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Featured in Musky Hunter Magazine, April/May 2022
By the time spring rolls around each year, it would be an understatement to say we’re all chomping at the bit to get back out there and huck what we’ve been filling our boxes with all winter. Some lucky souls get to fish all year long, but most of us spend the long winter months at the vise and/or in front of the wood stove daydreaming about soft water.
There are moments when it feels like winter will never end, but when things eventually warm up, we want to maximize our chances for success. There are numerous considerations to account for and specialized tactics we can employ with a fly rod. Understanding where to find fish, what flies and lines to use, why to use them, and when to adjust is paramount for catching early season Muskies.
Because seasonal temps vary by location, let’s start with the spawn. Muskies usually spawn when water temps are about 55° F (low 50s to 60s), so early season means pre-spawn behavior. This is the time of the year when sleeping in helps the cause! Pre-spawn muskies get more active as temps increase, and they move into shallower water in the early afternoon.
Before the spawn, muskies stage and feed outside secondary transition points near spawning grounds. In rivers, that means confluences, eddies, and inside edges on tight turns where current breaks help conserve energy. In lakes, it means major creek arms and areas with quick access to both shallow and deep water. Lots of secondary spots near shallows – like Isolated bays, islands, and inlets – are great areas to focus on. As are spots that heat up more quickly and hold heat like big shallow flats, rock piles, etc.
Temperatures fluctuate quite a bit in the early season which means different feeding behavior throughout the day. In most areas, this is the time to downsize and fish 5-7 inch patterns. As a baseline, we want denser, flashier flies when conditions are dark, windy, or choppy (limited visibility). As the sun comes up, conditions get brighter/clearer, the wind settles, and/or visibility improves, err toward slightly sparser flies with less flash.
Action is still everything, and some of my favorite early season patterns fish well with different retrieves. Barely a crawl while things are still cold early in the morning (if you don’t sleep in)…shifting to aggressive jigging or erratic side-to-side gliding actions in the warmer afternoon.
When things are still cold in the morning, one of my favorite ways to trigger eats is to drag something weighted on a jig hook across the bottom as slowly as I can handle. Patterns like the Magic Bullet or River Pig are excellent for varied early season applications. Bring lots of flies because fishing through structure often results in snags, but this tactic yields eats right as you bounce through submerged timber, off rock piles, etc.
Small, natural, low, and slow are a great place to start during cold mornings. Bite windows will be fast and furious as the day warms. Eats may be lethargic early, but fish may try to rip the rod out of your hand later in the day. As temps warm, don’t be afraid to retrieve aggressively…as quickly and erratically as you can. Our gear fishing brethren/sistren retrieve much faster than we do, so don’t be afraid to really rip it and cover water.
There are of course times to change it up. For instance, if you have a big female that keeps following but won’t commit, let that fish rest for a few before switching to a different fly, action, color, etc. If that fish follows again but doesn’t eat, you may want to let her rest for a half hour or more before trying again. The combination of another fly, retrieve angle, and slight temperature increase may be enough to turn follows into eats.
Since we’ll be fishing areas near shallow water, intermediate and type 3 sinking lines will be the name of the game. A case can be made for faster sink rates if you’re fishing slightly deeper or with faster retrieves. We’re fortunate to have a plethora of great fly line options now. For leaders, use a length that lets your fly work. For jigging flies with limited visibility, that may be 4.5 feet total, whereas some glider patterns will perform best on a much longer leader. If you read Luke’s article last month, have a few different options already tied. Remember to strip set, and good luck out there!