Many things in life are disappointing. Among them for anglers: the level of fish cooperation.
All anglers, including us expert types, have experienced disappointing results as compared to "catching" expectations. While the latest hot lure or electronics upgrade are exciting -- and can make a difference -- they too, disappoint.
But, like there being a cold drink waiting in the cooler after a long summer day, you can always count on the basics! Remembering and employing them every day always increases your odds. They are important anytime, but possibly most so during the summer period, when muskie catches are generally spread out. Let's go over the basics with a summer twist.
There are two main concerns: structural targets and presentations. Structure comes first as presentations must adapt to that. Start by breaking down your lake or river and its structural options. It can be as simple (in the case of a bowl-shaped lake) as shoreline and open water; it can be complicated on many fisheries, but break it down. What is available? That includes all likely fish-holding structures, be it weeds, emergent vegetation, rocks, wood, sand, sharp breaklines or channel edges. Whatever it is, write it down.
Here's a tip: To really get the process in your head, it's helpful to have an old-fashioned paper map, write it in there, and possibly highlight each option with different colored markers.
The alternative structure that always exists is open-water food. You see, muskies have it pretty easy, at least once they get big enough not to be eaten. All they need to do is be comfortable; the main focus here being eating when they get hungry.
The reason we key on the classic structures mentioned is simply because they provide cover -- and attract food. Oh, I forgot docks! They're cool for bass anglers, though not so much for a muskie chaser; forget cool though and concentrate where the food is. Docks attract food and that attracts bass. Food is good; muskies like it too.
Microscopic stuff starts the food chain in open water as well. There are many forage items muskies are fond of that spend much of their time feeding on the food chain that exists in open water. Groups of these fish are "structure" for the ultimate predator. When thick, consider open-water forage like classic structure. The predator usually lives and attacks on the edge.
OK, so you've considered everything available for structure; it's written down and possibly highlighted on a paper map. Now, prioritize it. That's done through a combination of anything from a gut hunch, a vision, previous experience or a tip. Obviously, current information on where there has been success in locating, or not locating, muskies will be the most pertinent. But the reality is that the process and plan are more important than being "right."
During the warmwater period of summer, I would generally prioritize things based on seasonal likelihoods. Vegetation is key, generally the deeper stuff at this time, and rocks may be good and so on. Muskies in open water are likely to be a little deeper at this time, and in the case of deeper waters that stratify in the summer, probably hanging around the thermocline, If known to hold heavy populations of baitfish, open water should rate higher.
Again, the exercise here isn't in the minutia or absolute necessity to be "right" about where most muskies are. The important thing is that it's considered, prioritized and planned.
What's the plan? Systematically check the options, with emphasis on the first word. It's simple, basic, "easy" and very important and yet, it's easy to fall away from it and become very haphazard in your approach. I have to remind myself, often, as I can stray from any semblance of organization by hip-hopping around structurally.
I've found it's far better to concentrate on one structure type for a period of time. Don't try just one weed spot, for example, but several, striving to cover different depth zones. Then, if significant fish activity is noted, continuing with that structure-type, attempting to fine-tune the pattern as much as possible. If you find little or no activity, move on to the next prioritized structure option, and give that a good effort.
When I speak of these two major patterning categories, it's common to be asked: how long? Like many answers to fishing questions, there are no absolutes here. When it comes to structure and time spent, much depends on the size of the water and its structural options. Essentially, if there's lots of it, a little more time should be spent.
The reasons there are more fish in certain sections of a structure zone aren't always obvious, so if some areas are more expansive, allow more time for probing. On smaller waters with smaller structural zones, certainly less time is needed. For a general guideline, anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours might be about right -- but no rules!
OK, presentations next. The same process, considering prioritized structure options, as presentations adapt to that. The basic rule to consider is that lure presentation should efficiently run as close to the structure as possible. In the case of suspended forage/structure, near or just above the level of the majority of it. This is truly an important individual exercise, as all anglers have differing supplies of lures, types and favorites.
From what you have available, break them down in types: spinners, topwaters, jerkbaits, crankbaits and soft plastics. For anglers with fairly limited supplies and with intention of adding, it's advisable to consider lures in each category.
During the warmwater period, spinners and topwater lures are generally at their best, but all lure types can work and should be considered. Generally too, faster retrieves will be most effective under normal weather conditions. However, extreme heat or cold as compared to normal may require a switch to finesse fishing and slowing down.
Again, the most important thing isn't stressing over being "right" on a given day; it is to have the basic plan to systematically try each type. Besides likelihood of what muskies may be in the mood for, consider efficiency, especially in summer. It's a numbers/time game to a big extent, and so the basics of covering water are key.
Possibly this could be a third basic, but there are huge advantages to multiple anglers. Fishing alone has its own rewards, and many enjoy it, but when trying to pattern summer muskies, it's a huge disadvantage. Grab your friends, or maybe someone off the street. Three anglers are ideal.
Everyone uses a different presentation for starters. The front of the boat should have the prioritized, most efficient choice -- and on down the line. How long? Again, no rules, but consider there hasn't been a real test unless a muskie or two had a look. A general rule is 20 minutes.
The key though, is systematically trying different lure types, and then adapting to the situation once activity is noted. With lures, besides the type, color, etc., consider this: When a fish reacts positively, what else was going on? How fast? Were you fishing a lure with pauses, rising or sinking?
Consider structure too. Where did the fish come from, was there anything that might help you pattern? Is it a structure edge, specific weed type, big rock, little rock, wind or natural current? What other spots on the water are most similar?
These basics don't guarantee exact or immediate results, but they always result in more muskies. It's fun to be right right away, and when it occurs the fish-catch tally usually is highest. To be honest though, it can be even more rewarding when the basics work the hard way.
Just this past season, I had two TV shoots (for a little extra pressure) specifically where the structural option I'd prioritized as least likely is where the bulk of the activity eventually came from! I've had the same for presentations and at times both. Haphazard approaches don't work with consistency; the basics do.