Rock 'N Roll Muskies
September 24, 2010
When muskies aren't in the weeds, you can probably find them near rock formations. You just have to roll with the changes to be able to dance with them.
by Noel Vick
Rock is tough and solid. Anything and everything associated with rock is hardened in either character or physical makeup. Trucks made by one manufacturer are built "like a rock." An insurance company asks us to "get a piece of the rock." Nothing is more solid than the Rock of Gibraltar. The Rock - pro wrestler and pseudo actor - is built like a rock. So, too, are muskies. But unlike The Rock, muskies also live and forage amongst rocks.
First and foremost, though, muskies are weed-relating fish. Submerged vegetation produces more muskies than does any other environment, period. Weeds take precedence from early in the season through roughly midsummer. But at some point, a juncture that varies from lake to lake, our sharp-toothed carnivores demonstrate a preference for boulders and reefs. And usually that "structural turnover" occurs sometime in July, maybe August.
It's a heat of summer thing. The faster that water temperatures move their way into the middle and upper 70s, the sooner the muskies begin vying for rocks. It's that simple. Simple in the fact that muskies seek out rocks, but not so simple in the muskies' requirements in doing so. All rocks are not created equal. For muskie guide Brian Brosdahl, rock identification is critical to success.
"The choicest rocks," says Brosdahl, "are softball to cranium (human) sized. Baseball-looking ones hold fish sometimes, but not like the larger ones. And I'll fish boulders, too, some as big as beach balls and medicine balls, but it's tough to beat a pile of skull-sized rocks."
Brosdahl says that the preference has to do with food, a food chain to be precise. Larger rocks harbor more forage. Baitfish, suckers, panfish and crawfish all find superior accommodations in the nooks and crannies of hefty rocks. Brosdahl is even convinced that muskies eat exposed molting crawfish, although he hasn't substantiated the notion.
Photo by Pete Maina
Beyond the issue of the size of rocks is the type of structure they form, where that structure is located, and specific depth as well - critical concepts in the hunt for rock muskies. In warmwater situations, nothing surpasses the productivity of an offshore reef. Midlake rock provides useable structure, available foodstuffs and the security of deep water.
And seemingly, muskies do not discriminate against size of formation. Both tiny pushups and massive reefs are capable of hosting fish, although larger reefs tend to hold more fish. Big reefs simply offer greater real estate and more favorable amenities, such as fingers and hooks. As a rule, Brosdahl fishes smaller rock humps first, beating others to the punch, and then puts a bead on larger structures.
The muskie-gathering potency of even a small offshore reef was witnessed firsthand by renowned outdoor photographer Bill Lindner. He was diving and filming on a lake when he observed over a dozen muskies hanging on a secluded and diminutive but deep hump. A rather daunting encounter.
Depth of structure is another consideration, both depth across the crest and ultimate deepness as the reef wall dips to basin level. In July, August and September, Brosdahl favors reefs with shallow tops - 1 to 6 feet - particularly ones featuring emergent vegetation, such as hardstem bulrushes. Muskies will lie in rest or ambush inside a stand of bulrushes, sometimes merely sunning themselves. Don't discount any reef top as being too shallow either, especially during low-light periods or when the reef is battered by waves. These are prime feeding occasions.
To further extrapolate on the subject of muskies resting on rocks, Brosdahl points to one of his home waters. On peaceful and sunshiny days he has viewed muskies relaxing atop the boulders of a reef. Brosdahl says that muskies often digest their food and recuperate while pitched over shallow rocks.
Other reef-related features to seek are troughs and saddles. It's not uncommon to encounter a cavern or etched-out section on a large reef, say a formation that crowns at 5 feet but presents a 9-foot furrow - a very good spot. Oftentimes, rock humps appear in series, yielding saddles - dips - between each structure. Muskies, being opportunistic, will linger between these humps, moving up and across during feeding interludes. Multiple and interlaced structure is a bonus find in the pursuit of any predator species.
Rarely will a rock reef be uniform in shape. Despite the fact that hydrological maps depict offshore structure as round, oblong or banana-shaped, they generally bend and skew, proving more amoebic than straightforward in configuration. Brosdahl looks for fingers jutting off the main body. Deeper arms seem to hold better fish. And the joint where an arm greets the primary reef - inside turn - is doubly dandy. The idea of fishing inside turns is almost trite, sometimes abused and misunderstood by fishing writers, but with rock reefs and muskies, the concept holds more than water.
What else turns an ordinary rock into a fishy rock? Brosdahl says moss. Rocks draped in slippery, slimy moss host more life, beginning with baitfish and invertebrates, eventually leading to the larger critters that muskies snack on.
So with an offshore pile dialed in, your next effort is to pick it apart like a chicken wing. Morning and evening hours are best spent casting the tops and shallow edges of breaks. During the daytime hours, the action - which normally pales in comparison to dawn and dusk - occurs along deep rock breaks and perhaps away from the structure altogether, as muskies will suspend a few boat lengths down below.
Brosdahl's day begins before the crack of dawn. The pre-dawn flurry is sure to be a shallow-rock thing happening atop some prized offshore reef, likely a weed-capped structure.
Brosdahl's opening volley involves topwaters. He's looking for aggressors, fish that'll explode at the drop of a bait. Two styles of surface baits fit the bill: jerkbaits and prop baits. Times are rare when he doesn't first chuck a Poe's Jackpot, currently his top producer, as far as jerkbaits go anyway. It dances, jukes and jives, and causes rock-ranging muskies to come unglued. In the realm of prop baits, Brosdahl relies on the Buchertail Topraider and Triklops by TNT Tackle.
The aforementioned lures are uncompromising. Only a hot muskie is going to engulf the contraptions; noncommittal fish will peek and roil but not hit. That's when Brosdahl is quick to make the change to inline bucktail spinners and spinnerbaits. Muskies of all lengths and ages succumb to hair and hooks, and they're the easiest types of lures to operate - just cast and reel. True enough, bu
t over rocks, Brosdahl becomes a "bulger." His retrieval speed is established so that the rotating blade or blades bulge but never break the surface. Actual rate is dictated by the size and weight of the lure. His leading bucktail for bulging is Windel's Harasser. Its large and fluted blade transfers a lot of water and bulges to perfection. If fishing through bulrushes, Brosdahl opts for an Eagletail. It's the most buoyant of the bucktails, facilitating a slow retrieve, and its single hooks slither nicely through snaggy stems. From the hairpin spinner (spinnerbait) department, Brosdahl likes Northland Tackle's Bionic Bucktail and CJ's Tandem Spin, both of which get high marks in bulging.
Eventually, the reef-top skirmish comes to a close. The sun starts peaking and morning gives way to afternoon. That's when it's time to trail fish into their daytime hide-aways. Our predacious muskies begin dipping toward deeper, darker and ostensibly more serene environs. But you're not going to let them depart peacefully. You trade topwaters for crankbaits and redefine what it means to cast and retrieve a bucktail. No more bulging - instead, a countdown progression.
Brosdahl, a man who prides himself on patterning fish throughout the day, motors from the reef crown to deep and promising rock fingers. He casts a bucktail and allows it to sink like a jig, sometimes all the way to the rocky floor, other times halfway down. From the base of its underwater freefall, Brosdahl beckons the bucktail upward like a jerkbait, building in pauses and snaps. He says that bucktails are decidedly versatile if given a chance.
Deep-diving crankbaits make the succeeding assault into deep rock country. Like miners, they dig into the surface of reefs, banging against boulders and awakening sleeping giants. Casting suffices across finite and known sections of rock. Trolling, where legal, is better for running long pieces of structure and exploring unfamiliar terrain.
Brosdahl has favorite crankbaits, too. Mann's Magnum Stretch is close to a surefire thing over rock. He's also partial to Muskie Mania's Jake and Ernie. But if he had to choose just one weapon to crank the rocks with, it'd be a Magnum Rapala. It wobbles seductively, but more significantly, it generates a dinner bell resonation when its metal bill strikes a stone.
"Crawling" is the tactic Brosdahl employs when trolling the perimeter of rock structure. As the name implies, he moves slowly, in fact, just fast enough to keep the bait down and wobbling. The process begins by first driving the crankbait into the rocks below, at which point Brosdahl throttles back and commences pulling the bait mere inches above the bottom, occasionally making contact. Admittedly, crawling pounds the heck out of expensive baits, forcing some into an early retirement. But it's worth it. Brosdahl recalls how much money he has spent on muskie lures, and wishes he had a fish for every one of them. Truth be known, few avid muskie anglers have bagged a legal fish for every lure in their arsenal. Think about it.
So that's about the size of summer's rock bite. It's an offshore thing, with reefs as your host. Surely, certain circumstances put muskies on shallower shoreline rocks, namely points, especially ones featuring stones and weeds, but they don't compare to midlake rocks. But that all changes in autumn.
Normally, summer's sweaty grasp holds into September, at least through Labor Day. Muskies remain in contact with offshore rock and become especially active amongst shallow, rocky and weeded crowns. But before long, the drama migrates to shoreline rock. And once again, rock with weeds is superior to rock without weeds.
During September, Brosdahl can't drive home enough the importance of banging the bulrushes, rock or no rock. Each fall he jerks muskies from the most snarled bulrushes imaginable. Look for muskies on weeded edges when it's overcast, as well as in the early morning and late evening. When the heavens are bright and shiny, muskies will bury themselves in the thick of the weeds.
Wind becomes a greater factor, too, in early fall and continues making a difference right through the end of the season. Brosdahl says that muskies position themselves on the calm side - backside - of windswept structure and face into the tumult. Muskies understand that entire food chains will be flushed to them. Planktons and baitfish arrive first, followed by perch and other fishes, and then "crunch" - a muskie is fed and the cycle is complete.
Rocky points take the greatest beating and yield the most fish, but they also endure the lion's share of pressure. Points aren't exactly hard to find on a body of water. Brosdahl combats this fact by identifying and fishing somewhat-less-obvious hunks of shoreline rock. And he's found that nothing is too shallow or small. Again, onshore winds stoke the value of a rock-formation location. Some of Brosdahl's choicest locales are so shallow and tight to shore that his lure first strikes the bank in order to touch the "sweet spot." The finest shoreline rock offers an alcove or inward-hooked calm corner where a muskie can camp and wait. Brosdahl will search hundreds of acres of rock to find such a haunt.
Along shoreline rock, Brosdahl goes to chop baits, Suicks specifically. The marketplace is flooded with newer and fancier adaptations, but none can out-muskie a Suick. Brosdahl casts his bait - a 9-incher - right at the shore and prepares for the worst, actually the best, and an explosion. Following touchdown, he begins a series of downward, side-to-side sweeps. He adjusts the Suick's tailfin so that the lure dives a little, but not too deep so as to wedge in the rocks. Black, ciscoe, sucker and black/orange are Brosdahl's foremost Suick patterns.
Occasionally, Brosdahl busts out a glide bait in these kinds of situations, but only if muskies aren't assailing his Suicks. His glide baits of choice are Salmo's Fatso Jerkbait and Fudally's Reef Hawg, the 10-incher.
As fall becomes colder, uglier and almost winterish, muskie fishing only improves. Most sporting folks are chasing ducks or sighting in rifles, but not Brosdahl. He's layering long underwear under Carharts and preparing for sleet - and a crack at the season's biggest fish. An inborn trigger alerts muskies that it's time to fatten up for the winter. Food supplies are dwindling, and muskies simply don't handle hardwater very well, so they'd best feast now.
With surface temperatures in the low 50s, soon upper 40s and falling, muskies stage off deep rock structure - some offshore, some shoreline-oriented. On lakes that harbor whitefish and tullibees, muskies arrive to greet these silver-sided spawners over the heads of rock reefs and points. Muskies are fools for clusters of spawning whitefish.
Oily baitfish aside, in late fall Brosdahl focuses on deep offshore structure, the sort that only select waters afford. He's keen on something that peaks at 20 or 30 feet and tumbles into 60 feet of water or more. But if not there, Brosdahl turns to a plummeting shoreline precipice - say, a 90-degree granite cliff, one that falls and slopes back up into an island or opposing point and in so doing creates a gorge or narrows. He loves deep, rocky bottlenecks.
Sheer walls are a troller's dream. They're relatively
snag-free and home to big muskies. Brosdahl trolls them comparatively slowly - 2 to 3 mph - and utilizes crankbaits that dive from 15 to 20 feet of water, a depth range known to contain autumn muskies. While Brosdahl is trolling, his eyes are fixed to his electronics in hopes of spying pods of baitfish. That way if he doesn't snatch a muskie while trolling through the finned-rations, he's earmarked a potential spot, one that might warrant casts.
According to Brosdahl, there isn't a magical rod-and-reel combination for fishing for muskies on the rocks. Standard equipment will do. But given an option, Brosdahl recommends going long in your rod selection, stretching it out to 7 or 7 1/2 feet. The span is advantageous for long-range hooksets and shock absorption while trolling. For line, it's wisest to spool an 80- to 100-pound-test braid, like Berkley Whiplash or PowerPro. You'll need the strength and abrasion resistance.
Muskies love rocks. You'll be doing yourself a favor this season by examining all of the rock alternatives on your chosen waters. Muskies will be there. Will you?
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