Talking Spring Muskies with the Guides

Category: article

 May 4th, 2007 by OutdoorsFIRST 

Modified May 4th, 2007 at 12:00 AM

MuskieFIRST is pleased to present a set of 3 articles on early season fishing in the southern Wisconsin / northern Illinois-Iowa area. Professional fishing guides and regular MuskieFirst contributors Adam Oberfoell, Joel Michel, and Jeff Hanson each offer insight on how they approach early season muskie fishing on their favorite lakes.Its interesting to note the differences and especially the similarities between the observations and tactics of these three top muskie fishermen. Hopefully it will make your early season forays more productive in 2007!Northern Illinois/Iowa Adam OberfoellSpring is here again and its time to sort through your gear and hit the water! The long winter has made you very eager to set hooks into that first musky of the new year. You cant wait to throw all of the hot new baits you bought at the sport shows, but which baits should you throw? Where should you begin to look for early season muskies? Here is some information to help you narrow down your choices.In northern Illinois and central Iowa you can get a jumpstart on the season, so this article will focus on the timeframe of mid-April to mid-May. By the time mid-April finally arrives, the muskies will usually be in the middle of the spawning cycle or just finishing up. The fish will still be in the recovery mode for a few weeks after the spawn. One advantage is that the muskies have probably not seen many baits over the long winter months so they are more likely to make a mistake.The smaller males are the first to recuperate and they will be easier to catch than the larger females. You have probably heard the old saying use small baits in the spring. If you just want to catch a few muskies and you are not concerned with size, moving quickly with smaller baits is a good approach. This is because the smaller baits will generally get the smaller fish to move, and smaller fish are more likely to chase down a bucktail or faster moving bait.If it is the larger muskies that you seek, you will want to refine your approach and tactics. The larger the fish, the more recovery time that fish needs from spawning. These fish do not want to move very quickly or very far to get their next meal. Begin looking for these fish in the warmest water you can find. The warmer the water, the more active the fish. I generally start looking directly outside the areas and bays were they have just finished spawning. Depths of 4-12 feet is a good starting point. If the lake you are fishing has some new green weeds coming up in the warmer water then you will want to probe the outside edge of these weeds with your casts. If you have no action there, begin to slide out deeper until you contact fish. I have had many days in the spring where I only contacted smaller fish by casting shallow. On those same days, I was able to contact the larger fish by sliding out to as deep as 15 feet.Break lines consisting of sand and gravel can be good, especially if the lake is devoid of weeds. Timber can also be a great holding place for early season musky because the wood absorbs more sunlight and warms the water around it. The best wood will be near the backs of bays and near creek channels. Lures such as a Suick, with a straight dive and pause, are great choices here not only to trigger a fish but also to keep you from snagging the trees.Pay special attention to areas where you are seeing baitfish; the muskies will be close by. Every year I like to go out pan fishing a few days before I can legally start muskie fishing. I cast small plastics and carefully watch the surface temperatures. When I start catching several crappies or bluegills I mark those areas with an icon on my GPS. These are usually the very first areas that I run to on opening morning and I have had great success in contacting muskies right off the bat.I like to use larger baits that move very slowly at the depth at which I believe the fish to be sitting. Long pauses in your bait presentation are a huge part of early season success, and some good choices for this are jerkbaits, minnowbaits and soft plastics. One of my favorite baits this time of year is an 8 Jake. I like to add a casting sinker to the middle hook attached with a split ring. When fishing shallower water I use a 3/8 to 1/2 ounce weight and I use a 3/4 to 1 ounce weight when fishing deeper. This allows me to run the bait much deeper and the bait can be paused for a long time instead of immediately rising to the surface. This weighting system works well for a large variety of baits throughout the season and gets your bait down to fish that dont often see that particular bait. Many guys will drill holes in their baits and use epoxy to add weights; however, I prefer to use removable weights so that I can easily take the weights off to use the bait in shallower water again. I like to get the bait down to the desired depth and use short 12 to 18 snaps with the rod tip. You want the bait to appear injured so incorporate at least 4 long pauses during each retrieve. The goal is to make the bait appear as a big easy meal for a tired, lazy fish to catch. Another favorite of mine for early season is the 9 weighted Suick. I like to retrieve this bait with short 12-15 soft pulls. I keep the rod pointed down and give it a pull, then slowly reel in the slack and pull again. This gives the bait plenty of hang time when weighted correctly. Many guys think the Suick is too big to throw on opening weekend, but the fish have told me otherwise.Please go through your boat before you hit the water for the first time this year. It is easy to forget to throw in the necessary release tools, camera, measuring devices, etc. after the long winter. Do a double check before leaving your garage to be sure your boat is ready for anything that the opening day can throw at you. Fish hard and enjoy being back on the water chasing this amazing fish that has haunted your dreams all winter!Adam OberfoellGet The Net, LLC. Professional Guide Servicewww.getthenetmuskyguide.com608-220-3406Southeast Wisconsin Joel MichelThe winter shows have come and gone again, and likely you have more new baits than you really need. Discussion boards have beat world record, size limit, and genetic issues to death. Hooks have been sharpened, reels re-spooled, and tackle boxes reloaded. That can only mean one thing: springtime is here and well soon be plying the waters with high expectations. Along with these high expectations comes a bit of effort if you hope to be successful and not simply depend on luck. There are things that need to be taken into account, and adaptation can be a huge asset this time of year. Here are a few things that have worked for me in the past when fishing the early season.In the Milwaukee, WI area the season opens the first full weekend in May. I can usually expect to find water temps in the 50-55 degree range when I first hit the water. One thing I do before the season opens is to hit the water for a day or two in order to scout likely areas and see what is under all of the weeds that will develop in the next few weeks. This is one of the best times of the years to find your sweet spots in the areas you are fishing. Youd be amazed at what is under the milfoil that seems to take over our spots come late spring and early summer. Things Ill look for are rock piles, logs/cribs, and something that always holds fish when you find it: cabbage. We dont have much of it down this way, but when you find the areas that hold cabbage early, remember them, and concentrate on those areas. Once you discover these areas, mark them down carefully so that you can find them again. Scouting these areas will help you to find out why certain areas are holding fish, not only now, but as the season progresses.In the spring, there is definitely a predictable movement of fish. They usually start staging outside of the spawning areas, and then as the water warms into the 50s, they move into spawning areas. After the spawn, the fish start transitioning out to main lake areas, and with the early warm weather of the past few springs, they can be in typical summer locations by late May. Most of the time, this movement of fish is not something that many fishermen consider when making decisions on what areas to target. By understanding these movements, it will help you to get an idea of where you should spend your time and increase your odds of success.Once Ive picked my locations, Ill decide upon what presentations Ill be using. Since were focusing on spring tactics here, Ill go over a few presentations that have worked for me. One early season tactic Ill use is sucker fishing. Im sure most of us are familiar with fishing suckers in the fall, and spring is the same, just with a change in location.Rigging your suckers and the way you lay them out in your set up, can make a huge difference in catching fish, or having idle suckers. I typically have 3-4 suckers out at a time during the first two weeks of the season. If Im using 4 suckers, Ill have 2 trailing behind the boat bobbers, and two straight under the boat. Im able to do this in southern Wisconsin because trolling is legal. In order to keep these baits separated, Ill use different length rods, similar to trolling. Ill use St Croix 76 MH rods for my bobber rods, and 72 MH rods for my down rods. I like the longer rods for the bobbers as they pick up the slack faster and keep good pressure on a fish, even if you set the hook away from the boat. All of these rods will have Abu Garcia 6500s on them spooled with 80# Power Pro line. I then use a 90# 7-strand leader that I will attach to my quick set rigs.The rig itself is where attention to detail will pay off for you with more fish in the net. For my rigs in the spring I prefer small hooks and hardware so that easily spooked fish do not notice them. I use a single 1/0 Gamakatzu hook for my bobber rods, or two size 1 or 2 Gamakatzu trebles for my down rods. I tie these hooks to an O-ring, which I attach to the leader. Remember to keep your rigs small and you will catch more fish!Now that we have our suckers rigged and ready, we have to finds some areas to fish. Typically in SE Wisconsin, Ill be fishing weed flats or bays that are used for spawning by the muskies. Ill start out casting shallow while dragging the suckers. The key to catching fish on suckers is to have them where they need to be. This requires a good idea of what you are fishing, and good boat control.I keep my boat on the weed edge if there is one, and have my sucker down rods working along the edges of these weeds. That is where knowing what you are looking at on your locator will pay off big, more attention to detail. I will then put one sucker back as a tail gunner to catch fish that followed in to the boat. It is far enough behind the boat that a fish that followed, has forgotten about seeing me (which can be a scary experience), and will see the sucker floating by. My theory is, that fish was interested enough to follow and after the initial follow, it spots an easy meal, so even a neutral fish will grab the sucker. The other bobber rig will be positioned over the tops of the shallower weeds. I keep this sucker down about 2 feet with as little weight as possible. This one is hanging right over the weeds, and is positioned to catch the fish that dont chase our baits. With this set up, we are able to cover all of the water that we are fishing with our suckers taking up the slack when our baits arent triggering fish to eat.The next approach I use is when I encounter larger bays or weed flats that have a lot of water to cover. That is when I will turn to trolling. These are bays or flats that dont seem to have any features that stick out that will hold fish. You can have some awesome days trolling these weed flats numbers wise, but you can also pick up some of the bigger post spawn females that are transitioning out of the bays. Ive found that this approach especially works when you are seeing a lot of fish following, but they arent eating. In this situation, trolling keeps these baits in the strike zone longer and you can throw in triggers by speeding up, turning, and by occasionally giving the rods pulls to twitch the baits.The key to this pattern, as with any trolling pattern, is to keep your baits exactly where they need to be. The nice thing about SE Wisconsin is you can troll 3 lines a person. This allows you to cover a wider path of water. Since Im fishing water from 7 feet and shallower, I dont need to worry about covering too much of the water column with all 6 baits. Instead Im looking for which baits they are eating at any given time. There are only a handful of baits that I run this time of year, and the main thing that Im changing is the colors of the baits Im running.Equipment wise, I select the same rods and reels as when Im casting. Im using 7 to 8 St Croix Premier MHs with Abu Garcia Record HCNs, loaded with 80# Power Pro. The benefit with these set ups is that I can spread my lines with the different size rods, and the Power Pro helps me know that the baits are running properly. My leaders in this case are going to be 2-3 foot long 100-130 lb. fluorocarbon leaders. Im confident using fluoro as Ive never had a bite off using this set up.The baits I run this time of year depend on the height of the weeds, and I will adjust the baits as the weeds develop throughout the spring to stay just above them. I start out running glide baits and minnow baits. I always have 2 Slammer Drop Belly gliders running off the board rods. I like the Slammers because they have their own built in action, but also because every time you hit a wave or wake with the boards, it puts a trigger into the side to side action. With the gliders, its very important that you keep the drags tighter than normal on the reels. There isnt much resistance in the water from them and if the drag is set too loose, youll end up losing a good amount of fish something Ive learned the hard way and it isnt necessary for you to repeat! I put the gliders far enough from the boards so that one is running about 6 inches over the weed tops, and the other I have running about a foot to two feet down. One last point with the gliders is you have to constantly check them for weeds. On sunny days, its nice because you can see them running if the water is clear. On overcast days or in stained water, Im usually checking them every few minutes, especially if there are a lot of floating weeds. The more Ive been using this approach with gliders the past few years, the better the results are getting.On the 4 remaining rods I am running, I use all minnow baits. I like to run Jakes and Lip Rippers for my down rods, and try to run these right over the weeds, so that occasionally they will rip through a weed. Again, its important that you have them running right over the weeds. This will get those fish that are sitting down tight to come out and grab the baits as they dont have to do much to get them. My two wash rods are going to be running on very short lines. Im talking having the leader right off the rod tip to maybe one rod length back. Im often using 7 Shallow Raiders and Shadraps for this. I also like to go with bright baits right outside of the wash. Ive had clients sit on the back corners of my boat and watch these baits get eaten. Talk about an excited person! When youre looking at a 40 plus inch fish jumping with 10 feet of line out after you saw it eat the bait, its hard not to get pumped up. Once you see this for the first time, youll realize trolling isnt boring.The other advantage to trolling, especially early in the season, is you can quickly learn how things are setting up. In a year where the weeds are low, we will typically find clumps of weeds scattered about on these flats and bays. Ill mark these on my GPS, and come back to work them casting. Ill also make trolling passes taking these weed clumps, rock piles, and different weed types into consideration. In this case trolling is not only helping put fish in the boat, but it helps learn how the lake is developing as well.This spring when you first get in the water, try to pay more attention to the smaller details. Know where you are working your baits whether you are casting, trolling, or running suckers. You will score fish from time to time without taking the small details into account, but youll notice your catching percentage goes up tremendously when you start to give them their due. Good luck!Joel [email protected](262) 498-5644The Madison Chain Jeff HansonSpring is finally here and I am more exited about this spring than I have been in a few years. We finally had a deep freeze this winter with over 20 of ice on Madison-area lakes. That really helps keep the water clear and kills off a lot more of the weeds. The last few years the big Madison lakes never fully froze, so on opening weekend of fishing a lot of the good spring spots were already weed-choked. This year all the traditional shallow stuff should be great.The opener for musky fishing in Madison is the first weekend in May. Most of the active fish the first two weeks of the season are smaller males less than 40, but once the water starts warming the bigger girls start to show up. The entire Madison chain has a 45 inch size limit that has helped to improve average fish size over the last few years. More and more big fish are showing up, including some big tigers.Lake Wingra:Wingra is your best bet for action the first two weeks of the season. It has up to 4 fish per acre! Most fish are from 30 to 40, and mid-40 fish are rare. My log book shows it takes 200 catches to get one over 45 from Wingra. I have only put one over 45 in the boat during May on this lake. So if youre looking for action rather than size, Wingra is the place to go early in the year. Wingra is small, with less than 400 acres and most of it has less than 10 feet of water. The water is always dirtier than the rest of the chain. The fish can be anywhere and you cant throw a bad cast on Wingra.Start out by trying real shallow, some of the fish will be right up against the shore. I have had good luck using small Grim Reaper or Roland Martin bass spinnerbaits with willow leaf blades in these areas. Black and silver is always a good color choice when its cloudy, and yellow/gold or black/gold works when its sunny. If the weeds are thicker in spots or if there is a cold front I use the musky-size Johnson silver minnow, with a double white twister on it. Clients always look at me funny when I pull that spoon out, but the fish on Wingra love them and theyll fish through the shallow slop with ease. Dont overlook topwater baits right from the start such as Musky Buster Skywalkers (Topwalkers) and Lee Lures Fishsticks. I have had the best luck with them under low light conditions or if its cloudy; color doesnt seem to matter when youre on top. Working them slow with a lot of splashing seems to get the most hookups.Once you start working the deeper weeds, in the 4 to 7 foot range, Perch or firetiger Crane baits and 6 inch Jakes worked aggressively are a good bet. I also have had good luck with Bootails and Super Vibrax bucktails. Put on something thats black/silver or black/orange if its cloudy, yellow/gold or anything firetiger if its sunny. Dont forget to use jerkbaits too: Suicks, Reef hawgs, Bulldawgs and Small and Big Joes can be great, and the 8 or 9 inch models are not too big. Slightly larger lures seem to select for larger fish in the spring. Work them slow with long pauses. Any color combo of black, orange, yellow and firetiger is good.If the weeds are getting crowded with other fisherman (a common occurrence on Wingra early in the year), dont be afraid to go right down the middle of the lake. Most of it is less than 10 feet, and the fish can be anywhere. Make sure you are throwing out of both sides of the boat to cover more water efficiently. On weekends you can only use your trolling motor. But during the week you can use your outboard at slow no wake speed so trolling can be done out here. A lot of fish are out in this open water chasing baitfish.Night fishing is good from opener to ice up on Wingra. The first couple of weeks see fish caught on Hawgwobblers and the small B.S. Willy creepers after dark. Once the water warms up a bit more, Top Raiders, Lee Lures Choppers and B.S.Willy Globes and big creepers start working well. Black bucktails and Depthraiders take their share of fish at night also. Glow in the dark baits work well also in this dirty water.Wingra is a great action lake. Multiple fish days are common so its great for beginners and kids and you dont need a very big boat.Lake Waubesa:Waubesa is a good size lake at about 2200 acres with a max depth of 40 feet. It warms fairly fast in spring and the water tends to be dirtier than Monona, but still very clear early in the year. Average size fish here is 37 inches, but it holds lots of musky over 40 and approaching the magical 50 mark. My personal best in May is 47 on this lake. It also holds big pike up to 40 who are cruising the weeds at this time of year.Cloudy days are best the first two weeks of the season until the water warms up and gets more of a stain. Mud Lake and the entire Yahara River connecting Waubesa to Monona is a good place to look as well because it will be holding fish.Both the north and south ends of the lake are good. The fish can be in less than a foot of water so dont be afraid to throw baits right up to shore. If you have two or more guys in the boat make sure you cast out of both sides one super shallow and one deeper – so that you can find the highest concentration of fish that day; they will move around a lot in the shallow weeds looking for an easy meal. If the water is clear make long casts, the fish spook easily in the shallows.Small spinnerbaits and bucktails like a Rizzo Wiz or Mepps are good for covering water here. White and black hair or skirts with silver blades on cloudy days will get you bit; go with gold or brass blades on the sunny days. Topwater Skywalkers and Fishsticks can be real good in light rain or low light periods in this shallow water. If the fish have been active, B.S. Willy toppers, small LowRiders and Hawgwobblers can be great.If you find that the fish arent very active, switching to slow twitched Crane baits or 6 Jakes in perch or sucker patterns will trigger strikes. Johnson Silver Minnows are good here under cold fronts also, look for the heaviest weeds to find buried fish.Once the water warms up and the weeds in the shallows are up to the surface, start working the weed lines around the lake. Anywhere there are weeds musky will be in them. Larger bucktails like Bootails, Tandem Giant Killers and Super Vibrax have been good to me. If the water is getting green go to florescent blades. Make sure to make a few casts off the weed line towards open water, some of the bigger fish are cruising outside the weed line and thats how I caught my biggest May fish here.Perch or firetiger 9 Suicks and 8 Bobbies work well here also. If fishing on the weed lines is slow try a weighted Reefhawg worked slowly or Big and Small Joes in white, yellow or black. Baby Depthraiders in perch or sucker take lots of fish also. Make as much contact with the deep weeds as you can, it will trigger more strikes.If the fish have been active Topraiders and Choppers will be good right before dark or if its raining. After dark use Hawgwobblers or B.S.Willy Creepers and Globes worked slowly. Last year I had a client have a 49-50 fish hit a B.S.Willy globe at the boat. Unfortunately it ended up shaking the bait after a short violent fight, but I did learn a few new words that night. Depthraiders and Big Joes in black, white or glow with a straight retrieve can be deadly.In late May trolling starts to be effective also. Small baits and speeds 3.0-3.8mph is the key.Waubesa is a fun lake to fish with lots of spots, remember that in spring anywhere you find weeds is where youll find the fish. Avoid the crowds and fish less pressured spots.Lake Monona:Monona is a fairly big southern Wisconsin lake at 3300 acres with a max depth at 70 feet. It warms up slowly due to the large amount of deep clear water. Most spots you can see the bottom in 15 feet of water this time of year. The average size musky here is 38 inches with lots of fish over 40 inches. My best Monona fish in May stretched the tape at 48 inches. We have caught pike up to 42 inches in spring also. Cloudy crappy days are your best bet in May; add a little rain to the mix and its better yet.A good place to start is Monona Bay; its water is the only stained water at this time, and it is also shallow and weedy. A lot of baitfish are in these weeds, so work the pockets and weed edges thoroughly. Small purple, white or black bucktails with silver blades work well. Go with gold blades if it is sunny and try some yellow hair. Fast worked 6 inch Reefhawgs and Undertakers in perch or walleye patterns get lots of action. Under low light conditions Fishsticks will work, and natural patterned Crane baits and 6 Jakes get fish too. If action is slow, work spinnerbaits and Silver Minnows in the thickest weeds you can find.Squaw Bay and Turville Bay are good spots for spring musky also. The water will be clearer than Monona Bay so unless its cloudy or a low-light period fishing can be tough. Youll end up with lots of follows but not many strikes. The mouth of the Yahara River and up into it can produce fish also, so dont be afraid to poke around in there.There are stretches of shallow sand in the northern part of the lake; sight fishing can be effective here by using jigs, small Joes and small minnow baits. Make long casts so as not to spook the fish, and work the bait so it passes a foot or two in front of it.Once the water warms up and more of the weed lines start to develop, fishing gets better. Now is the time to start using bigger baits. You cant go wrong with a black and silver Mepps Tandem bucktail or a Super Vibrax. Dont forget to throw an occasional cast off the other side of the boat because some big fish will be off the weed edge. Thats how we caught that four footer here in May a few years ago. Black and perch pattern 9 Suicks and weighted Reefhawgs will get lots of action from fish relating to the weeds, and Big Joes are a favored local bait of the local fish.Surface baits start working better towards the end of the month. Hawgwobblers and B.S.Willy jointed creepers are good right before dark and into the night. Go back on the highest concentration of fish you saw during the day, and you can get some of them to eat after dark. If the fish have been hot, go with faster-moving Topraiders and Choppers. Depthraiders and Big Joes work well here after dark; keep a slow steady retrieve and you will get hit.Monona is a great musky lake, it can be tough at times but the bigger size of the fish makes it worthwhile. A lot of people avoid it in May, so there is lots of room to fish. If you are having a hard time figuring out what to throw remember you cant go wrong with anything perch colored.Good luck this year and if you would like to spend a day learning more on these quality musky waters, give me a call. This will be my eleventh year guiding on the Chain.Jeff [email protected]

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