By Ken Poor
Muskies begin their spawn in late winter about the same time the ice begins to melt on the northern lakes. Ice-out normally occurs from mid-March to mid-April. The peak of the muskie spawn usually occurs from late March to early April and tapers off by mid-April. Areas where muskies spawn include heavy vegetation in the backs of flooded bays, feeder creeks and marshes, often in water as shallow as 18-inches.
A female muskie will drop anywhere from a few thousand to a quarter-million eggs, depending on her size and state of maturity. The ripe female muskie followed by a male or two will swim about randomly, dropping eggs as they go, without any attempt at creating a nest. The fertilized eggs hatch in about 10 days, but by that time the female has usually moved out of the area.
After dropping their eggs, the females will move out of the shallows to the first deep structure just outside spawning areas. The move to deeper water appears to be more related to feeding opportunities than security or comfort. Generally, muskie will hold in these transition areas and feed for at least a couple of weeks prior to moving to more typical late spring to early summer patterns.
Every area lake that has a muskie population has numerous small patches of weeds or spots that could function as a spawning area for muskies, but the trick is to locate several of the biggest prime spawning areas you can find. The bigger the spawning area the more muskies it will attract and the more muskies in the area the better your chance of catching one.
Prime locations for muskies at this time of year, are not the spawning areas themselves and in fact while muskies are in the shallows spawning they seldom attack a lure. The key is to locate the spawning areas and then identify the first deep-water break just outside the spawning area. Any structure in these locations at depths from 10 to 20-feet of water should be considered a prime target.
Structure is the most important element for locating muskie and the more structure at key depths the better the spot. The second consideration is the cover on the structure and the more combinations of cover on the structure the better the spot. A wide variety of structure and cover in one spot will naturally attract and provide a wide variety of feeding opportunities adding to the quality of the spot. Types of cover could include different varieties of weeds, trees, rock piles, sunken boats and piers.
The easiest way to locate these areas is with a good lake map that shows depths, contour, bottom composition and types of vegetation in the lake. Study your map before you head out on the water and identify all the best possible areas you can. Then pick the three or four areas you think would be the very best spots on the lake. If you don’t have a map available for your favorite lake or river, your only option is to physically search the lake before you start fishing.Spring muskies are fairly easy to locate simply because they’re in transition. They have finished with the spawn, but they have not moved into their regular summer patterns or locations. By moving out into the 10 to 20-foot depths, muskies have put themselves in a position where they can easily feed on suckers, carp, bluegill, catfish, crappie, bass or any other easy feeding opportunity that happens by.
Although weed beds are not at any significant stage of development at this time of year, the deep weed edge of old weed beds can be used as a rough guide to depth. On most northern muskie lakes the deep weed edges typically end at depths around 10 to 15-feet. Locate the deep weed edge back off a little, cast towards shore and you should be working the prime depth for muskie at this time of year.
In years with a late spring, most muskie will still be located fairly close to prime spawning areas. When you approach the area you intend to fish, come in from up wind and let the wind push you into the area. Muskie will suspend in open water well out and away from their feeding areas. Work the deeper water as you drift towards your target.
Lure selection for early season muskie is based on the size of the forage that muskie will see at this time of year. Most of the forage is small and small muskie baits or large bass baits are your best choice. Lure color is usually dictated by water clarity with natural patterns being best for clear water, and brighter baits best in stained water. As a starting point, at night go with dark colors, light colors on bright days and darker colors on dark days.
Bucktails, spinnerbaits and crankbaits are easily the most popular bait for muskie because they are great for hooking and holding fish. Crankbaits can be worked shallow, deep and in between depths and are equally effective when trolled or cast. Throwback baits are used to trigger strikes from following muskies. A muskie-size jig tipped with a plastic creature or tail makes a great throwback bait.
Rods are a good starting point when selecting your muskie gear and also the most expensive. A good general use muskie rod should be a graphite 6 ½ to 7-foot, medium-heavy action with a fast tip. The longer rod, combined with the fast tip acts like a whip and makes casting most muskie lures easier. A longer rod also helps in fighting a fish. It acts as a shock absorber, is more forgiving and will help you keep your line tight while battling a fish.
Also with a longer rod you can pick up more slack line when you make the sweep to set the hook. Length is also important for steering lures around obstructions in the water such as logs and clumps of weeds. Another benefit of length is pushing your “figure 8” pattern deeper into the water when a muskie follows.
Reel choice is much easier than your rod choice. You need a high quality baitcasting reel that can handle hours of casting heavy lures, has a decent drag system and will hold enough heavy line suitable for muskie fishing. The Abu Garcia 6500-C3 or 6500-C4 baitcasting reels are a great choice both in terms of price and durability. The C4 has a higher gear ratio than the C3.
With all the different fishing lines on the market it can get a little confusing trying to pick the best one to use for muskie fishing. The new high tech braided lines over 65-pound test are your best bet. My personal choice for muskie fishing is an 80-pound test braided line. Typically, they will have a diameter equivalent to about 18-pound test monofilament and it has to have a round construction and hold a knot exceptionally well.
Leaders are available in a variety of styles, but one requirement you need to pay particular attention to is a high quality, heavy duty cross lock snap swivel. Joe Bucher, Terminator and Smity Leaders are all good brands of leaders made with high quality components. In most situations, a 12–inch long leader with at least a #5 cross lock snap swivel rated at a minimum of 100-pound test will serve you well.
Muskie fishing regulations vary considerably from state to state and this includes opening dates, size restrictions and fishing techniques such as trolling just to mention a few examples. Make sure you know the rules and regulations for the body of water you will be fishing on before you head out on to the lake. Lake specific regulations are very common on northern lakes, especially for muskie.
In terms of numbers of fish, muskie fishing is a lot different than fishing for bass, walleye, or panfish. The very best muskie lakes only have one or two muskies per acre and those lakes are few and far between. You will have to put your time on the water and set realistic expectations. With the right muskie gear catching a muskie will be much easier and just as important when you do catch one you will be able to get the fish under control and bring it to the boat for a fast, clean release – without over stressing it.
When you are muskie fishing make sure everyone in the boat knows what to do when someone hooks-up with a muskie. Everyone should be ready to get stuff out of the way of the person fighting the fish. Additionally, everyone should know where the camera, net tape measure, gloves and needle nose pliers are and how to use them.
The decision about keeping a legal-size muskellunge is up to the individual angler, but keep in mind that musky fishing has become a sport where success is not a matter of how many muskie you catch or kill. Voluntary catch-photograph-release (CPR) along with higher size limits has made muskie fishing amazing. But there is still a lot of room for improvement and how much better it will get depends to a large extent on how good muskies survive after being released.
Experience has shown that muskie do survive well if they are handled carefully. Anyone who releases a musky should give top priority to the fish’s well-being. Keep in mind a very high quality replica of any fish you catch can be made from photographs along with the length and girth measurements. I practice and promote CPR, though I enjoy a few smaller fish for the frying pan now and again.