By Joe Bucher
No doubt, Musky Hunter Magazine has helped develop a very specialized language in its 25 year existence. But most fishing terminology is universal among anglers. For example, the mere mention of a point, bay, drop-off, weed edge, bar, hump or reef is sure to form an immediate mental picture of some kind with the vast majority of anglers all across North America. They know what these terms mean as well as what they look like on most bodies of water.
A point is perhaps the most obvious. It is a projection of land. An underwater point is usually nothing more than an extension of a point-of-land. These underwater points are also commonly called bars. A drop-off is an abrupt change in contour and is also often called a ledge or a breakline. However, breaklines do not always have a depth change. They are also associated with transitions in bottom content as well as vegetation types say from tall cabbage weeds, for instance, to a deeper growing grass. While a hump generally refers to an isolated underwater mound, a reef is a much like a hump, but larger in mass and usually shallower. The term bar is most often used to describe an underwater structure that is connected to a land point, but a bar can also be isolated in the middle of the lake. Bars are nearly always associated with sand or rock, but once in a while large submerged reefs with weeds on them are called weed bars.
There are certainly many other terms used to describe fishing spots, and one of them in particular is far less understood. It is called a flat. In fact, it’s a good bet that many musky anglers don’t truly know what a flat is unless it is associated with the tire their boat trailer. Yet, there’s a good chance your favorite lake has lots of fish including big muskies on a flat somewhere. In fact, don’t be surprised to find that a flat is the absolute best spot on the entire body of water. This is why it so important for you to start recognizing flats and figuring out the best way to fish them.
Flats occur both big and small, and can be subtle or very obvious. Small subtle flats are the most overlooked, but hold some of the biggest fish in the lake. They rarely get targeted on a regular basis. Large flats are always worth trying because they have a tendency to overwhelm most anglers by their size and dimension making them harder to decipher as well as pinpoint fish. At the same time, large flats nearly always have a lot of baitfish and muskies on them.
The best musky holding spots on flats are usually way off-shore making them difficult to pinpoint without a GPS unit. Obviously, this in itself makes a hotspot off a large flat much more special. It will likely not be fished heavily, and also get a constant reload of fish due to the size of the overall food source. Large schools of baitfish, panfish, as well as many species of gamefish are likely to be working the same flat in some fashion. In other words, once you find perch, crappies, or bluegills on a big flat, there are sure to be muskies on that same flat, as well. In a nutshell, a flat is a food shelf, and larger flats are sure to be one of the best spots to find a big musky or two.
So what exactly does a flat look like? In the simplest of terms, a flat is what it implies — a flatter section of terrain. Flats are the polar opposite of a steep breaking shoreline. In fact, if you can imagine idling along a steep breaking shoreline with your boat fairly close to the bank and then suddenly running up on an area of shallow water that extends out into the lake a ways, you have essentially come up on a flat.
Some flats are easy to recognize because they have emergent vegetation on them such as reeds or bullrushes. On flowages, flats are often decipherable by the appearance of cut-off stumps. Still other waters give away their flats in the heat of summer when weed growth sprouts to the lake’s surface. However, flats can also feature clean bottom with rocks, gravel and sand. All of them have the potential to hold fish, but arguably the ones with some form of cover on them are far better overall.
Flats exist on nearly every lake although a few steep banked rocky waters might lack flats of any magnitude. However, even a smaller flat on lakes like these can be musky magnets. It’s just a tad harder to find them since they are small and subtle. Some of the best late fall fishing is bound to occur on lakes of this nature, and these small, subtle flats are great places to seek out a good musky. Flats on deeper lakes might also be nothing more than a shallow sand bar with low growing grass. Or it might be a rocky extension of some kind with a few scattered larger boulders.
Bald flats, those with no obvious cover of any kind, can still be productive for muskies. Muskies are often spotted cruising or sunning on bald sand flats in the spring, summer and early fall. I have witnessed this several times in both Minnesota and Ontario. In fact, I’ve run into muskies so often on these bald sandy flats that I no longer drive by them without throwing a few casts. If I spot a musky or two on such spots, I will then seek out every similar bald flat I can find.
Of course, cover or vegetation on a flat nearly always holds fish. While weedy or stumpy flats might hold fish scattered over a wide area, isolated cover such as man-made fish cribs, sunken brush piles, or even a few rocks is sure to pinpoint musky location on any given flat. Once you find an isolate cover on a flat, you better mark it accurately on your GPS for future reference. It’s a good bet it will hold fish consistently.
A quick way to locate a potential flat from a distance is by looking at the shoreline. Nearly every lake has a variety of shoreline contours that are easily recognizable at a glance while traveling along in your boat. Typically, shores with steep banks have the same general steep contour underwater. The same holds true conversely. Spot a shoreline with flatter terrains and it’s a good bet that this terrain continues under water. This is not always the case, but more often than not, shoreline topography indicates the potential for an underwater extended flat of some kind.
Flats with some form of cover are generally better than bald ones, if both exist on the same water. Once you discover a flat, the next step is to get on one side of it and then slowly fish your way along while you begin to learn its nuances. I usually start fishing a flat initially from an upwind position. I want to stay near the drop-off or outside edge of the flat at all times while I attempt to learn its configuration. By constantly watching my sonar unit and making occasional adjustments in my boat position with my trolling motor, I can usually fish a flat pretty effectively. Sometimes muskies will be well off-shore relating to some form of cover submerged somewhere on the flat, but the actual corners of a flat, often called inside turns, are sure to produce too. Inside turns are particularly good in the later part of the fall when they have cover, deep water and baitfish stacked up in them.
What lure you choose to fish on a flat depends upon the time of the year. In the earlier part of the fall with water temps still above 55 degrees, blades are sure to be productive. Some of my biggest early autumn muskies fall victim to both in-line spinners as well as spinnerbaits. As long as muskies are still on the shallow tops of flats, blades are bound to catch ‘em. However, jerkbaits and floating minnowbaits are worth a cast on any flat in the fall. The colder the water gets, the more productive these two lures are likely to be. Topwater baits are rarely used in the fall north of the Mason Dixon Line, yet they can be superb over flats well into late October. A dark misty overcast fall day with a soft chop is a perfect set of conditions for a slowly crawled tail rotator such as a TopRaider or even a zig-zag bait.
Finally, don’t neglect casting a deeper diving crankbait along the deeper edge of a flat particularly when you have a partner casting shallow lures over top. This is bound to produce a lunker any time of the year, but it can be the #1 tactic as the water gets colder. The trick is to seek out the breakline with the deep diver on every cast and attempt to find cover and as well as terrain nuances. This will also help you control your boat more precisely as you work your way along any given spot. You will eventually find the deep water holding spots along this edge that are invisible from above while placing a lure right in its lair.
Flats are one of the best big musky spots on any given lake, and they really seem to shine in the fall. They offer a literal smorgasbord of feeding opportunities for muskies, as well as providing the astute angler a unique chance to tap into an often overlooked option. Once you dial in a few good fall flats for muskies, the potential for them to produce day in and day out are endless.