Twice over the past few weeks I've been contacted by outdoor writers who were preparing magazine features about muskie fishing in Ontario and both times, they confessed at the end of the interviews that I had surprised them with a couple of my answers, especially my proposition that muskies -- the legendary "fish of ten thousands casts" -- are one of the easiest critters in Northern Ontario to pattern.
A pattern, by the way, is what you always want to develop every time you go fishing. It is the set of conditions, or "pieces of the puzzle" that let you move from spot to spot and catch fish, if not with relative ease, at least with comparative consistency and confidence.
For example, after trying a number of different things -- including lure size, colour and retrieve speed -- you might discover that by hopping and popping a 3/8-ounce orange and chartreuse coloured jig, tipped with a lively minnow, in 24-feet of water, on the downwind side of long underwater points that you can steadily catch walleyes on Lac des Milles Lacs Lake at almost every point that you stop to fish.
That would be a good pattern.
Unfortunately, patterns are often fleeting and different between neighbouring lakes. Sometimes they change subtly, other times much more dramatically from day to day. Indeed, a pattern will often fizzle out and morph into something else over the course of the day, most often with a change in the weather.
"I understand that for walleyes and bass and most other fish," one of the interviewers said, "but most folks don't usually catch enough muskies over the course of a day, even in our best muskie waters, so how can you say they are easy to pattern, in terms of location and presentation?"
He was correct, of course, muskie fishing is never "easy", even in Northern Ontario -- the epicentre of the sport -- with more grand palaces to visit than anywhere else on earth.
Indeed, just the mention of places like Georgian Bay, Lake Nipissing, the north shore of Lake Huron, Eagle Lake, Lac Seul, Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg, St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers causes the eyes of most muskie anglers to glass over with glee.
Still, muskies, easy to pattern?
Yep, as long as you keep a few things top of mind.
The first is that if you're fishing alone, you should always have at least three rods rigged with lures that allow you to systematically cover the water column from top to bottom. (If there are two or more of you fishing, simply share the tasks I am about to explain and speed up the process -- as well as the results.)
Here is the deal: The first rod I almost always pick up is rigged with a topwater / slight sub-surface bait like a Mepps H20, Handlebarz Double 10, Pdeez Big Ten or Frantic Baits Pit Bully or Papa Dawg. And as soon as I arrive at a good looking muskie spot, I quickly work the top foot or two of the water column with one of these baits.
But I don't throw them haphazardly and never to the same spot twice. Instead, in a dozen or twenty well-placed casts, I can normally plaster (depending on the size of the structure) the entire surface.
If I fail to spot a fish -- I never look directly at my lure, being careful to always scan behind and below it -- I put down the topwater rod and pick up my "mid-water prospector". A rod rigged with a lure I can retrieve through the middle of the water column like a Water Wolf Shazilla, Grandma Bait, or Super Shad Rap.
By the way, the Super Shad Rap will surprise some readers who believe it is too small to entice the biggest Ontario 'gators, but it does just that. Matter of fact, several years ago I hosted the Vice President of the Wisconsin Chapter of Muskies Inc. -- the largest affiliated club in the United States -- and he caught his personal best muskie with the bait.
Finally, if I don't see or catch a fish after twenty or so casts using the rod rigged with the middle of the batting order, I'll put it down and bat clean up with the "bottom bouncer", the third rod rigged with either a Bondy Bait, Water Wolf Deep Shadzilla or heavy Gator Tube. I work these lures within a few feet of the bottom during the entire retrieve.
So, three rods, three specific zones of the water column, and 50 to 60 well placed casts from a variety of angles and directions, on and around the structure, and I can usually tell if there is a decent muskie or two hanging around.
But here is perhaps the most important point -- unlike when you're fishing for walleyes, bass, trout, salmon and pike -- you don't actually need to hook or catch the fish in order for them to help you develop the daily pattern. With muskies, seeing them, getting one to follow, or just catching a fleeting glimpse of one slinking away is more than enough to add to the data base.
It's why you need to pay careful attention to where each fish was specifically positioned when you drew it out to follow or chase. Was it on the windy side of the structure or the lee, for example, and were you retrieving your lure quickly, slowly, or some speed in between? Now, duplicate the details at the next set of structures you fish.
Better yet, refine and hone the pattern at each successive stop, and chances are by the end of the day, you'll impress yourself at just how much Northern Ontario's magnificent muskies have taught you.