April 26, 2021
My 4-inch tube jig, dressed over a 1/4-ounce insert-style jighead, had barely landed along the sun-drenched bank when I felt a sharp tick. Following the reactive hookset, my medium-action spinning rod doubled over.
In water that barely scratched the 40-degree mark, the fish put up a strong but admittedly lethargic battle. A few minutes later, a 44-inch musky was safely in the bag of the Stowmaster net I keep on board for just such an incidental musky encounter when the primary targets are walleyes and smallmouths.
That experience took place nearly two decades ago. In the time since, I’ve come to learn that such events aren’t necessarily incidental. In rivers that harbor muskies, it’s common to catch them during late winter and early spring, right along with big smallmouth bass and walleyes.
When you think about it, it’s not all that surprising.
With longer days and warming water in the spring, muskies become more active, often moving into nearby shallows to feed. The experience described above occurred on a shallow, soft-bottom flat just above a slack-water hole with depths of 15 to 20 feet. Also, early-spring muskies are known to prefer downsized lures, and I’ve put dozens of late-winter and early-spring river muskies in the boat on baits intended for walleyes and smallmouths.
This isn’t to say muskies can’t be caught on outsize lures now. They can, which provides justification for folks who feel a musky catch isn’t valid unless the fish succumbed to a dedicated musky lure. Let’s examine three tactics that will help you put muskies in the boat (or, in some cases, on the bank) in the early spring.
1. GO VERTICAL WITH SMALL BAITS
As mentioned, muskies spend much of the winter and early spring in areas protected from the main force of a river. This could be a deep hole on an outside river bend; deep slots behind barriers such as islands; in slack-water pools formed below and sometimes above sand, gravel and rock bars, often at the mouths of small feeder streams; and below river dams, particularly if a lock chamber is present.
In my experience fish that hold in the depths of these pools aren’t very active, but still might be catchable if you put some easy-to-eat morsels in front of them. I’ve used a jig-and-minnow to catch 40-inch-plus muskies that bit as lightly as a 12-inch walleye.
Classic muskie lures—crankbaits, glide baits and big rubber baits—typically don’t reach the depths at which these fish are holding. And even if you can get them down that deep, their horizontal movement is more than an inactive muskie is likely to respond to. However, put a smaller vertical presentation in front of a musky and the result can be far better. My most productive examples of this are a classic leadhead jig tipped with a chub or sucker minnow and a half-ounce Silver Buddy blade bait.
Either should be fished in a vertical manner, close to the bottom, while drifting over the deeper holes and pools muskies spend much of their time in when the water is cold. This isn’t the power fishing most musky anglers prefer, but it’s highly effective.
Pair sucker minnows and chubs in the 3- to 5-inch range with leadhead jigs in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce range. You might wonder about the strength of a leadhead jig meant for walleye fishing, but remember that muskies don’t fight as hard in 40-degree water. Plus, you don’t have to lean on them too hard since they’re in relatively open water. We’ve taken fish well over 30 pounds without straightening a hook.
The same goes for blade baits. Drift them over deeper pools, keeping the lure close to the bottom and giving it short, sharp upward jigs of 6 inches to a foot.
Though most muskies are lip-hooked at this time, I use a short leader of 20-pound-test titanium leader material tied to the mainline with a clinch knot to prevent bite-offs.
2. GO VERTICAL WITH BIG BAITS
Earlier we mentioned that classic musky-sized baits are generally not designed for fishing vertically in deeper water. There are exceptions. These include the Bondy Bait, a lure designed for fishing the deep water of the current-strong Detroit River, and big blade baits like the Shumway Fuzzy Duzzit and larger-sized Steel Shad offerings.
Whereas smaller vertical presentations can be fished on standard medium-power spinning and baitcasting gear, you’ll need to beef things up for musky-sized vertical baits. I fish Bondy Baits on an 8 1/2-foot St. Croix Mojo Musky casting rod with an Abu Garcia Max Toro reel.
Hits on the Bondy Bait typically occur when the bait is falling. As such, it’s important to drop the lure on a fairly tight line and be prepared to deliver an aggressive hookset when a musky strikes. Even in cold water, a musky can bite and then quickly reject such a lure. Lift-drops of a foot to a foot and a half close to the bottom are appropriate. Fish the larger blade baits in the same manner as the half-ounce versions, again using heavier, stiffer tackle to compensate for the added resistance the lure creates.
3. HORIZONTAL OPTIONS
Finally, it should be stated that muskies can also be taken with more traditional cast-and-retrieve tactics now, especially when environmental factors like evening twilight, moonrise and moonset suggest an increase in activity.
Expect actively foraging muskies to slide up into the shallows adjacent to the mild, slack-current pools they inhabit during less active times. This could be simply closer to the bank, or upriver or downriver of the deeper water. The other high-percentage location is the mouth of a feeder creek or river, especially during the evening twilight. Such spots often attract baitfish and walleyes, both of which are fodder for a hungry musky. This is also one of the best scenarios for shore-bound anglers.
Crankbaits like the Rapala Super Shad, Grandma, Crane Bait and Jake all excel in this setting, as do rubber baits like the Bulldog and Medussa. The key is to work them slower than you would in warmer water. Since the rubber baits sink, your speed of retrieve also dictates the depth at which they are fished, something you can tailor to the spot.
It’s worth noting that the Medussa also works well as a vertically jigged lure. So, you have the option of casting the bait over shallower water and jigging it under the boat when in depths greater than 10 feet—an efficient blending of tactics for fish that are just starting to emerge from their winter slumber.
TOP 5 MUSKY RIVERS IN THE EAST
The region’s best river musky fishing during the spring occurs in drainages where the fish is native or has long been established.
- NEW RIVER: The New River provides both Virginia and West Virginia anglers with top-quality options for muskies, including trophy-class fish. Well known for its whitewater sections, expect to find spring muskies in the placid pools. The New’s flow is interrupted by dams in both states.
- ELK RIVER: The Elk River, below West Virginia’s Sutton Dam to its merger with the Kanawha River, features a stream-bred musky population with individuals reaching the 45- to 50-inch mark. A medium-sized river, the Elk is appropriate for both smaller boats and shore anglers.
- MONONGEHELA RIVER: Flowing north from West Virginia into Pennsylvania, the industrial look of the "Mon" can be deceptive. It holds a good musky population, particularly in West Virginia and just across the Pennsy border. Most fish are taken below the navigation dams at this time.
- ALLEGHENY RIVER: Well over a hundred miles of the Allegheny River provide Pennsylvania and New York anglers with options to quell musky madness. This includes southern New York above Kinzua Dam, the free-flowing middle Allegheny from the Kinzua Dam outflow to East Brady and the lower Allegheny from East Brady to Pittsburgh.
- SUSQUEHANNA RIVER: The North Branch of the Susquehanna in New York and northern Pennsylvania has a great muskellunge population. The same can be said of the West Branch in the north-central part of the Keystone State. The main stem of the Susqy provides miles of viable spring musky water all the way to Conowingo Dam on the Penn-Maryland border.