Muskies are never easy. We hear all kinds of things about what makes them tough to catchÂ – and one of them is warm water, dog day summer conditions. But actually, in many ways, summer is my favorite time of year for muskies. It’s often feast or famine; there are so many things to try; it can be very high speed; it’s always challenging and fun. And if they’re not bitin’ you can always go swimmin’. Allow me to offer a quick 6-pack of solutions that often work for myself and others. To get to six, we’ll look at presentations that just might be something new to muskies’ eyes.
Part of the general problem with summer is simply traffic. It’s both angling effort and recreational. While the recreational is actually more aggravating to deal with, it is in reality – far less of a factor with regard to angling success than specific muskie angling pressure. Even though night fishing for muskies is nothing new, by far, most of the effort exerted on muskies and prime structures is in daylight hours. During the summer, and especially so on the busier lakes, this is a great way to target muskies and is often much more effective and certainly quieter.
With pressure, eventually some muskies get trained to just avoid prime, shallow structural elements in daylight – with the possible exception of excitable weather conditions and a flexing barometer. In steadier weather, they learn they have far fewer bad experiences after dark – and they can’t see as well. These things work in the angler’s favor.
This isn’t rocket science. If there is a misconception about night fishing – it’s certainly in how to go about it. Many will say topwaters only; or maybe bucktails and slow-moving cranks. Nothing changes really, other than the fact that it will be varying degrees of dark, and headlamps will be needed and spotlights appreciated. Muskies see better than most realize and are pretty efficient night feeders. Any lure types will work, even jerk baits. Trolling will work and not just at a crawl – they will react to fast-moving baits too.
Simply seek out the primer structures on the water. These are the ones that are receiving pressure during the day. And there’s a reason they are, as they are good spots. In summer, they are generally much better after dark.
This is a big factor any time of year; I should say it can be. Of course there are many variables, an obvious one being lake size and whether or not wind is blowing. If it’s blowing little, it’s not a factor on any lake. But like fishing after dark, for those willing to put in a little extra effort and to know when it can really work for them, sustained wind and the wave action and the current it creates – can aide anglers.
Basically, when wind is sustained from one direction for a period of time, it can create a two-fold advantageous situation. First, the longer it continues from the same direction, the more it tends to stack up life on the windward shores and sides of mid lake structures. It will generally bring fish up a little shallower. Wave action creates a bit of chaos and reduces visibility somewhat. It can knock potential prey around a little bit – making them just a little easier to catch. I suspect this is the reason predators often go shallow in larger waves – as this is where they know the prey will be affected. Reduced visibility just seems to make them more apt to make mistakes.
So, wind can create a situation that makes daytime fishing more effective (and frankly, nighttime fishing tougher). And like darkness, wave action tends to reduce both recreational and angler effort. Of course, reduced angling pressure on windy spots may be the biggest factor. Regardless, it can work.
Because wind “effects” have been touted heavily by some – many people blindly race to the windy side of the lake, or only fish the windy side of a structure or island. They are expecting “stacked” fish because they are fishing the windy side. Understand that the “effects” take time. If it has been calm for several days and wind starts, the wave action means nothing other than a little chaos and surface disturbance. Let’s say the wind had been blowing for several days from the same direction… calm period… wind shift. Now, running to the windy side is likely a mistake. At least for a period of time, as the positive locational effects of the previous sustained wind don’t immediately dissipate.
So, use wind and wave action with a little thought. Keep those simple basics in mind; consider it more of a potential patterning tool, rather than an absolute (fish the windy side). Boat control in waves is definitely tougher, and can even be dangerous. But if a boat is rigged properly, with a little experience fishing in waves; this ability to fish in them can give you an advantage over other anglers who can’t or won’t.
Fishing the “open water” or basically the middle of the lake (in many cases) for suspended summer muskies can be very effective. Like fishing after dark and fishing in big waves, there is little direct pressure (note a recurring theme here?) on these fish. Muskies will generally be living in the top 1/3 of the water column now (smaller pie to slice). While these fish can be spread out – and in the case of larger waters there’s a lot of area to search – in many cases they’re not so spread out.
Their only structure, really, is their food. Finding roaming, not-hungry esox does no good. Hungry fish will be by food. Open water forage very often groups up; more often than not, in fact. So find the forage fish. This can be done with electronics and your eyes. Often, birds like gulls, loons and cormorants will give away the presence of forage fish. And often groups of forage show up on electronics. Concentrate, if possible, on the edges of bunched up forage, because that’s where predators will concentrate. Look for food and then fish around it.
Trolling is very effective for this and overall, most effective. But predators will bunch up in these areas – the majority of predators may be in a pretty small percentage of space. So, once fish are found, casting can be very effective too. When trolling, it’s a big oversight – to just continue on down the lake after a fish hits. Rather, mark the spot and concentrate in that area for some time, as often there will be several fish to be had.
Good friends Dick Pearson and Dan Craven both said it first (to my ears anyway): “The surface is an edge.” Big thing to keep in mind for summer muskies – and they are especially susceptible in the warm water period. Topwater presentations are overall underutilized, and especially so
in the waves discussed. There is no such thing as waves too big for a surface lure to be effective in attracting potential strikes, as long as the lure will ride the waves. In fact, when muskies find topwaters in bigger waves, they almost never mess around by following. They just strike. Many folks think of topwaters as calm-water-only presentations; and they do work in calm conditions. But I almost think the opposite these days (especially during the day).
The edge: predators learn that pushing prey against an edge can work. Prey often runs away – up! Once prey hits the surface, its ability to continue “up” is gone… as muskies get bigger they continue to learn that they often “close the deal” when the elevator hits the top floor.
In the warmer waters of summer, often something that will trigger… may turn a very lazy follow suddenly aggressive, or turn quiet trolling reels into noisy ones – is speed. Like anything, it’s not always what the fish want, but very often muskie anglers simply aren’t going fast enough to trigger reactions from muskies. The idea is simply to make them (muskies) think they’ll have no choice if they don’t react now. Those who regularly cast for muskies know of their propensity to follow with a snobby look in their eye.
Speed takes away their ability to calmly watch, knowing they can catch the prey if they choose. Faster retrieves will often trigger right on the spot, especially with fish hiding in structure; and I have seen it many times with my own eyes where a speed up with a following fish – suddenly makes it lunge and strike.
Another method that produces fish in the summer months is speed trolling. And often, fairly short-line speed trolling – and often in very shallow ranges. Muskies are not at all afraid of boats or motors, especially something moving steadily. Trolling crankbaits or spinnerbaits at higher speeds of 4.5 to 7 mph can be very effective.
The realm of lures is ever-expanding, and especially-so on heavily pressured waters (and summer is nearly always the busiest for fishing too), this is a good thing for muskie anglers. No one knows for certain as to whether or not muskies think at all, or just react eventually to negative experiences – to not repeat them, but there is no doubt that fish learn to avoid certain things after a while. But, show them something they haven’t seen – that looks like something pretty good to eat and easy to catch – and the attitude is much more positive. I’ve had a lot of luck the last few years with Sebile’s lures; truly some innovative and different designs in a variety of lures. The Stick Shadd and Bonga Jerk incorporate rudders and weighting systems that offer very different actions. Swimbaits like the Magic Swimmer are something quite new to muskies. When it comes to soft plastics, there’s all kinds of new stuff on the market these days; different sizes, colors and with unique-looking tails (often numbers-of) – that definitely look like something new, that’s easy to grab. When things are tough, it’s tough to beat the soft plastics.
Understand that old can be new too. Be aware of watching the trends – what others are using, and when fish aren’t showing, try something different. With all of these new lures coming out, and folks quickly reacting to what the hot lure(s) is on the internet, sometime the newest thing may be an old reliable that caught lots of fish in the past, but got booted out of the tackle box or was just forgotten; odds are the fish forgot too.