Photo by Pete Maina.
Late summer is my favorite time of the year to fish for muskies. They are on the move and it is generally a very high activity period. The “toothers” will still be reacting well to faster-moving presentations and larger lures. But these are muskies, and there are no rules or absolutes when fishing for them.
Being versatile is a great asset when fishing for Esox. When it comes to lure choice, versatility becomes extremely important, especially at this time of year. The main reason for this — based on my observations from over 30 years of muskie fishing and guiding clients — is that the fish are familiar with their surroundings, and quite often, our lure presentations.
Essentially what we are dealing with in the late summer is an extended period of muskies being established in certain areas. For some time, they have been in a summer pattern of feeding and “relaxing” zones. Anglers have taken note of this, and their efforts in these zones have gone up. Muskies get used to seeing the same presentations coming from the same angles, and if they had a bad experience recently from a particular lure, odds are the reaction won’t be as positive a second time.
On the other hand, these fish are pea-brained predators, and more often than not, feeding windows are triggered by barometric pressure changes, lunar influence and combinations thereof. Being apex predators, they rule the weedbeds, bars and everything else when conditions are right. A muskie’s heavy feeding window usually doesn’t coincide with other game fish, because everything else in the fishdom is hiding. At times like these, the best lure choice will generally switch back to simple attraction and efficiency rather than a need for something different to entice strikes. Simply put, the right weather trumps all other factors.
With simplicity in mind and theories aside, late summer is a period where the ability to develop a plan every day to find the right lure pattern is your most important task.
This is the time of year to take friends out fishing with you so you all can experiment with a bunch of different lures. The general rule is that larger lures work better in late summer, and possibly even very large baits. Arguably, this is the best time of year for topwater lures, and very large fish can be fooled by them. Spinners — either in-line bucktails or overhead bass-style lures — are normally a huge factor and are very efficient. Any lure type can work, keeping in mind that speed or very erratic action could be the key to triggering strikes.
Before I go on, I want to clarify that I am basing what I offer here on three assumptions. First is that you have friends, so can you have multiple anglers in the boat. If you don’t have friends, rent some. The second assumption is that you are not night-fishing, because that is a whole different ball game. And we’re talking casting presentations, not trolling.
Part of prioritizing lures depends on the structural elements available on the body of water you are fishing. There are two factors when it comes to choosing lures, and one is making them “fit” the structure and depth range you are fishing. The other consideration is selecting lures fish will actually strike. I wish that was as simple as it sounds.
Efficiency is a very important factor, but part of prioritizing lures includes educated guessing on what baits the toothers are most likely to bite. It is important to try to categorize lures when considering activity levels. Try to keep it basic, as in “active” and “negative” presentation categories. This doesn’t necessarily separate lure types, but certainly, the approaches change. For steady weather, warming weather, and before and after frontal activity, active baits will likely work best.
Bucktails or spinners are tremendous active baits, as are any crankbait or jerkbait that can be worked quickly. Often, extremely erratic action is the best trigger, along with what most anglers would consider to be extreme speeds when using spinners and crankbaits.
Then there are fast-moving topwater prop baits and buzzbaits. If I’m dealing with a nasty cold front, experience has shown that spinners no longer rate highly on the “likely bite” chart. Generally, slower, more in-their-face finesse presentations will work best. These include standard big-fish jigs like the Jig-a-Beast with soft plastics, neutrally buoyant crankbaits and slow-moving jerkbait gliders like the Hellhound, Magic Maker and weighted Burt. Also worth a try are deep-diving crankbaits, slow-rolling spinnerbaits and “teaser” topwaters. Teaser topwaters are very slow-moving baits that appear to be really struggling. Classic examples are the Creeper, Hawg Wobbler and Lee Lure’s H2O. Also very effective are glider topwaters like the Doc.
Structurally, the heavier the cover or the bigger the waves, the better the odds are that active presentations work best. Predators using heavy cover to hunt are ambushing prey and tend to just “react” rather than really inspect things over. Finesse will be needed on the fish out in the open and visible, like on sand, gravel or rock flats, unless there is weather moving in to trigger them. The theory is that in these situations, the muskies are there for comfort and generally not actively feeding.
Considering the generalities I just mentioned, let’s assume we have conditions where fish are likely to be more active. That’s when I always consider a “maximum efficiency” lure, and that means spinners. For shallower water, an in-line bucktail works best, while in deeper ranges, a heavier overhead spinner is the way to go. Spinners cover water very efficiently, and also provide very good hooking and holding percentages. Because of the efficiency factor, spinners will be my first lure in the front of the boat at the start of any given day — and if fish react positively, it will remain that way.
Before moving on to my next lure choice, let me offer another reason I choose spinners: great boatside response from muskies. After three decades, I have learned to pay huge attention to percentages, and something I’ve noticed about spinners is that overall they produce more strikes on figure-8’s or an “O” than on any other type of lure. Remember to stay wide on the corners and never let the blades falter, which means never slow down and even speed up the “8” to cause a bigger commotion.
Crankbaits are very versatile and rank No. 2 on the boatside triggering scale. Larger baits like the 10-inch Jake can be worked quickly and aggressively while covering a lot of water. Until you have
patterned something successful for the day, continue varying retrieve speeds, cadence and pauses. When something works, pay attention and repeat.
It’s a toss-up between jerkbaits and topwaters with regard to efficiency, but both are great and should be tried. At this time of year, topwaters hold great potential and historically have fooled many big fish during late summer and into fall. In larger waves, go with bigger, noisier baits. The only reason topwaters are down the list is because they score lower on hooking percentages, efficiency and at boatside. But if you are willing to lean more toward the ultimate in excitement and size potential, topwaters should be first on your list. Jerkbaits are often very effective for triggering fish to strike right away, but they have low odds with fish that just follow the bait to boatside.
In general, this is fast-paced stuff, covering water and trying these different things. Try different types, sizes and colors within the lure categories. With a plan and several anglers in the boat, basically you are waiting for the muskies to tell you something. From there, things can be fine-tuned.
Of course, the ideal situation is where the first spinner you snap on produces a strike. Ideally, after a while, a couple or even all anglers are using the same lure — and catching fish. Sadly, that’s a rare occasion. At times, there may be reaction to a couple of different presentations, but only follows. When you know you are close to the right pattern, stick in that lure category and experiment with colors, sizes and retrieves. Very often, something will start to click.
If you aren’t getting any action, even when it seems like it should be an active day, it is time to slow the boat’s movement down a bit, and then one or two anglers start using finesse presentations. For negative or finesse selections, I’ll generally select a crankbait for leading the boat, a jig/soft plastic in the middle and a “teaser” topwater being cast in the back, and we’ll rotate the jerkbaits with the plastics. You should try different things and varying retrieves as well. If the fish start to tell you what they want or you get a follow, continue to adapt and prioritize what lures should stay wet.