Musky Success - Little Things Mean A Lot
By Tony Rizzo 2005
Reprinted with permission

Most musky fishermen have a fairly good understanding of the basics of the sport. Information on musky fishing is much more available today than it was 15 or 20 years ago. The high quality lake maps on the market pinpoint most of the better spots on most popular lakes. The many books, magazines and videos on musky fishing provide information on techniques and methods. Musky clubs and musky tournaments allow the sharing of information and the observing and learning from others. The result of all this information is that there are not only more musky fishermen today, there are more good fishermen. Yet, as in any endeavor, there are a select few musky fishermen that are truly exceptional at their craft and are consistently more successful than the average good fishermen. Some people are just born with the right instincts, but for most of us it is the attention to detail that makes the difference. Little things mean a lot.

I am not going to harp once again about making sure that your hooks are sharp. I think everyone knows they should be. Some people keep them sharp and some people don't. I think it has as much to do with individual personalities, as anything and my repeating it one more time won't change behaviors. And I am not going to talk about how important it is to retie your knots every few hours of musky fishing. I think you should; I do. Most readers already know that is important. Many just won't realize how important it is and probably won't until they lose that first big fish because they didn't retie their line. With the new high-quality fishing lines that are on the market it isn't as important as it used to be but it is still important. You have to decide for yourself if it is worth the effort. I won't say I told you so when someone tells me about a line breaking at the knot; I have been there.

I do believe however that it is the attention to the little things that do make the difference on the water.

Let us say that it is the middle of the summer and you are fishing on a lake that you are somewhat familiar with and after several hours of casting a fish in the mid-40 inch range shows up behind your bait but does not hit. What goes through your head? Was the fish active or passive? Were her gills flaring or was her mouth snapping? Was the fish suspended or did it come off of structure? Did she come out of the weeds or was she in logs or rocks? Was there any wind? Was current influencing where she was?

Some people are just happy to see a fish and don't think too much about it. But the more successful fishermen will try to understand as much as they can about why that fish was there. One fish encounter may only provide a few possible clues, but multiple encounters often allow the piecing together of the overall puzzle of fish location... Patterns emerge. Over years of time on the same body of water, the idiosyncrasies of that Lake and individual spots become increasingly clear and the learning curve on any specific day is shortened. All the books and the magazines and seminars and videos can only take you so far. There is no substitute for time on the water.

Going a little further with this example, let us say that it is a cloudy day and the fish came off of the point of a small rock bar in 12 feet of water at 10:30 in the morning. There is a slight wind that is just beginning to pick up from the Northeast. There are several things that I'm going to take notice of but then I am probably going to make a few quick assumptions based on that first follow of the day. The first thing I am going to do is to check the exact time of day and file it away in my head for future reference. Based on the fact that the first fish came from relatively shallow water, I am going to finish this spot and move to the next with the assumption that the fish are going to be active. I am going to note the size of the rocks and where the fish came off the structure in relation to the wind. This is what is going to influence my decision of which spots to fish next and where to position my boat when I worked them. My tentative plan will be that I am going to cover all of the places on the lake that are similar in terms of depth, rock size, and orientation to the wind. After thoroughly fishing a few more spots I would expect to have a pretty good handle on whether there is a pattern here or it was just a single active fish.

If the muskies are active, it usually isn't necessary to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. The real key to catching muskies is to be fishing where they are biting. There are days when anyone on the lake will be catching muskies. It doesn't seem to matter what spot or lure or presentation. Those days just don't happen all that often and paying attention to the details will often mean the difference between success and failure on all those other days.

There are times and there are spots that both position and retrieved angle are absolutely critical. When we are trying to understand lure presentation for muskies, thoughts have to begin with lure depth and speed. There are times when lures speed is the most important factor. Generally speaking, I believe a slow retrieve is best for big fish, but there are times when a fast retrieve definitely triggers fish.

The depth of the lure is also critical. The more active the fish the more critical lure depth becomes.

Muskies are less likely to come up to a lure on lakes that are highly pressured. On a highly pressured lake, you are probably more likely to entice a musky to eat by putting a crank bait down deep and in her face, than you are hoping she will come up to a shallow running bucktail. Under cold front conditions, your odds are probably better slow pumping a large soft plastic lure near the bottom or working a deep diving slow moving jerk bait or crank bait. If the fishing conditions are tough and the muskies are not aggressively chasing, thinking deeper and slower is a good starting point. Downsizing lures under the same condition is also worth a try. Interestingly, there are times when surface baits really excel under these same tough fishing conditions.

Speaking of tough fishing conditions, lure contact with the bottom structure can often make all the difference. For some reason, the Rizzo Big-T can be an astonishing cold front lure. This is a sharp diving lure and can be worked by bouncing it off rocks or the bottom with each pull and letting it float back off between them. There is something about all those rattles when bouncing off the bottom that really triggers in active fish. Bouncing the Rizzo Bit-T or a deep diving floating crank bait off sand bottoms is another tactic that works all season long, but comes into its own on the tough days. The little puffs of sand as the lure contact bottom seem to really trigger fish.

There are also times when the lure sizes can be incredibly important. Downsizing lures on action lakes or on high pressured waters is often one of the keys to success. However, I know of several lakes that don't fit these classifications; the fish in these lakes always seem to prefer smaller lures.

Several years ago I was working a window on one of the larger more popular lakes in the area upon which I guide. I was taking advantage of that window for several weeks and could count on boating three or four legal muskies between 9 AM and 11 AM every morning. Now this is not generally considered an action Lake and this was a much better than normal success rate. The interesting thing is that all of the action came on the Rizzo Tail. We tried small buck tails and we tried small crank baits with no success. I tried my large Rizzo Tail a number of times and never had a hit. The difference in size between the small Rizzo Tail and the large Rizzo Tail is less than an inch, yet it made all the difference in the world.

Let's go back once again to the fish with which we started. One of the decisions that will have to be made is whether to stay on the fish or move to some other spots and come back later, letting the water rest. Unless the fish was really hot, I would most likely try a few other spots and come back a while later. After fishing a few spots we are going to hope we have caught or move a few more fish and can establish some sort of pattern. I would likely be back on this fish later in the day and maybe several times if she kept showing herself.

When I said that one of the first things I would do after moving a fish is to check the exact time, I can't stress how important that little detail is. If this was a big fish, one that I wanted, I would fish that same spot at that time every time I was on that link. I have friends that accuse me of being obsessive compulsive about this because I have been known to go back to a specific spot at a specific time for a fish that I haven't seen for a few years. Once I am sure that the fish is big and worth my time, I found that this tactic has paid off for me too many times to not continue doing.

Much of what I am talking about here depends on the fishermen paying attention to what is happening and being able to see fish in the water. Now I know many people have better vision than others. I have many clients that are colorblind and picking out follows can be more difficult for them. But I believe that most people will see more fish by simply focusing and paying attention.

A number of years ago I received a call from a woman who wanted to book a guide date for herself and her future husband. As we talked, she told me that they had been fishing my area for a number of years but with very little success. She went on to say that not only did they not catch fish, they were seeing very few. I asked her a few questions about what time of the year they came up and what lakes they fished. She told me that they always came up in June and I was surprised when she told me the lakes that they fished because they were excellent choices for that time of year. We booked a guide date for the coming June. When June rolled around I met them on our arrange morning and we were blessed with good fishing conditions. I decided to start out on a stained dark water Lake and was surprised once again when I found out they were good casters. After several hours of fishing we had action from seven fish. The man boated a nice legal and the woman lost a musky that would have gone close to 40 inches through no fault of her own. The fish charged the boat and through the lure when it came out of the water. Even the best in the business have lost fish in that manner.

After a short lunch, we switched lakes and moved to a deeper clear lake. An the few hours that we fish, I saw a number of other fish and we boated to more legal fish. I am happy to say the young woman caught a beautiful 39 inch musky that afternoon. As we neared the end of the day, I told them that I knew what their problem was. I told them that neither of them could see fish. They could see but they did not look.

I cannot stress how important a brimmed hat and polarized glasses are in musky fishing. Just as important is learning to look and to see. I have had many clients over the years that struggle to see fish early on, but with time and experience became reasonably proficient at it. Seeing fish is critical to making your time on the water more efficient.

Another little thing that I would like to point out is the importance of keeping your body in a good position to set the hook during all retrieve. Along with this is keeping your rod tip low. Retrieving with a high rod tip makes setting the hook almost impossible. How you hold your rod is also important. Some fishermen hold the rod above the real; some Palm the real as they hold the rod; and some hold the rod below the real. Holding the rod below the reel seat also makes a good hook set difficult and you won't get nearly as much pressure on the fish. Getting good hook sets is especially important with the fish. With those hard mouths, you need as much pressure as you can get.

Incidentally, for anyone who hasn't tried it, I would suggest trying setting hooks in the yard with a friend. Using your regular Muskie rod and line, have a friend take out 20 or 30 feet of line and take turns setting the hook while one of you holds the lure at the other end. (You might want to take the hooks off.) Most of you will find that the hook set that you think is "crossing their eyes" is barely a light tug at the other end. Try it; you will get a new perspective on setting hooks.

Paying attention to detail is equally important after you hook that fish of a lifetime. The musky fishermen that I see using poor quality nets or nets that are way too small for the job continually surprises me. With all the money we spent on boats, rods, reels and equipment, it doesn't make sense to not have a quality nets with you when ever you are out musky fishing. My preference in a net has long been those nets made by Beckman. They also have a net with a rubberized baggie and I recommend it highly. Speaking of nets, how often have we heard the stories of a big musky going through the bottom of the net? In most cases this is because the net has rotted through years of sitting in the sun. Make certain you replace your net bag whenever it shows any sign of weakening.

Being prepared also means having the proper tools in your boat to release muskies quickly and cleanly. No musky fishermen should be out fishing without a good pair of long nose pliers and a quality compound hook cutter. A musky's life is in your hands when you are removing the hooks. The less stress you put on that fish better the odds are of survival. If the hooks are deeply embedded, don't be shy about cutting the hooks. It is in court to get the fish back in the water as fast as possible. Make certain you are prepared.

The key to consistent long-term success in musky fishing is the attention to details. I've only touched on a few of them here. There are no secret lakes and there are no magic lures. Success comes from learning something every time you are on the water and applying what you learn in your everyday fishing.