Here is some "food for thought" as you while away the days anxiously anticipating the opening of fishing season in the North country:
Early Season Pike/Muskie Fishing Essentials:Most of the Northern Pike in in northern climates will spawn under the ice in the next few weeks
, and will be cruising the shallow weed flats as soon as the ice goes out looking for anything to eat, especially Perch, Minnows and an occasional small Sucker or Bluegill, the larger fish tend to stay nearer the deeper edges where they feel more secure and have a quicker escape route to deep water, but they are very hungry and will take a fly well at this time of the year. Early Season sight fly fishing for "Pike", is sometimes an exercise in frustration, and sometimes the most fantastic fishing you have ever done. Most of the fish you will encounter will be less than 42 inches in length and weigh about 7 to 18 pounds - the fish are pretty skinny in the spring. They can be voracious feeders, if the conditions are right, you will have many shots at feeding fish. Typically you will spot 10 to 20 fish in a day with good shots at 5 to 10, your ability to accurately cast is critical in getting more chances at casting to fish that have not been spooked! You will also be blind casting to likely looking holding water.
To even the odds, I recommend a couple of 9' 9wt. fast action Fly Rods rigged with Clear Intermediate Tip and 10' Sink-Tip Type 6 lines. In the early spring, I usually use 25# test single strand Nickel-Titanium wire tippet attached to a 40# test leader butt of about 4 to 7 feet in length, (depending on the depth of the water and type of line).
A good quality Disc Drag Reel, (preferably Large Arbor), is a must, the lighter the better - I like Ross Reels in the 7/8 weight line range and the new Hardy Ultra Light Disc Drag reels are fantastic. My favorite Musky reel is the Nautilus FWX7/8, its lighter than anything else in its price range and the drag will never fail, even with a 40+ pound fish thrashing on the business end. Backing capacities are not critical, as these fish rarely get into the backing - I have never had one do it and don't know of anyone who has. Fifty to One Hundred yards of 20# test Backing will be more than adequate.Keep your offerings small
. Don't start chucking big flies early in the season, use flies that will run a little deeper and have a smaller profile - the fish are still pretty cold and they can digest smaller foods faster, giving them more energy in a shorter amount of time. I usually start with subdued colors until the water temps get into the upper 50's or low 60's then I slowly bring on the bigger and brighter stuff. Minnow and Leech imitations work best early on, then Perch or Suckers and finally Bluegills, but the Gills really won't get going until water temps get into the upper 60's - we have a long way to go before that happens! Patterns:
I start my season with a Big Green, Bill's Deceiver, or a Bunny Bug, and then move up to a Craft Fur Minnow. As the days get longer and the water warms up, near June I'll start using a Finn Bug and as the weeds thicken I'll switch over to an Edgewater Diver or Flute Fly. Many times early in the spring, the fish choose the slow rhythmic movement of the Bunny Bugs over the silhouette of the minnow patterns, especially if they are a bit deeper and less aggressive because of colder water. Keep your flash to a minimum and slow your retrieve way down in clearer, colder spring-time waters, almost just bumping or jigging the fly across the weed tops. Keep your flies no more than 5 or 6 inches long, for best results use a 3/0 or 4/0 hook for most of the Pike/Muskies in our area. A 9 wt. rod is best. Flies rigged "hook point up" like a Clouser style have a much more difficult time hooking these types of fish, Pike & Muskies have about 1,200 to 1,600 teeth on the roof of their mouths, leaving little room for a good hook set. You will hook-up and land many more fish by using down-style flies with weed guards rather than hook-up style flies.
Many times a smaller Double Bunny about 3 to 4 inches in length is perfect for early spring conditions, I like to use one with good contrast, like Black over Yellow or Olive over White, these flies are best suited for Pike, but there are plenty of smaller Muskies that will eat these little tidbits also. While early spring sight fishing in very shallow flats, I try to concentrate on drop-off edges, creek channels or weed lines - these areas may only be a foot or two deeper than the adjacent parts, but they will funnel and hold larger fish, especially if there is a little current from an incoming creek or some trees in the water to offer cover.
Most of the time in the early spring, the weeds are still dead - left over from last fall, I look for even the smallest of green weeds beginning to emerge and try to concentrate on those areas. Decaying vegetation uses up oxygen in the water and therefore those areas tend to have fewer baitfish and less aggressive fish in them. Green weeds, on the other hand, put oxygen into the water, attracting small zooplankton, bugs, minnows and finally the predators we are looking for - think green in the early spring and late fall!I should mention rods
- get the lightest weight fastest action you can afford - but be careful not to get a "Saltwater" rod that is all butt and not meaty enough in the middle and tip sections. You need to generate lots of line speed at shorter distances (25 to 35 feet). I like the Greys Carnivore Series Rods which are very good and reasonable priced, these are excellent rods for casting extra large flies long distances with little effort. If you are on a very tight budget, I think the best rod for around $175.00 is the Cortland Pro-Cast 9' 9wt. - it's a 4 pc. rod with good speed, it's a very good beginner rod. If you want the very best and price is no object, I think the Hardy Proaxis rods are superior in every way. They are very fast, recover rapidly, are extremely lightweight and super durable - up to 60% stronger than the best Graphite fly rods available today. Another very good moderately priced rod is the Ross RX Series, at $319.00 they are a very good rod for the money. You should also consider the Winston 9', 10 weight Passport rods, they are pretty fast, and carry the Winston Unconditional Lifetime Warranty. They offer great performance and an unbeatable warranty for under $250.00!"Salmon" action rods are really too soft
- they are made to protect lighter tippets and not made to cast extra large flies long distances - we don't have any lighter tippets to protect - 25-35# wire and 30# to 40# mono don't really need any "shock absorbing" softer tip or mid sections to protect them from breaking! Most 8wt. rods don't have enough backbone to "stick" a big Musky hard enough to get a good hook-set, but they will work well for Pike. I want to add, we're trying to hook and fight them, not kill them in the process, use a rod that gives you enough "backbone" to do the job well, don't skimp on the rod.
Water clarity in the spring is fantastic, longer leaders and longer casts will get you into more and larger fish - be sneaky! I usually use a Cortland 444SL Ghost Tip line, it has a 15' clear Intermediate sinking front section, this gets my fly down where the fish will be. My leader system consists of a length of 40# test Maxima Ultragreen Mono, to this I add a single strand Nickel-Titanium Tippet section that I attach with a 25# test Invisible Swivel. At the terminal end I tie on the fly with a Perfection Loop Knot. This type of system allows me to change leader lengths and replace tippets quickly and easily without messing around trying to reconstruct everything in the boat - I usually tie up several tippet sections to my flies in advance and put them into my tackle bag for use whenever I need them. Leader Design:
I make my own leaders, I use 40 pound test Maxima Ultragreen for the butt section, which may be between 2 and 7 feet long (depending on the water depth and clarity) the shallower the water the longer the leader Butt, put a small Perfection Loop at the fly line and tie the tippet section to the Invisible Swivel with a 4 loop Clinch Knot. I make up tippet sections with about 18 inches of 25 or 35 pound test single strand Knot-2-Kinky Nickel-Titanium Wire, leave a short tag of wire, (about 1/4" long).
This is by far the best leader system I have come up with, the wire is so small in diameter the fish don't see it, and it lasts much longer than anything else out there, also because it is single strand, it doesn't give off as much reflection under water making it even more invisible to the fish. The wire isn't cheap, but it is definitely the best stuff out there, it's less expensive than Tyger Wire and it will outlast it by tenfold! Sometimes in the spring, if the water is very clear and I'm fishing over a sandy bottom, I will use very hard Mono, the new Quattro Ultra hard is the only stuff I will use, it's camo coating does a good job of disguising the terminal end - use a Homer Rhodes Loop Knot to attach the fly. I do this to minimize the shadow from the leader and to keep the leader as streamlined as possible, but I only do this for extra clear water where I'm fishing very shallow - I know I am taking the chance of getting cut-off by a big fish, but it's a chance I'll take for the opportunity of getting a hook-up.
Leader length depends on water depth and time of year. In the early spring I use a longer length because of water clarity - I lengthen the mono portion to as much as 7 feet, giving me a total length of about 9 feet with the Titanium Tippet or Hard Mono section. Conversely, in the late fall when I'm fishing very large flies on heavy Sink-Tip lines and I want to keep them on or near the bottom, I go to a very short leader only about 1 or 2 feet plus the Titanium Tippet section giving a total leader length of about 3 to 4 feet. Under normal fishing conditions throughout most of the season I use a total leader length of about 6 to 7 feet, this allows the fly to turn over well and still provides enough distance between the line and the fly to not spook the fish.Where they're at:
In the spring, look to the Northeast corner of a body of water away from direct wind or wave action to warm up first - this area gets the most sunlight and the shallower water of a weed flat or shoreline when adjacent to deeper water is a great place to begin your hunt - especially if there is an incoming stream or creek in the shallow bay. Anyplace where the afternoon sun can warm up the water without much direct wind action will get the most active fish first.
In a river, look to the backwaters and sloughs to contain the best fishing early on. The upper reaches of most flowages will also hold these fish since these places are very near or in their spawning areas. Pike & Muskies will feed, for the most part, out of the main current when the water is still cold in the spring. Look for shallow flats with some green or emergent weeds, these areas will attract smaller baitfish which will attract the predators, small creeks will bring in warmer water also, these areas can be gold mines for feeding predators!
Sometimes in the late spring large Muskies will move up onto sandy beaches in lakes in the late afternoons and evenings - if you're stealthy, you can sneak up on these fish while wading. I have caught a couple of 20 to 30 pounders with this technique. Move slowly, use small flies, long leaders and lots of stealth, it's not easy, but it can be very worthwhile!
During warmer spring weather, shallower lakes are best later in the day where the inshore water temps will get into the upper 60's and low 70's. I like to be on certain bodies of water the first time the shallow water temps spike into the low 70's - I know the fishing will be fantastic! By that time of the year, the Muskies are feeding mostly on small Bluegills which are making their way into the flats to spawn.
Once the waters warm and summer conditions set in, most Muskies in lakes will have established a "core area" where they will remain and feed throughout the warmer months. Many times there will be more than one Musky in this area, usually the most dominant fish will rule the roost and the smaller subordinates have to wait until the "boss" feeds before they do, or they will be driven out to less productive areas.
All Muskies are opportunistic binge feeders, they go on a rampage one day and then settle in for a couple of days while they digest their meal, this is why they seem to be everywhere at certain times and then suddenly you can't find a good one anywhere, they simply aren't hungry. Weather events tend to get them fired up, cloudy skies and changing conditions will trigger feeding responses most of the time. They feel more secure and are not as easily spotted in the darker conditions as they stalk their territories in search of prey.
In rivers Muskies are almost always on the move, they tend to follow baitfish migrations much more than do their cousins in lakes, (with the exception of those Muskies that feed almost exclusively on Ciscoes). Most of the time they will be located in pools where they have more depth and a concentration of food. River Muskies tend to stalk shallower waters more often than their brethren in lakes. Since most of our rivers here in the Upper Midwest have more shallow water this only seems natural, even the pools in most rivers have modest depths compared to most lakes, so river Muskies are much more comfortable in shallower areas than those in lakes. Most river Muskies will spend the majority of the summer in water less than 4 feet deep, using weed beds, log jams and other structures to conceal their movements. Since river Muskies move quite often, a key component to their location is their food supply, the number one ingredient for locating Muskies is: MUSKIES NEVER GO FAR FROM THE BREADBOX!
If you can locate a good supply of baitfish, you will find actively feeding Muskies nearby. This mantra also holds true for Muskies in lakes, but they may be in much deeper waters than they are in rivers.
Many times you will be dealing with higher or faster than normal currents in rivers, this can happen throughout the season, but it is particularly common in the spring. When river currents increase abruptly due to rainfall or runoff, Muskies and Pike will migrate to areas where they are most comfortable - they will seek out currents that were similar to what they had before the flow increased. This is a key ingredient to finding the fish when conditions make a drastic change.
I'll discuss more summer tackle and tactics later in the year as conditions begin to change, this should keep you busy for quite awhile. Think about those areas you already know that fit the above parameters and you will catch more and larger fish.