April 13, 2021
Ask serious Midwestern musky anglers about their least favorite time of year, and most will say sometime between December and May. In northern parts of the region, a combination of ice and protective season closures keeps many musky hunters sidelined until the post-spawn period around Memorial Day.
However, more and more are beginning to realize what a select few have always known: If you want to kick off your musky season months earlier than usual, head south. Reservoirs and chains of lakes in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio offer anglers some incredible pre-spawn musky opportunities in the early spring.
While spring poses its own challenges—muddy or high water, extreme rain and cold snaps—the southern fisheries represent the only game in town for true musky aficionados. And because muskies can’t spawn very successfully in these reservoirs, and states rely mostly on stocking to keep their populations robust, pre-spawn fishing has little effect on spawning efforts or success.
I’ve guided for muskies on Kentucky’s Cave Run Lake for 30 years and have fished in the Professional Muskie Tournament Trail since 1999. The early-season, pre-spawn period is one of my favorite times to fish for muskies in southern Midwestern lakes. Here are some things I’ve learned about this phenomenal bite.
The early season, while filled with opportunity, can be difficult due to changing spring weather conditions. For years, many musky anglers, including myself, have searched for a pattern to overcome this tough time. One technique that has repeatedly proven itself is casting or trolling lipless rattling crankbaits and similar vibrating and noisemaking lures to entice strikes from these apex predators.
Like many fish, muskies have lateral lines, organs consisting of sensory receptors known as neuromasts. These neuromasts allow fish to detect underwater sounds, water pressure changes and other disturbances, such as a struggling, injured baitfish. Loud, rattling baits allow us to trigger a musky’s predatory instinct. Bites often follow, and these become more reactionary later in the season as fish shift their focus to spawning. It’s an effective tactic, and one that I estimate accounts for 65 to 75 percent of the muskies we catch from the pre-spawn through the early post-spawn on Cave Run Lake.
Around late February or early March, as water temperatures head toward 40 degrees, anglers start fishing in and around spawning bays, creek arms and the points leading into each. Mud and sand flats are also generally good places to begin a musky quest, as are the marina areas on some lakes. Wherever you start, muskies will begin pushing toward shallow water as it warms in the weeks ahead. You’ll want to follow this gradual progression leading up to the spawn.
Shad represent the major food base for muskies in most of these southern reservoirs, and a 4- to 6-inch lipless rattling crankbait is often your best bet. I usually start with a 1-ounce Llungen Lures Rattlin’ Shad or Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap.
Later in the season, as temperatures climb toward the 60s, muskies switch to even smaller baits. Sometimes tiny, half-ounce rattlers will end up catching the biggest muskies of the year.
In shallow water or in areas with thick weeds or timber where bottom debris fouls conventional rattle baits, I tend to prefer Llungen Lures’ Fat Belly Rattler. My own design based on years of experimenting, it offers a side-to-side swing, vibration and noise and can run within five inches of the surface.
It’s a helpful alternative when muskies are hanging in extreme shallows or among thick cover.
GIVE 'EM WHAT THEY WANT
In terms of presentation, mix up your retrieves until you find what works. A faster retrieve usually produces more sound and vibration, while slowing things down yields less.
Fish will reveal their preferences. In shallow water, I also believe bites increase when you’re able to knock bottom or structure with these lures. It tends to drive both heavy, egg-laden females and super-active males crazy.
If water is clear and you’re visibly spotting muskies in the shallows, don’t place baits too near the fish. I’ve seen quite a few muskies spook when casts land too close. On the flip side, when baits land farther away—even up to 20 feet—they’ll often charge over to check out the sound, many times with bad intentions and an open mouth.
This rattle-bait pattern typically works best in cloudy or dingy water, as well as in windy and low-light conditions. Luckily, these are often what you’ll find in the early season. Clearer, calmer water might call for different strategies.
For many anglers, trolling is a popular alternative to casting rattle baits, and this also works well during the pre-spawn period. Troll the same shallow spawning areas using a "short-line" presentation—that is, running lures at depths of 4 to 8 feet with 4 to 25 feet of line out. I typically troll at 3.25 to 3.75 mph, even in cooler water.
You can troll rattle baits like those already discussed or crankbaits such as .22 Shorts or Tuff Shads. Some also like trolling larger baits, like a jointed Believer, along the bottom across shallow mud or sand flats. Just remember that most shad fall within the 3- to 8-inch range, so don’t vary too much from those sizes.
For any presentation, keep lure color in mind. While noise and vibration are the keys to getting a musky’s attention, I’ve noticed that color does matter. Generally, in dingy water, bright colors yield more strikes. In lighter but stained water, browns and golds tend to produce. Natural colors do well in clear water, while very sunny days call for holographic and mirrored patterns.
Several southern Midwest states have impressive musky fisheries for traveling and local anglers. These waters range in size from a few hundred acres to several thousand. Some are more famous than others, but all offer some solid opportunities to get into muskies while folks up north are still drilling holes in the ice and daydreaming of summer.
Piedmont Lake, Ohio
Located in Ohio’s Belmont and Harrison counties in the eastern part of the state and administered by the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, Piedmont is a favorite for musky hunters. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) maintains an angler log of self-reported musky catches in the state, and in the most recently available log (from 2019), Piedmont was a clear winner in terms of numbers, with 953 fish reported. The next closest, Leesville Lake, had almost half that figure.
The 2,270-acre lake is also respectable in the size department, with 13.4 percent of all muskies caught in 2019 being larger than 42 inches. The current Ohio state-record musky—a 50 1/4-inch beast weighing 55 pounds, 2 ounces—was also caught on Piedmont back on April 12, 1972.
Piedmont features abundant weeds, creek arms and shallow flats, which make it well suited for the pre-spawn bite. Good numbers of fish can be caught near shore in the early season, but the area around the Piedmont Marina on the lake’s west side can be one of the hottest spots from February through April. Marina Bay is Piedmont’s largest spawning area for muskies. Essex Bay to the south can also be productive.
Piedmont Lake is located off State Route 22, about midway between Cambridge and Cadiz and roughly 10 miles north of Interstate 70 off State Route 800. There are two public boat ramps—one on Reynolds Road at the lake’s southwest end and another at the Piedmont Marina on the northwest end. There is a lake-wide 10-horsepower motor restriction on Piedmont.
- Honorable Mention: Caesar Creek Reservoir, southeast of Dayton.
Lake Kinkaid, Illinois
This 2,750-acre reservoir is located in southwestern Illinois’ Jackson County, approximately 5 miles northwest of Murphysboro and 100 miles southeast of St. Louis, Mo.. Kinkaid is consistently rated as one of the premier musky lakes in the Prairie State and has loads of territory worth exploring.
Over the past five years, 9,984 adult muskies have been stocked in Lake Kinkaid. With a prominent forage base of shad and suckers, muskies grow quickly here. In its 2019 spring survey, the Illinois DNR collected 172 muskies, with the largest measuring 45 1/2 inches.
Standing timber, mud flats and weedy bays produce some of the best springtime action. A major spawning area that holds good numbers of early-season fish is the northern creek arm of Johnson Creek. Wilson and Schneider bays also offer solid opportunities. Like Piedmont, areas around the
Kinkaid Marina can prove productive as well. Most anglers find muskies by trolling the mouths of creeks and bays before they pull into the warmer shallow bays and creeks.
There are three boat ramps on Kinkaid. One is located in the Johnson Creek Recreation Area near the northwest end. The other two are found at Paul Ice Recreation Area and by the Kinkaid Marina.
- Honorable Mention: Lake Shelbyville, about 30 miles southeast of Decatur.
Webster Lake, Indiana
Found in north-central Indiana, Webster is by far the state’s best-known musky lake, and its spring bite is excellent. With around 650 acres, it’s not huge, but it has a history of solid musky production. The lake is stocked with a healthy number of muskies each fall and spring; as a result, it has one of the highest adult musky populations per acre in Indiana.
Open-water and breakline trolling is the favored method, but success can also be had casting from a boat or from shore. Those looking to cast should check out shoreline weeds and flats in Bates Grove, Colonial Park, Eagles Cove and areas of the Middle Pond.
- Honorable Mention: The Barbee Chain of Lakes, 5 miles south of Webster Lake.
Cave Run Lake, Kentucky
Known as the "Musky Capital of the South," Cave Run Lake is nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains south of Morehead along route 801 and within the northern part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Its early-season musky bite draws anglers from all over the country. It boasts both numbers and size. Sara Terry, a 14-year-old angler, caught the current state-record musky from Cave Run in 2008. It measured 54 inches and weighed 47 pounds. Both casting and trolling rattle baits are top approaches for Cave Run’s early muskies.
There are 12 total boat ramps scattered across Cave Run Lake. Most are on the east side of the lake or upriver to the south and east.
- Honorable Mention: Green River Reservoir, about 8 miles south of Campbellsville.