In life, we tend to give luck far too much credit. No matter the scenario, from shooting a big buck to meeting a new partner in a bar. We often refuse to acknowledge our own expertise and instead give recognition to some divine force of serendipity by saying we just “got lucky.” Perhaps this is due to some inherent fear of sounding too prideful or because we just can’t believe that something so wonderful could have anything to do with our own skill.
The idea of luck is especially evident in the world of muskie fishing. Muskie tend to materialize out of nowhere to engulf flies and lures after hours and even days of casting with no luck. This tendency has given the fish an almost mythical reputation in the angling community. Many believe that catching a muskie is simply a stroke of good fortune.
In reality, successfully landing a muskie doesn’t have to be some aquatic game of chance where anglers carry a rabbit’s foot, or like a degenerate gambler at a slot machine, chant a fevered prayer every time they cast. "Hey big muskie, big muskie, no whammy, no whammy, STOP!” Instead, it’s all about using the right bait at the right place and time. This never becomes more apparent than when you’re fishing for muskie during the earliest part of the season.
One of the best things about fishing for muskie in the early season is that this normally mysterious and often fickle fish becomes uncharacteristically predictable. Exhausted and voracious from the spawn, the big fish move out of the small streams, creeks, backwaters, and bays where they breed and into adjacent areas with plenty of forage and most importantly, warmer water.
“Finding early season muskie is all about getting a thermometer and paying attention to it,” said 23-year-veteran muskie guide Brad Bohen of Musky Country Outfitters in Hayward, Wisconsin. “In the early season, we’re looking for fish in shallow water where the temperatures are in the 60s where there is lots of food around. Thankfully nature provides just the right sort of forage with young of the year baitfish, panfish like bluegill and crappie, and even smallmouth, which will be setting up for their own spawn and swimming in these same areas.”
Bohen prefers to look for early-season muskie in areas of the lakes and rivers with a dark, mucky bottom where the water temperature rises fast and early emerging vegetation like coontail and wild rice first begins to appear. This vegetation provides the muskie and the bait fish they feed on with cover. The best spots will be in around 5 to 10 feet of water and immediately adjacent to any sort of inflow from a slough or swamp where the fish possibly spend time spawning early in the season.
In many lakes where muskie roam, these shallow, dark-bottomed areas are either unavailable or don’t hold a lot of the larger female muskie that anglers are after. When this happens, your best bet for finding fish is to head into deeper water and begin using electronics to search for giant suspended muskie.
“Using live scope and sonar is a great way to locate fish, especially big female muskie in the early season,” said muskie guru Chris Willen, owner of Chris Willen Guide Service who hunts for the toothy fish in the waters of Northern Wisconsin. “The fish will often be hanging out in big basins of deep water. They’re usually just beneath the surface, as shallow as 3 to 4 feet soaking up the sun in basins that go from 30 to 40 to even 60 feet deep depending on the lake.”
To find these fish, you should move out to any deeper water that is immediately adjacent to possible spawning areas. Using a trolling motor, slowly cover the area, searching for significant marks on your electronics. These suspended fish can be incredibly spooky, so you really have to pay attention to the screen and try to spot them before they spot you.
Once you’ve found a few good post-spawn muskie spots and located a few active fish, the next step is picking the right lure or fly to catch them.
Lures for early-season muskie are vastly different from the ones you would use during summer when success is all about using lures large and gaudy enough to call up a muskie from the depths. Instead, you’ll want to use smaller lures and baits, similar to those you would use during the fall, which better match the baitfish that the muskie are actively feeding on.
“During the early season, I like to cruise around in the shallows and see if I can spot some fish that are just chilling around,” Willen told MeatEater. “Then I’ll use lures that I can drop down in front of their faces to make them react. You want to be able to get their attention without making them work too hard.”
Using jig-style baits for these situations can be very effective, especially when sight fishing for muskie sitting on the bottom in shallow water. The best of these includes the classic bucktail jig as well as larger ½-ounce jig heads tipped with a soft plastic swim bait or creature bait like a 6-inch Berkely Gulp! Grub or Z- Man. Cast these lures towards the muskie so that they splash down 5 to 10 feet from the fish’s nose. Let the lure sink to the bottom and then start a slow jigging retrieve, bouncing the lure off the bottom as you go. The soft bouncing action combined with the commotion it causes by hitting bottom will often trigger the muskie to move in and inhale the lure.
For muskies suspended in deeper water or in water where they aren’t visible, Willen likes to use lures that cover more water and have a better chance at drawing hidden fish in towards the boat.
“We’re using a lot of small- to medium-sized Medusas in those situations,” Willen said. “And stuff like single skirt bucktails and #8 Boilmakers, are go-tos for me in the early season, especially when the water is getting a little warmer but the muskie are still up in the shallows or suspended.”
Other Lures that can also be very effective in these situations are jerkbaits like the F18 Rapala and the H14 Husky Jerk, as well as glide baits like the Raptor Eagle. However, if you’re really seeking a thrill when fishing for early-season muskies, then it’s hard to beat using a topwater lure.
“A lot of anglers believe that because there’s so many baby ducks and geese running around that early season muskie actually key in on them,” Willen said. “It might be just that the sound of the lure annoys the hell out of them. Either way, I always carry a few topwater lures with me like the Whopper Plopper and the Lil’ Bastard for the early season stuff.”
Just like with lure fishing, the flies you choose for early-season muskie fishing should be smaller and less gaudy than the flies you would use during the summer.
“We’ll use those big, double articulated patterns we like during summer in the early season and sometimes they will work,” Brad Bohen told MeatEater. “But it seems that most of those early season fish are picking up smaller forage. But hey, big people like French fries and chicken nuggets, so why shouldn’t big muskie? So, we’ll use a lot of smaller single hook fly patterns that imitate things like shiners, chubs, bluegill, and crappie. The stuff that the muskie are eating.”
Like with the lures, you’ll have better success when fishing for early-season muskies in shallow water with smaller, heavier flies that hug the bottom. These can include leech patterns with heavy dumbbell eyes like the Pike Bunny, the Flashtail Whistler, and the Hawkins Triple Double. As with the lures, these flies are best used when sight fishing in the shallows, where you can cast the fly within a few feet of a resting muskie’s nose and trigger it into grabbing.
When fishing for suspended muskie in slightly deeper water, you want to use smaller fly patterns that you can cast easily, cover a lot of water, and suspend in the water column when retrieved. Flies like the Double Deceiver, Bohen’s Hangtime Minnow, the Drunk and Disorderly, and Johnson’s Sluggo are great options. These flies can be cast a great distance with relatively light gear and retrieved with a lot of rapid jerks and pauses, perfect for fooling an early-season muskie into thinking the fly is a wounded minnow.
Fly anglers can also get in on the early season topwater action and capitalize on the muskie’s aggressive behavior.
“With all the ducklings and goslings in the water and all the big frogs bouncing around in the early season, you know those fish have to be looking up,” said Bohen. “In the right scenario, the topwater bite can be awesome.”
Again, you’ll want to use small, less obtrusive flies for topwater fishing than you would normally use in the later season. Flies like Cohen’s Frog Legged Diver, Bauer’s Pike Popper, and small Spongebob Square Heads are incredibly effective, especially when muskie are cruising around in shallow flats or are hanging suspended just below the surface in deeper water.
“Post-spawn muskies are higher up in the water column than regular-season fish,” said Bohen. “Find areas where they come into the water from spawning grounds, with dark mucky bottoms and look for the right water temperature and any of these techniques will work on the fly. Remember its all about location, location, location.”
I’m always going to believe that, aside from winning the lottery or surviving a zombie apocalypse, all luck comes from intentionally being in the right place at the right time. In the early-season muskie game, the fish are hungry and haven’t seen a lot of fishing pressure, so your odds of success go up. When you combine this with the fish’s willingness to eat smaller and easier-to-manage flies and lures, your chances of “getting lucky” increase even more.
Fishing in the early season is like playing cards with a marked deck or jumping onto a slot machine after that old woman who pumped a 5-gallon bucket of quarters into it finally gives up. The odds are stacked in your favor, and sooner than later, you’re going to hit the jackpot.