Figuring out a spring muskie fishing strategy is simple, but implementing it takes discipline.
One element that is simple at this time of year is that with respect to location of the fish in the water column, shallow water covers it. There’s a lot of shallow water in most lakes, so narrowing the pattern can save time.
We’ll start with locational targets and then look at tactics. While regulations vary with respect to when muskies can be targeted (some regions have closed seasons to protect muskies from direct angling pressure until just after the spawn is complete — check regulations), spring means spawning time. Muskie spawning occurs as water temperatures hit the mid- to upper-50-degree range. They are broadcast spawners, laying their eggs in shallow, soft-bottomed areas, generally bays (especially those with inlet flow), some shoreline areas and upstream (off-current shallows) in rivers. Many of these areas are where vegetation will first appear.
These are the highest percentage zones to target coming off the spawn, and in most cases these areas continue to hold some predators throughout the summer.
Not surprisingly, lakes or rivers with limited spawning territory offer higher concentrations of muskies following the spawn. Even so, once muskies finish spawning, the majority of the fish will spread out fairly quickly to other comfort and feeding zones. Consider shorelines leading out and any nearby shallow structures to be natural travel zones and holding areas, especially if cover like wood, weeds and rocks exists. On sunny warming days, sand and gravel may hold shallow fish too — in the midday to evening period, especially. And just as important, so too will open water.
“Shallow” is a general term that varies greatly as mean depths in lakes and rivers vary, but the important point is that muskies prefer warmer water temperatures and enjoy 70-degree water. So whether we are talking the surface to 10 feet in shallow water, or the same top 10 feet of water in the deepest water in the lake, much of the forage and the target species will be in that zone. Certainly they may be a little deeper over open water, but most will remain in the upper layer where they are comfortable — until the point where water temperature gets consistently in the 70s and beyond as summer kicks in.
Especially on large systems, any navigable rivers flowing in, from the mouth to adjacent structures, during and after spawn, are great targets.
The one exception to the shallow rule (spring fish holding in the top layer of water after the spawn) are rivers with heavy current. The current does two things that influence where muskies will hold. First, it mixes the water, essentially eliminating the warmer upper layer effect. Second, current is something big predators don’t wish to fight against. Muskies will tuck out of the current either adjacent to it behind structure or on the bottom, allowing it to flow over them. In both places they are expending minimal energy while waiting to see what the current brings them. In this situation deeper presentations and vertical jigging may be the best.
Even when deciding among which likely locations to fish first, it’s best to have a prioritized attack plan. For your first day on a water, the focus should be right in the spawning zones themselves. Fish over and around any vegetation, wood or anything that may hold fish, keeping in mind that fish may be very shallow. Ply any defined structure edges; in some lakes there may be edges (i.e., weeds to sand) on the inside, shallow side of the weedbed as well as on the deeper lake-facing side. From there, hit shorelines leading out to deeper water, and as well any nearby shallow humps adjacent to the same deeper water.
If you don’t catch any fish or see very limited action in these zones, try deeper, open water nearby and between structures for suspended fish. Suspended muskies are far from a new revelation, yet most anglers are still far more confident fishing structure than open water. Therefore, these suspended fish are comparatively under-fished and often easier to trigger.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll never go more than a four-hour period fishing structure (with little result) before trying for suspended fish. These are general rules: If, for instance, multiple sources say the bite on classic shallow structures has been poor, then start trying for suspended fish first.
When it comes to lures and tactics, favorites include smaller crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinners and soft plastics. The most versatile are the crankbaits, which can be cast or trolled, with a variety of retrieves, including straight, twitched and pull-stop.
Generally, erratic action will be best and very often accentuating pauses during retrieves is effective — and it’s during pauses that strikes will occur.
In fact, it’s a good idea to pay attention to any patterns with regard to when strikes occur during a retrieve — if one kind of retrieve works better than another on a given day, then obviously you should keep doing what works.
In muskie fishing, some fairly new and effective spring baits fall into the swimbait category. One crank/swimbait hybrid that works well is the Livingston Lures Headhunter in the 7-inch model. Also, glider-style jerkbaits with side-to-side action and near neutral buoyancy seem to draw strikes in the spring. Again, allow some extended pauses and watch for patterns there.
Smaller spinners in a variety of blade combos work well and are most effective for water coverage. Try single and double blade combos, and watch for patterns in what the fish prefer. Soft-plastic body baits (like Chaos Tackle’s Medussa) and jigs are great as well; definitely include a few paddle tail lures in the arsenal.
Just because many of these baits are known to work, that doesn’t mean you should automatically write anything else off — including topwater lures and bigger baits. While surface lures don’t compete with the cranks overall, they actually are one of the best lures to try when returning to a located fish that couldn’t be hooked.
Muskies like normal conditions and do not like extremes. In spring, this means gradually warming days produce the best action — with larger lures, faster retrieves and possibly noisy topwaters working.
A cold front during a period when normally the weather is warming turns fish off. But what many folks don’t consider is that muskies can shut down when abnormal heat arrives too. Water warming too fast creates the same reaction — the bigger the gap in temperature from water temperature to air, the worse the effects.
Under tough conditions, what typically works best are slower retrieves, smaller baits, longer pauses, contacting structure and bottom — essentially, any “right in their face” presentations are most likely to work.
To fish deep water, basically nothing changes at all with respect to presentation. A natural reaction is to go to deep-diving lures, yet I’d strongly recommend not changing a thing in casting presentations. I’ve caught muskies in well over 100 feet of water on topwater lures. Consider the aforementioned top layer of the water column, where the muskies this time of year are apt to be most comfortable — don’t be afraid to throw or troll lures in the top 5 feet. Spoons are surprisingly good to add to the mix in open water, and sunny days are often better than overcast. Generally, expect action to be a little deeper with clouds.
Sizes of fisheries and zones are a big consideration in method choice as well. In large areas of open water or shallower structure zones, trolling should be the preferred method (at least initially) simply because trolling allows the angler to cover water fast. Where crankbaits or plastics can be trolled over structure, use these methods to learn the structure (edges, heavier weed or other structure zones) and to locate fish.
Once key structural elements and/or fish are found, coming back with casting presentations can be a very effective means of working areas thoroughly. The same is true for suspended muskies. Where there is one predator there are nearly always more. Just as with shallower structures, take note of the exact location of contact with fish and either return using casting presentations or make multiple trolling passes in those areas, matching successful depth and lure patterns.