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Moving Water Muskies

Ottawa River Muskie, Moving Water Muskies, Gord Pyzer, October / November 2015 In-Fisherman Magazine
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Moving Water Muskies

The Ottawa River is a Muskie Factory

Too many muskie anglers are like Mark Twain, who, when he was 14 years old, thought his father "was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in 7 years."

The truth of the matter is, like teenage Mark Twain's wielding 9-foot muskie sticks, most of us are self-fulfilling prophets. We lock ourselves into daily routines and seasonal patterns that serve to confirm what we already "know" to be true. It is only when we step outside our comfort zones, explore new possibilities, question our beliefs, and ponder the imponderable that magic happens.

And magic is what I saw unfold last autumn when I fished with moving water muskie expert Wally Robins and Southeastern Ontario's Ottawa River Muskie Factory owner and guide, John Anderson.

Truth be told, Anderson and Robins do things to catch muskies in rivers – Anderson in big ones, Robins in more modest ones – that shatter many notions about the big toothy critters' behaviour and location, as well as the best presentations to catch them.

The show began within minutes of Anderson pulling away from the launch ramp and motoring across the scenic wide river just a few miles below the Houses of Parliament in Canada's capital city. We stopped a cast-and-half away from the downstream tip of a large mid-river island, a place Anderson and Robins affectionately call "Dolly's", in reference to country singer Dolly Parton and the mammoth muskies they've caught at the spot.

I was excited listening to the pre-game chatter, but my jaw dropped when we arrived and I looked over the side of the boat and saw that Anderson had positioned us over top of a huge bed of dead, brown milfoil weeds that had been growing – when they were alive earlier in the season – in less than 6-feet of water.

The icing on the cake, however, was when the lanky guide handed me a nine-foot-long, heavy action Loomis Mega Mag rod, teamed with a Shimano Calcutta 400 Reel spooled with 80-pound test Power Pro line and adorned with the biggest, brightest Bulldawg made.

Hello, it was late November, the weeds were wasted and withered, the water was frigid and I could have stepped out of the boat and walked to shore.

What about all that deep, glorious-looking muskie structure and cover in the main river behind us?

Seams Rock, Eddies Rule

"Sean Landsman carried out Project Noble Beast right here," Anderson said, referring to the groundbreaking post-graduate work of the Carleton University researcher. "It showed that muskies are inactive and bottom oriented much of the time, even more so in the fall when the water temperature drops."

"Another thing about fall river muskies," Anderson continued, "it is all about the baitfish. The Ottawa River is a massively diverse system with over 90 species of fish, but the drivers are emerald shiners. Everything is attracted to shiners so where you find them in large numbers, you find the other species. It is shocking that where you find emerald shiners the size of your finger you find muskies the size of your leg. Even sturgeon will suspend in the middle of an acre size school of shiners and we'll often catch them in the fall while casting for muskies."

Unbelievably, as if on cue, no sooner did Anderson's words exit his mouth than I felt a bump on the end of my line, set the hooks and fought a sturgeon – solidly hooked in the mouth – into the net. It was as if the celebrated guide, who steers his guests to muskies up to 54-inches in length and 50-pounds in weight every year, was reading from a well-rehearsed script.

Still, why were we casting in and around scummy-looking, withered weeds growing in shallow water, when there was so much better-looking stuff in the main river?

"Current is a turn-off in the fall," Anderson said. "Current seams rock and back eddies rule. Muskies burn up a lot of energy swimming in cold currents, so they don't stay in it for long. But, find slack water or the calm edge and you'll find the baitfish and the muskies."

Okay, I could buy that, but skuzzy weeds in shallow freezing water?

"I know what most muskie anglers think when they see dead and dying weeds in the late fall," chuckled Sean Landsman, who authored Project Noble Beast that tracked 30 radio-tagged Ottawa and Rideau River muskies throughout the 2009 season and then measured their activity using acoustic transmitters during 2010. "If you asked me to tell you the most shocking thing I discovered, at the top of the list would be the fact that large muskies use such shallow weedy water so late in the season. It doesn't matter to the fish if the weeds are living, dying, dead or green. So long as there is prey fish around, it provides them with good ambush cover.

"I can't tell you how enlightening it was to track a 52-inch muskie into 2-feet of water on November 23rd, the last day of the study. And it wasn't just an occasional fish, either. I followed other muskies into cold shallow weedy water as well. They would go way back into the marshy cattails.& Sometimes right up on top of the weeds.

"I think you'll find this surprising, as well," says Landsman, who is currently completing his Ph.D. at the University of Prince Edward Island, where he is studying the utility of nature-like fishways as a means of enabling fish to navigate around obstacles. "Based on what our tracking showed, I'd never troll for muskies. I'd cast for them from ice out in the spring until freeze-up in the fall."

"I am not the biggest fan of trolling, in part because I enjoy casting and retrieving a lure, but knowing there are fish in shallow water throughout the year, I am now confident that casting a glider over shallow weeds – dead or alive – in late November is not a waste of time."

Ottawa River Muskie, Moving Water Muskies, Gord Pyzer, October / November 2015 In-Fisherman Magazine

What Makes Them Special?

Knowing that moving water muskies associate so strongly with the same structures and cover throughout the season, begs the obvious question: what makes them so good and how can anglers identify them?

Landsman calls it the $64,000 question, saying that he believes the larger and more complex a river structure is the better it is. Are there deeper holes in the bays and weed beds? Is there access to deep water? Are there stumps or rocks mixed in with the vegetation? You want to find the most complex habitat possible for the fish to exploit.

"The big 52-inch muskie I tracked in late November used the same shallow, weedy bay all season long," says Landsman. "The fish had access to deep water and a distinct weedline that it could patrol so there was no reason to ever leave."

Armed with this state-of-the-art tracking data and underwater acoustical positioning information, you'd think Landsman would be better equipped than anyone to pinpoint and pattern the fish. But he is the first to concede that is not always the case.

"Many times I was certain we would find our radio-tagged fish in a location, only to be disappointed that they were nowhere to be found," he notes. "Of course, it's entirely plausible that other untagged muskies were occupying those prime areas. So, how do you put the odds in your favour?

Ottawa River Muskie, Moving Water Muskies, Gord Pyzer, October / November 2015 In-Fisherman Magazine

"I believe that a run-and-gun approach is the fastest way to contact fish and begin piecing together a pattern because, although I do believe catching a muskie can often seem pretty random, their locations can be predicted. It's about eliminating unproductive water."

By the way, Landsman eliminates some of that water now, by making every 10th to 15th cast away from the structure or cover that he is fishing, out into "no man's land" on the other side of the boat. He says muskie anglers miss scores of fish that are moving back and forth, hanging off the edge of prime structure and cover and foraging between it and the deepwater breakline.

"Still, good river locations hold muskies all year long," Landsman says. "They don't leave. In fact, one Ottawa River fish was recaptured another two times in the same bay where we initially caught it. So, they associate strongly with the same structures and cover."

Indeed, given this intense location relationship, Anderson takes a slightly different approach, meticulously picking apart a handful of complex habitats rather than quickly fishing more locations. When I fished with him, we returned repeatedly during the day to the same spots.

But, that doesn't mean the guide, who believes the next world record muskie will come either from the Ottawa River or the adjoining St. Lawrence River, sticks with the same presentations throughout the season. In fact, he changes his methods more than his locations.

"If you somehow build up a musky ego between June and October," says Anderson, explaining how he tweaks his presentations, "November will set you straight. The high-speed retrieves of most musky anglers are no longer effective in late fall. Slower retrieves and pausing a bait are now the best methods. Bumps and pokes are common. Cast backs are key. Muskies are often hanging out with huge communities of other fish like walleyes, pike, suckers and sturgeon. They are overfed and rather than engulf your presentation, they poke or snap at it. Many of the pokes are even done with their mouths closed. So, if you feel even the most innocuous touch on your bait, it is important to cast back to the same spot."

Given the numbing nature of autumn with cold weather setting in and water temperatures plummeting, you'd think that the occasional bright, warm, sunny days would bring welcomed relief to both muskies and muskie anglers. Not so, says Anderson, who keeps meticulous records of his guests' catches. Without mincing words, he says, "nice days in late autumn suck. Wide swings in water temperature get the fish moving and moving muskies mean more bites. Moving muskies hit things. Table conditions are not inspirational for muskies."

Fish 'Em Like Largemouth

A side-benefit to Wally Robins' moving water muskie bass jig technique is that with only a single hook to worry about, it's both "fish friendly" and "angler friendly”. Unhooking even a large muskie is easy because there is no chance the fish is going to writhe and wrap a trailing treble into your body. In fact, Robins says that "99.9 percent of fish" he catches have the jig either in the snout or the corner of the mouth. More telling still, he says that of the hundreds of river muskies he has caught using jigs, he has never once had to cut a hook.

Anderson's thinking turned out to be even more prophetic when I joined up with Robins to fish the nearby Rideau River, part of southern Ontario's famous Rideau-Trent-Severn waterway, a major tributary of the Ottawa River and the system Landsman used for his underwater acoustical muskie positioning research. The first blast of winter was bearing down upon us with punishing winds and plummeting air and water temperatures. The perfect conditions to test Anderson's bad weather theory.

What didn't surprise me, however, after spending the prior two days with Anderson was when Robins swung the boat tight to shore and stopped alongside a withered weed line growing in 2- to 4-feet of water. I'd have felt completely at home here, in the summer, pitching a jig for bass.

So guess what Robin's handed me? The same five-inch, thick-walled, Bass Magnet Tubzilla and 7-inch Gator Tube that a bass angler would use to target trophy size bucket mouths. He pitches them the same way and at the same slow speed, albeit using a slightly heavier tackle.

Robin's favourite jig rod is the now discontinued 7' 11" GLooomis SWBR 955C stick that was designed for throwing big swimbaits in California reservoirs. He also keeps several eight-foot GLoomis model MUR964C rods made for single blade bucktails and small muskie-size topwaters on the deck of his boat.

The rods are balanced with bass-size Shimano Curado 300 and Calcutta 400D reels spooled with 65- and 80-pound test Power Pro in green or timber brown, as well as 30-pound test Berkley Big Game monofilament. More on the mono in a minute. Short, 9-inch, 80-pound test Husky Musky fluorocarbon leaders complete the package.

Get the Bends

"Every river has current," says Robins, "so I target points, bridge abutments, navigational markers, anything that intercepts it. I can tell you, also, that river bends are musky magnets. But they're not all created equal. The best ones provide the fish with access to deep water, break the current, offer ragged weed lines and have submerged wood cover thrown into the mix."

And like Anderson on the much bigger, neighbouring Ottawa River, Robins fishes shockingly shallow weedy water until freeze up.

"Muskies originated as a riverine fish. It is part of their biology," says Landsman, who has spent time fishing with both Anderson and Robins. "Yes, they've evolved to live in lacustrine (lake) environments where there is no current. But, there they have no other choice. Our tracking work clearly showed that muskies love edges. They love weedy flats. They're faithful to weedlines. River muskie anglers would be wise to exploit the fish's preference to use this edge habitat as ambush cover. As for shallow water, we tracked one Rideau River muskie into water that was so thin we could see it."

Small Waters – Big Fish

A good largemouth bass angler would be a muskie river expert fishing alongside Robins who makes short 40- to 50-foot pitches with his flipping jigs and Texas rigged soft plastics, which explains his preference for monofilament line.

"This is hand-to-hand combat with 25-, 30- and 35-pound fish," says Robins, with a smile on his face. "A little stretch in your line can be your best friend, especially when you're using lighter powered rods. Fluorocarbon is a nightmare in cold temperatures because of the way it jumps off your reel."

Watching Robins surgically dissect a 200-yard weed line, lifting up his tube only six to eight inches before letting it glide back down to the bottom, watching his line like a hawk and slamming the hook hard if he sees it move an inch gives new meaning to staying focused and working slowly. And he never wears gloves, no matter how cold and windy it gets.

"A muskie will suck in a jig like a two-pound walleye," says Robins. "Rarely is it a smashing strike. Instead, you feel a subtle tick, a gentle thump, sponginess or slightly heavier weight."

Gotta' confess, after hearing about Robins' novel approach of pitching bass jigs into weeds growing in ultra-thin water, that fishing with him has long been high on my list of priorities. Yet, even knowing what I knew, I was shocked when I felt the most subtle "bump" on the end of my line, set the hook hard and watched as a gorgeous mid-20-pound muskie on an extremely short leash, screamed away in the only direction it could – up to the surface – where it wallowed and splashed like a hog-tied crocodile.

And while Robins, like Anderson, doesn't hesitate to fish dead weeds in the fall, his heart does skip a beat when he spots a strand or two of green grass trailing from his jig. It is a signal to probe the weedline even more thoroughly with the 3/4-ounce jigs that he favours.

"The heavier head penetrates to the base of the vegetation and doesn’t get hung up on the fall," Robins says. "And make no mistake about it, in late autumn, musky forage like bullheads, perch, walleye, smallmouth and suckers are belly to the bottom. The muskie restaurant is always open, however, when you fish the bottom 5 to 10 percent of the water column.

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Trust the Tactic

Guide: John Anderson Ottawa River Muskie Factory www.ottawarivermuskyfactory.com

"I realize fully," says Robins, "that what I do is counterintuitive for the vast majority of musky anglers, who subscribe to the big bait/big fish mantra in the fall. And it flies in the face of traditional beliefs about fishing fast, covering a lot of water, and hitting multiple spots. That way of fishing is anchored in the belief that you’ll be successful by finding an active fish or being in the right place at the right time, like a lunar peak. It works, but I firmly believe and have over 100 big river muskies in the past few years to back me up, that there’s a different way to get the net wet.

"I know that neutral and semi-dormant muskies can be caught in icy cold water, any time of day, in any condition, regardless of fishing pressure, by going against the grain and using small baits fished dead slow.

"I don’t want to spend eight hours freezing off my butt, hoping to hit the right spot during one short, brief 'feeding window,' to catch one nice muskie. I am quite comfortable catching two or three big fish throughout the day. 'Peaks be damned' is my motto. Contrast my approach to heaving big jerkbaits and massive soft plastics all day."

Sounds like Mark Twain talking, don't you think?

This article was originally published in the 2015 October / November issue of In-Fisherman Magazine.

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