“The first lures out of my box, north to south”
By Tony Grant
Kicking off your muskie year more than any other time can be one of the most tricky to determine what baits to throw and where to throw them. More often than not constant changing weather and or water conditions make it tough to determine that early season pattern wherever you start your muskie season. Over the past 6 years I have been facing spring muskie fishing twice each year covering two different muskie regions. By early March my Kentucky spring fishing kicks off and then by Memorial Day my clients and I are battling the same early season water temps of the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Whether you’re up against the pre-spawn down south or post-spawn up north I find many similarities between the two areas however the differences tend to out number them. It seems that in both areas major weather changes may be the toughest obstacle to overcome, however a simple location or bait change can make a big difference in contacting fish. Guiding day in and day out gives me a great look at baits that out produce others during certain conditions, the ability to have 2 to 3 different baits being presented at one time seems to be my biggest asset in finding my highest percentage selections. A real feeling of anticipation during this time of year that is unmatched at any other time raises my confidence level and has let me give my bait selections time to prove themselves. I have them broken down into 2 regions, so now let’s take a look at some consistent techniques from Kentucky to Wisconsin for that first muskie of the year or early season trophy.
In warmer sections of the country March is the time when muskies and muskie fisherman meet in a frenzy of shallow water action. Its pre-spawn conditions and the big females and are very predictable as they and their smaller spawning partners are on the move to the spawning areas the experienced muskie angler can intercept them in certain predictable places. This knowledge gets you really excited because you know they’re out there and more times than not you can catch them feeding frantically in preparation for the spawn. I think for southern reservoir anglers this is a peak time to be a muskie fisherman. When it comes to catching pre-spawn muskies holding on middepth or shallow cover, a variety of lures can get the job done.
My first target as most of you have read before during these low water temps are shallow flats, here rattle baits in southern reservoirs rule. My strategy is simple make long repetitive cast throughout their soon to be spawning areas. On flats, typically the fish are becoming more active; they’re movement closer to spawning areas make your targeted area more visual. If we can’t contact fish on the flats I move out to where the flats meet a deeper slope. Working down these quick breaks with the sporadic movement of a Bulldawg can entice even the most stubborn pre-spawn muskies; here too can be a regular staging area for big pre-spawn females that are not quit ready to move up into her spawning grounds. However many times under extreme cold front conditions muskie seem to move tighter to structure, most years weed growth is not always an option so they tend to move toward timber for cover. Whether it be stand up or lay downs casting a small down sized crankbait can be second to none. Here I choose the tight wiggle of the 00 AC Shiner, don’t let this small bait fool you, they take some of the biggest fish year after year from Kentucky’s 3 reservoirs. This is tremendous bait while fish are up in that zone.
My most difficult early season conditions may be prolonged cold spells, muskies here seem to somewhat disappear. This is when I find consistent success locating fish on steeper banks entering the normal spawning coves. Bare banks or ones with down timber both will produce but targeting a little timber never hurts. The most consistent lure here is the 10 inch Sledge; I like to present them on a longer fast tipped rod to give them a longer quicker bounce. My rod choice is the 8′ Lamiglas LGM 80 XH; it allows me to keep the Sledge in the strike zone longer while taking the fatigue factor out of throwing this very buoyant bait for long periods. During those years with early season weed growth I turn to just a little different presentation, the slow roll of a spinnerbait. This seems to work best during years that the water seems to rapidly warm up, this bait just might out produce them all. Slowly yo-yoing spinnerbaits in and around the weeds seems to get those not so active fish to go. The favorite for my clients and I is the downsized 1/2 oz Grim Reaper, the rubber skirt seems to really flow and out produce hair under these conditions, especially when schooling shad are found near by. When it’s warming, and there’s a strong south wind blowing, I move out onto shallow main lake points. This time of year, a south or north wind can make a good spot great. Here’s where a quickly moved glide bait can get the job done, we work the Hellhound by ERC from the points shallowest spot on out to about 5 to 6 feet of water. The right winds have a tendency to make muskies in these areas very aggressive and the Hellhound will get there attention.
1/2oz Grim Reaper Spinnerbait
00 AC Shiner
For the most part my Memorial Day arrival in the Northwoods finds me facing post-spawn conditions, however on many occasions I have encountered muskies that have just not went yet. This is my favorite time of the year in the northern range of muskie country, because muskies are found in so many stages and depths that a lot of anglers get lost trying to find them. One of my favorite ways to find muskies during this period on either river run lakes, flowages or a chain of lakes is to use current to my advantage. Current seems to rank right up there among the most misunderstood variables in muskie fishing. Muskies become much more active when water movement increases. Current controls the movement of forage, which in turn positions muskies and can switch the bite on or off. Determining where muskies stage up is the key. As water is released from a dam and starts to make its way down the river or chain it pushes clear water out toward the bank, and in time creates a 6 to 8 foot section of clear water next to the bank. Bigger muskies roam in and out of the clear/dirty edge. The surface water warms up where the clear and dirty water meet, and typically, that’s where the muskies will be. I credit the 2002 PMTT Eagle River Mercury Marine Challenge victory that Don Pfeiffer and I had to our ability to notice and determine a current to establish pattern. All 3 of our fish in that tournament were current related. The tail waters on flowages, river run or chain of lakes can be deadly as water temps near 60 degrees, my clients and I have found our best production on surface lures, this seems to be true whether the water is moving or not. These areas generally hold smaller weed patches, stumps, and trees, casting top waters as close to them as possible will bring them out. These type areas often hold some of the biggest fish on the chain. Here I have 2 favorites, the softer plop of the lures TopRaider with average to clearer water conditions or in darker water I like to go with the Pacemaker and its high pitched sound, and both can be deadly in these areas early or late but don’t overlook tossing them all day during low light conditions.
Sluggish post spawn muskies can also be easily locate on lakes with major reed beds near shore, site fishing becomes a favorite tactic to many Northwoods anglers. At this time very few baits can get those beat up muskies to move, however the slow movement from a Bait Rigs Esox Cobra jig with either a reaper or shad bodied tail tossed at a spotted muskie will often seem create a defensive strike when drugged or popped across there face. On the other hand many post-spawn muskies seem to move out to the medium depth weed edge soon after they do their business; I have found my most success on many northern lakes presenting slower moving lures. My high percentage baits here are the 6″ Reef Hawg and Crane bait model 206. The slow erratic motions that these baits put off when twitched can be very productive at times. This also works very well under severe cold front conditions I As I stated previously some years I face lower than normal water temps and muskies that have not all spawned out, like in southern reservoirs I depend on the lipless rattling crankbait under most all water conditions. This tactic produces best in dirty water but will take fish from clear systems too. Head and tail waters as well as shallow flats will produce with this method; water temps from 48 to 55 degrees seem to generate the most action. Again fan casting rather than target casting will work best. Finally not to be overlooked is the early season baitfish connection; concentrate on those areas where baitfish has been located. If we spot sucker movement on clear water lakes the consistent side to side movement of a Manta in shallow water is hard to beat, but stained water calls for the more unpredictable action of the Jerko. The sporadic tail motion of a Bulldawg becomes my choice when baitfish are found deeper, this method has been proven over the past few years in the PMTT’s June Eagle River event. When locating schooling smaller fish, many times perch in clearer water system I go straight to the shallow weeds, most of the time these shallow weeds will hold recuperating post-spawn muskies. In this situation I have not found a better lure than a willow bladed Mepps Giant Killer, the willow blades gets my presentation down a little deeper closer to the muskies as they recover from spawning. Here I choose the submerged ones apposed to the emerged variety, the blades of the Mepps seem to resemble the flutter of schooling baitfish.
Mepps Musky Killer
6″ Reef Hawg
Crane Model 206
Esox Cobra Jigs
My results over the past 6 years of fishing both early seasons north and south constantly remind me that these fish are individuals. Like humans, they exhibit different behaviors and it’s sometimes difficult to simplify the movement patterns in both regions. Even though my results made for an interesting overview, it’s been hard to generalize on feeding patterns when each muskie displays its own personality. However muskies tend to have just a little different feeding habits during pre-spawn, spawn and post spawn periods in both regions. I’ve found some success in common but mainly different tactics needed to capture these fish as water temps warm. On the other hand my results have shown a consistent pattern in lure selection that differs in both regions.
Finally my objective here has been to share with you lures that consistently perform superbly to the situation at hand for my clients wherever they may start their early season. More than one broad category of lures usually fits most situations, so it isn’t surprising that many different lures from each category usually works too. Start with some of my proven season starting lures and location recommendations as muskie season kicks off in your area too find early season success.
Tony Grant has been chasing muskies for nearly 20 years. As his career started on Kentucky’s Cave Run Lake he has now expanded his guiding to the waters of Wisconsin and Minnesota during the southern muskies dangerously hot summer water temps. In 2005 Tony teamed up with Gregg Thomas to form Musky Road Rules, a series of “Cabin Fever Clinics” and Schools with On the Water Workshops across the mid west muskie range.