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Using My Head (Finally!) for Big Muskies

Posted on March 31, 2017 by .

A Pattern Across Years

My eyes were still watering from the cold late October run down Ontario’s Eagle Lake when a nice musky followed my walleye tube to the boat, made a halfhearted turn, and drifted back down into the ghostly depths.  Though I wasn’t encouraged by the fish’s body language, it was nice to see her in the first few casts, and it was good that it was a musky.  The sunken bar that Andy Myers Lodge guide Brad Jager and I were fishing is one of those spots that loads up with packs of aggressive pike in the late fall.  People in camp had been ribbing Brad, calling him the pike whisperer for his production on this spot, yet I’d raised a good musky and he had already dangled a lively sucker untouched through a stretch of water that usually spelled death-by-pike for live baits.

I began to have a feeling that I’d seen this pattern before, a suspicion that grew stronger as I raised a succession of muskies, momentarily hooking one good fish, while the live bait attracted nothing.  No pike whispering today!  By the time I finished casting the extended reef and island complex, I knew where we were going next.

Years before, on that same pike dominated structure, I experienced a late fall day when it was covered exclusively with muskies and, either by coincidence or due to some factor we did not understand, so was a nearby island at the mouth of an immense bay.  All during that long ago day, guide Cal Ritchie and I had fished just those two spots, back and forth, raising muskies from dawn to dark.  I wondered if Brad and I might have stumbled on the same pattern again.  He was skeptical about wasting time at the island, saying he hadn’t seen a fish there in months, but agreed to give it a brief try.  It was lucky that we did.

On my second cast along the point of the island a lively musky chased the bait, going through two full turns before darting off.  She seemed like the kind of fish we could catch if we came back later and she was all the encouragement we needed to fish around the tiny island and up through the narrow channel separating it from the mainland.  As we got to the bay side of the island, I was hoping to contact a fish along the drop off from the inside saddle, but saw nothing at the spot-on-the-spot.  Nosing into the channel itself, Brad asked whether it was worth going all the way through, as he was reading only four-feet on the locater and was having a hard time keeping the sucker up off the bottom.

Before I could answer him, a green beast loomed up from the shallows closely following my bait, went around three times tasting the water behind the tube, and then swam back out the way she’d come.  “She was a jumbo,” Brad exhaled, “how big?”  Tossing a hopeless cast after her, I lamented without thinking, “she was 53 inches and change.”

We were soon to find out how weirdly accurate my guess was when she chased that throw-back cast and immediately turned off to eat the sucker that was swimming only a few feet from the boat.  “We’ve got her,” Brad said, trembling with excitement.  I stowed my gear and took the sucker rod with the line running straight back over the drop-off and into the bay, but when I cranked the reel handle I got only slack.  Reeling in yards of bellied line, carefully trying to come tight to the fish without suddenly jerking her, I realized that she had changed her mind.  After running off fast toward the bay, she completely turned around and headed the other way, out through the channel toward the main lake.  Abandoning caution, I reeled hard until I caught up to her and felt the thrill of her huge weight surging away.

Setting the hook on a sucker bite is one of the great moments in musky fishing. Sometimes, even if you do everything right, you just whiff, nearly falling over backward when the hooks come loose.  It’s an empty feeling that wakes you up in a night sweat through the months ahead.  Other times, you make a sharp hookset or two and immediately feel the rod load all the way into the cork.  This was one of those special moments.  The fish heaved against me in the shallow water and then came up in a huge leap that is etched in my memory.  When she landed, she dashed straight toward us and under the boat as I reeled frantically to keep the line tight.  Brad went to the bow and miraculously got the balky trolling motor up in an instant, since there was no depth to work the fish around it.  When she swam out and away from the boat again, the crisis was over.  She stayed on the surface and I worked her back to us until I could lead her into a turn ending in the net.  It was a high moment for Brad and me.  On the bump board she was 53.75 inches.

bill hedden muskie photo

Questions and Theories

It’s easy to feel ridiculous after a moment like that. It was fall trophy time and everybody in camp was braving cold winds to fish the heroic, main lake structures searching for a beast, yet here she was tucked behind an island in four feet of water.  Sure, my memory of the mysterious pattern had led us to make a smart or lucky move, but why would a bruiser of a fish be idling in a spot like that when it was the season for heavy feeding to build up an egg mass and prepare for the long winter?

I puzzled over that without much insight during my own long winter, but the next August on the lake, I had a realization that brought together several pieces to form a bigger picture in which the little island played a starring role.  Generally, when I fish that bay, I have three targets in mind. First, of course, is the island and saddle at the southwest side of the entrance.  Next, far in the back is another island with a cabin whose owners I’ve always envied, and between that island and the mainland is a dense weed bed.  My first big suick musky came out of those weeds, and anybody who has experienced one of those strikes won’t be surprised to hear that I make a pilgrimage there whenever the vegetation is in good shape.  Last on my list, rising through sixty feet of water out in the central part of the bay, is an islet, a rock, really, but with long fingers extending underwater off the northeast and southwest corners.  It doesn’t hold fish often, but when one is there, it’s worth the wait.

That was my general idea of the area until Andy Myers Lodge head guide Steve Herbeck zoomed in there with me on the day I finally began to see the bigger picture.  He cut right behind the entry island, but instead of fishing the drop off from the saddle, he set us up to fish the long wall forming the west side of the bay.  “This wall is where I’ve been seeing all the fish this year,” he offered.  And, indeed, it is a fishy place, about 20-25 feet deep a cast from shore, loaded with fallen timber, and dotted with small weed patches.  The wall itself is creased with angles and cracks and broken rocks, forming more than half a mile of fantastic fish habitat.  How had I not noticed it before?  Steve has often told me, “The most important tool in your boat isn’t some magic bait. It’s what’s between your ears.” Apparently, I’d been leaving that tool at the dock.

I made up for lost time by coming back two days later and catching a four footer right below a distinctive, upside-down tree that stayed rooted high on the rocks when it toppled down the wall, and began to grow back up toward the sun from the branch tips at water level.  Releasing that fish, I finally understood that the weeds far in the back of the bay are linked to the island at the mouth by the extraordinary travel highway of the wall.  The entire west side of the bay is one huge, diverse musky spot.

But even that bigger understanding is not the full story.  To complete the picture, as far as I now comprehend it, I had to get lucky and observe some local walleye fishermen on their secret spot. It happened soon after I discovered the wall, when I was passing the island where this story started.  A few hundred yards out from the wall, about halfway to the rocky islet in the middle of the bay, and in line with the southwest-jutting finger, were two boats of walleye fishermen. Nonchalantly acting like it was my plan, I turned into the bay for a better look and started fishing my way down the wall, glancing up occasionally to see the action. They were just pounding the fish.  Somebody was hooked up almost continuously. By the time I had traveled to the weeds in back of the bay, they moved on and I motored out to see what kind of structure they were fishing. There, beyond the deep finger, was a lovely little series of walleye humps, forming a travel pathway and feeding zone stretching across many hundreds of yards of the bay. This traffic control structure for fish began with the far finger, incorporated the islet, and ended up at the wall.  Any fish moving through a vast section of the bay, including the weed beds in the back, and the serious depths in the center, would eventually be led to the little saddle between the entrance island and the mainland.  The big fish I caught there wasn’t hiding in an out-of-the way spot; when conditions were right, she was positioned at the focal point of an immense structure.

So What?

Most musky fishing advice boils down to something like, Throw good baits and fish good spots so that you’re on the water in a prime location when a feeding window opens. If we are going to really use that tool between our ears, how do we apply knowledge of the lake to do a little better than that? What follows are some of the thoughts that occur to me when I think of the bay I’ve been describing. Maybe you can generalize this approach to the waters you fish.

One of the most common experiences in musky fishing is to pull up on a favorite spot, cast through it without any action, and conclude, well, nobody’s home today. If you are running and gunning, you take off for the next place and you may eventually catch fish, but you won’t learn much. Instead, try slowing down to consider the obvious truism that the fish haven’t left the lake. If they’re not up on the spot, where might they be? The first thing structural knowledge does is to give us a sense of the options available to a fish using that section of the lake. I can begin to combine the elements of the season and the weather and wind with my picture of the three dimensional underwater world to develop ideas of where they are and what they are doing. When thinking like that puts me on a big fish, the satisfaction is doubled.

For the bay in my story, think about the wind.  Mostly, it’s a north-south structure facing east, so a south wind could concentrate fish from the main lake at the entry island, or maybe back at the weeds.  I’d try the weeds especially if it was early season, or hot weather, or maybe when fish pull up shallow in the fall. I’d give it a pass during north or west winds, unless fish were sheltering out of a big blow. East winds on Eagle Lake are usually tough, so this spot might be a day-saver when the wind blows bait and muskies along the central bars and up against the wall. Observe, think, and experiment.

On days when the only fish I am seeing are arcs twenty feet down on the locater, this spot offers a long trolling run. Maybe they aren’t active, but perhaps a bait pulled right over their heads will induce a strike. Use your knowledge to follow the structure closely, raise the baits over the shallows, drop them over the walleye humps, hug the wall, maybe with a planer board. Good trolling is intense. And speaking of the walleye humps, check them out to see if they are holding fish. Muskies won’t be far away from a dining hall like that, perhaps on the rock fingers radiating from the islet. Fish deep, counting down a bulldawg or something else you can put at their level.

At nearly every area of the lake I also have questions about the outward extensions of the structures I fish. Sometimes, when it’s roasting hot and the lake is the Dead Sea, I’ll map promising shorelines, or follow reefs and humps to see where they go. I’m interested, for example, to learn how the reef on the far side of the islet in my story connects to the east side of the bay, where I already know two productive points; and out beyond the entry island is an extensive shoreline of the main lake that nobody ever fishes. Finding a likely structure there would be a secret treasure. Remember, though, it’s useless fishing unexplored spots when the fish aren’t moving. How can you judge a new structure during an afternoon when you couldn’t raise a fish on the most famous place in the lake? If you’re serious about learning, you have to be willing to try something brave during the witching hour in the evening, or when a storm is brewing up. It can be the most rewarding gamble of your trip.

Let me close by saying that if you are one of those people who are still wondering about the pattern that sent me and Brad Jager from the deep bar and island complex to the little island at the bay, I’m afraid I can’t help you. That’s not only because I don’t know whether it is a real pattern or not, and certainly I have no explanation for it. I mean I can’t help you because you are obviously already infected with musky disease, and the only cure is hundreds of magic baits and endless time on the water. Good luck!

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  1. Tracy Turner says:

    Nice story. Years ago on Musky First Herby replied to a question I posted at midnight asking if anyone had ever put a sucker on a planet board. Herby replied instantly that he had when fishing wall-like drops…. I wonder if this steep break is one of those spots?

  2. herbie says:

    is now!! haha! it can work well anytime you want to spread baits and or cover diff depths . along steeper breaks,walls,reefs ,etc but also it can be used in reverse running baits out off the edge or suspended.
    there are so many options and variables ,productive tactic to add to one’s arsenal of livebait presentations and as a compliment and added dimension to artificial presentations.
    it is also a fun tactic to learn,develop,and understand as there are many variables and options and to do it properly it is very hands on.

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