Muskie: Try Open Water
Seasonal changes to lakes and rivers aren't normally consistent from one year to the next. Yes, lakes will freeze and thaw, and they'll also warm and cool. All of this is 100% guaranteed. In the fall, regardless of what the localized weather patterns have been, pike and muskies can be caught well off of the bottom, away from structure or using open water in any combination. Every type of water has factors that contribute to open water fishing. Some of them are available food, available structure and depth, structure types and even fishing/boating pressure. Every lake is different. But in early to mid-fall especially, suspended and open water fish have proven very reliable for me. (They're out there in the summer, too). In rough or nasty fall conditions, the open water bite can be a great option.
It's difficult to be really specific dealing with how fish behave, given that every fall will be different than the last and certain lakes have their own personalities. At any rate, what follows is a look at some basic ideas for successfully finding and releasing fish in open water.
Set The Table With
It's been written many times, and it's usually pretty reliable: the level prominent, underwater structure tops out at can be a good starting point. One of my favorite shoals on Georgian Bay sticks out from shore for about three hundred yards. The top of the shoal ranges from about 10 to 12 feet deep, and it's only about two boat widths wide. Thirty five feet of water surrounds the spot, but fish aren't normally taken that deep. Even from several cast-lengths out, you only need to be down ten or twelve feet over that deeper water. The shoal itself usually holds more than one fish on the boulders and cabbage weeds, and they're normally fairly active. But the open water around the spot is equally good, especially right now. Good spots are a sum of their collective parts. To fish open water, it helps to have good confidence and knowledge of surrounding, complimentary features. It makes your approach more well-rounded, especially when it comes to figuring out what areas the fish are preferring and reproducing what you find out.
Suspended food is another complimentary aspect to a spot that can drive fish location. Pike and muskies eat the same things. Schools or clouds over big sections of featureless water can produce. The bait is normally relating to their own version of 'structure,' which is usually pods of their suspended food or temperature and light barriers. It's not nearly as high percentage for us (or for the predators) as working suspended bait that's near physical features that are more obvious above or below the water. In lakes that are full of bait, fishing balls of bait for the sake of fishing balls of bait can get time-consuming. One notable exception are the massive, thick schools. The ones so big and dense you'd swear your sonar was acting up. These could be classed as a 'structure' all by themselves. Narrows, shoal complexes, extensions off islands or isolated basins that hold a lot of bait let big predators travel in and out of structure or cover easier, as well as use physical rock or sand features to separate, coral and isolate their food. Transit areas between the structure and the rafts of food are great spots. Not right on the structure and not right in the clouds of food, but in between. Pike and muskies both use these slots in the lake in groups, and you can catch more than one. There are also times when bait will hold close to or right on structure, and big fish are catchable off the edges as readily as in with them.
Using Your Sonar
Your graph will lie to you. Things that you mark might not be what you're targeting. Around Turnover especially, those awesome slicks of baitfish are nothing more than bottom junk recirculated by wind and current. Same deal in heavy current areas all year long. All a graph does is report objects within its cone or beam. Activity, as long as you're sure its fish or bait, is never really a bad thing. Walleyes, whitefish, smallmouths, perch and trout all suspend, and finding them in lakes where fish forage on them is a good thing. If you have an underwater camera, you can learn a lot about what's really going on. Using them in rough, fall weather nowhere near the bottom is very, very tough, in my experience, though. They're excellent for studying the bottom, though.
The best graphs will miss fish, too. And in some cases, they can be big. I have no explanation for this, except that maybe fish follow for some distance or enter quickly from outside the cone's angle. With paper graphs (still the best for definition and sensitivity) we used to catch a lot of 'smudgers:' fish that would hang back of the bait and leave a very clear trail on the paper before the rod would pop. Fish really high in the water don't normally register on the graph, those less than five feet from the surface clutter. In the spring, we'll commonly release thirty or forty lake trout a day flatlining five feet deep and never mark a thing all trip. For moving slowly while you work open water casting, slow your unit's Chart Speed function down. Speed it up when you're trolling quicker. I've caught lots of big open water fish that I marked, and I've lucked into some that never left a blip on the sonar. Open water takes confidence and hard work.
Generally, lures that can be counted down are good for casting. And throw them into the wind. Letting your boat slip back through areas while you work your lure along works better than throwing down wind and moving towards the end of your line. Countdown lures like crankbaits and sinking glider jerkbaits, weighted rubber lures and spinnerbaits all work well. Spoons are another good one. For fishing higher, floating/diving twitchbaits, weighted jerkbaits, floating/diving or suspending crankbaits can work also. Fan casting with complimentary baits and working as a team with your partner is what it takes. Work areas over from different depths, speeds and angles. One guy might want to slow-swim a Bulldawg down deep from the back of the boat while the other works higher and faster with a slower sinking glider like a Manta up front. Remember that many times, open water is only as good as the surrounding structure and that the two work together to make up what fish like. Don't ignore the edges, tops or other parts of features near the open water if you can't turn up anything out there.
There's also fish that will use open water spots really close to, and sometimes within, classic structure. There's a saying about the 'Canadian side of the boat.' It basically means casts placed not towards the shoreline or obvious targets, but in the total opposite direction. Open water fish and suspended fish can be contacted simply by checking areas away from regular casting targets. The Canadian side of the boat can sometimes out-produce the structure side.
Trolling might take less time to actually cover a spot, but it really is more work. Getting your bait down to the right level is obviously really key. But remember from before, the magic level doesn't just mean 'see a fish at 25 feet and it will bite lures at 25 feet.' Fish don't seem to respond nearly as well to presentations below them as they do to those above them. Fishing right at the level of the fish or bait can be frustrating too. If you're going to err, doing it on the higher side has been more productive for me. Lots of turns and speed changes in open water really makes a positive difference a lot of the time. Frequently pumping and dropping the rods is a good habit to get into.
Areas where good structure gives way to open water are really good. Throw in sizable baitfish activity, and you've got an area to work. This time of year, you'll find good bait clumped in more than one place. Try to focus on those that compliment or add to other spots. Having said all that, big fish come off 'ugly' open water spots all the time.
Line lighter than you would use for casting can help pull baits down to the fish, and so can single-strand trolling wire. Bulky 45 to 50 pound mono or Dacron keeps lures high, if that's what's needed at the time. Good open-water sets can involve mast or inline planer boards, diving planers, downriggers or good old flat lining. Team work keeps popping up, and it's just as important in this case. Run different bait styles at different levels to spread things out. Over the years I've really gotten to like high-action, heavy vibration/sound baits over open water. Jakes and Grandmas, Believers and so on really seem to have good attracting qualities in no man's land. Tighter-action lures can work, too. For crunching into rock structure, buoyant baits are the way to go, they can be feathered through tough spots without snagging. Up and away from bottom though, suspending or even slow-sink lures can be used.
For fishing high and fast, baits back forty to sixty feet, and close to the boat can be deadly. Jakes and similar baits will stay in the upper 15 feet of the water column. On wire, Hookers, Plows and other big pounders work great over the transom, angled down and back, and set 25 to 40 feet deep. Longer leads with standard braided lines are no problem in open water trolling. They become a problem for structure fishing, that's for sure. You loose a lot of control in terms of when and where to turn, and I find I snag up a lot more. Small trolling boards and diving planers will only handle medium-pulling baits up to about eight inches. Super Shad Raps, 8" Jakes/Believers, Stalkers,Depth Raiders, Cisco Kids and even tandem spinnerbaits all catch fish and won't overpower a walleye-sized board. Smaller lures, like #9 Shad Raps, Mann's Stretch 25's, Rebel Spoon Bills, Baby Jakes, Lit'l Ernies, Baby Depth Raiders or 1oz Williams Wobblers can be excellent, too. Having a tiny bait in the mix has proveneffective on fish that are feeding heavily around really thick pods of baitfish, no matter what they happen to be. If you have a large and safe enough boat, trolling in teams of three or four makes a lot of sense. You can spread depths and really comb through open water efficiently.
Follow any subtle clues you find out in open water. Any bottom changes or areas where structural elements turn or change are always worth checking, and recording. So are smaller pods of bait activity separated off larger schools. Nailing a bonus walleye or lake trout is pretty common on some of my best muskie and pike spots in open water. They're normally big, too. GPS in open water is a really nice tool to have for plotting out trolling runs that follow specific features like edges or bait schools. Once you've locked in a good run, it's yours to tinker with forever. If you don't use GPS, simple triangulation worked for your Dad and his Dad, and it will work for you. If shoreline markers are available, use them along with your graph to anticipate turns and so on. I haven't distinguished at all between pike and muskies in talking about open water locations and techniques so far. The primary reason being, you'll catch them doing the same things in the same spots. Their environments overlap more at this time of the year more than during the summer.
If you're a structure fisherman, one of the best ways to learn open water is to begin and end your spots by checking the open areas adjacent to it. If you're used to casting at structure, experiment with the 'Canadian' side of the boat. If you troll a lot, map out logical and safe 'runs' that you can fish between structure, as you and the fish travel. It won't take long to develop confidence in open water after you make contact. Remember that open water doesn't just mean huge, boring areas in the middle of the lake. A football field-sized area in the right places can turn up the biggest fish of your season if you put in smart time. Check and learn key areas for the presence of bait and how they relate to the structures nearby. If you're not seeing fish on classic spots, try open water. It really gets good under tough conditions, too.
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