Targeting Big Fish

By Jeff Gardner
Originally published in the Release Journal March/April 2010

Browsing across the various web forums or flipping through the pages of magazines, one might be led to conclude that trophy muskies are only accessible to those willing to pound it out in frigid, windy November and December conditions.

The fact of the matter is that the biggest fish in every body of water swim beneath the surface all year long, just like their smaller brethren.  While they won’t be at full winter weight during the summer and early fall, would anyone turn down a 30 or 40lb’er earlier in the year just because it wasn’t at peak late season weight?  What follows are my general thoughts on what it takes to target and catch the biggest fish in any particular body of water.

Pick Your Waters

If your goal is to catch a fish over 50”, you need to concentrate on bodies of water with a fishable population of them.  While the odd 50” might come out of numbers areas like the Kawartha chain of lakes, fishing there for a giant stacks what are already long odds even  more heavily against you.

There’s no secret about the bodies of water that routinely crank out trophies the eastern shores of Georgian Bay and the rivers and bays that connect to it, the North Channel, Lake Nipissing, the St. Lawrence River, the Ottawa River,Lake St. Clair, Lake of the Woods, Eagle Lake, Lac Seul,etc.

What makes these bodies of water so good?

Massive acreage, cover and structure options, forage base, and the strains of Muskies prevalent. Now, this doesn’t mean you should stop reading if you aren’t inclined to fish these waters.What will follow applies to catching the biggest fish in any system whether that’s a 40”er, 45”, a 50”, or bigger.

Right Place at the Right Time
Trophy Muskies are elusive beasts.You could be fishing the greatest piece of structure in town, but if you are there at the wrong time, you might as well be casting onto shore.  For a thorough explanation of structure favoured by Muskies on both mesotrophic and trout water, pick up a copy of Dick Pearson’s  Muskies on the Shield.  As a quick summary, you will increase your odds greatly if you focus on complexes.  Complexes are areas where multiple pieces of structure and cover intersect for example, a group of islands located in/near a neckdown, with points, saddles, reefs, cabbage beds, inside turns, current (wind or natural), bait, a feeding flat, and quick access to the safety of deeper water.

The more of these things you can put together, the more often big fish will be found.  No matter how good it looks, a lonely piece of structure might cough up a big musky only from time to time.  Complexes, on the other hand, hold fish consistently either right on them or off the edges, depending on conditions.

When it comes to the right time, particularly in summer and early fall, I am a firm believer  that big fish and smaller fish are distinctly different. The biggest fish will use the easily identifiable classic structures mostly under prime conditions. That means stable or  rising warm temps, some wind blowing, a cloudy sky, one of the majors imminent (sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset), and there could be a storm coming.

In these conditions you may find the biggest girl in town up on the spot-on-the-spot, and possibly even in five or fewer feet of water. For many musky hunters, fishing skinny water is a piece of cake; it’s where they spend much of their time regardless of conditions. The problem is, in less than prime conditions, this usually results either ringing the doorbell when no one is home, or only contacting the smaller fish.

So, what about cold fronts, bluebird cloudless days, and other less favorable conditions?

I  curse these days, but fish whenever I can and try to make the best of it.  Remember, they haven’t vacated the lake, and while it may be more of a challenge, they can still be caught. Based on experience, my most successful approach under tough conditions is to fish the outside edges and a cast length or two off the edge, where classic structure that forms complexes drops off quickly into deeper water.
Depending on the body of water, this could be a drop to anywhere from 5-15′ into 25-90′ of water in a matter of a few boat lengths.  In my experience, 40-60’seems to be best.

The key is that whatever the depth of water, fish your lure at the same depth the structure dropped off. If a saddle dropped off at 5′, fish your lure 5′ down. If a shelf dropped from 15′ into 50′, work your bait in the 10-15′ range.  Some will argue that under cold fronts  Muskies might be predisposed to drop vertically when they do slide off the edge. That may be the case, but a fish that negative (dropping vertically in the water column) is not likely to be persuaded by any means.

I think for the most part we’re pretty good at knowing what kinds of structure and cover  Muskies like.  The key to finding big ones lies in knowing when to fish what.
Big fish call for stout tackle.
When it comes to line, 80 or 100lb braid is the bare minimum.  It’s required to cast large lures, eliminates line breakage, and keeps the fight short, which is a must for successful and responsible release.  You should be able to put every fish – whether it is 24” or 60” – in the net in a matter of a couple of minutes at most. The epic tales of half hour battles may sound glorious, but the end result of that is a dead musky (either at the boat, or near certain post-release mortality).

Heavy and extra heavy musky rods in lengths over 8′ help hook big fish and keep them  pinned. They are also much less fatiguing than shorter rods through the course of the day, and are easier to figure eight with. I wish I’d found that out when I first started. One thing I wish more manufacturers would do is make an action slightly slower than ‘fast’ or ‘extra fast’. While stiffness and backbone are critical for hooksets, your rod must maintain bend while fighting a big fish.  Most of us know all too well that a split second of slack line  results in a tail-waving goodbye and a stream of obscenities. Rods with the right amount of bend during the fight eliminate the possibility of slack.

Stout rods will also take the fatigue out of throwing big baits all day long.

Match durable well built reels to the stout rods. The reel is going to take the brunt of abuse  from throwing big baits.  Preferences vary greatly on this, but some popular choices include Abu 7000, Shimano Trinidad, Daiwa Saltist, Abu Revo Toro, and Shimano Calcutta 400TE.

Leaders and terminal tackle:
It is up the individual what kind to use – solid wire, seven strand, fluorocarbon, etc.  Personally , I prefer solid wire in heavy gauges (140lb or more), tied in a haywire twist, in lengths of 12-18” for casting, and up to 36-48” for trolling.  I fish a lot of rocks, and after seeing a 130lb fluoro leader nicked after landing a fish a few years ago, I made the switch back to wire. These fish are not leader shy , and I believe solid wire gives me the best chance of no break off, and standing up to pounding rocks.

Whatever your choice of leader material, remember that your setup is only as strong as the weakest link.  Pairing heavy wire or fluoro with undersized rings or snaps doesn’t cut it.  Stick with 150lb-400lb terminal components. Some will contend such tackle is overkill, but the fact is that insufficient terminal tackle can result in near certain death for a fish that swims off with a lure pinned in its mouth.
There is no such thing as a magic lure. Big muskies eat everything – surface lures,crankbaits,jerkbaits,bucktails, spinnerbaits, and so on.  I pick something I believe in, that has a high hook-up ratio, and follow the guidelines below.

When it comes to Musky lures in general, I believe bigger is better; all the more so when it comes to targeting big fish.  I know , I know – lots of big incidental Muskies are taken on little walleye lures and jigs. On St. Clair it is practice all season long to catch big fish on 6” baits, etc.  But, I’ve caught so many big bass and small pike on 10” lures that when it comes to targeting four foot plus beasts, very few lures under 10” get the nod for me these days, regardless of conditions.

On speed – I spent a couple of my first years starting each day with my best one or two  lures, regardless of conditions.  This typically meant throwing a jerkbait or crankbait all day to hopefully catch one fish when I could have been throwing fast moving lures and catching multiple fish.   I ultimately stumbled across an article that suggested the best approach was to always fish the fastest that the prevailing conditions would dictate.

For example, with a warm summer storm pending, the sky clouding over , and wind starting to kick up a

Above: necessary terminal tackle – 100lb line, 140lb solid wire, and swivels, snaps, split rings and solid rings in the 200-400lb range

bit, I would highly recommend you throw something you can run back to the boat as fast as possible -inline blade baits, spinnerbaits, tail prop topwaters.  Or, if it is dead-calm bluebird skies at mid-day, think more along the lines of low and slow.

Fishing as fast as conditions warrant allows you to make contact with the maximum number of catchable big muskies on any given day.  Don’t make the mistake of  thinking big fish are fat and slow either; they are explosively fast. No matter what reel you are using or how fast you crank, I guarantee you can’t reel too fast for a big Musky (or any Musky) to catch and annihilate your lure.
To illustrate, let’s say you are a machine and you can reel 10′ per second (that is five full cranks in 1 second on a reel that picks up 24” of line per crank) – that converts to 6.8mph.
Most of us have seen fish easily cover 20′ in one second; that’s 13.6mph. You simply   cannot reel (or troll) faster than they can swim.

Big lures for big fish. A selection of baits from 10-18”, covering the water column from top to bottom. Don’t worry about going ‘too big’. Many big bass and small pike ar e caught on 10” lures, and the author has caught Muskies down to 36” on 14” lures.

We are already targeting the apex predator , and therefore lowest density fish, in the system.  When you take that a step further and target not just any musky you can catch, but the biggest one that swims, you have to accept that you are going to spend a fair bit of time not catching.  While some bodies of water carry larger numbers of big fish, by and large it is a trade-off; numbers for size.

You could go days without even seeing a fish. You could also hit conditions right, make the right choices about where to fish, and catch (or at least see) several fish over 50” in one day.

Some guys have the trophy bug so bad they will fish all year for the sake of a couple of   bites from 50+”ers.  Some guys are happy to land a 30”something on most of their trips.

Some like to mix it up between the two. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into with targeting the big ones, because that first rod buckling behemoth might change you forever.

Spend some time before the season thinking what camp you want to fall into this year and gear up accordingly.