Understanding The Clear Water Musky
It’s a well-known (or at least assumed) fact that clear lake and or cisco/whitefish water muskies have a tendency to drive a person over the edge. These muskies can humble and reduce you into a wide-eyed, babbling, shell-shocked vestige of your former self, as you try to figure out how to get them to eat the bait.
Huge fish after huge fish paddling in behind your lures like Flipper looking for a handout—believe me, I know what it’s like. I’ve woken up enough times in cold sweats, even caught myself mumbling to someone who wasn’t there before. Still, I always look forward to and actually prefer fishing these kinds of lakes because the rewards can be so great and I love being able to see my baits, what they are doing, and the fish after them.
By keying in on some basic timing and presentation concepts, you will find that clear water muskies do make plenty of mistakes. In fact, they can be even more vulnerable than darker water muskies.
In some ways, clear water muskies and how they respond to their basic needs, are different than their darker water counterparts. Therefore, they need to be approached with a different frame of mind.
Many anglers have the mistaken idea that clear, lake trout and/or cisco/whitefish water muskies spend their time in the deep water hanging out and making shallow movements to feed. However, under most conditions and times of the year, it is closer to the exact opposite — they feed deep and move shallow to hang out. Documented studies have theorized that the reason muskies move shallow is to digest their food more quickly and to rebuild their egg mass for the following spawn.
Studies haven’t discovered any new or untapped fisheries, but the theories put forth do make some sense and help explain why muskies are where they are, and why they act the way they do. The information can help fishers determine the highest percentage of presentations to catch them. In the end, watercolor doesn’t matter as much as does the preferred forage base in determining how a muskie reacts to its environment.
When it comes to systems with abundant suckers, whitefish, tullibees, and/or trout, it is my belief that there are only two times of the year you actually have actively feeding fish on a consistent and predictable basis. This means times when muskies are specifically there to feed in shallow water. These times are both early and late in the season. From early June through the first part of July, bug hatches, abundant young of the year, and relatively cooler water temperatures keep some forage fish, like perch and suckers, shallow. Meanwhile, the deepwater forage fish are also making periodic feeding visits to the shallows. Even so, at this time of the year, the really big girls most likely feed only opportunistically in the shallows when these conditions exist.
During the summer months, the shallow forage just isn’t there. There are some small perch, shiners, and other minnows, some weed walleyes, and hammer handle pike, which muskies will eat. However, their preferred forage is the pelagic species, as well as suckers, or larger perch, which also go deeper as temperatures rise. Therefore, they’ll go deep the majority of the time to hunt.
If you’re fishing shallow and your bait goes over a fish that is just starting to feel hunger pangs and is thinking about taking a cruise to the feed trough, you might get lucky even though the action is not in the primary feeding area.
In fall, the steadily falling water temperatures and shortening of the daylight hours set the big females’ biological clocks ticking, with the growing urge to feed even more to build their egg mass. From late September through early November, trout, tullibees, ciscoes, and whitefish spawn, bringing some open-water fish in and also giving those fish already in shallows the opportunity to feed shallow whenever they are physically ready, able, and the situation arises. It is quite possible that they don’t feed any more than in the summer, but just more efficiently and where we are fishing more of the time.
Why the tendency to follow?
Muskies have tremendous eyesight and, obviously, the clearer the water, the bigger their sight window is. These clear water fish are more geared to chase down food rather than ambush it. The clearer the water, the wilder the fish is if it is ready to eat. Clearwater fish will travel distances to intercept food, and when they decide to do it, nothing is safe or can escape — and they know it. I’ve marked fish on my electronics as deep as 35 feet, and shortly after had them fly up so fast for a shallow-running bait that they shot out of the water, like a Polaris missile. I’ve also seen them boil and come streaking in for bait from the side over 30 feet away.
With this increased visibility, most big muskies holding shallow are not in a positive feeding mode during this time. Instead, we may owe a lot of our success to the instinct factor — much like a hunting dog retrieving a stick even though it is not on a hunt, or the warning given hikers in bear country to not run during a face to face encounter because the animal will more than likely give chase. Muskies that can see a bait — especially one that sticks out in nature as much as most of our offerings do — will instinctively chase, even though initially they have no real interest in biting or eating.
There are always a few big muskies that make things look ridiculously easy, but far more of them behave in ways that make me believe that muskies — especially the bigger, been-around-the-block variety — are generally just more selective and much sharper than we give them credit for. This is true, to some degree, whether it’s clear or dark water, pressured or not, what lake, or where.
When picking a clear water lake to fish, look for one that has diversity within itself. The best scenario will have you on a lake with both clear water sections and darker and/or greener water sections within reasonable boating and fishing distance, giving you more options and the best of both worlds.
According to the weather, water temperatures, time of the year, and other timing factors, the clearer sections of a lake (or a clear water lake by itself) will have windows when they are at their best. An obvious example is low light conditions — dark, overcast weather, especially if there’s been a spell of sunny weather. Just before a front, and as its starting to pass by, are two of the best times to be on a big fish in clear water. Early mornings are an excellent time, especially if you’re chasing a fish on a popular spot or the lake receives a lot of boating and/or fishing pressure. The witching hour — about an hour before dark until dark — can be intense. If you are on a water system that allows fishing after dark, the bite tends to last longer into the night on clear water, especially during the darker phases of the moon.
Sunny, flat weather is generally associated with tough fishing in clear water, but the sun and a good wind together can spell active, aggressive fish in predictable locations. When other waters reach peak summer bloom, it is prime time to head for clear lakes or clearer sections of lakes.
During turnover time, some lakes can get real dirty, cloudy, and bloomy — tough for the fish to find baits—while clear water lakes will turn on during pre-turnover with big fish moving up shallow even more frequently and ready to rumble. They can actually be much more predictable during turnover. Some clear lakes will get just enough of a hint of color to help fishing, and as long as the water temperatures continue to drop slowly and steadily, fishing can be about as predictable as you can expect to find during this time. Shortly after turnover, the lake trout will move shallow, followed by the ciscoes and whitefish, which will bring these lakes into a time period of their own.
Typically, dark waters are shallower and drop into inactive water temperatures and freeze-up sooner. Depending on the year, you can get in up to a full month more of fishing when clear lakes are in their prime.
While shallower, darker waters are associated with early-season activity, and rightly so, you will have many deep, clear water lakes to yourself because of the misconception that they don’t turn on until midsummer. Many people don’t book their trips until then. This time period can be a real sleeper, especially during years with an early spring or real warm, stable weather through late May to mid-June.
Since it is likely (especially on hot, sunny days when fishing shallow structure) that many of the muskies will not be in a feeding mood, use and incorporate triggers and speed, and/or erratic retrieves. Don’t think in terms of trying to get a hungry fish to bite; rather, try to aggravate a fish into striking or provoke an instinctive response. Topwaters, Jerkbaits, Bull Dawgs, Twitchbaits, Burned Bucktails, and Spinnerbaits yo-yo’d or slow-rolled and ripped, are all good choices to explore. Use a lot of natural colors, especially on the first baits through, but it’s a fact that Canadian fish love fluorescents for some reason, even in ultra-clear waters, so keep ’em honest by throwing something bright, particularly under low light conditions.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some individual fish that are so sharp and selective you won’t get them any other way than with a live bait early or late in the season. Don’t be afraid to be a little creative or unorthodox — remember, there are no real rules and all’s fair in muskie fishing. My clients and I have boated many big fish using top-waters on bright, sunny, even flat-as-a-pancake days, in gin clear water where I wouldn’t have even remotely considered using them under those conditions years ago in northern Wisconsin.
Using the 2000 season as an example, I can think of many contradictory patterns to these and other patterns that are considered “normal.” Until late fall, the best action was on the sunniest days and more times than not it was out of the wind where the water could warm the fastest. Generally, the clearer sections were more consistent than the darker sections, even in the sun. We found more fish at times off or over deep structure than on. We’d have follows from big fish on a bright day on shallow structure and come back to them at prime time with clouds rolling in or before dark — expecting to cream ’em — and they’d be shut down.
Instances like these happened to me more-times-than-not last year. We had to go for them during the warmest part of the day to have a chance. However, that’s the kind of season it was, and it won’t be the last out of the ordinary one you’ll encounter. Whether due to abnormal weather patterns and other environmental, or human-induced factors, there will be days, weeks, or periods within seasons when those anglers who are more adaptable or “off the wall” will come out on top.
Considering deep water
Should we theoretically spend more of our time fishing over deep water? Definitely, the opportunity exists, especially for above-average muskies, a special fish of a lifetime, or those looking for new challenges or patterns. In most clear water Canadian Shield systems in Northwest Ontario, this type of fishing is not for the beginner or weak of mind. It’s also not for someone who needs to go home with a bunch of release forms or pictures in his back pocket in order to have a had a successful trip. Shallower structure fishing is generally a much higher percentage for those on a week-long, or shorter, trip.
However, some locational patterns have given me confidence as I spend more time pursuing these patterns and the fish using them. I have not had much success over true open water on the big lakes, as I did back on the relatively smaller lakes during my days guiding in Vilas County, Wisconsin. The number of fish per acre in this scenario is just too small compared to the size of the water and the time needed to cover it, especially with the law allowing just one rod per person. When fishing over open water and targeting large, tight concentrations or balls of baitfish (presumably ciscoes) as “structure” or as a locational pattern, I have boated one 40-pound-plus fish, but mostly keep coming up with an occasional small fish.
Small schools of larger-sized forage near deep structure are a different story. Practically all the really big fish I have made contact with were near or over the top of 18- to 35-foot deep bars, humps, or hard-bottomed areas, near large reefs. This is especially so over and off the tips of long, deep fingers or hard-bottomed areas tapering off into basins or connecting with other structures. Deeper troughs between islands in narrower sections of the lake, smaller mini-basins within travel corridors, and the mouths of big bays, particularly earlier in the season, also are hot. A key seems to be hard-bottomed areas even if it is just a bump or slight rise.
If you mark a single big fish above 30 feet on your electronics, it may seem to be very catchable if you can get a bait near it before it’s gone. Baitfish nearby, especially good-sized hooks rather than clouds, are nice to see. They give me some added confidence, but the lack of baitfish does not figure into whether I fish a spot or not — I’ve caught just as many without bait as with. In most of these situations, food is never far away, just a short stroll to the dinner table.
Drift and make long fan casts when fishing most of the bars, fingers, points, and areas off them. Then finish with some trolling passes. You don’t need to spend a lot of time — if she is there and active she will come a long way for the bait. I usually troll narrows and mouth areas for efficiency and time’s sake. If possible, pick sections that have several areas to fish relatively close to one another, and troll in-between spots. Run one or two baits no deeper than 8 to 12 feet and another at 18 to 22 feet — it’s better to be above than below them in the summer months. During high pressure and post cold front situations, run one of the shallow baits deeper at, say, 24 to 30 feet, or as deep as the highest marking bait and big hooks on the locater. Try running a lure deep enough to bounce off the top or crests of the deep structure if you’re fishing one. Contrary to what you might think, most muskies caught off the edges and over deep structure have come on dark, overcast days, not bright, sunny days.
Muskies don’t just get beamed up to these areas. They travel and feed in open water while moving from spot to spot, from the shallows out, and from deep back in. There are even some, perhaps, that never move in shallow most of the year, simply moving up to just below the surface for the warmth they need. Try it out there though, and you’ll soon find there is a lot of dead space and there never seems to be enough time. It takes supreme confidence and stubbornness to stick with it. They most likely make these movements very quickly and purposefully anyway, so in my thinking, your time is better spent covering water trolling between areas but concentrating more in and around structures where they might end up.
When casting, approach structures cautiously. Shut down your outboard well away from the structure instead of roaring in like the standard run-and-gun approach. When wind speed and direction allow, make drifts and cuts across structure from deep to shallow or vice versa. When drifting, try casting off the ends of the boat to cover more water and to create a sweep and speed increase during the last third of the retrieve. On dark days or cold fronts, make sure you fish off the edges before giving up on a structure, whether you’re drifting over it or running the edge and casting out.
Muskies can be sensitive to electronics. Try to keep your trolling motor at a constant speed as much as possible. If I’m returning to try for a big fish I’ve seen on a spot I know well, I’ll even go to the point of shutting down all electronics as I initiate my approach.
When using braided lines, try going to long fluorocarbon leaders — I’m convinced they can make a difference at times. This year, on real bright days, I’ll be experimenting with a low-stretch fluorocarbon line, with a double line straight to the swivel tied in a bimini knot for a leader. I’ve been using monofilament and fluorocarbon leaders for 12 years without a bite-off, and if it does happen eventually I won’t whine because I’m way ahead in the game.
Under real windy, low light, rainy or snowy conditions, or when you encounter a really pumped up fish, these stealth tips may seem extreme and probably wouldn’t make any difference at all. It’s just that a number of small things can add up by the end of the season under a variety of conditions and situations. Sure, we’ve all caught fish with heavy braided lines and heavy wire leaders in clear water, but could we do better at times?
Another point to ponder, if you are a doubter, is why do finesse tactics work so effectively in clear water situations for most other freshwater species. Some of the best saltwater captains tell me their strike rates for the apex predators with excellent eyesight, like billfish, go up dramatically with clear leaders as compared to wire leaders under bright conditions. Many times, these top predators will follow a bait that seemingly doesn’t look right or has a wire leader for great distances until it crashes a different bait in the spread or is switched and baited with live bait. Sound familiar?
Could it be that many fishermen just assume that muskies are fearless because they are the top predator in their system? Are muskies just playing around when they follow or make unusual actions? Or, is it because they are being cautious? Come to your own conclusions, but it’s one I’ve already acted on.
If a trophy fish is your goal, you would be hard-pressed to beat fishing a lake trout, cisco, tullibee, whitefish forage-based clear water or combo system. Don’t fear clear water — just realize that timing and fine-tuning your presentations and philosophies can make a huge difference for you. Take some of these patterns, presentations, and tips to the water with you and see if your thoughts don’t change just a bit.
Sage advice from one of the “True Masters of the Sport!”
Great article. Love all the tips. Going to a deep clear water lake, with very scarse weed cover available. Have been there a few times before. Has monster size muskie. One was so large, I felt like it was going to bust my pole in half. My 20 lb test monofilament gave out instead ( switched to 30 lb ). I’m an ex-bass hound….so, I still use spinning reels for muskie. Works out well. I have superior control compared to most.
Lake has mostly lake trout in it for forage. Going deep this year, and jigging & trolling more……we’ll see what happens.
Simply amazing article! Lived every sentence!
Herbie, I guess thats why a person should use a pro like yourself as guide, cuz i could never remember all that.! see ya later this this summer.