Musky Fishing 101: All You Need To Know About The Fish Of 10,000 Casts
Muskies – Formally known as the fish of 10,000 casts; for good reason. These elusive fish are often at the top of the food chain in their respective body of water. With rows are razor sharp teeth and an anatomy build for speed, muskies have no issue eating what they want, and when they want. That is exactly what gives musky anglers the most headaches when chasing these fish. With mostly every fish around a musky considered to be potential food, how do you get your bait to be a musky’s next meal? This article outlines lakes, baits, techniques, and tips for all seasons in order to make the most out of your 10,000 casts.
Find Your Musky Fishing Lake
If you’re sitting in your beach house on Florida’s coast reading this article, put your phone or laptop down, because you’re wasting your time. Unlike species that are popular to fish for such as bass, sun fish, or catfish, muskies do not inhabit a body of water in every state of the U.S. In fact, muskies only live in roughly 50% of the states. Muskies are very oxygen-sensitive fish. Simple chemistry tells us that colder water puts more oxygen into the system, while the warmer the water, the less oxygen there is present in the system. This explains why Tarpon Tommy in Florida won’t be musky fishing in lakes near his beach house anytime soon – the water is simply too hot all year-round. For those fortunate enough to be located within a tolerable drive to a musky lake, it’s time to choose where to go.
Understanding that no two musky lakes are created equally, it’s time to do some research. The best place to start when trying to find musky lakes near home is your state’s DNR stocking and annual fish report. Usually these reports will show you what lake was stocked, how many fish were stocked, and what years that lake was stocked. Asking your local tackle shop, online forums, or your state’s DNR about nearby musky lakes are other great ways to find a lake near you. Learning about your lake before heading there is essential. It’s important to find out the forage species in the lake. Muskies commonly eat, but are not limited to: shad, cisco, carp, suckers, and any other oily, fatty fish. Depending on your body of water, your lake will mostly likely be shad or cisco based. Do some research and educate yourself on the patterns and movements of the forage. These fish care about only two things in life: spawning and eating. If they’re not focused on spawning, they’re focused on their next meal. This creates what I consider to be the golden rule of musky fishing – Find the bait, find the muskies. Having a sonar/ GPS unit on the boat is vital in order to find baitfish.
First-and-foremost, know that musky fishing is not a cheap hobby (or addiction). The high prices of baits, rods, reels, line, etc. may steer many new musky anglers to buy the cheaper musky gear. Take my advice from someone who has “been there, done that”. It will be much cheaper in the long run to make the initial investment to buy quality gear. Outlined below are my recommendations and necessities for musky fishing.
Release Tools – Catch and release of every musky is critical in order to keep this sport alive. Having the correct, quality release tools should be the first thing any musky angler buys. ALWAYS CATCH AND RELEASE.
- High leverage bolt/ hook cutters
- Needle-nose pliers
- Musky-sized jaw spreader
- Mike Hulbert’s Musky Release gloves
- Muskie Bumper – 60” Fatboy Muskie Bumper
- Frabill 40” X 44” Power Catch “Big Kahunna” Net – A net of this size is used to as an “in-lake” live well. It’s important that you keep the musky in the net while unhooking it, taking it out of the water only briefly for a short picture.
Rods – I prefer a “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to rods. Something that is strong enough to throw large rubber baits, but soft enough to work glide baits and top waters. I recommend a long rod, nothing shorter than 8’6”, however I prefer 9’ or longer. These longer rods have many advantages when compared to their shorter counterparts.
- Chaos tackle – Shock & Awe – 9’ or 9’6” Hulbert Series
- Croix – Legend Tournament “Big Nasty”
- Okuma EVX Musky Rod – 9’3
Reels – When it comes to reels, I truly believe that you get what you pay for. However, understand that any reel will last if it is properly maintained and not abused.
- Shimano -- Tranx (PG and HG)
- Shimano – Calcutta 400 D
- Abu Garcia -- Revo Toro Beast 60
Line and Leaders – With the average musky bait costing about $25, the last thing you want is your line or leader to snap on the hook set of your next musky. I recommend 100-pound-test braided line and 150-200-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Most musky guys have their own opinion on what line is the best, but I recommend Cortland® Musky Master™ Line. When it comes to leaders, there is only one brand you should be using – Stealth Tackle. The brand slogan says it all: “Clearly the Leader.” John Bette at Stealth tackle knows what musky anglers want, and he delivers.
Musky Fishing Baits
There are thousands of musky baits to choose from, ranging from small spoons to two pound soft plastic baits. If you are new to the musky fishing world, knowing where to start can be extremely difficult. This section of the article outlines what I consider “must-have baits” for the any musky angler. Every bait has a time and place for different times of the year and conditions.
The “Figure 8” – Quite possibly the most abstract concept to most new musky anglers, the “figure 8.” Muskies, being at the top of the food chain in most waters they inhabit, have little to nothing to fear. This makes them curious and meticulous by nature, which results in very abstract feeding habits. Muskies will often follow a potential meal before even considering actually eating it, your bait included. So, how do you coax a following musky into eating your bait? The figure 8. Think of a boat side figure 8 as an extension of your cast. As you’re reeling in your bait and it gets close to the boat, whether you see a fish behind it or not, start speeding up the retrieval speed. You never want to reel slower when going into the figure 8. Put your rod tip into the water and make wide sweeping “figure 8” motions with little (about 2 feet) line out. Wide turns are key to successful figure 8’s. It is very hard for a 48-inch musky to follow your bait if the arc lengths of your turns are only 30 inches. If a musky is following boat side and is right behind the bait, in-and-out of every turn and speed up your figure 8. Oppositely, if a following musky is very lethargic and seems uninterested, slow down your figure 8 in hopes that it will seem to be an easier target. Every cast, no matter what bait used, ends with a proper figure 8.
Musky Fishing Soft Plastics – Although most soft plastic baits look nothing like any fish a musky would encounter, it is personally my go-to bait anytime of the year for one simple reason: they catch fish. These baits can be retrieved in a variety of different fashions depending on the mood of the fish. Traditionally soft plastics are retrieved with a “pull, pick up the slack, pull,” manner. This style of retrieve mimics a dying baitfish with its rise and fall action. Muskies don’t want to work hard for their food, which makes soft plastics seem like an easy meal for a musky. Musky Innovations and Chaos Tackle lead the way in soft plastics for muskies. Musky Innovations’ Bulldawg and Chaos Tackle’s Medusa are two must-have soft plastics. I recommend the regular, magnum, and pounder sized Bulldawgs, and the regular, husky, and monster sized Medusas.
Bucktails – Bucktails are arguably the most popular bait used by musky anglers. Bucktails produce vibrations in the water that are easily felt by a musky’s lateral line. Bucktails can be retrieved at any speed, depending on the conditions. The most popular bucktails are double 9 blades and double 10 blades. Musky Mayhem, Spanky Baits, and Badson Blade Baits are three companies that have perfected bucktails.
Glide Baits – Although glide baits are one the hardest baits to work properly, they are beyond effective in almost any time of the year. It takes much practice to learn how to work glide baits properly, but it is essential that you do if you want to increase the amount of muskies you catch. Glide baits can be retrieved from a slow side-to-side action to fast and erratic. There are many different styles of glide baits, try finding a few that different baits that you like the action of and can work well.
Musky Fishing Topwaters – Topwater strikes can be some of the most violent and invigorating hits to watch. Not only are top waters great for heart-stopping strikes, they’re also very effective at catching muskies once the water has warmed up. Prop-style and “walk-the-dog” topwater baits are two baits every musky angler should have in their arsenal. Prop-style baits, like the Pacemaker, should be retrieved in a straight crank manner. “Walk-the-dog” topwater baits, like the Weagle, should be retrieved in a side-to-side manner with little to no hesitation between pulls.
Other Baits – There are millions of different crankbaits, swimbaits, and jigs available to musky anglers, ranging in all different sizes, shapes, and actions. These baits are easy to work and yet are still very effective. The first bait you should always keep in the boat is a 10” STORM Kickin’ Minnow. This lure has a great action and realistic look. However, when using this lure, make sure to “baby” it as the joints between the each individual section of the lure are only comprised of soft plastic. New to me, yet proven to be very effective are paddletail swimbaits. These baits require only a straight retrieve but send out a significant amount of vibration in the water. Water Wolf Lures’ Shadzilla, Musky Innovation’s Swimmin’ Dawg, and the Poseidon by Chaos Tackle are three great choices for paddletail baits. Whether or not you are a fan of jigging, you need to have at least one musky jig. Personally, I want to blow my head off from boredom when jigging, however, jigging has saved the day for my boat when fishing has gotten tough. The Shumway Fuzzy Duzzit is a great jig option when you’re looking to get your jig noticed as it sends out an immense amount of vibrations on every upward pull. A more subtle option is the Original Bondy Bait by Bondy Bait Company. Both are great musky jigs and have proven to be very effective.
Musky Fishing Through the Seasons
A musky’s movement and location at any given season or time is never the same year in, year out. However, like any other fish, they follow patterns and trends that make it easier to come into contact with fish. It is important to note that the information below is a basic guideline and in no way, bulletproof. Every lake has independent factors such as lake structure, main forage base, current, and boating/fishing pressure that will influence a musky’s behavior.
Ice-Out – When the sun comes out, the ice first melts, and your cabin fever is at an all-time high, the muskies start to transition out of their “winter mood.” Ice-out fishing is often overlooked as a viable time to musky fish by many anglers. At this point in the spring, the surface water temperature is just barely above freezing and the water below the surface is actually sometimes warmer than the surface water temperature. During this time of the year, the muskies are staged near where they are going to spawn once the water gets warm enough. However, the water isn’t quite warm enough for the muskies to move up onto the shallow flats. It is best to fish the drop-offs and open water adjacent to musky spawning sites. The baits commonly used at this time of the year are swimbaits, crankbaits, soft plastics, and vertical jigs. Look for concentrated schools of bait when deciding whether to fish either the drop-offs or open water. Spawning locations are discussed in the Spawn section of this section.
Billy Brumett's massive ice out musky caught fishing with guide Mike Hulbert
Prespawn – As the temperature of the shallows becomes greater than the water temperature of the drop-offs and open water, the muskies move up to the warmer, shallower water. During this time, the females feed heavily to supply their bodies with enough nutrients and energy to make the eggs they will soon be releasing. During constant mild conditions or warming trends, fish the shallow sand or weed flats with glide baits, crankbaits, swimbaits, and even soft plastics. When a cooling trend arises and the temperature of the shallow water drops, fish similarly to ice-out conditions.
Brad Gray with a nice prespawn fish during tough fishing conditions
Spawn – There is no magical water temperature at which muskies spawn and no two pairs of muskies spawn at the same time. The exact moment that a pair of muskies spawn at is effected by many variables such as weather, temperature, and the individual biological predispositions of the musky. Generally, muskies will spawn when water temperatures are 55-65 (°F). When a musky is about to spawn or is in the process of spawning, there’s a better chance of you waking up next Oprah than catching that fish. However, even if you think going fishing is pointless because the muskies are spawning, there is mostly likely still a healthy population of muskies that haven’t yet spawned and are still feeding. The fish that have yet to spawn are still prespawn, so fishing accordingly.
Author Trent Moskwinski with a spring musky caught while fishing with guide Mike Hulbert
Post Spawn – The spawning process is very physically strenuous on both females and males. After the spawn, females are very lethargic as they allow their bodies to recuperate. I have been fishing post spawn conditions countless times when I have seen schools of big females roaming slowly near the surface of the water. I have literally bumped the nose of a few big females with my bait without as little as a flinch or reaction from the female. I have found that males are more active feeders during this post spawn “lull.” If one was to catch a male during spawn or post spawn, it will more than likely be covered in cuts and scars. This is actually caused by the females biting the males during the spawning ritual. In my experience fishing smaller inland lakes, this post spawn lull lasts for about two weeks. Bigger lakes, such as Lake St. Clair, Mille Lacs, Green Bay (Lake Michigan), and expansive river systems experience this lull much less due to different water conditions at different parts of the lake. Once the muskies have recovered from spawn, they are focused on only one thing: eating. This time in the season can be some of the hottest fishing of the year. Use your electronics to find the bait. This will depend on what the main forage of your lake is. Bucktails, soft plastics, and topwaters generally dominate this time of year.
A fat post spawn musky caught by Drew Rambo
Summer – First-and-foremost, you need to know when the water is too hot for musky fishing in the summer. The general rule of thumb is that you don’t fish passed the 80 degree water temperature mark. However, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is effected by many variables such as wind, rain, heat, current, and even algae bloom. With this in mind, it is important that you educate yourself on when and where it is not safe to musky fish. We, as musky anglers, hold the responsibility to protect and preserve our fisheries for the future generations to enjoy them as well.
Summer can be one of the best, yet most frustrating times to for musky fishing. In the middle of the day, most lakes are packed full of tubers, crazy jet-skiers, and drunk idiots on daddy’s brand-new ski boat. Between the waves created by all the boat traffic and constantly being cut off, it’s enough to want to chuck your bait at every boat that goes by. Luckily, muskies generally don’t feed much during the middle of the day in the heat of summer. The best way to cope with this: fish very early and very late. Get to the lake well before sunrise (an hour or two early) and fish until the bite turns off or you stop seeing fish. Once you get off the water, make sure you get a few hours of sleep before heading back out. Generally, musky anglers head back out onto the water around dinner time, depending on the bite and/or weather. Fish well into the night, but make sure to pack bug spray. Night fishing in the summer can be some of the most thrilling fishing all year long. Using soft plastics, bucktails, and topwaters, fish open water, weed edges, rock piles, and weed flats. Don’t change up much when night comes, just retrieve your bait much slower.
Tom Hulbert's 55.5" summer musky caught with guide Mike Hulbert
Early Fall – As the nights get shorter and colder, the muskies start moving out of their summer haunts towards shallower water. This time of year is great for bucktails and soft plastics at an average speed retrieve. A good place to start musky fishing this time of year is on the weed flats/edges. Generally, what I have found is the closer the lake is to turnover, the shallower the muskies get.
Nick Powell with an early fall musky while fishing with author Trent Moskwinski
Turnover – Turnover is a term used to describe the process in which a lake “flips” its water. In the summer, the top portion of the water is warmer than the bottom portion. As fall progresses, the top layer of water becomes colder than the bottom layer, which causes the bottom layer to “rise” up and the top layer to “sink” down. Turnover results in water mixing which stirs up sediment and weeds throughout the water column. During turnover, musky fishing gets tough. Muskies move up to shallow parts of the lake. Bucktails, glide baits, swimbaits, and soft plastics are your best bet for turnover fishing.
Chris Button with a huge fall musky
Late Fall – If you’re thinking that it’s almost time to put the boat in storage come late fall, think again. Personally my favorite time of the year to musky fish, late fall produces some of the fattest fish caught all year long. As the water continues to cool, the muskies’ metabolism continues to slow down. Their bodies are getting them ready for the winter months (in which they feed much less) by storing energy via fat in their bodies. A common misconception amongst musky anglers is that muskies eat more in the late fall as they get ready for the winter. This simply is not the case. Their increased girth is a result of a slower metabolism and opportunistic feeding. Late fall muskies are looking for a big, fatty, easy meal. They don’t want to exert unnecessary energy by chasing down a fast-moving fish, nor do they want to chase after multiple smaller meals. This is why big soft plastics and jigs dominate in late fall: big, slow, and easy. It’s crucial to fish slowly in late fall; this includes bait and boat speed. Fish steep drop offs and open water that are holding large masses of baitfish. When picking the spot you are going to fish next, consider a potential spawning area for muskies nearby. Muskies often stage near their spawning sites in late fall. Because you will be fishing slower in late fall, it’s important that you choose “high percentage” spots to fish in order to increase your chances.
Mike Hulbert with a GIANT late fall musky
Musky Fishing 101 Conclusion
For many musky anglers, a simple hobby turns into a lifelong addiction. Musky fishing offers a thrill that compares to no other type of fishing. The points outlined in this article are meant to give the first-time musky angler the necessary initial guidance into the sport (or addiction) of musky fishing. Stay patient, stay determined, and follow the tips and techniques discussed in this article in order to make the most out of your 10,000 casts.
Special thanks to: Mike Hulbert, Tom Hulbert, Billy Brumett, Chris Button, Drew Rambo, Brad Gray, Mike and Diane Moskwinski, and the Indiana University Bass Fishing Team
Updated June 15th, 2021 at 8:25 AM CT