Technology advances ever-quicker these days – so fast it’s hard to keep up. These advances are truly amazing. To think that when I started I had a simple flasher, eyeballs, and a set of oars! Now we search for fish literally all around us in real-time, employing exotic tools like biological fish sounds and cameras documenting the scene from above and below. This is the sexy stuff that gets the most attention, along with the newest secret lures too, of course. And, there’s no doubt it all matters, resulting in more fish for those who purchase, understand, and deploy these tools.
The only problem with tech is that it can tend to overshadow some of the more basic skills that might just be more important. Patterning on your feet as the day unfolds is one of those skills. In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important. To define: patterning is essentially paying attention to any and all factors involved in finding active muskies and then seeking to find other spots that have those same conditions. Muskies, at the top of the food chain, feed where and when they want. That means finding muskies is only part of the game; finding those most likely to bite and figuring out what they want to eat on that day are the most important things.
We can theorize all night about why it happens, but almost always there are locational and presentational patterns to the most active fish, and these can be specific to the day or even the hour. Many anglers who are good at this just naturally do it via observation without speaking of it.
Knowing your options and prioritizing them every day is where it starts. Locations obviously dictate presentational options to a certain extent. Canadian shield lakes are more complicated than most situations with regard to options – yet it’s often easier to pinpoint locations once patterns are found. Shield lakes generally are expansive – with what seems like endless mainland shore, islands, and reefs. Complicating it more – it all looks good. You need to break down what’s available and prioritize it: today, is it rocks, weeds, rushes, wood, or mid-lake humps? Should we look shallower or deeper? Initial prioritizing can be based on something as simple as information from other anglers or a prior day’s experience. Good general rules are: earlier in the season, weeds are likely best; rocks are best from later summer to fall; but there are no SET rules.
Further, if you’re targeting weeds, for instance, think about where they are available and at what depths to help potentially fine-tune your search. Are the active fish using weeds in bays, shorelines, neck downs, or main lake reefs? How deep? The same with rock structures. Always be aware of where there is wind coming into a location – directly on to it or adjacent to the spot. If the fish aren’t there on the structure, are they in the slack water nearby?
Connected to wind, there is also the shield lake wild card of current. While some systems have natural current (part of a river system), there are nearly always some wind-induced current situations present on shield lakes. These (generally) larger waters have many islands creating pinch points, or just narrow neck-down areas, with exposure to wide-open main lake zones. Sustained prevailing winds push water from the wide-open zones into and through necks and narrow gaps. This water has to return or there would be water hills on one side of the lake.
The return flow, often directly against the waves creating it, makes for significant current zones and eddies in some of these tighter zones. When weather patterns are right, and the longer they persist the better (i.e. sustained winds from the same direction), predators will lay adjacent to these chaos zones ambushing food; the refrigerator door is open. With time on the water and observation, patterns emerge as to the “right” wind directions for spots. There will be disappointments chasing current patterns, as things that look right to us as anglers aren’t right to the ones that make the rules. Yet, once found and patterned, these are some of the most reliable and valuable specific patterns to understand … to the point of approaching such areas with a sly grin.
Then, simply be on the lookout for any locational patterns. Challenge your boat partners to do the same and bounce ideas back and forth. Keep track, pay attention! A lazy follow, or a fish or two found with some type of imaging is not as important as the location of an active fish. While the acreage and mileage can be huge, with some cooperation from the fish and some thinking, the prime locational zones can be patterned down to small target areas.
Remember to not get stuck only fishing outside edges and generally more classic structure. There are inside weed edges to consider; poking around the whole structure, possibly going right next to shore and casting out, may result in your finding a deep slot you didn’t realize was there. So, check deep, shallow, and in between, noting everything when active fish are found. If you started on rocks deeper and found nothing, then go shallow. Move to reefs, shorelines, neckdowns, current areas. If it’s still no-go, then move on to weeds and just keep at it.
The same with presentations. Have a prioritized idea of what is most likely to work in the zones being fished given that day’s weather. Keep in mind that some baits are more efficient than others. Bucktails are the example of being most efficient for water coverage and hooking; yet you may find a slow glider or soft plastic is the only thing triggering fish. Like structure, it’s a process of trying different things to see what the fish want. Then do more of what they want in locations where the active ones want to be.
It is so easy to develop a “milk run” of classic spots that have all the right stuff and where you and others have done well in the past. To just go on the run not considering daily patterns may be the most common shield lake mistake I see (and that I have to remind myself not to do). I always feel a bit smarter fishing classic, mid-lake weed, and rock structure – yet I’ve seen many days when they just aren’t active there. At times they only bite in ugly bays next to classic points, or on boring shoreline extensions with some wind on them, or on the slack side of a wind/current zone, no matter how ugly. Avoid blindly following milk runs; adjust those runs to fit the prevailing patterns.
Unfortunately, the realities of muskie fishing dictate that, at times, there’s simply not enough muskie response to pattern well. Yet, even on those tough days, I’d argue that having a plan and devoting your thought process to searching for a pattern always makes the fishing more interesting – and with a reasonable amount of muskie cooperation, more successful.