"YOU'VE GOT TO...FISH IT CLEAN"
Especially in dark water situations…
putting a lure in an active Musky's strike zone may take more than a few casts

JOHN DETTLOFF 2006


It was the spring of 1923, when veteran Musky man Jack Trombly and a young Louie Spray made an observation that was to forever change the way in which they Musky fished. From that day forward, both men began to make a conscious effort to stick with a likely spot in other words, "to fish it clean" - rather than always being in a hurry to get to the next spot. Recalling that spring day more than 74 years ago, Spray wrote:

"While Trombly and I were walking the tracks, heading for Black Lake, we stopped on the railroad bridge which crossed the Chippewa River at the outlet of Blaisdell Lake, Wisconsin. There was a fellow casting from the north shore of the river, about 100 feet above the bridge. The sun was shining just right and we saw two nice muskies lying just below a very large rock that stuck two or three feet out of the water.

"We told the guy fishing about it, but he mistrusted us and paid no attention. I finally ran over to him and asked to use his rod while he went and looked for himself. He took one look and lost no time getting back, where he very rudely grabbed the rod out of my hand right in the middle of a cast! When I went back up onto the bridge, Jack said I had been laying it all around them but they never even looked at it. This guy could handle a rod and was laying it right in there too but, like Jack said, the two muskies paid no heed.

"After watching for a while, we decided to start back towards Black Lake. We had only gone perhaps 400 or 500 feet, when the fellow hollered, 'Come and help me, I got one on!' So we ran back. Jack took one quick look and cut the man a nice club. The fisherman didn't want to wade out into that cold water but we both told him, if he expected to land that fish, he was going to have to get way out there. So he waded out about hip deep.

"He knew how to fight a fish alright. Got him up finally and cracked him on the head, waited a few seconds until after the fish had his last little struggle, and then took him by the gills and brought him ashore. It was probably 38 or 40 inches long. It was certainly a nice little Musky."

So right then and there, one Louie Spray had learned the lesson of all Musky lessons: persistence pays off. Or' as my friend Bruce Tasker has always said, "You've got to fish it clean." I believe it was during a late August morning in 1979 when I first heard this casual utterance from Bruce as he knowingly oared his 1 6-foot Shell Lake guide boat along the edge of one of the Chippewa Flowage's many prime shallow water Musky bars. And while the importance of this soft-spoken directive might not have been recognized by others, something in the way this sagely, white-haired Musky man spoke those words seemed to indicate that what Bruce said was worth remembering.


Being all ears and hungry to learn any tidbits of Musky wisdom that Bruce was willing to share with my partner and myself, I don't think I took any of Bruce's comments lightly. Still, his words, "You've got to fish it clean," seemed to implant deeply in my mind.

There was a clear blue sky, slight west breeze rippling the water, and temperatures were pushing well above 70 degrees that morning. Not what one would consider to be good Musky fishing conditions but, as Bruce has always said, "a Musky will always violate any theory you might have." Within an hour we rose our first fish, one that made an impressive boil behind my black Topper. The fish came out from two large stumps which were hung up on a small sand point. After thoroughly working the rest of the bar, Bruce quietly repositioned his boat for yet another drift on the spot. "This must be what Bruce meant by fishing an area clean," I thought.

Handing me one of his red bucktails with a chartreuse twister impaled on the middle treble hook, Bruce said, "Try this." I wasn't about to argue. Within just a few casts, a beautiful 27- to 30-pound Musky followed to the boat. What a sight! At the time, it was one of the biggest muskies that I had ever seen. Deciding to let this fish rest for a bit, Bruce took my partner and me over to some nearby islands. And after raising three more muskies we realized that the muskies were active.

Not wanting to give up on the big one we raised an hour earlier, Bruce took us back to give her a try. And I'm glad he did; on my very first cast a Musky nailed my black Topper. The initial foam job that took place after I set the hooks made us all think I had the big one, but after fighting it for a few seconds we soon realized it was a different fish still, a 40 1/2-incher.

This is just one example of how thoroughly one may sometimes have to fish an area before catching a Musky. While the Musky that I caught is likely to have moved to the spot during the time we were resting the bigger fish, I know through personal experience that many times it takes a lot of coaxing before a Musky will strike.


Have you ever tried fishing a dark water lake or flowage and after seemingly hitting every likely spot, you have little more to show for your efforts than a couple of sore arms and a slightly bruised ego? Have you ever been mystified upon hearing how others were able to pull fish off of some of the very same spots that you yourself had just fished, but with no success? Perhaps you're not spending enough time covering each spot. Perhaps you're not fishing them clean.

AN OLD DARK WATER TRICK

While it seems that there never ceases to be some new fishing secret or gadget that promises instant Musky fishing success these days, I think that sometimes too much emphasis can he put upon these kinds of things and often the more basic tips can be overlooked. In this faster paced day and era of high speed fishing boats it has made today's fisherman a bit less patient than those of an earlier time. And that's why I consider fishing an area clean to be one of the cornerstone dark water Musky fishing tips.

Remember … the darker the water, the smaller a Musky's strike zone and the more casts it will take to cover a given spot. Run & gun tactics work much better in clear water situations but don't be in such a hurry when it comes to fishing dark water. You'd be surprised how many muskies that you may be passing over. An unforgettable guiding experience that I had four years ago on June 29th most vividly illustrates this point. I was guiding Steve and Teri Van Heuklin for a split full day. With no action during the early morning, I had hoped the evening would yield better results after our midday break. Before beginning the second half of our guide day, I noticed the clear skies quickly begin to darken and I began to get excited about what could transpire that evening. After a visit from my old friend Mitch Kmiotek late that afternoon, he got me so hyped up that I could hardly wait to hit the water again. Mitch, you see, has to be the world's greatest teller of Musky stories and after listening to a few of his classic tales, I returned to my boat primed for the second half of our guide day.


In our first spot Steve caught a small Musky on a Water Thumper. Then we hit a small reed point not the type of spot that takes very long to hit, and not the type of spot you would think would hold numerous muskies at the same time. While holding the boat in position for Steve and Teri to cast along the edge of the reeds, I noticed one little "hole" that was left open by them - a tiny spot that their lures had missed.

After holding our position so my clients could get a lure into that spot, I noticed a barrage of lures land everywhere around that spot but not in the spot. Surely, there couldn't be any hungry muskies left anywhere along the edge of those reeds – or could there be? Well, I wasn't about to move the boat until I found out and a lure landed precisely in that spot.

Getting a bit weary of casting that same old stand of reeds, Steve was beginning to question to himself why the boat wasn't moving. Just then, Steve's black Hawg Wobbler landed exactly on target and I thought to myself, "Bingo, that's the spot." As soon as he moved his lure, a 30-pounder exploded on his bait and came flying wildly out of the water! The fish was on halfway to the boat, did some wild turns, and threw the lure. And even though I knew that you can't afford to leave any open holes when you're working an area in such a progression, part of me still thought, "Where did he come from?"

Steve's 44 IncherBut I knew better. You have to fish your spots clean! The fight only lasted for a matter of seconds but what a sight. Amazingly, on Steve's very next cast, he had another big one eat his Hawg Wobbler. It later measured 44 1/2 inches. Had we breezed through the area, we never would have dealt with those two fish. After working over the rest of the area, we returned about 45 minutes later - just in case the 30-pounder was still on the feed.

On edge because of what could be still lurking in the area, we all just about jumped out of our skins when a 40-incher annihilated Teri's black Globe on her first cast into the area. Three nice muskies all relating to the same small piece of structure at the same time. It was just as if we had lived out one of ol' Mitch's 50-year-old Musky tales.

It's not necessarily knowing where the spots are that is always the most important thing but how you fish them that makes all the difference. Very often I will take my clients to some spots that they have already fished before. And a common question from many of these first time clients is, "Do you always spend this much time on this spot or do you just have a big one spotted here?" These kinds of questions often end up coming from people who are probably breezing through their spots too quickly and are not fishing them clean.

FOCUS ON PRIMARY HOLDING AREAS

Every structural element has primary holding areas such as weedbeds, stumps or brush; perhaps a small piece of submerged bog and contour irregularities like points, inside turns, small holes and quick dropping edges. After spending enough hours on a particular spot, you'll begin to discover which of these primary holding areas are defining the spot's core areas. While it does remain important to still fish an entire spot, keying on its primary holding areas and fishing them thoroughly will undoubtedly yield much better results in the long run than just randomly breezing through a spot using run and gun tactics.

Good boat control is essential for thorough coverage of your spots. While working my boat through an area, I hover my boat adjacent to any primary holding structures which have proven themselves as being high percentage honey holes, allowing my clients to saturate these core areas with as many casts as it takes to thoroughly cover them. Certain specific spots have shown themselves to be so consistent that I'll even do a "double hover" working them over with unrelenting confidence.

A somewhat expanded version of the double hover approach is to work a small point bar thoroughly from both edges. There are many small point bars that can be easily covered by working them from just one edge and many Musky anglers would consider a spot covered in such a way to be adequate. More often than not, it won't be adequately covered until you work that same point bar from the opposite edge. I'm not sure whether it's the slightly different angle of lure presentation or it's just not until the second progression of overlapped casts that the lure just happens to find that precise strike zone of a hungry Musky. It's often not until my second edge drift on a point bar that I get a Musky to show itself.

CORNERING A MUSKY

When you finally get a Musky to either make an aggressive follow or hit short at a lure, there are ways of catching them. While the muskies in some waters seem to have permanent addresses among certain holding areas, the residents of other Musky waters tend to be a bit more nomadic and can be more difficult to pin down. These roamers don't seem to hang as long on one particular spot and are most catchable if an angler sticks with a spot right after he raises a Musky.

My experience with Chippewa Flowage muskies is that they often possess this more nomadic trait. Whether the numerous rivers which feed the flowage con-tribute to this increased musky movement or it's the consistent pattern of boat traffic that keeps the muskies on the move is difficult to say. I've learned that the longer you let a flowage Musky rest, the less likely you are to ever see it again. So when I raise one, I'll make sure I work the area over before I give up. And, if I want to try for a specific fish on the next day, I'll try it again at exactly the same time of day. Very often you can raise the same fish two days in a row by trying it at the same time the next day.

If you think a fish is really something worth chasing, I still think there's no better way of getting him than by 'dying" on the spot and emptying your tackle box at him. Muskies tend to position themselves in certain little ambush haunts. When you have a Musky follow or take a pass at your lure, that fish will usually settle right back into the exact little ambush haunt from which it originally came.

If you're trying for a specific Musky that you have just raised, keep working the rest of the area because there's likely to be another Musky using the same area. Then quietly work back for a second pass through the exact spot from which the first Musky came. Try different lures, working the spot from different angles, and be patient! Don't give up too quickly. Many a time I've spent more than a half-hour pounding one little haunt before I've finally been able to catch my finicky quarry.

I'll never forget one such occurrence. It was a cool, clear mid-September evening in 1995 when I had a tremendous short hit behind my black Heddon Crazy Crawler at around 8:45 p.m. The fish threw water high into the air and made a loud explosion that could only have been made by something rather respectable. This was certainly a fish that I needed to get a better look at in the bottom of my net!

Camping on the spot, I decided to lay claim to the area for the remainder of the night. I worked the entire bar over with a variety of lures, often changing back to Creepers and heavily saturating the exact spot that the fish originated. After 45 minutes, the dusk had turned into total darkness and a brilliant canopy of stars had formed overhead. The cool autumn night had gotten even crisper and the quiet hum of my flasher unit began to lull me into a semi-sleep state. Just then I felt a sudden jolt as the big Musky took an authoritative swat at my green LeLure Creeper but I failed to connect with the hooks. And it was in the very same spot as before!

This Musky almost seemed to be toying with me, but I figured if I maintained my quiet presence and stuck it out, this fish could make a big mistake. So, even though I was dead tired and it was all I could do to keep my eyes open (being sleep deprived from having a newborn baby at home), I opted to continue my vigil on the spot. After about 15 intense minutes of whipping the water to a froth where the Musky last dared to show itself, I eased back into a more comfortable pace and systematically began to work the entire bar with my Creeper.

The passing of 30 more minutes of undisturbed casting, the millions of bright pulsations in the heavens making my eyes grow heavier, and the utter stillness of the night all finally joined together to allow sleep to finally overtake my consciousness. Somehow being able to continue standing and turning my reel handle, I fell into intervals of 2-minute sleeps while slowly retrieving my lure …sleeps which were only briefly interrupted by each successive cast. I was just conscious enough to faintly hear the muffled sound of my Creeper plop-plopping on the water and the huge explosion that inevitably occurred.

While still asleep, on reflex I was still able to set the hook and then three seconds into the fight I finally woke up! This time I felt meat and I could see white water flying in the distance. Being rather sluggish from my slumber, fighting this fish was more difficult than usual. And the numbness in my hands brought on by the cool night air only added to the challenge. But I was able to land this nice 23-pound Musky….a fish which took a full hour and a half to finally eat my lure, yet another example of why it pays to slow down and fish a spot thoroughly.

What better endorsement could you have for a Musky fishing method than if you fish your spots clean, you too might find yourself catching muskies in your sleep!