Although I’m primarily known as a trout fisherman, any free time I have during the late fall is spent chasing muskies. For the past seven years I have spent almost every free hour chasing the “10,000 cast fish”. I got the bug so bad I even bought a jet boat with musky fishing in mind.
Like most muskie anglers, much of my time can be boiled down to fishless days and broken spirits. While I don’t consider myself an authority on muskie fly fishing, over the past seven years I’ve picked up a handful of common sense tips that can help beginners cut their teeth when chasing these critters with teeth
Pike and pike practice
I think one of the most useful tools for the muskie practice is pike or pike fly fishing, “cousins” of the muskie. The main difference between these species is that the rooster and pike are generally more aggressive and more willing to eat a fly.
This provides excellent opportunities to practice casting and retrieving larger flies, conditioning for wild strikes near and far from the boat, using jaw spreaders, familiarizing yourself with wire knots and retrieving flies from toothy mouths.
Also, you have more chances to make mistakes and learn from every misfortune you have. I know this isn’t a possibility for everyone, but I think my experience with the pickerel has given me confidence (along with all of the above) when targeting musk. There’s no doubt that confidence plays a big part in one’s success, and my time pike fishing gave me that for my future muskie encounters.
Fishing for pickerel gave me the opportunity to make common casting and hooking mistakes before getting legitimate shots at the muskie, especially with boatside food. For example, my most common mistake was to overreact when an aggressive apex fish would suddenly appear next to my boat and grab the fly violently.
One moment you are watching your fly swim with no fish in sight. The next moment, you see a freshwater alligator swimming a foot behind your fly. Nerves set in and it’s easy to overreact using the dreaded trout set (ie using the rod tip to set the hook and pull the fly out of the water).
I needed to experience several side shakes of the ship to condition myself to these sudden, explosive hits.
After dozens of experiences with the local rooster, my nerves finally calmed down. I curbed my over-reacting enthusiasm and focused on keeping the fly moving (eg in a figure 8 motion) while using a set of strips during the take. While I still get excited when I see a muskie chasing my flies, these days I’m able to control those raw emotions and not overact, probably the most common mistake new musky anglers make.
You don’t need an 11-weight fly rod
Most of the muskies I catch on flies are in the 30-40 inch range. I have caught and played quite a few of these fish on lighter rods in the 7-8 weight class. Earlier this season I accidentally caught and landed several nice muskies while casting large 4-5 inch streamers for pre-spawn smallmouth bass. These rods had more than enough backbone to land one over 30 inches.
During the last season, the muskies in my home waters tend to continue feeding as they try to put on some weight for the colder winter months. This presents an opportunity to attract mesquite with larger (and more wind resistant) flies. It is when I cast these larger flies that I use heavier, 11-weight rods.
While the strength of an 11-weight rod is an advantage when playing larger fish, I don’t think I need that much rod power to hit the mid-sized muskies in my home waters. Compared to quality smallmouth bass in the 18- to 20-inch range, I think 30- to 36-inchers offer a similar fight, so I don’t think 11-weight rods are essential to hitting these fish.
In the spring and summer, my experience is that it is easier to catch muskies (intentionally or accidentally) with smaller flies. This is the reason why I can only carry a 7 or 8 weight during these seasons, as these rods have less weight on the body after a day’s fishing, compared to the 11 weight rods I use in autumn.
In the fall, I feel my muskie success rate increases when I throw larger patterns that look like miniature chickens. This is when I feel the need for larger 11-weight fly rods to carry and pull the larger patterns to the target. Throwing large muskie patterns on an 11-weight rod is labor-intensive and is the reason I only use these heavy clubs in the late fall season, a period when the larger patterns seem to outperform the smaller patterns. My goal for the next few years is to find larger moss patterns that can be easily presented with lighter bars and lines.
Know where late-season muskies are held
I’ve heard trout anglers mention that 80% of trout are 20% water, which I think is a fair statement. With muskies in my home waters, I feel like 95 percent of these apex predators hold 5 percent of the water, especially during the last season.
I think locating muskie late in the season is easier as the muskie seem to follow all the other fish (aka baitfish) into the slower and deeper sections of the river. Knowing where the deepest and slowest stretches are is a good place to start. In my local rivers the last season of holding water can be 1-3 miles apart so be prepared to cover some distance as fishing for muskie between these pools is probably a waste of time.
It can be overwhelming to fish larger bodies of water, but muskies are like any other fish: they have food and shelter requirements. Locate submerged wood jams and runs, drop-offs, flats connected to deeper pools, along with the top and bottom of large pools.
At first, it may seem like you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. It takes time to locate these sites. And just as important: locate the meatfish’s wintering grounds, as you can be sure that the muskie will be near those places when on the feed.
The easiest way to do all of the above is by using fish finders. Spending a day mapping and learning the layout of the water and locating high concentrations of baitfish can be the best investment you make in becoming a successful muskie fisherman. Knowing where not to fish is just as important as knowing where to fish, especially if the muskie is only 5 percent water.
I’ve become efficient at targeting prime spots instead of wasting my time casting into areas that may never produce a season-ending strike. Learning my water has resulted in a significant increase in musk sightings and connections. Do your homework and your musk encounters will start to increase. Don’t do your homework and you’ll end up practicing casting rather than fishing.
Embrace the suffering
Successful muskie anglers have the ability to repeatedly experience losses and fishless days. Musky fishing is not an instant gratification sport where you can casually walk up to a body of water, make a few casts and be immediately rewarded with a tug on the other end of the line. And there are rarely any shortcuts to musky success.
Even hiring a world-class muskie guide will not guarantee success. This guide can put you in the right areas at the right times, but getting the local muskrat population to chase your fly is a different story. Often the weather, the phase of the moon and all the stars seem to line up and you end up not seeing a fish all day. It can be crazy to know you are floating above the fish and yet not see any.
This is why I think the successful musky anglers I know are built differently than the everyday recreational fly angler: they anticipate and, dare I say it, embrace suffering long days without any positive feedback of fish
Mixed fishing is a war of attrition: periods of long-term investment for a few occasional wins. Your body takes a beating from casting heavy rods and large flies for hours with little to no reaction from the fish. Your mental state is on high alert at all times, not wanting to blow one of the few opportunities you get each season with a musk on the go.
But as the saying goes, the ultimate reward is much greater when a great challenge has been met. As of this writing, I can’t think of a more rewarding experience than connecting with a muskie on a fly rod. It has become my current obsession.