By Tony Grant & Gregg Thomas
With as much excitement as the NCAA tournament brings to college basketball enthusiast, a madness of another type takes place in the coves and hollows of Kentucky’s Cave Run and Green River Lakes. Muskies in the “Bluegrass State” are in their prime by tournament time and in full swing by the Final Four. Even though this March Madness may appear in other southern reservoirs it seems Kentucky is always the most thrilling host site.
Craziness fills the mountain air as an amazingly increasing number of anglers attack the shallow waters. As bass style and traditional muskie fishing technquies produces hundreds and hundreds of memorable photos for the seasoned and novice muskie anglers on Cave Run and Green River Lakes. Each year more and more muskie enthusiasts are jump starting there season and finding early season triumph on both these great bodies of water. Increasingly popular events like the Kentucky Chapter of Muskies Inc.’s Cabin Fever Challunge have backed up its annual tournament dates as the earlier season has become even more productive over the last several years. More than any other time of the year it’s a madness that seems to linger with muskie fisherman that explodes into overtime during this special season. Let’s take a closer look at these two early season hot spots and what it takes to be successful during March Madness.
As the cool southern air begins to warm, just off the mountain shorelines in late February muskie fishing kicks off in a big way over the flats and bays of Cave Run Lake. Then as the daffodils begin to bloom action is starting to peak, igniting a rattle bait bite that commonly produces multiple fish days for many anglers. Early season muskie fishing on southern reservoirs is no secret to the readers of Muskie Hunter Magazine, however over the last several years things have changed in a “BIG” way down south. No longer are the numerous stories of days landing an abundant amount of pre-spawn 3 footers before the snow melts up north the topic of anglers at muskie clubs and shows. The Cave in the last couple of years has produced numerous true early season giants and most of these fish being taken with a somewhat bass-style approach. In 2004 three fish taken with this method probably neared or topped the 40lb mark. Over the past several years our downsizing technique has been expanded to an increasing number of muskie, anglers, these anglers now are showing how a pre spawn bass style rattle bait presentation can capture not only an awesome number of muskies but many trophies too. During this past season an unbelievable number of fish over 45 inches were taken by those who started their muskie pursuit earlier. Plus, an even more amazing figure is at least 12 confirmed fish over 50 inches where caught before the PMTT kicked off its record setting 2004 season at Cave Run.
Last year at Mountain Muskie Lodge alone, guides, clients and guest landed over 245 muskies during a 7 week period from late February till the spawn kicked in during mid April. PMTT front runner and Kentucky Mountain Muskie guide Scott Salchli not only landed a beautiful March 51 incher, but also managed just shy of 100 muskies in his boat while guiding only weekends during March Madness over the past two springs. In my Ranger we averaged over 12 muskies per week with eleven being 44 inches or better in that short period, a record breaking year for my clients and myself for both size and numbers with a big bellied 49 incher topping the list.
In 2003 a five day period produced 67 fish for just over a dozen muskiefirst.com members, during their annual outing on the Cave, my good friend and boat partner Mike Hulbert lead the way with 13 fish to his credit to take top honors in the event. That same 7 day period produced 23 legal fish for my clients and I, with rattle baits accounting for all but two. Another early March day that TNT Triklops manufacture Dave Lutz will not soon forget when he personally boated 7 muskies burning 1oz. Rattlin’ Shads across the cool 47 degree shallow flats. Tournament action has produced some giants as well, 2003’s Cabin Fever Challunge and 2004’s MuskieFirst.com Outing produced muskies over 50 inches. In fact these muskies are so much on the feed at this time of year Roger Bullard & Justin Diller landed the same 40lb. fish on back to back March mornings.
It’s somewhat uncomplicated fishing during this early season on Cave Run, this is another one of the reasons the Cave has become so attractive to both the first time and the veteran anglers. At this time of year southern muskies on the Cave can be found very shallow, their pre-spawn mood leaves them gorging on threadfin shad that are too searching out warmer water. Our most popular technique is fan casting Rat-L-Traps or Rattlin’Shads in 3/4oz. and 1oz. models across shallow flats and in the backs of coves as the muskies aggressively chasing shad throughout those areas. Casting very shallow with a non-stop retrieve is key. Also, returning to those spots throughout the day as the muskies are constantly moving in and out of these areas is important. Start by carefully searching out any flat that you can find. Most of which will certainly hold a fish.
If truth be told some of the smallest overlooked flats seem to hold some true giants. Yet another outstanding but completely different tactic as our water rise towards summer pool is presenting a buoyant jerkbait like the Sledge very tight to shore on shallow points and flats. Targeting gradual tapering shorelines leading in and out of our bays can be very productive during this early season. In fact bright colored Sledge’s have accounted for hundreds of fish during March Madness on Kentucky’s southern reservoirs.
More and more each year Cave Run’s outstanding pre-spawn bite produces an awesome number of early season trophies. Try some of the above mentioned tactics and you too can get in on the Caves March Madness.
Green River Lake, Kentucky is not synonymous with musky fishing in the south. It has always been the middle child being over shadowed by more popular lakes like Cave Run Lake, KY and Kinkaid Lake, IL. But this lesser known lake as proven to be a southern hot spot for those few who are willing to come and fish this 8300-acre impoundment. I will say this lake does have the unique ability to be a very productive fishery early in the season. Much like what Tony explained in the article above the appeal early season fishing applies to both Cave Run and Green River Lakes. Tony has already given an overview of Cave Run so I will give you my thoughts on Green River.
On any given day in March and April, “Green” is usually 2 to 3 degree warmer than Cave Run. This is due to basic composition to the lake. Green River consists of mainly sand, gravel and rock areas that warm faster due to the solar heat mix in the murky spring water. Combine these two factors and you have a fishery that screams early season.
March Madness is definitely a fitting term for a fishery that has produced several fish in excess of 30lbs. before May 1st. I start fishing Green River hard during the months of March and April where my clients and myself have averaged just over 70 legal fish (30″ or larger) during this short 50-day period. Granted some days we are skunked and some days we have caught as many as nine fish, this has proven to be a great fishery.
The reason Green River has been so productive is it over abundance of shad. The population of Gizzard and Thread Fin shad in this system is unbelievable. During this early season southern anglers are faced with a situation that many of the northern fishermen don’t have to deal with. The pre-spawn period is only available in the south. Fishing these southern reservoirs where stocking is important, little is relied on natural reproduction. During this pre-spawn period a majority of the fish are at their top weight. Much like the late fall feed that is so famous in the northern lakes the fish in the south are chasing the shad which are a spring spawning bait fish up onto the shallow sand and gravel flats. The reason for this migration is due to the fact that shad have temperature related movements. They are looking for the warmest water possible and on many occasions this is a result of solar heat. In the spring water temperature is the driving force as to where the baitfish are located.
It is this movement that usually ignites a feeding spree like no other. I know that in Tony’s explanation on Cave Run he has given you through knowledge of the great casting options that exist in these fisheries. What I want to discuss is the superior trolling efforts that help me put fish in the boat. These trolling techniques, which are not solely limited to Green River, have helped my customer and others boat some very impressive fish. I don’t want to pigeon hole myself into being only a “Troller” in the early season. The casting bite of rattle baits and other lure has produced well, but I have found that trolling does allow me to effectively cover the water better.
This trolling approach is simple. The fish in the spring are chasing the shad up on the shallow flats (under 10 feet) where they are an easy target. During the spring you are dealing with stained water so the boat has little to do with how the fish react. This short line trolling method consists of using six lines and variety of baits. The front two lines are my longest being 15 to 30 feet back with some type of shallow diving crank baits. My choice is usually Wiley’s Musky Kings, Stalkers, or Rattlin’ Shads. The second set of rods are my deeper dives that I keep on the shortest lines. I am able to run deep diving baits because on short line these baits are limited to how deep they can dive. Examples would be Lil’ Ernie’s, G&M Shads, and Wiley’s Fat Body. All these work great on short line. The last lines are set in the back as prop rods. I usually let the other four rods tell me what to use, if the long lines are working I will put out two long lines. The same if the short lines are getting hit. Then all that is left is finding the flats and areas where the bait and the fish are.
This trolling set up has helped me boat several fish. This same technique has given me runs of up to 9 fish in a day, and an incredible 70 fish in 14 day streak. All of which took place on Green River in the spring. This same technique also played a big part in the Kentucky Chapter of Muskies Inc. annual Cabin Fever Challunge tournament. It has helped them boast an over 50% catch rate on Green River when the tournament is held there in the spring.
Given the information of both fisheries one has to think coming south in the spring would a logical choice for any frost bitten musky fisherman. Knowing the muskie community is on the rise these early season opportunities can lead this sport to the next level. So as the NCAA starts its March Madness on you begin your own with a trip south. This could be the excitement that you need to jump start your season.