Muskies are one of the most exciting freshwater sport fish to catch on any gear - especially fly rods. However, their “fish of 10,000 casts” nickname is well deserved.
Each year, millions of anglers spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours with hopes of catching just one of these remarkable fish. Lucky for us, muskies are not attracted to money. Throwing dollars in the water will not catch these apex predators anymore than asking really politely. But all jokes aside, the key to musky fishing is knowing just how weird your quarry truly is. In other words, think like a musky. Get weird.
This intro article will offer a brief introduction to musky fishing on the fly rod and the techniques that will help you catch these incredible fish. As the series continues I will go into greater detail about different aspects of this frustrating and absolutely worthwhile fishery.
You need to know what you’re up against. Musky are a big, stong, and very determined fish. In order to land one of these monsters, we recommend an 8 to 10 weight fly rod. However, it’s crucial to find a rod that is both light enough to cast all day and strong enough to turn a big musky.
It’s important to note that musky fishing is not only a battle against the fish, but a battle against yourself to keep casting and not give up. To put this in perspective, I have gone 14 hours without seeing a fish only to catch two within 15 minutes of each other. The lighter the rod the more likely you are to be alert and ready to go when you do see a fish. Plain and simple.
As for line type I would say that intermediate sink tip would fit most situations. You want to get the fly down in the water column when you are presenting it to the fish. However, let the situations dictate your line choice. For example, I would use sinking line only in the rare situations that I’m fishing in greater than 15 feet of water. On the other extreme I would only use floating line when in less than 7 feet of water.
Muskies are window feeders, meaning they will turn on for short periods throughout the day. All you can do is hope that your fly is over a feeding fish at a time the window opens. Figuring out when the windows open is nearly impossible. They seem to be random. However, there is one window that almost always will produce activity - moon rise and moon set.
In rivers, muskies will stay near any ambush point - such as log jams, rock out copping, slack water, large pools, etc. - are all places that will hold muskies at one time or another. Fish thoroughly.
Tip of the Week
The first thing you need to invest in after a rod and flies is a good GPS. Muskies in rivers and lakes are extremely territorial, and even small rivers can contain large (50+ inch) muskies. To me, nothing is better than initially spending time on the water while trying to figure things out. My recommendation would be to take a Saturday and fish hard for the whole day. Or if you want to expedite the process hire a local guide who can hopefully put you on fish.
You might say that this is obvious however; the one thing that makes muskies unique among fish is that they follow the lure or fly to the boat. Seeing a fish the size of a 50-inch 2X4 following your lure can make even the most experienced angler weak at the knees. Don’t worry if the fish doesn’t bite, seeing the fish is part of the battle.
This is where the GPS comes in. Mark the spot as soon as you see the fish. Like I mentioned, Muskies are territorial. Come back to that spot over the course of the day. These fish are home bodies and aren't going any where.
know your daily musky
As I said in my first entry Muskies are window feeders. However, the intensity of these windows fluctuates depending on a couple daily factors. We have already discussed seasonal muskies, and those factors are the general rule depending on the MONTH that you are fishing in. However, the daily factors, such as moon phase and weather can augment the strategies that we use to effectively catch muskies.
Weather is the overriding factor on any day that you go musky fishing. The general rule is - the worse the day is for boating, the better it is for fishing. There are two reasons for this adage. First, cloud cover, waves and wind all disperse light. This makes the finer point of your presentation harder to detect, like tippet coming out of the end of a fly, and makes muskies more willing to bite. Secondly, unless you consistently fish on small rivers you have to deal with boat traffic. A quarter of my Muskie season is ruined by nice warm summer days where every single person in the state of Minnesota decides to get his or her boat out on the water. Fishing in those conditions can be dangerous and risking your life is not worth it. The same goes for bad weather, I have heard from other fishermen that the best bite is right before a thunderstorm. No matter how good the bite is it’s not worth getting seriously injured.
Like with most fish and game, moon phases play a large role in a musky’s activity level. The most favorable moon phases, and days with the most severe feeding windows, are the three or four days around the new and full moon. Not only are the windows more sustained, making our job of putting our line over feeding fish a lot easier, but the moonrise and moon set times are easy for anglers to remember. In the new moon phase, the moonsets when the sun sets and rises again when the sun does. This differs from the full moon phase in that they are exact opposites with the moon rising when the sun sets. As anglers we should use these factors in tandem with what we know about seasonal musky movements.
As a hypothetical, we’ll use a warm day in early June. There is a full moon and overcast skies. We know that based on summer and spring musky movements that the fish are likely to be shallow. We also know that based on the weather and moon phase, fish will likely be biting at both moonrise and moonset. Thus, anglers have a chance to catch fish all day. By placing these factors together and thinking logically, similar to piecing together a puzzle, anglers can debunk a little of the mystique behind these truly amazing fish.
Know your seasons
I referenced in my last article that I would flesh out the concepts I brought up in the overview. Last week we talked about general musky set ups and time to fish. This week, I would like to start a two-part segment on seasonal strategies and daily conditions that affect these apex predators. In short, we’re getting seasonal.
Depending on the time of year, a musky’s behavior can drastically change. Accordingly, it is important to adjust our strategies to match the fish’s mood. I would just like to say that while these are the general rules, this is by no means gospel. All fish behave erratically – especially Musky. However, if you follow these rules you will have a much better idea about how to fish for these enigmatic monsters.
I count spring as the time after the spawn, which usually occurs during April and May in the north and January, February and March in the south. Basically until the water hits 72 degrees. During this time period, Muskies are usually looking for post-spawn forage and can be real biters. However, since spawning takes a lot of their energy these fish are also usually lethargic.
If you are in a lake or a river, muskies usually spawn on shallow weed flats. Because of their territorial nature, you should fish channels or bottlenecks between areas that you have seen muskies at in the summer and try to find spawning habitat close by. Muskies in rivers do not move very far. If you have seen or caught a musky in a pool during the summer and spawning habitat is nearby, fish the area between them because that musky is likely to be there looking for love.
As far as types of flies and general fishing tactics: I would stick to large sub surface flies, stripped slowly at first but gradually picking up speed as you get closer to the boat.
After the water warms above 72 degrees, muskies move to shallow water where they become much more energetic and likely to take surface flies. However, because fish can be anywhere, it’s important to fish thoroughly – alternating between shallow spots and deep spots. In other words, any place that looks like it can hold fish will hold fish. So I fish hard. In rivers or lakes that have good populations of fish they could be literally anywhere. Naturally, the more you fish and the more places you get your fly the more fish you will have an opportunity catch.
During these warmer months, I prefer using large streamers and top water flies, like the Dahlberg Diver. When retrieving these meaty offerings, vary your strip speed. If the water is extremely hot the faster your retrieve, the better. There is an old rule of thumb on Lake Vermillion - one of the world’s best musky fisheries - that during the warm months, if a musky followed your lure to the boat and didn’t take, you weren’t stripping fast enough.
In fall and winter muskies retreat to deeper pools and become more lethargic. Fishing strategies are similar to those that we employed during the springtime; however, the retrieve is consistently slow and steady. This is when you use the biggest flies you have in your box. Muskies are not likely to move very fast or far for a meal, and if they are the meal better be worth it. In the summer we put a premium on speed, so smaller flies are important, and they are easier to cast. However, fall muskies are beefing up for the winter months and need large meals to justify the work it takes to feed. Grab your biggest bat and swing for the fences.
If you’re lucky enough to land one of these incredible fish, be careful. A lot of muskies die every year during the summer because of improper handling by fisherman. The extreme heat of the water and battling with a fisherman is too much for many of these fish to handle. If you are hearing rumors of fish dying, and you don’t have to musky fish, don’t. The reason we have such a booming population of these fish is because conscientious anglers are careful enough to catch and release these fish all while taking proper care of them. However, there are some situations where the battle and water temperature are too much for the fish and even with all of the careful stewardship in the world they still don’t make it. If you HAVE to musky fish, which I sympathize with, leave the fish in the net and water for extended periods of time and take extreme care with the fish to MAKE SURE that it is fully recovered. We have a duty to protect the fish and the populations. Do your part.
After years of being equally curious and intimidated by the vise, threadin, and whip-finisher...and ultimately paying the price with my wallet at fly shops - I finally decided to get my wits about me and started tying my own flies. I'm about 3 months into this great journey and the results are starting to pay off big time both financially (saving lots of money) and peronsally. There is an undeniable connection between fly fishermen and their quarry - especially when they sip down some of your home brew - but why does the fly fishing community stop itself at de-barbing hooks to be fish friendly?
J-hooks can still be lethal - as evidenced by their ban in bill fisheries - yet I still don't see many fly anglers using circle hooks on their streamers. Additionally - de-barbed circle hooks can still find themselves lodged in fish's backs or friend's ears , so the benefits of using circle hooks are fairly obvious:
A) Care for the Fish: Plain and simple, they're easier on the fish. Plus you don't have to worry about snagging gizzard shad and hook sets are usually in the corner of the mouth.
B) Safer: When in close proximity to other boats or fishing with two anglers in the boat - these flies make it impossible to snag yourself or someone else.
C) Keep your flies: Similar to it being difficult to snag people or undesirable fishes, it takes some serious misfortune for one of these flies to snag on the bottom. After losing 15 or so flies in my first 4 trips to Fletcher's this year with J-hook shad flies, I've only lost 3 (two break-offs on fish) with de-barbed circle hooks.
With all positives said, I can't spin this all one way without telling you that there is one major difference between J-hook flies and those of the circle variety - the hook set. Coming from a saltwater background, I've been using circle hooks for a long time. The way they work is fairly simple: once the fish has the fly/bait/lure in it's mouth, the angler reels/strips tight on the fish. This in turn pulls the hook into the corner of your quarry's mouth for a perfect hookset. The mistake I see most anglers make (myself included) is that they will try to rod set with a circle hook. In short- you will lose every fish that falls for your fly by doing this. Setting with the rod will pull your fly out of the fish's mouth. Instead, STRIP UNTIL YOU COME TIGHT, THEN RAISE THE ROD. It may take a few fish to get this technique down, but once you master it - you'll be exponentially more fish friendly and won't have to worry about giving your friend or neighboring vessel that shad dart earring they always wanted.
So next time you stop in at Urban Angler - pick up some size 4-6 circle hooks and brew up something tasty. They say what goes around, comes around....sounds like a circle to me.
When it comes to fishing with any artificial lure, confidence is key. Every fly or lure is made to either as closely imitate a prey item as possible or to be so bright and attractive that no fish in the vicinity could miss it. Either way, a fly is still not the real thing, so it’s no wonder when anglers tie on a particular pattern their first thought is, “will this work?” And it’s also no wonder that the first thing many anglers do when they don’t get strikes is look in the box for a new pattern.
Last year, Orvis featured a great blog post on their site about fly-fishing psychology and the common “Shoulds” of fly fishing, including “I should be using a different fly.” And while that article points out that extended fishing periods without a bite are probably the result of many factors, not just fly selection, I want to talk about another way to handle Triple-F (Fly Fishing Frustration) syndrome, and that’s with a “confidence fly.”
We all have one, and their value can’t be understated. For me, the confidence fly is none other than the Woolly Bugger. While this is probably no huge surprise given the popularity of the pattern, it still is undeniably my go to fly when the fishing is slow. Why? It’s simple, I’ve caught more kinds of fish in more kinds of water with a Woolly Bugger than any other pattern in my box. Confidence comes from past success, and success in angling is landing fish. Every time I tie on a Woolly Bugger I can evaluate the conditions and I can replicate a technique I used to catch fish in similar scenarios with the confidence that “It worked before, so it can work again.” But let’s examine further how the Woolly Bugger got in this position…
The Woolly Bugger’s past is somewhat hazy, with many believing it was first tied by Russell Blessing in the late 60′s in Pennsylvania. It was likely made as a variation of the English Woolly Worm, but some believe it was made as a bass imitation in the 1800′s. This muddy history alludes to what makes the Woolly Bugger great… it can imitate so many different things. No other fly can really match the diversity of a Woolly Bugger. It can be used effectively to mimic a bait fish, a leech, a grub, a cricket, a stonefly, a hellgrammite, a dragonfly nymph, a damselfly nymph, a drowning terrestrial, a clamworm, a crayfish, a shrimp, or a crab. It comes in any color. It can be swung, crawled, bounced, dead-drifted, or fast-stripped in streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, and tidal flats. The damn thing even works in saltwater. This incredible versatility is why you can catch trout, bass, panfish, steelhead, salmon, shad, carp, pike, etc with the same pattern. It’s also why, no matter the situation, I have confidence that a Bugger can get the job done if nothing else will.
Just recently I’ve really begun learning the fisheries in my local Washington, DC area with the help of our friend Remick Smothers, founder of FlyTimesDC, and with some inspiration from a video called Urban Lines about fly fishing in the tidal zone of the Potomac River (it was also selected for the Fly Fishing Film Tour this year). Being from Kentucky I knew next to nothing about fishing a tidal river. Naturally, I struggled the first few times I went out there because I coincidentally hit the water right when the tides were against my favor, and honestly it’s a weird place to fish. But with some guidance from Remick, I learned some of the spots and times when fishing is best and set out to really establish my home court advantage on my local waters. I was frustrated again for a while, but I’d seen fish and believed that the conditions were right to catch them. Eventually I knew…. it was time for the confidence fly, the Woolly Bugger that has caught fish in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Utah but never the Potomac. Sure enough, within a few casts of slow stripping a Size 6 Olive version, I was hooked into a solid Crappie and the game was on. I ended up landing 20 or so Panfish of various species in a couple hours, and that satisfaction gave me the freedom to throw something bigger at the end of my day, eventually netting me two 4lb+ Channel Cats on a size 2 Clouser minnow. Once the big Largemouth come out of their pre-spawn cruising patterns, I’m sure they’ll be eating Buggers there as well. I’ve gained that confidence now, thanks to the Woolly Bugger.
In conclusion, what’s my Weapon of Choice when all else fails? A bead-head Olive or Black Woolly Bugger – Sizes 2-10.
When I sit down and look into my fly box a myriad of factors determine my final decision. Having confidence in a certain fly color, desired imitation, material, etc. is nice, but in my experience the ultimate success at the end of the day comes down to how you play the combination of water temperature, weather and season. Well, we all like to think we have all the answers, but when it is late in the day and things are looking tough, my decision to experiment with fly choice becomes much easier. No matter what season, if the bite is nonexistent, I look for one thing and one thing only - SIZE. Take the biggest, ugliest fly in your box, tie it on, and bring it back to you at a snail’s pace.
It's important for us as anglers to think like a musky. When you are lazy, what is going to make you hungry? A cheeseburger flying by your face at 50 miles per hour or a porterhouse steak maddeningly dragged slowly away from your place at the table. I am not saying that the fish will bite every time with this method, but if there is an ‘active’ (I use this term loosely as we know muskies by now) fish in the area, they will take a look and at least follow to the boat.
When this happens you've won a major battle. On slow days the hardest part is seeing and locating active fish. Once you have seen a fish, come back later at a predictable feeding window. And fish confidently - you know a fish is there that will eat.
Words of Wisdom: Fishing is a sport of patience and adversity. Musky fishing is war. It will test your patience, and push you to the brink of frustration where it seems easier to just pull the boat and go home and drink beer. Fight that temptation, ONE THING matters in musky fishing: desire to catch a fish. Keep yourself on the water, and be determined. The fishing gods will reward you. Trust me.
Dig our strange.