Muskies On The Fly
October 04, 2010
More anglers are chasing muskies with fly rods, but what they're using isn't your grandfather's stick. They're using fly rods built for fighting the toothy terror of the Northwoods.
Muskie flies are constructed of Icelandic sheep hair and synthetic krystal flash or flashabou and feature eyes that reflect the terror of a fleeing baitfish.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
We all know that muskies have been called "the fish of 10,000 casts."
There's a reason for that.
Muskies are top-of-the-line predators, occupying the top spot in a lake's food chain, picking and choosing whatever they wish to eat, including fish, birds, even small mammals. With such a smorgasbord available, muskies are very selective eaters and often follow a bait but never strike.
In most waters, there just aren't that many of them, so the odds of putting a lure in front of one are slim from the start. Casting for them puts you at a serious disadvantage. You can't cover as much water when casting as you can when trolling. Some states prohibit trolling for muskies, so you don't have a choice, but in places like muskie-rich Lake St. Clair, speed trolling puts your lures in front of plenty of fish and your odds of catching one are much, much better than 10,000 to one. In fact, good captains on Lake St. Clair routinely land 10 to 15 muskies on a single trip. There's a better than average chance that you can land a muskie on this lake on your very first trip if you're trolling.
Casting for muskies is a completely new ballgame though. Even then, the better guides on Lake St. Clair raise several fish a day by casting giant spinnerbaits, bucktails, body baits and jerkbaits. I have many friends who fish for smallmouths on the lake and tell me how toothy muskellunge routinely tear them up.
However, select cadres of anglers prefer chasing these piscatorial paleozoids with fly rods. Known for their massive size -- muskies average 30 to 40 inches and weigh 10 to 20 pounds, although 50-inch, 40-pound giants are caught every year -- with vicious strikes and razor-sharp teeth, muskies can quickly shred ordinary fly tackle.
This may be the ultimate freshwater challenge.
"Ten years ago, you hardly ever heard of anyone fishing for muskies with a fly," said Captain Steve Kunnath. "But now it seems to really be gaining in popularity, not only on Lake St. Clair, but in places like New York and Minnesota."
One of the biggest perceived disadvantages of fly-fishing for muskies was the ability to cover water. Kunnath said that's not true.
"Instead of trying to cover water, I focus on key spots that concentrate muskies. You put the odds in your favor then," he said.
Select cadres of anglers buck the odds. They use fly rods and flies to chase muskies. It may be fresh water's ultimate challenge.
After the spawn, muskies tend to congregate in warm, shallow water, Kunnath said. Likely hangouts include shallow bays, channel mouths and weed edges that funnel baitfish and subtle structure found in the lake. The structure may only be a pile of rubble or a shallow depression in the lake bottom, but in the relatively featureless contours of Lake St. Clair, muskies use it to wait in ambush for passing baitfish.
Once summer arrives, muskies begin moving to open water, especially areas with isolated structure, such as rockbars or weedbeds. When the water cools in the fall, they return to the shallows.
While trolling for muskies on Lake St. Clair is basically a run-and-gun approach, fly-casting for muskies is much more deliberate.
"I sometimes fish key areas for an hour or two before moving on," Kunnath said. "And I might return to those locations two or three times during the day. The muskies are there. It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and making every cast count. You have to watch your fly at all times. It's not at all unusual to have big muskies take your fly right beside the boat.
"Muskies feed in aggressive spurts two or three times a day. These feeding frenzies may last from 15 minutes to an hour, so you want to be in a prime location when that happens."
Advances in the quality and diversity of fly tackle have not only made fly-fishing for muskies possible but enjoyable.
"Fifteen or 20 years ago when fly rods were made of fiberglass, casting a 10-weight fly rod all day was impossible," Kunnath said. "Now with graphite rods, you not only have the weight advantage, but you also have power and sensitivity. Sink-tip lines have also made a huge difference. Now you can work the whole water column. You might use a floating line to work a surface bait in 2 to 6 feet of water or an intermediate sinking line in the spring and fall when fish are a little shallower or a full sinking line or shooting head to work the edges of a channel." Kunnath said you can get by with an 8-weight fly rod for muskies, but a 10-weight outfit would be a better choice.
"A very strong 8 1â„2- or 9-foot, 9-, 10- or 11-weight graphite rod is a good start," Kunnath said. "Graphite rods are perfect because they're light enough to cast all day and strong enough to firmly set the hook. I use saltwater outfits made by G. Loomis and Sage.
While trolling for muskies is basically a run-and-gun approach, fly-casting for muskies is much more deliberate.
"Reels don't have to be anything special for muskies. You need a strong reel, but you don't need a reel with a drag like you do for salmon. Muskies don't usually make long, blistering runs that leave your reel smoking, but they fight hard after they are hooked."
Terminal tackle has changed, too.
"You need a heavy line just to punch those big flies out, especially if it's windy," Kunnath said. "I use weight-forward floating and sink-tip lines depending on the conditions."
Although leaders aren't particularly complicated, they're still the critical link between you and the fish. Kunnath said he ties a 4-foot monofilament leader to a 1-foot fluorocarbon shock tippet.
"We used to use braided steel leaders, but all I use now is 80-pound fluorocarbon," he said. "I used to get broken off more with steel leaders than I do with the fluorocarbon. Muskies aren't particularly line shy, but I think we catch more muskies with the fluorocarbon leaders and we definitely catch more bass and walleyes by using it."
To date, Kunnath's biggest muskie on a fly stretched 48 inches, but any muskie subdued with a fly rod would have to be considered a trophy.
Structure may only be a pile of rubble or a depression in the lake bottom, but in the featureless contours of Lake St. Clair, muskies use it to ambush baitfish.
In the past, a major drawback to using flies to attract muskies was the lack of movement found in traditional muskie lures, but that's not true anymore. With the explosion of new natural and synthetic materials, muskie flies come in all shapes and sizes from gaudy 15-inch streamers to huge spun deer hair poppers.
"We used to chuck poppers the size of your fist and giant Dahlberg Divers," Kunnath said, "but the bigger the fly, the harder they are to cast."
Today's flies resemble lures more than they do flies and look more natural than many lures.
When fly-fishing for muskies, Kunnath recommends the old trout angler's adage of "match the hatch" -- in this case, forage fish like perch, walleyes, suckers and ciscoes -- using black, white, yellow, green and chartreuse colors. In dark or stained water, use brighter colors, darker tones in clear water.
Kunnath said he prefers flies that have a very natural baitfish profile and bulky appearance in the water, but out of the water, the flies are slimmer, shed water and are easier to cast. The flies are constructed of Icelandic sheep hair, synthetics krystal flash or flashabou and feature eyes that reflect the terror of a fleeing baitfish. The materials give the fly an undulating, quivering appearance that makes it appear to be swimming.
A common theory is that you must have your lure speeding right along to interest a muskie. Trollers on Lake St. Clair zip right along at 5 or 6 mph, but Kunnath said that's not true with flies.
"A super-fast retrieve will interest the smaller, more aggressive fish," Kunnath said. "But you don't have to retrieve at breakneck speeds to catch fish. In fact, slower retrieves often interest the biggest fish."
As when casting lures, muskies will often follow flies right to the boat. It takes an immense amount of composure to continue to strip line as a 4-foot-plus leviathan bears down on your fly and follows it inches from his nose. Many anglers freeze or yank the fly out of the water before the fish strikes. Savvy casting anglers know to make a figure 8 pattern in the water to keep the muskie interested.
When fly-fishing though, Kunnath advises making a big circle. He said it's easy to do with a long fly rod and gives the fish an opportunity to turn on the fly.
"It takes great composure when a big fish is just a rod length from the boat," Kunnath said, "but when done right, it can trigger a vicious strike."
Muskies typically go berserk after they're hooked, making lightening-quick 30- or 40-foot bursts before going airborne like a tarpon. If you survive the first 30 seconds, you stand a pretty good chance of landing them.
Kunnath said he often catches some sizable northern pike, too, when fishing for muskies. Many think northerns and muskies aren't normally found in the same location, but Kunnath said that it's usually a good thing.
"We catch pike right along with the muskies," he said. "Both are usually around because there's forage. Find one and you'll find the other."
Muskies may be enticed to eat a fly from the season opener in June through mid-October.
In the past, a major drawback to using flies to attract muskies was the lack of movement found in traditional muskie lures, but that's not true anymore. With the explosion of new natural and synthetic materials,muskie flies come in all shapes and sizes from gaudy 15-inch streamers to huge spun deer hair poppers.
June is the best time for size, Kunnath said, noting that catch rates aren't that high at that time. Post-spawn hungry females may be found in fairly shallow water then. The peak time for numbers of muskies is anytime from mid-July to mid-October.
"Once the weeds get up, it seems to concentrate the fish," Kunnath said.
Chasing muskies with a fly rod is exciting, but Kunnath recommends packing a big bottle of patience before you embark. Here are a few more tips on fly-fishing for muskies:
1. Focus on spots that concentrate muskies. Casting a big rod and fly is sometimes exhausting, but it's the only way to find them.
2. Change flies often. If you're not getting any action, change flies -- large to small, popper to streamer, bright to dark -- to get its attention.
3. Change your retrieve. If you're not getting any interest, pick up your retrieval speed.
4. Change your depth. Muskies may be caught in as little as 3 feet of water to 20 feet or more.
5. Watch your fly. Muskies are very selective eaters and often follow a fly, then strike at the last possible moment.
To learn more about landing a Lake St. Clair muskie on a fly, contact Kunnath at (248) 320-0688.