-incher, and added high quality footage to my first video.
Targeting the last quarter moon is one of six ideas that may yield the final piece of your musky fishing puzzle. Individually, none of these have yielded enough data to warrant full-blown articles in Musky Hunter, but one or several of these may fit in the coming season.
TOPWATERS IN THE DAYTIME
There are a lot of myths regarding topwaters, and among these are the beliefs that topwaters should only be fished in calm conditions and during periods of low light. We’ve discussed using topwaters in the wind numerous times in Musky Hunter, but their use during the day is new stuff.
Anytime and anywhere you encounter shallow-holding muskies, a topwater is another presentation to cast at them. And during the last few years I’ve come to the belief that if you’re fishing a dark water system and the muskies are shallow, you may actually be costing yourself fish by not having one person using a topwater at all times. This presentation typically requires strong faith on behalf of the user, because he/she will not likely be seeing many follows. The muskies they do see, however, will likely be chewing on their lure.
Need proof? Combining the results of the 2001 and 2002 University of Esox musky schools at Monument Bay Lodge on Lake of the Woods’ Northwest Angle, there were 232 muskies caught with 52 coming on topwaters. Of these, 23 (44 percent) were caught before 4:30 p.m., including muskies measuring 50, 48, 46 and 44 inches. Considering that more topwaters are likely being used by students and U of E staff during the evening than day, the figure is more startling.
I am a firm believer that if you fish wind-blown structure, you will catch more muskies. Typically the most active fish will be positioned on the windward side of structure, and if you stay in the wind you will thus contact more active fish and likely catch more. I believe in this so strongly that I have given entire seminars on the subject.
Occasionally, however, you will encounter situations in which a stiff wind has blown for several days, followed by a day in which the wind undergoes a major directional shift, in some cases 180 degrees. Suddenly, the newly-windblown stuff isn’t holding active fish. In these cases, it pays to check the areas where the wind was blowing the day before, or as some call it, “yesterday’s wind.” If there is a constant to this pattern, it’s that the best chance to find a “yesterday’s wind” musky is relatively early the second day, before the fish have moved on.
I’ve boated numerous muskies following this pattern, but during each of the last two seasons this pattern has yielded a hawg. While fishing on a northwestern Wisconsin lake in November 2001, Kevin Schmidt and I made a trolling pass over glass calm water outside a weedline that had been wind-buffeted for several days. A 9-inch Grandma dragged through thick cisco schools suspended off the weed edge turned up what we called the “Gilbert Brown Musky,” a 48 1/2-inch beast with a cisco-bloated 24-inch girth.
Last October, early on the first day of our annual week-long trip to Andy Myer’s Lodge on Eagle Lake, Ontario, I stuck a 30-pound fish on a Shallow Bull Dawg cast to an island shoreline that had been heavily slapped by wind the day before. The wind had switched completely from north to south overnight, and the musky was caught off the island’s northern edge.
You’ve just bought a new fishfinder boasting 3,000 watts peak-to-peak power and the thing bangs away at the bottom, showing you fish and bottom contours like you’ve never before experienced. Is this a good thing?
While there’s nothing more than anecdotal evidence that muskies can be conditioned to high-powered electronics and trolling motors, I can recall a trip to Andy Myer’s Lodge a couple years ago when the success of a group of four guys was the talk of the camp. The guys pretty much kept to themselves, but as the week progressed each ended up catching a big fish with three exceeding 50 inches.
Camp owner and Musky Hunter Field Editor Steve Herbeck paid a visit to their cabin one evening and learned what he had suspected ” that they had positioned their boat well upwind of the structure they intended to fish, turned off the fishfinder, and drifted to the structure. This practice falls in line with what a handful of northern Wisconsin musky guides still practice, in that they position their boats with oars in the belief that a trolling motor may spook a big fish. While I can’t even begin to think about rowing my Ranger and have to rely on the trolling motor, I have found myself almost regularly shutting off both fishfinders while casting to familiar structure. I can’t say for certain that I’ve caught more muskies because of this practice, but it probably does help and certainly can’t hurt.
Thunder on the horizon is music to a musky’s ears, and an approaching black line of clouds can often trigger a big musky provided the storm is devoid of lightning and it’s safe to remain on the water. But take a look at your fish photos sometime and take note of how many muskies were caught under the heavy, dark overcast of a storm, or under the “white” sky that is an indicator of an approaching storm. Usually on such days the air pressure will be moving downward or “bouncing” up and down.
After you’ve given your photos a thorough examination, I’ll bet you’ll soon be like me ” you can’t wait to fish in white sky conditions again. There’s not anything more to add here outside of what your photos are likely telling you. White skies are a condition in which to fish fast and fish hard.
For years I’ve scouted a reservoir near my home whenever the water was low, looking for gravel, boulders, trees and stumps that may hold walleyes later during periods of high or normal water levels. With what would later be fishable structure high and dry, this practice enables me to see first-hand what existed beneath the surface and helped me boat thousands of walleyes over the years. When I extended this practice to musky fishing, I found that my knowledge and ability to analyze situations skyrocketed.
With lake map in hand, I slowly boat along the shoreline of the lake and write or draw in the potential fish-holding features I find. You can also take photographs of exposed structure, or videotape it for later review. Doing so helps me visualize the spot-on-the-spot, and has helped me understand why certain areas hold fish more often than others, and why some hold bigger fish than others. Last year I spent a day scouting a drawn-down reservoir I’d never before seen, and though I didn’t get to fish it until two months later my markings on my lake map showed me exactly where to go. I boated three muskies that day, including a 30-pounder, largely thanks to the scouting effort.
Whether you call them reservoirs or flowages, and they were created for flood control, hydroelectric power or recreation, this tactic can be used to your advantage. All you need is an occasional drawdown, a lake map, and the initiative to spend a day just looking around and taking notes.
If the puzzle you’re working on will feature a picture of you with a big fish when completed, one or all of these tips could be the final piece you’re looking for.
Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine.
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