Those “Blooming” Muskies

Late summer/early fall fishing means a lot of things for a lot of people. For everyone, it’s the end of summer. For fishermen and women, no matter what their target species, it means changing patterns in their fishing if they wish to remain effective… leading the way to a period of consistent transition into the winter months. For many it also means “soup”. Not Chicken Noodle or Extra Chunky Beef either. No, this is the Pea Soup variety. The kind that allows you to draw in the water with your rod tip, and that will give away the exact path of retrieves, and that will crawl up fishing lines to revolving spools, leaving “green racing stripes” on white fishing shirts.

It’s called algae bloom. Algae are essentially aquatic organisms, growing in all of our natural bodies of water from the smallest to the largest. Collectively known as phytoplankton, they are photosynthetic plants that live and die. While living, they produce oxygen and when they die the bacterial process robs oxygen from the water. Algae are present in all waters, but certainly in varying degrees. While in many waters algae are barely noticeable, heavy algae blooms are impossible to ignore on others. Pollution makes for more algae as well.

On most waters, bloom starts becoming noticeable in mid-summer when water temps reach their highest levels. Its effects seem most noticeable during the late summer/early fall period when the stuff peaks, then dies and starts to build up on the surface. Considering its propensity for hanging on the surface after death, its location is even more directly affected by wind and wave action than ever.

Prolonged periods of wind will cause it to build-up on the windward side of lakes and reservoirs, especially in bays and neck-down areas. When this occurs, build-up can be substantial, creating the “pea soup” effect. If the waters suddenly go calm, the stuff can be several inches thick and would appear to the “first-time” boater/shoreline walker to be impenetrable (but don’t get out and walk on it).

Of course, algae is a factor in fishing whenever present, and especially where it is heavy. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? It’s both, actually. Muskie guide and Esox Angler Magazine contributor, Bruce Shumway says he likes the green stuff, while Dick Pearson, also an Esox Angler contributor and the master of many Ontario muskie waters – says he runs from it. So that should tell us that it can provide advantages and disadvantages at times. It all depends on the scenario. I haven’t all the answers to why, but years of dealing with algae bloom on the water has certainly taught me what to expect from algae in certain scenarios. And what types of tactics work best in dealing with it. Let’s take a look at algae bloom and muskie fishing.

As a good general rule, algae bloom is not much of a factor on deep, clear waters, but is often a big factor on more stained fertile lakes and reservoirs. Naturally, when pollutants are added to the equation in the case of fertile waters, algae bloom becomes substantial. In the case of clearer waters with little algae bloom, the effects of algae on fishing is nothing but good, helping to diffuse sunlight penetration-making fish a little less wary and easier to fool.

This is also true of the more fertile waters with substantial bloom, especially when algae is in the initial stages, since it’s producing oxygen as well. But, what happens later in the season when the bloom peaks, and dead algae builds up on the surface, lowering oxygen levels. Basically, this is the time to avoid heavy bloom areas if possible. Wave action plays a big part in this equation as well.

Bloom Fishing Basics

Learn to play the “bloom game” then, following these basics. When algae is healthy and scattered it is best to actually seek it out, especially when wind has been pushing it in the same direction for several days. Wave action and algae can make for great fishing conditions. Extended wave action in the same area normally promotes a good feeding situation for muskies in itself, concentrating the food source. Add in scattered algae with the waves, further breaking up sunlight penetration and active predators may become a little more susceptible. And these conditions also usually mean the food source is shallow. Don’t just consider “edge fishing” in this scenario. Check out the shallow flats on prime structures and right up to the shore if this is the case. Muskie can often be found in as little as two feet of water (or even less). Many times people aren’t finding the fish simply because they aren’t going shallow enough.

Heavy bloom can even be effectively fished, but usually there is a limit and especially when it starts to stack-up on the surface (more later). Usually, a heavier, “healthy” bloom will provide very good fishing under sunny conditions. Keep this in mind if there are several waters available in the area if you are mobile. You will likely be much better off on a stained water system with a bloom under clear, midday conditions than on a clear-water system.

Keep in mind also, that on all systems, usually by the time the bloom is in its peak/die-off period, it is late summer/early fall. This late summer season consistently shows shallower movement and feeding by most predators, and certainly muskie are included. They also seem to suspend higher when feeding in deeper ranges as well. Open water fish may be as little as ten feet down or just under the surface. More than any other time period and scenario, “bloom time” is the most common time for muskies to actually give away their locale and the fact that they are feeding by blowing water around when attacking… keep your eyes open.

Then again, when a guy who’s caught as many muskies as Dick Pearson says he doesn’t like the stuff-that he runs from it – there’s good reason to pay attention. It’s certainly true that Canadian waters and their muskies can show differing patterns in similar scenarios when compared to smaller waters in the states. Dick says that on the waters he often fishes (like Lake of the Woods) he really doesn’t care for “heavy” bloom situations. And he will avoid fishing on waters where heavy bloom is present. So, it is best to avoid the thick stuff if possible, by simply fishing somewhere else, or concentrating on lake areas with the least amount of bloom build-up.

Tactics for Fishing Bloom

Let’s look at a couple of different scenarios here. First of all, we’ll talk about a moderate bloom situation. On a lake with a moderate stain and bloom, we’ll say the visibility level is at 7 or 8 feet in bright conditions and at about 3 or 4 in darker conditions. Realistically, all presentations may be effective here. Muskie may be active in deeper water and on deeper structures, but generally I’ll try to stick to shallower presentations, choosing lures that will run “in the visibility range” – even in deeper or open water.

And keeping in mind that anything is possible, and that nothing should be ruled out, I’ll tell you that (under such conditions) I’ve taken minimal numbers of fish at a level deeper than 15 feet, even in very deep water systems. Generally I try to run above structure, whatever type it may be, and keep the lures above the fish.

There is one exception: that being medium depth sand or rock humps, especially rock. I’ll concentrate on such structures (and generally smaller bars that are near other bigger structures or shoreline areas are best), that top-off a few feet “below” the visibility range, say 2 to 7 feet below. And generally, it will be very important to choose a presentation that will “contact the bottom.” Good choices are deep-diving crankbaits that will get down quick and handle bottom contact like Musky Mania’s “Ernie” diver. Also good, are heavy spinnerbaits with lots of thump. Dick Pearson’s Grinder will work well, slow-rolled or with a pull/pause retrieve.

When it comes to lure choice, “noise” and “visibility” is a big factor. When bloom is present, baits with rattles definitely produce more responses, while larger, high-vibration blades seem to produce well with spinners. Baits that are more visible get the nod; in most cases I choose larger baits at this time. When the bloom is moderate though, muskie may still show a preference for smaller baits if they make noise.

Originally, I tried to steer towards obnoxious, fluorescent colors in a bloom, thinking they would be easier for muskie to see, but have since found that most of the time, “basic black” is hard to beat (the first thing out of Bruce Shumway’s mouth when asked about bloom was: black. I nodded). My second choice is white or pearl. I’ve found that the basics seem to work best under brighter conditions, and that if the bright (gaudy) stuff is working, it’s generally cloudy.

This is generally a great time for surface lures. Again, generally the noisier types work best, and normally when there is some wave action, even when whitecaps are present. The rougher the water, the louder the lure. Bulging (just under the surface, actually pushing water) spinners is another very effective tactic in shallower ranges.

When it comes to retrieves and retrieve speeds, anything has potential, but generally faster retrieves will work the best. Often, “burning” spinners back to the boat is effective. Very erratic action on jerkbaits and crankbaits seem to work well too. A mediocre retrieve may produce nothing, while faster erratic movement will excite fish. Remember that water temps are generally still quite high at this time, so fishs’ metabolisms are as well. Keep an open mind though, considering different retrieves and speed until patterns are noted.

Now lets say it’s a little later in the season and the water is stained and the bloom is substantial and/or starting to bunch up on the surface. The visibility varies depending on where you are at on the lake, but is generally only 1 to 4 feet in bright conditions and almost nonexistent in darker conditions. Now things are probably going to be tougher, and effective presentations will be more predictable. Nearly all of the time, areas where the bloom is the heaviest, and especially where layered on the surface – will be great areas to avoid. If you haven’t been out previously, a quick spin around the lake will quickly show that concentrations of bloom vary – and where there are transitions of change – and what areas are the heaviest.

In a reduced-visibility situation, it is normally better to slow presentations down – yet be as noisy as possible. Choose lures to accomplish this. Again, generally I will concentrate on the upper level of the water column. Big spinnerbaits are a great choice, something with big blades that work well slow, providing lots of “thump” and lift, allowing a slower retrieve and the ability to fish shallow as well. “Bulging” spinners is very effective here as well. Big Indiana and Colorado blades are normally required to provide the necessary “lift” without a fast retrieve.

Surface lures still work very well were bloom is scattered. Prop-type baits that work best with faster retrieves are usually poor. The baits with a revolving rear blade on the back section like the Tallywacker, Pacemaker or Holcomb’s Stomper and Low Rider. A steady, deeper, plop-plop sound works.

Crankbaits and the jerks will work well too, but again, slower is better. And the rattles are very important here, and I’ve found rattles with a deeper sound to be better. Larger jointed cranks can be the ticket, like Drifter’s Believer, or the new large jointed Stalker or Super Stalker. Erratic action is normally very good, so twitch those crankbaits too. Always accentuate those pauses, baits that “hang” on the pause or rise slowly work best. I’ve had good luck allowing “slow-risers” to actually settle on the surface a few times during the retrieve.

Fast retrieves should be tried if nothing else is working, but normally slow is best with all lure types in heavy bloom. Follow the same general rules in color selection mentioned for moderate bloom. Black is a definite leader here, while fluorescents fall last on my list. While I’m a big preacher of versatility, it’s pretty hard to pull me away from black or white in heavy bloom. No fancy scale patterns needed here.

Patterning Fish

Bloom can be a good thing to a point. One thing is definitely good “all-the-time” about bloom if you are stuck fishing it. It is a helpful tool in patterning fish. Very seldom, does a water with substantial bloom have consistent densities of bloom throughout. Therefore, this is a patterning tool. Following the basic guidelines for fishing in bloom, try all of the options. As soon as any activity is encountered, take note of the level of bloom and the situation (it may be wind, sun, shade, ect.), and then seek the other areas of the water you are on that are most similar.

Bloom often concentrates the active fish. I’m not certain exactly why at times, but I have found distinct “level of bloom” patterns. And for some reason, these areas will have concentrated the forage base, and of course active predators. Something about it is just “right,” while other areas seem basically devoid of life.

One of the best days I’ve ever had was on a lake with a fairly heavy bloom in early September. The wind was about 5 to 10 miles an hour from the west. The eastern shore had a build-up of algae some distance from shore, but a distinct edge to it; beyond the edge the algae was light-to-moderate, and scattered. Wherever this edge occurred over some type of shallower structure (mostly weeds), it was a red hot feeding zone. And the muskie were absolutely wild for black jerkbaits. Once I noted the pattern, we had consistent action for the remainder of the day. So remember to try to use the algae as a locational tool.

Conclusion

So algae can be good – and it can be bad – even very bad. Certainly, common sense tells us that we should be able to contact some fish in a situation where heavy bloom is present… fish simply can’t stop eating throughout a heavy bloom. Definitely avoid “pea soup” areas that have extremely heavy surface build-up. Other than that, keep an open mind and you should be able to not only find a few active fish, but possibly even pattern the active fish better. Even extraordinary days are not out of the question.

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