By: Steve Heiting
Think you know everything about your home musky waters? Is it possible that you may have overlooked something, and that you don’t have to travel to Canada to pursue muskies that rarely see an artificial lure?
The “open water,” suspended musky is one of the final frontiers remaining in our sport. Few musky anglers regularly hunt this elusive critter, and relatively little is known about it. Even those who have spent years casting or trolling over deep water admit there is much to learn.
I can tell you with complete certainty that if you give the suspended musky an honest try in the coming year — rather than a few half-hearted attempts as a last resort on a tough day — you’ll become a believer who will be spending less time casting to the weedbeds and shorelines.
Some who seek muskies in open water believe their quarry is a different animal than that which inhabits the shallows. Some say it’s an entirely different population of fish. Many of this ilk feel the only time these muskies go shallow is to spawn. I’m not sure about this belief, but considering that few of the open water muskies I’ve caught carried scars or marks from encounters with other fishermen, they may be right. What I do know is suspended muskies seem much more prone to strike a lure — I get considerably more strikes than follows. In this day of heavy fishing pressure and increasingly reluctant-to-strike muskies, that fact alone should catch your attention.
THE SUSPENDED MUSKY
Fish live a simple life. Their only needs are to procreate and to eat. Spawning occurs but once a year, but eating is a regular event. And therein lies the key to finding suspended muskies. Find their food and you’ll find the open water musky. It’s that simple.
The stereotypical open water musky lake contains ciscoes/tullibees, gizzard shad, smelt, whitefish and possibly lake trout, all fish that spend much of their lifetimes suspended over deep water. These lakes are typically deep because open water forage prefers cooler water, and are often clear. However, you shouldn’t overlook waters with a perch and sucker forage base because these also contain muskies that suspend for at least a portion of the year. In addition to perch and suckers, these waters commonly feature crappies, bluegills, walleyes and various minnow species.
How deep of water does a musky have to live in to be considered “suspended”? It’s all relative. Shallow, bowl-shaped lakes often aren’t any more than 20 feet deep, but if a musky is found some distance away from shoreline cover or midlake structure, it’s a suspended fish. On deeper waters, muskies may suspend off of structure but it’s the ones that live out over the main basin of the lake that we’re talking about here. Just think about a fish living near nothing in particular and you’ve got the idea.
FINDING SUSPENDED MUSKIES
It’s fairly easy to locate muskies once you’ve found baitfish. On cisco-based lakes, I use my electronics to search for schools of baitfish, then treat the school as if it was a large piece of structure. On perch-based lakes, finding large schools of baitfish often isn’t possible, so I begin my hunt a couple of casts away from shoreline or midlake structure, anything which attracts forage and muskies.
The best time to catch suspended muskies is anytime they’re located in the upper 15 feet of the water column, regardless if you’re casting or trolling. Sure, you can always use wire line and/or deep divers, or countdown crankbaits, to probe depths of 20 feet and more, but I’ve found the most consistent action occurs when baitfish and muskies are relatively near the surface. In this scenario, the whole food chain is usually in action as the baitfish are feeding on plankton and/or smaller fish, and the muskies are feeding on the predominant forage.
Usually the best fishing occurs from shortly after spawning until the thermocline develops in midsummer. Once the water has stratified, or on waters that don’t stratify at all, I still fish for open water muskies if my electronics indicate schools of baitfish within 15 feet of the surface. Muskies and their forage can be anywhere over the basin. The larger the basin, the more this can seem like a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. However, steady wave action will push plankton to the windy side of the basin, and baitfish and muskies will follow. A prolonged blow can create a bonanza by further concentrating this mobile food chain.
Another tip to finding suspended forage and muskies is to look for inside turns in the main lake basin. This pattern was something I suspected and then proved through the use of GPS. By creating a waypoint every time I had a follow or hooked an open water musky, I found the waypoints on my plotter screen tended to stack up in the deep basin turns. Since muskies can’t possibly be using structure that’s often 15 to 50 feet beneath them to “herd” forage, I’m not sure why this occurs. It may be that the basins tend to have a softer bottom and thus more water bugs and plankton rise from it, whereas the shallower areas around them often have a harder bottom and thus fewer bugs and plankton. Perhaps these deep water turns concentrate the baitfish simply because that’s where the food is — and the ciscoes and gizzard shad, etc., are unknowingly being corralled into a small area with the muskies benefiting from it. Watch for this, and you can benefit, too!
This was the exact scenario that played out tremendously for Jim Saric and I while filming a television episode. A week of northeast winds stacked plankton and ciscoes into a small basin turn in a lake’s southwest corner, and by staying in this area Jim and I managed to catch seven muskies up to 47 inches on film. During one hot period, we caught three muskies in 19 minutes!
LURES FOR OPEN WATER
As you begin to fish for open water muskies, understand that you are competing for the attention of fish that see thousands of baitfish every day, because following baitfish is their life. Therefore, you want to use lures that stand out from the crowd.
I prefer to use crankbaits, simply because they have the profile of a baitfish, gain depth, can be retrieved in many different ways, and usually hook muskies well. However, I’ve caught muskies over 40 feet of water on topwaters and bucktails — remember, a musky that’s suspended less than 15 feet from the surface is only a kick of its tail away from taking a topwater lure. Giant plastic lures, like the Bull Dawg or Big Joe, gain attention through sheer size and water movement without the rattles and clanks of a crankbait.
Since I want my lures to stand out, I choose them according to size and color, and then I often fish them erratically. Large baits are much more noticeable than small, and rather than trying to “match the hatch” I’ll go for something completely different color-wise. For example, on a cisco-based lake I may use a perch- or firetiger-colored lure.
The biggest mistake beginning open water fishermen make is to fish too deeply. If their fishfinder is showing baitfish and “hooks” (indicating predators) at, say, 15 feet, they’ll fish their lures at or near that depth. I prefer to fish above the predominant level that the fish are at. If the baitfish and predators are 10 to 15 feet down, I’ll usually use a crankbait with lots of rips, pauses and twitches to keep it running five to 10 feet below the surface. If the baitfish are suspended immediately beneath the surface, or if you see muskies breaking water, a crankbait will probably run too deep to be noticed. That’s when I’ll go to a bucktail or topwater. These principles can be followed whether you’re casting or trolling.
The strike from an open water musky can be ferocious. I think they’re often coming from some distance away and are swimming rapidly, thus magnifying the hit. However, they often attack a lure from behind and your strike may feel like nothing more than the sensation of your line being cut, with all lure contact ending instantly. Since there’s nothing besides baitfish and muskies to come in contact with your lure over deep water, it’s best to set the hook on anything that feels different — a “line cut”, a bump, or an arm-jarring strike.
Follow these guidelines and your confidence in deep water fishing will grow to the point that fishing the shallows just won’t seem right anymore.