How to Catch Pike and Muskie on Topwater

How to Catch Pike and Muskie on Topwater

I’ve never been much of a thrill seeker. When my friends got into snowboarding and were flying around on halfpipes, I always preferred to ski on gentle trails. If they were going to ride on a rollercoaster, I’d just stick to the Ferris wheel. It wasn’t that I feared anything bad happening but rather because I never found the pleasure in pumping myself full of adrenaline and scaring myself half to death. That all changed the day I discovered topwater pike and muskie fishing.

Nothing else in the world of fishing compares with seeing the two largest members of the Esox family hurl themselves out of the water like razor-toothed torpedoes to attack a topwater lure or fly. Fishing for them on topwater is like watching a slowly burning fuse wind its way toward an unseen pile of TNT and knowing that at any second it’s going to explode. It provides the kind of “clinging to the edge of a cliff” type of excitement that when it goes right, causes you to headbang and scream like you’re in the front row of a Metallica concert. However, like all pike and muskie fishing, the topwater game can be tedious, filled with long days of aimless casting with little to no action. Therefore, it’s vital that you know exactly where and when to start fishing and what lures and flies to use if you want to have any success.

Why and When Pike and Muskie Eat Topwater Lures

Pike and muskie are the top predators of any body of water that they live in. Prowling the depths like aquatic tigers, the toothy hunters will happily devour small fish like minnows and panfish along with larger gamefish such as trout, walleye, and bass. Both pike and muskie are so voracious that nothing they share the water with is really off the menu. They’ll eat things like frogs, turtles, leeches, and water snakes, but they will also dine on creatures like mice, ducklings, goslings, and even muskrats splashing around on the surface. It is this feeding behavior that topwater pike and muskie anglers can capitalize on by using lures and flies that either imitate their natural prey or create enough commotion that the big fish won’t be able to resist.

Though pike and muskie will target topwater prey throughout the year, there are certain seasons and times of the day that topwater fishing just works better. The early seasons of spring and summer when ducks and geese are finished nesting and are beginning to take their new broods out on the water is absolutely primetime. Many of the young birds are just learning to swim and struggle to keep up with their parents. Their frantic splashing often leads them right into the jaws of pike and muskie that begin cruising the shallows right after they spawn in search of an easy meal.

Young ducklings aren’t the only thing that falls prey to pike and muskie during this time. One Memorial Day weekend, I personally saw an adult mallard being dragged around the surface of the water by a giant pike like it was the drunk girl at the beginning of Jaws. The bird flapped and squawked for a few seconds before the pike got a better hold and dragged it beneath the surface, causing me to reconsider the small size of the lure I was using.

The early fall is another great time for topwater action. On those first few frosty days when the water begins to cool, big pike and muskie will start to put on the feedbag in preparation for winter. They’ll move into the shallows in search of large meals and become extremely aggressive. Throwing large topwater lures and flies during this time can be productive as the big fish are more than willing to hurl themselves at anything that moves, but as soon as the water drops below 55 degrees, the topwater bite will all but vanish.

Rivers and streams with spawning salmon and trout can be particularly good topwater spots during the early fall as the salmonids that have exhausted themselves from traveling upstream often struggle on the surface of the water as they try to continue their journey, ringing the dinner bell for pike and muskie that are pursuing the migrating fish.

Finding the Fish

While topwater fishing for pike and muskie can be productive throughout the year, you won’t have a lot of luck catching them if you don’t know where to start fishing. Generally, you’ll want to target the fish when they’re in shallow water, which can be easy to do during the early season when they’re just off the spawn. Yet as the season progresses and the water starts to warm, the fish will begin to move into deeper, cooler water. Therefore, keeping track of the water temperature and depth is vital with water temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees in depths of 5 to 15 feet being optimum for topwater success.

On lakes and reservoirs during the early part of the season when water temps are in the mid-50s, most of your success will come along windswept shorelines that are near spawning areas like swamps, sloughs, and slow-flowing rivers running in or out of the lake. On sunny days areas off sandy bottom beaches can be particularly good as the bright colored bottoms reflect a lot of sunlight, warming the water and providing pike and muskie with more consistent and comfortable temps. When it’s overcast, you’ll have more luck finding pike and muskie over darker color bottoms which hold heat longer, especially those with any sort of new growth weed beds or lily pads, as these provide shelter for both the baitfish and panfish that the larger predators are hunting.

As the water continues to warm into the mid to upper 60s, you’ll want to start looking for fish away from the shorelines in shallow bays, sandbars, and along the points of islands and flats that are immediately adjacent to deeper water. These spots can be especially effective in the early morning and late evening when water temps are cool and pike and particularly muskie, are more active and willing to feed.

“There are certain windows in the morning and the evening when big muskie are going to be in the shallows during the summer,” Wisconsin and Tennessee muskie guide Chris Willen told MeatEater.

“Those first couple hours of light in the morning and those last couple hours of light at night are primetimes for topwater fishing. However, you can still catch fish in the afternoons. If you’ve got fish suspended over deeper water that you can find with your electronics, you can get them to come up to a slashing or chugging bait even if they're down 15 feet. I mean a four-foot muskie is a big fish, and if you think about it, a four-foot fish coming 15 feet is just one flick of the tail; it’s not much expended energy. So even if they're resting during the middle of the day, they’ll still come up to crush topwater stuff.”

If you’re fishing for pike and muskie in rivers, things are a bit less complicated. Like trout, pike and muskie spend the early part of the season close to the bank around breaks in the current and then begin to move towards the deeper holes in the center of the river later in the summer. Start your season by banging the banks with topwater lures and flies, concentrating your efforts around log jams and large boulders where the fish can hide. Then as the water warms, start buzzing the surface of deeper holes and troughs in the center of the river, paying special attention to any areas of slow-moving current behind rocks or in wider areas of the river where the fish can easily hunt.

The Best Lures and Flies for Topwater Fishing

There are a variety of lures and flies designed for topwater muskie and pike fishing, including the Suicide Duck and Rainy’s Dead Duck (which imitate ducklings) and the Rad Rat and the Simpson’s Rat, (which imitate muskrats). However, if you’re only fishing with topwater baits that imitate a pike or muskie’s natural prey, you’re barely scratching the surface of a fisheries potential.

“Your straight imitation lures work well, but much of the time baits that just cause a commotion will get the most strikes,” Willen said. “Muskies aren’t particularly interested in baits that have a lot of stop-and-go action, but they will still strike them at certain times. Pike are a lot grabbier and less particular about the movement of a bait, but sometimes you’ve got to adjust the size to really get on top of them. The real key is using the right topwater baits at the right times to match the fish’s mood.”

In the early season, when pike and muskie are cruising the banks, spin anglers will have a lot of luck using more traditional lures such as the Whopper Plopper and the Fat Bastard for muskie, especially when there is little to no wind or when the fish are holding particularly close to the banks on big rivers. Use smaller sizes that create less noise as the rocky bottoms act like a giant amphitheater reflecting sound and the bigger lures can scare fish off. Big pike will strike these lures as well, but you’ll often have better luck targeting them on smaller topwater lures such as the Jitterbug , the Devil's Horse, and even with large poppers like the Chug Norris.

As the water warms and the fish start moving away from the banks, stick baits like the Heddon Super Spook can be fantastic for both pike and muskie as they create a lot of noise on the surface of the water. Additionally, as these lures turn sharply from side to side in the water and don’t move great distances at a time while being retrieved, it allows you to both thoroughly work water and to call in fish from a distance.

“If you’re fishing a neutral bay when nothing much is going on, those walk-the-dog baits can really get a fish loose,” Willen said. “Any fish in the bay will move in on those high-impact baits because they have some inclination that something is going on. The lures cause a ton of commotion and don’t move very far plus they turn sideways in the water offering a large profile. They get fish to hit when nothing else will.”

Large subsurface bucktails like the Woodtick and the Boilermaker are also great options for these situations. These lures cover a lot of water and attract a lot of attention and even though they aren’t traditional topwater lures, they only run a few inches below the surface, initiating those brilliant breaching strikes that topwater Esox anglers love to see.

Fly anglers have fewer options for topwater action outside of the more traditional duckling and muskrat-style patterns. As previously mentioned, muskie prefer topwater baits that are continuously moving rather than stopping and starting in traditional stripping retrieves. However, there are several topwater fly patterns that work well for both pike and muskie that anglers can still utilize.

The Chuggernaught is one of the best topwater fly patterns out there for both big pike and muskie. This popper-style fly pattern creates a lot of commotion on top of the water and has a body that undulates beneath the surface as it pauses. This additional underwater movement of the fly negates the need for a continuously moving pattern and can trigger muskie following the fly into striking. Dragontail-style poppers like the Hydra create the same effect and can often be more efficient than other flies during cold snaps or during high sun when the fish are more hesitant to strike on the surface.

Diver-style flies such as the Dahlburg Diver and Slider Head can also be incredibly effective topwater patterns. These flies are designed to dive an inch or so beneath the surface and then rise back to the top as they’re being stripped. This causes the flies to make a loud “splooshing” sound and to leave a long bubble trail behind them which can attract fish from a long way off. Often big pike and muskie will close in and follow the fly as it rises back to the surface and then strike hard as soon as the pattern dives again.

Playing with Dynamite

The best thing about topwater fishing for pike and muskie is that it’s a style of fishing that’s difficult for the fish to acclimate to. Even on famous and heavily pressured lakes, topwater anglers can still have consistent success.

“It seems that in high-pressured places, the fish can get conditioned to bucktails, jerkbaits, soft-plastics etc.,” Willen said. “But it’s hard to get them conditioned to topwater. I think it’s because each one sounds a little different. Plus, it’s just so fun to fish. It’s really long casts and covering a lot of water and it’s so visual. You’ll be reeling in and suddenly a wake forms behind the bait and everything and everyone in the boat stops to see a blow up.”

Topwater pike and muskie fishing is a niche style of fishing that, like spear fishing or Spey casting, gets in your blood and becomes the only thing you want to do. You may still go out in the late fall or early spring and cast streamers or crankbaits for pike and muskie, and you may still go out ice fishing for them in winter, but really you’re just biding your time waiting for that topwater window.

You know that soon enough, you’ll be out on the water watching a bait flit, dance, and chug its way across the surface, waiting on a knife edge for that lit fuse to explode. It’s a style of fishing that changes you, not just as an angler but as a person. In fact, my friends recently started talking about going bungee jumping, and I think I might just go along—as long as the fish aren’t biting.

Feature image via Tosh Brown.

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