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Ontario Fishing Network

Volume 6,  Issue 9 - Sept. 2006



Gut Check Time:
Tough-Conditions Summer Muskies In Clear Water
by J.P. Bushey

Even when conditions are perfect, clear water can be tough water to fish. It can be mentally and physically crippling when youíre fishing muskies on clear water and skies or winds are unfavourable. Darker, more fertile lakes and rivers are more forgiving than clear ones, and populations are almost always higher. ĎPlan Bí is to simply pull off the water and try one once clear water begins wearing you down. Sticking to your guns, making adjustments and battling through it make that big, clear-water release all that much sweeter. There are things you can do beat tough bites.

Any combination of poor weather conditions can shut clear water fishing down. Sunlight and wind are the two most common, and are almost inseparable in terms of collective impact and importance. One without the other or too much of both can be trouble. Fish are still catchable and are still caught on windless days with intense sunlight, for sure. But thereís no getting around the fact that as summer moves along, Ďday shiftí fishing gets tougher and tougher. You might be able to move fish, but they seem more cautious. These are the days when air and surface temperatures are maxing out as early as ten or eleven in the morning. Gunnels burn your hands and the soles of your feet. No air is moving, the surface is calm and this is the only time I ever wish I was on shore instead of in my boat.

Fish will get more and more active as late afternoon transitions to dusk and then later, into total darkness. Your first critical decision is whether to stay on the water during the hottest part of the day or to head for shelter. Being a weekend warrior, this is one of the toughest mental aspects of muskie fishing Iíve learned to deal with! Monday to Friday, weíre all fired up for our short window of weekly fun. It can be really tough to put the rods down after only a half day and force yourself off the water, well before noon sometimes.

"Tough Conditions Tool Box:" A Straight-running, buoyant jerkbait and single spin spinnerbait for picking through heavy slop weeds. A weighted BullDawg and a deep-diving, suspending crankbait for casting as well as trolling open water or rocks.

Sun is hard on your physical endurance, and mental lapses begin creeping into the equation. You donít focus as hard. You start skipping more and more Figure Eights, and the ones you attempt are lazy. Extra casts and casting accuracy dry up. (Being able to throw accurately over long distances is a core skill good clear-water fishermen share). If and when a good fish shows up or a good spot opportunity is made available, youíre simply not at the top of your game. Getting into the shade, reloading on fluids and a two to four hour nap will have you in a much better state to capitalize. Spread a portable cot or air mattress under a shoreline tree, head back to the cottage or resort or simply pull out and rest on shore. If your fishing schedule permits it, do it. Iím as guilty as anyone for staying out way longer than I should. But it has been proven to me over and over again that big fish are not a result of big, fruitless hours. They really arenít!

Timing and a smart approach are the keys. Hereís an example: Two guys each have a pine tree to cut down. One guy has a sledgehammer, and the other guy has an axe. Sledgehammer Guy is going to work really hard and that pine will eventually fall. But the guy with the axe is working smarter, and his tree comes down quicker and easier. I think you get the point. With no cloud or wind, our ĎSaturday Specialí is normally an intense, spot-hopping shift from about an hour before daylight until noon at the latest. We rest up, and hit it hard from 5pm through about midnight. The toughest part of the day is used to prepare for the best time of the day.

Wind will make a bright day better, and there are two fairly obvious things to look for. Number One, is the wind dying after a rough day. Number Two is the wind kicking up near sundown. Nearly everything written about muskie fishing and wind talks about wind activating fish when it comes up, intensifies or changes directions, and this is certainly true. But I have had good success after extremely rough, bright days when the wind dies, too. Itís almost like any muskies that didnít get activated by waves and current pounding in move up once the commotion has passed. Or maybe those fish are on the windiest spots all along and get caught when theyíre easier to fish. Iíll never know. I always think of calm nights after rough days like a frozen drink in a blender. They get better once the powerís off and the whizzing stops. Things just settle down and kind of organize naturally. Slick spots that have been pounded by wind all day are very key once theyíre calmer. And of course, holding your boat off a spot and working it properly is that much easier.

Rest time on clear water. Very little clouds or wind, and hot temperatures. Getting out of the sun and recharging for better conditions can make a tremendous differene not only in how effectively you fish, but results earned. If the option for resting and regrouping is there, taking it is almost always a good move.

Having wind during prime bite windows lets you get closer to spots where fish might be shallow, and itís what sometimes pulls fish shallow to begin with. Rustling leaves and air moving over and around a parched body after a brutally hot day can set the stage for a good dusk or night bite.

Light and wind dynamics around the transition from day to night and vice versa are really an important piece of the puzzle on clear water. Even if the sunís still intense or thereís no wind to break up the surface or create current, these are still going to be your two peak periods. If you can get help from the weather, so much the better. An interesting phenomenon Iíve noticed during extended periods of very hot weather is the morning bite out-producing dusk and night fishing. Maybe it takes several hours of darkness for muskies to feel comfortable, making them more accessible to us. Either way, tough weather can sometimes be beaten by something as simple as being on your best spots during favourable windows. It makes no sense for me to wear out the trolling motor battery (and my batteries) and then be worn out when the bite is priming up.

Fishing into and past darkness can save a tough day on clear water. Many, many big fish are caught every summer on or near prime spots, after dark. As with daytime fishing, continuing with deliberate, methodical baits and approaches is what it takes. They might not occupy the most Ďactive fishí spots, but I donít think thereís any debating muskies will begin to move and hunt in the dark after a day of intense sun and generally poor feeding conditions. Bulging bucktails or spinnerbaits until it gets too dark too see and control them is one of my favorite techniques. Double-bladed models that work slower are usually best. Traditional surface baits are also good, with straight-retrieves. Wide action, flat-sided crankbaits like ten-inch Jakes are the most versatile, and can be used equally well in open water down several feet, surface-waked or straight cranked, occasionally hitting weed tops or rock. Jakes have a deep, clunking rattle that not many other crankbaits do.

On some lakes, human factors also contribute to a tough clear water bite: boat traffic. Things only get tougher when spots are being ripped up by boaters or made inaccessible altogether. Youíll have to wait them out. Remember the wind dying, and how fish will show up and spots that are now Ďresting?í Boat traffic creates a similar effect. And, like wind, these areas can now be properly and safely worked.

There are going to be times when pulling off the water or timing the bite isnít an option for reasons of time. Youíre out there to fish, and have a limited period to do it. Presentation on clear water is just as important as on any other type of water, and there are adjustments that you can make to where you fish and how. Not all clear water is created equally, always remember that! Some bodies are shallower and weedier, while others are made up of deep areas, almost overwhelming in size, with smaller bits of cover and structure tucked into specific areas.

Good weather for a clear-water fishing: Extra wind and decreased light intensity. This shot was taken on the Lower French River, close to dusk, with a thunder front approaching. First light in the morning and periods of increasing or diminishing winds are also worth trying.

Jerkbaits, twitchbaits and crankbaits can be maddening to fish during tough conditions. They seem to have no problem getting fish to follow, but it sometimes seems like thatís all muskies are willing to do. This isnít always a bad thing in clear water, where you can see the fish that much easier. Youíve at least located one. I like to have someone throwing a slow-rise jerkbait or suspending twitchbait when thereís high skies and lots of light penetration. Theyíre excellent Ďbird dogí lures. Following up spotted fish with a rubber bait like a BullDawg or a jig can get it done. Gut check time again, because you will be throwing a bait that fish might pass up in favour of the lure your partner throws back. Muskies holding on or in structure at this time will usually show themselves more readily than fish off the structure/cover or the ones in open water. And make sure you methodically check all of the open water in this way.

Gaps between shoals, or open areas around and between the tips of points or between pods of cover all produce fish in clear water when the bite is tough. Keep your retrieve slow, low and reasonably consistent. Not as many hard rips or pulls, but lots of pauses. Flat-backed, weighted jerkbaits like Suicks and suspending crank/twitchbaits like the Triple D are two of my best. A negative fish sulking down 15 or more feet off a shoal will be far more likely to rise and check out a slow, prodding bait than a fast bucktail or surface lure. Floating a weighted jerkbait up near the surface halfway back to the boat every few casts is also good. Lures like nine inch Grandmas and the Triple D are really unique, and you should learn to fish them for tough days! Both hover, hang and suspend beautifully. The Triple D will dig deeper, 12 to 13 feet easily on the average cast, and the Grandma is better in shallower sections. I mix straight cranking with smooth pulls and lots of hang time with these baits, and muskies will swat at them really lightly sometimes. Under better weather conditions, ripping and twitching much harder and faster with less suspending can work better. Neither of these lures are true suspenders, and both will slowly float back up, but their design really lets them hang there and work deeper.

It goes without saying that boat side triggering moves take on extra importance when you might only get one shot at a fish all day casting. Perform at least a few deep, slow Figure Eights before each new cast. Hot, active muskies are not the only ones that take lures right on the rod tip. Just donít be surprised if that fish gives up on your jerkbait or crankbait. Have a throw-back lure ready. Iíve caught some of my biggest fish by finding them during the worst part of the day with a slow bait and returning with a speed approach at prime time. Work back into the area and cover it.

Rock structure thatís too deep to be effectively casted should be trolled. Bottom contact is a huge trigger when the fish are deep and off. Not many casting crankbaits can put you onto rock deeper than 17 or 18 feet on a cast-for-cast basis. Lures like weighted BullDawgs are a notable exception . Be patient, work them down, and fish key, deep areas carefully. (Jig and plastic combos are essentially the same thing, and work great at times also.) Continue out into open water whether youíre casting or trolling deep fish in clear water. Fish wide around the points, and follow any and all little extensions that linger on the sonar screen. Be prepared to work muskies in clear water down over thirty feet deep. Eight to ten inch crankbaits designed for casting simply wonít get you there. Hookers, Legend Perch Baits or Lunge Locker Bubble Shads will. An excellent deep-structure trolling bait in a small package is Maina-Drifterís Ernie. A small lure that gets deep. On shallower rock rubble spots, baits like the Ernie, Depth Raider or Jake can be stuttered and crashed through and over them. Rubble spots on points outside pencil weed or at the top ends of bays can be surprising on tough days, casting and banging crankbaits. Just like when you troll, hitting the bottom seems to be the only way to trigger fish, and theyíre just as likely the follow a bait a long way before hitting. A deep-diving, highly buoyant lure is critical for reaching boulders on the drop, which is where muskies seem to hole up. Youíll need to get down ten or twelve feet casting on a lot of these spots. Fish usually hit after youíve hit a rock.

In clear water where thereís an abundance of weeds with slower tapering structure and shorelines, getting into muskies can be easier or more difficult, depending on how well youíve polished your approach. Fish will hug and travel thick and defined edges as well as tuck into them on classic features like inside turns (a fancy buzz word for the front or back side of a weed point). Iíve seen the jerkbait take a lot more fish in this instance than on deeper lakes where fish suspend, use deep rock and where weed cover is less prominent. Spinnerbaits might be the best tough-conditions lure in cover on clear water, certainly better than straight-shaft spinners, in my opinion.

You can work a spinnerbait over, through and especially down cover and structure. Muskies wonít always hammer them, sometimes just bumping the lure towards you. All youíll feel is the blade(s) skip a beat. Heavy, compact single spins with any combination of living rubber, bucktail or feathers are all good. Hit everything you can, and work the lure all the way back to the boat. M&Gís, Pearsonís Grinders, Ospreys and similar designs can produce when itís tough. Spinnerbaits arenít just a speed lure, but they fit in perfectly when itís time for big fish to get active, too.

Weed is probably the last place youíd want to pull and slow-rise a jerkbait, but theyíre also excellent at calling fish out and getting them. I have no idea why more muskies hit jerkbaits under bad conditions around weed than on the deep lakes or deep spots. Maybe itís because they think it has a better chance of escaping in all that cover. Use your sunglasses, watch the water as well as your graph and fish the classic features carefully and properly. It takes practice, and placing casts intelligently will make or break you. When itís tough, multiple casts can be the answer, even in clear water. This goes against traditional thinking but there is absolutely nothing traditional about putting a muskie in the boat. Whenever a good weed feature presents itself, fish it thoroughly, and from several different angles. Rock piles breaking up weed patches are one of my favorites. Cast to the open water between the rock and weed, hit the rock, tick the perimeter weed, and do it all carefully and methodically. Re-do the best features before leaving a spot, too. Iíve caught fish in clear water long after I expected too, beating the prime elements.

Pick your way through the weed, making lots of smaller twitches and pause whenever you hit a heavier section. Slow-sink and/or wide swinging jerkbaits donít work nearly as well in heavier clumps as they do in open water or off the weed edge. Moderate to high buoyancy, straight runners are the best, like Bobbies or Suicks. If you learn only one new technique to help you on tough days in clear water, make sure itís how to fish a jerkbait through the weeds. We had a brutal, windless, four-day heat wave sock us on the Upper French River during an August trip in 2004. Marty and Tony Dietz from Pennsylvania managed a fish over fifty inches a few days after we left camp, fishing bucktails under perfect weather. I got our only small fish on a Suick in heavy cabbage, after weíd fished the edges and open water around the grass bed with other baits in ninety degree weather. When the weatherís bad, small rewards are big rewards when you fish clear water.

Cold fronts mixed with the high skies are often accompanied by too much wind, as opposed to not enough! I still think the same or similar areas are the keyódeep/fast breaking rock-to-weed combinations, and suspended fish in the deep lakes; weed features in the shallower onesóbut making the right cast and picking your way along is that much tougher. Trolling is the only technique Iíve had any kind of measurable success using on the deep lakes, again, banging the rocky, Ďrimsí of classic shoals, points and then out into open water. The Bull Dawg is a lure I plan on casting more again this summer, when conditions are this bad. Using their sweet, gliding, semi-horizontal sink with the wind to comb spots with multiple passes. Basically, I pull and pause the bait until itís vertical under the boat and finish with a few hops and a lift, pause-retrieve straight back up. Absolutely no question the shallower, weedier areas have been better to me during cold fronts. It might seem odd that shallower muskies are less affected, but all I know is theyíre a lot easier to locate. Itís more work and messier work, but I find it easier to stay focussed. But again, you need to cast well and work your baits precisely the heavier the cover is, and too much boat speed and a wind-blown surface makes it tough to pick up heavier patches visually, plus fish them. One advantage to fishing heavier weeds when itís hot and clam is that you can easily learn to spot cabbage buds poking through the surface and slicks created by heavy growth just under the water. The budding cabbage thatís reached the surface is usually the thickest, tallest and greenest.

Whatever sub-species of clear water youíre on, fish your best baits. Tough conditions is no time to clip on an unproven bait. Your best ones have already gotten you this far. Why would you take an unproven one to war with you now? For low-light fishing, I really like dark, solid colours and in the case of spinner blades, have the best luck with painted finishes. If weíre out battling when the sunís high and there isnít much wind, colour has been much less of a factor. We land and get burned by fish on both naturals and hot colours equally as often.

Treat every tough day or tough trip like it was your last! If you can, rest up and go hard when conditions change for the better and always be ready to capitalize during daylight transition periods. If youíre going to be out there battling all day, fish smart and remember that that next tick on your spinnerbait might be a forty pounder, or that the green line trailing your jerkbait isnít a clinger weed on the back hook, itís a heavy fish! Stay positive, fish your best baits, your best spots and the peak feeding windows. And just think: you could be at work instead. Clear water is where I learned to fish for muskies, and there are definitely days I wished I spent more time on more forgiving lakes. Adjusting my presentations and being willing to step out of the boat whenever possible came about as much out of necessity as by logic. It can be unforgiving water to fish. And donít forget about the sledgehammer: thereís hard work and then thereís smart work. Fish around what youíre given, and be never forget that muskies are muskies. Theyíre going to eat lures.

Hot, summer weather is also really tough on hooked and landed muskies. Surface temperatures can reach over 80 degrees on some lakes. Have all your tools ready, work as a team, and get those fish back quick. Think of how youíd feel running a one hundred yard dash wearing a floater suit with a clothespin holding your nose shut, then hopping into a sauna. Fast, clean releases are critical for dog day fishing.

I hope the weatherís good for you on your next clear water trip! If itís not, hopefully youíve got a few new things to try.

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  by J.P. Bushey

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