By Tony Grant
Long before the northern lakes start the thawing progress many southern and visiting northern musky anglers alike have already spent many days on the water pursuing their passion for muskie fishing down south. Southern reservoirs offer a unique season for muskies that few fisheries have to offer, pre-spawn musky fishing. With minimum reproduction stocking programs have become the stronghold for the southern range muskies future, these waters face NO closed seasons. States like Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky all offer this exceptional early season for the King of Freshwater on many different man-made reservoirs.
First off all muskie anglers don’t have the same definition of the term pre-spawn. The period can be loosely thought of as the patterns that begin with the emerging signs of spring. These include longer days and consequently longer periods of the warming rays of the sun for greater impact on water temperatures. Threadfin and Gizzard shad are the main diet for the southern range muskie; as the water shows signs of warming the shad and muskies make the same quest for warmer shallow water. Over the colder winter months muskies have followed the schools of shad into what are generally their deeper haunts during cold-water periods. You can locate baitfish in this situation by simply reading a good depth finder and soon discover the level the shad are holding at in cold weather and then follow that movement to its shallow water destination.
They may be locked on the bottom or actually on warmer days be somewhat more stratified into shallower layers but will usually still be near deeper water. Muskies locate really small microhabitats where they feed opportunistically as schools of baitfish pass by. There are some very distinctive issues that regulate the approaches you want to use in fishing for pre-spawn muskies. The muskies follow the shad due to the accumulation of easy prey which form schools that hold in somewhat limited areas. In the pre-spawn period, muskies start a movement that is not always governed by the movement of the shad schools. The one factor that does seem to regulate their movement and the important holding locations in this process are pathways along structural changes in the lake bottom.
The movement may occur along contour lines on the lake bottom or actually along defined creek or river channels. Remember these southern bodies of water have been dammed in areas generally with many creeks, streams and rivers. So bottom changes are in abundance. The important link in working a pre-spawn pattern is to try to find these so called “staging areas” in the lake. The term simply means that an area has been found where there is a major intersection in the paths traveled by muskies in their annual shifts in location toward the shallower spawning areas. This routine has the particular advantages for the musky angler in that often there are considerable numbers of muskies in one migratory holding area at one time. It is sometimes possible to actually find these holding areas by seeing the muskies feeding in shallow areas or sunning near the surface in deeper water. This gets a little more complex when you consider that not all muskies go to the same level or retreat to deep water in the winter. But even those that hold in somewhat shallower levels during cold water conditions will migrate to shallow water or several shallower levels of holding spots before going into the true shallows in search of spawning areas.
The good news for anglers is that muskies in a pre-spawn staging area are often muskies that are there for one thing and that is to feed. I have already indicated that the shift to shallower holding areas is not always linked to the migration of shad, thus you have to think of other options as possible food sources like crawfish, mudpuppies or suckers and even small minnow schools. On most lakes and reservoirs the northern end of the lake is always the first to warm because it receives the most sunlight at this time of the year. This is a good place to check for warmer water first. This is not to say that every muskie in the lake will swim to this area, it just means that the muskies in that location will be more aggressive therefore easier to fool. When finding spawning areas the key is a dark bottom bays and coves, fresh weed growth is always a plus. If you can find a feeder stream or spring in the same bay it’s all that much better. Fresh water flowing into a bay is usually warmer than the lake water itself and can warm a bay up all that much quicker. As the water warms the muskies tend to move to shallower and shallower staging areas.
A frontal passage may cause the fish to get lockjaw even if they are still in the same area. If the cold front is severe enough to noticeably affect the water temperature, then the muskies may actually shift back to a deeper holding area. I have also seen the opposite in that a warm rain in the late winter or early spring will have a dramatic effect as the runoff changes the water temperature. Just like in the fall an influx of warm or cold runoff can more rapidly affect the water temperature than the impact caused by days of sustained cooler or warmer air temperatures. The holding areas then tend to shift toward a shallower pattern even if the air temperature shifts back during a colder series of days. Also southern muskie waters tend to mud up during the pre spawn period which holds the warmth even more. The use of a temperature gauge is obviously very important in getting a read of possible environmental motivation for the movement toward the shallows.
Prime pre-spawn times in most areas of the southern muskie range can start as early as late February and continue through mid May, depending on the type of winter and how long it takes the waters to warm. Experience has shown me that there can be a great amount of time that different muskies spawn or go through the motions even on the same body of water. My fishing usually begins as the water temperature reaches the lower 40s. At this time muskies seem to be more aggressive but only for a short period, it often seems a bit of a slow down as waters reach the 45 to 48 degree range as the big feed up slows. On years that waters warm rapidly and never settles in those upper 40’s and sores directly into the 50’s, this seems to be the years that awesome early season action is at its best. As the water temperatures head into the 50’s the muskie will move into the shallow bays to prepare to spawn. Everything we have ever read tells us muskies like to spawn when the water temps reach approximately 58 degrees. Still after all my years chasing early season muskies I still get a little confused here, we all know not all parts of the lake reach this temperature at the same time. However I’m still unsure on where that temperature reading should be taken, surface or bottom measurements? I have caught fish spraying eggs in March with surface temperatures near 60 and again in May reading in the low 70’s in the same year on Cave Run. On southern reservoirs intense sun can warm the early season surface temperature quickly and cooler nights can knock them back down just as fast. This leads me to believe for muskies to spawn a high fifties temperature needs to be sustained for a good period of time and should continue through the water column.
Shallow Water Holding Areas
Creek arms seem to be the most productive holding spots as the waters warm when searching for these pre spawners, but not all creek arms are created equal. In most southern reservoirs you will find a maze of breaks and bends in most all old creek and river channels. Shad movement determines which ones will hold the most muskies; this movement also varies from year to year. One common mistake anglers make at this time of the year is to start at one side of the bays or coves that form in the back of these old creeks while fishing the entire bay in a horseshoe path, working into the bay is productive but continuing up the other side just might hamper your efforts. Working out of the bay at this time of year will definitely decrease the chance of catching fish because the muskies are still not very aggressive and can be spooked very easily, pull out and work down the other shore. Start at the outside of the bay and work in, concentrating on any weed clumps, wood, and especially a creek channel if present. Muskies will often hold in the creek channels and move to the weed or woody flats of the bay to feed throughout the day.
Look for exposed dead heads near creek channels, this protruding timber holds more solar heat which attracts baitfish schools. Inlets in these coves and bays are a huge bonus; even the smallest tend to consistently hold fish. The run off at these inlets overtime have created flats, these spots are worth your repetitive effort. Depending on the water color of the lake it is very possible to see muskies swimming around and actually “sight-fish” for them but most years that’s fowled with murky waters. Generally water in these shallow creek arms and bays will be muddy from run off. Under these conditions noise and vibration becomes key in landing these prespawners consistently. Musky Hunter readers have been exposed to many articles about the success in using lipless rattling crankbaits in the early season by both Joe Bucher and myself.
Refer back to Musky Hunter articles Rattle up Spring Success and Joe’s rattle bait article. I can’t express enough the value of commenting to these baits on pre spawn muskies, try Rat’L’Traps, Power ?? and Rattlin’Shads. Most strikes on these lures seem to be reaction strikes as muskies are very lethargic even though they need to feed, so make multiple casts in the same areas putting your bait close to a hungry fish. Another one of my favorite lures for this type of fishing would have to be the safety pin style spinnerbait. By fishing this bait you can control the speed and depth that it is fished, allowing you to comb the flats or let it flutter down into the creek channel. Try Grim Reapers in the 1/2 and 1 ounce models; A new bait last year that scored big in muddier waters was the extreme vibration of Llungen’s In-Pulse spinnerbaits, let water clarity determine colors bright baits as well as white work well in the muddy water. Casting is not the only way to find success even in those same shallow water haunts trolling can be an effective method, try presenting those same spinnerbaits and lipless rattling crankbaits on a long line presentation over flats and shallow points, let your boat speed and distance from your boat determine your lures depth. With a little practice this can be done in the shallowest of waters.
Deep Structure for Prespawners
March and April are great transition times for fishing in large reservoirs; muskies have begun to start their spawn activities one of which is a major feed up. During this time interval these fish do a lot of moving as they relocate from wintering habitats to the areas where they will eventually spawn or a least go through the motions. They feed actively prior to spawning and the persistent angler can enjoy some tremendous fishing once the fish are located. It is the time for the opportunistic fisher. Anglers often find fish one day and return to that location the next day and find the fish have moved so searching becomes a major part of pre spawn fishing. In my search for deeper water prespawners I look to main lake points with laydown or standing timber just outside of shallow bays or creek arms. Since at this time of the year good weeds are often not present in most lakes the muskie will look for irregular bottom and shoreline structure to hold on. I like to target shoreline keeping my boat in depth ranges of 10 to 15 ft. working the lure slowly and making contact with as much structure as possible.
Muskies in this deeper water at this time of the year can often be found in a very aggressive mode. I have a small selection of lures that I use at this time, my go to baits as I move along the deeper shoreline are Hellhounds, Shallow Invaders, Big Game crankbaits and my best early season producer the Sledge. The larger Sledge has taken an extremely high number of fish during the pre-spawn period for my clients and I, many other anglers also have found great success on most all southern reservoirs from Missouri to Ohio. A little advice on working the Sledge, don’t look for it to do too much as it’s buoyant movement whether up and down or side to side is what gets the muskies attention. My favorite presentation is a combination of both movements. Secondly rod selection can make all the difference in both presentation and fatigue, a longer fast tipped rod will not only make the lure perform to its utmost yet it also makes it a lot easier on the angler. I recommend 2 models from Lamiglas; the 8’6 model LGM86XH and for the guys that haven’t yet figured out that bigger is better the 8′ LGM80XH both these rod’s fast tip give the Sledge its maximum movement and helps get it just a little deeper with just a slight effort. Casts nearest to the shoreline often pay off in the first couple of pulls; steep banks with quick drops often are more productive and easily found in most all southern reservoirs. Trolling these same tight to shore spots and through standing timber can also be a very productive method for prespawners. Good trolling baits include Believers, Little Ernie’s, Leo’s and the smaller new Wiley Lure the Little Fatbody. A good lure retriever is essential when working the wood that is abundant in southern reservoirs whether trolling or casting, I like the Frabill retriever that extends to 15 feet and stores easily. My Frabill lure retriever saves me hundreds of dollars per year; it’s a permanent fixture in my Ranger everywhere I fish.
In recent years many anglers have begun to put plastics into their early season arsenal when bites become few and far between during this early season. Rubber baits and jigs tipped with rubber bodies have become popular when worked very slowly around structure like old weeds and timber. Ledges abundant in southern reservoirs also are great targets with plastics dropped off the outer edge to entice the muskies to strike. The key to this time of year can be working baits slow and close enough to the fish to get them to strike; however on the other hand a fast sporadic presentation can also be productive at times when they seem more aggressive. My favorites at this time of year are Kilr Eels, Flying Witches, Bait Rigs Esox Cobra Magnum, Spring Pup Bulldawgs and Red October Tubes, all can be very effective on early season fish especially when they still seem slow and sluggish. Swift pulls while letting the bait flutter in between jerks work great with the Witch’s, Eels and Tubes; there sporadic movement after the pull seems to drive a sluggish muskie crazy when worked around structure. Nevertheless when presenting these baits watch out at the boat as sneak attacks are very common, your entrance into the figure 8 probably will be your most important move. Another piece of advice is to have one of these 3 baits rigged as a throw back lure, more than once my clients and I have had them return on this irregular moving presentation after following in another forward moving bait. These rubber baits are just another proven method used in the hunt for pre-spawn muskies during the early season on southern waters.
Taking advantage of these southern reservoirs in that pre spawn period provides fast action and more times than not a successful muskie trip when you apply some of the methods discussed. So make plans to extend your muskie season on one of many southern muskie waters. A final thought about fishing this time of year is that you are catching fish which a number of will be providing the stocking for the future fishery in the lake. So try to keep that in mind as you handle the fish and hopefully carefully release them so they can go on to the next stage of their life cycle – the spawn.