By Bob Mehsikomer and Kyle Brickson
For years, we at Simply Fishing have attempted to educate viewers and attendees of our various seminars of the specifics of musky fishing. The information we offer is grounded in science and experience and we try to reserve unnecessary comments or conclusions until our experience has demonstrated the true and relative nature of our findings.
In this context, we have found that water temperature and its effects on the prey/predator relationship should be one of the most valuable assets in any musky hunter’s arsenal of knowledge.
To keep this as simple as possible, we’ve conjured an easy-to-remember system which we refer to as "7 degrees of musky location" or simply "the rule of 7’s." This process addresses the variable stages of water temperature and how these changes affect musky movement. Most importantly, where we expect to locate fish within specific temperature ranges.
Understanding the effect water temperature has on musky locations is arguably the most critical dynamic of successful musky fishing. After all, if you’re not fishing where the muskies are, you won’t catch them. Each water temperature benchmark in the "rule of 7’s" signifies an identifiable and significant change in the fishes’ behavior. These rules apply primarily to the northern regions of the musky’s range, but with slight modifications of extreme periods, fishermen anywhere can apply these guidelines. The observations are based on surface temperatures, realizing that during certain circumstances, surface temperatures are indeed relative to only a few inches of the water column. (i.e. severe fronts). Therefore, be prepared to apply some common sense in this approach to fishing.
47 Degrees and Rising: Spawning Cycle
At 47 degrees, muskies experience the first of two compression periods because changes relating to everything will occur very quickly. Muskies are generally in the spawning cycle during this period. For the most part they are utilizing very shallow water, absorbing the warmest water available in the system. Areas offering the most direct sunlight, such as those in the northern or (better yet) northwest sections, generally receive the most direct sunlight and will warm fastest. They are also influenced by the stacking of warmer water due to southerly winds and are somewhat protected from the effects of harsh cold fronts often associated with this period.
In most cases the female musky will simply roam favorable areas in preparation for delivery, often escorted my as many as two to five males. Under the right conditions the male will engage the female by bumping, nudging and in some cases even biting the ripe female. This ritual entices the female to drop her eggs which are then fertilized by accompanying males. The ritual is random at best, which is exactly why nature has hard-wired the males to work in concert, to achieve satisfactory recruitment. In most states and provinces this occurs during a closed season and anglers are prohibited from fishing for muskies. In the rare circumstance where fishing might be legal, you should be aware of the negative implications of pursuing these fish during the spawning process where the fishery is dependent on natural reproduction. After all, a big female is carrying some 250,000 eggs, which in most cases will seldom yield 1 percent survival in the wild.
57 Degrees: Post Spawn Transition
At this water temperature, muskies will still be shallow and in most cases not far from their spawning locations. This is a prime time to seek them out in the system’s first emergent weed growth. Prime areas are shoreline associated weedlines both inside and out, shallow rockpiles and rock/weed combinations. All are prime territories for recovering females. They create a sanctuary for everything during this period. Other forage species are staging in the these areas in preparation for spawning, and combined with crayfish provide muskies have a virtual smorgasbord.
However, beware that things soon change drastically. Shortly after exceeding the 57-degree benchmark, at about 59 degrees, tracking studies have shown a sharp increase in movement toward summer ranges. Keep in mind on a small lake this might mean a few hundred yards of travel, but on a big lake this may mean many miles of travel! It’s all relative. This is referred to as the post-spawn transition period. As a calendar point of reference, this temperature will often meet you at the boat landing on opening day. So plan accordingly, an early or late spring may have a dramatic effect on fish location.
During this move to summer ranges fish will often hang up in transition areas. Transition areas are spots such as soft tapering points and flats that can hold numbers of fish during this period, especially during warming trends where the need to seek immediate depth is not desired.
An often overlooked area during this time of year is the open water transition areas. Muskies seeking shallow water will often suspend shallow over deep water. Open water areas just off these transition areas, or confined open water areas, are prime for casting and especially trolling techniques.
67: Home is Where Your Heart Is
By 67 degrees, you should expect muskies to be established in their summer ranges. And the saying "home is where your heart is" holds especially true for muskies. Although fish cover some water, they tend to use areas that suit their biological needs. Muskies often revisit several structures within these areas â€” often several times a day â€” depending on day-to-day weather patterns and forage availability. Others remain homebodies and will travel very little. Remember, this will be relative to the size of the water you’re fishing.
This period is generally marked by the beginning of musky fishing pressure. For the most part muskies are now on classic, easy-to-recognize structures, such as points, saddles, aprons, weedbeds and sunken reefs. In other words, they are at home everywhere. A few fish get hung up in the shallows continuing to take advantage of post-spawn panfish. A few fish will gravitate to the extreme shallows which in some systems will in fact become their summer haunts â€” primarily in darker systems. As the days progress, warming water will cause an increase in metabolism, thus causing more frequent feeding periods (Ed note â€” see Bob’s article, "It’s A Matter of Attitude" in the February/March 2001 issue of Musky Hunter). However, the areas in which they choose to feed will primarily depend on more localized weather patterns and, of course, are relative to existing water temperatures.
During this period anglers will constantly be tested, simply because the fish are located throughout the system and concentrations will be loosely defined. During such periods, if the temperatures have been in a constant warming trend, they will often utilize large, tapering points. However, that same fish which resides here will act very differently during cold front periods. With a drop of a few degrees in their environment, most fish will relocate to the more dramatic edges of the structure, such as sharp vertical breaks, or suspend away from structure. They will make it a habit during these periods to become very vertically-oriented. They will escape the cooling trends by simply dropping down in the water column, exerting almost no energy in this effort, unlike the energy necessary to navigate a larger tapering area to accomplish the same goal. If nature has done anything, it has instinctively conditioned these fish to conserve energy whenever required. This is evident when the pursuit of muskies becomes an obviously one-sided event, painfully witnessed by the absolute absence of fish.
Saddles and aprons are without question among the muskies’ most preferred locations for activity during warm or improving trends. These are also areas where in the past we have connected with large numbers of fish under such conditions, providing the locations have adequate characteristics such as forage and diverse structure. The fish will generally vacate these areas during cold front periods, generally because of the smaller and somewhat shallower water nature associated with the more productive saddles and aprons. Look for these inhabitants to seek deeper water sanctuaries until things improve or until they have simply adjusted to the conditions. If these are your only options for fishing under severe conditions, expect to utilize patience and persistence.
Weedbeds are easily located, but are seldom fished properly despite being incredibly paramount. They can be comprised of any number of aquatic plant types and will often be comprised of two or more plant types in a single location in more fertile waters. Look for transition of weed types as the spot on the spot. Weedbeds are also one of the few elements that will actually house muskies throughout the entire summer peak. By that, I am referring to the ability to hold complete societies from week to week. Knowledge and proper approaches to such areas will greatly improve your hour-to-fish ratio.
The canopy effect produced by healthy aquatic plant life will cool the waters when necessary. The presence of healthy growing vegetation will provide valuable oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. When cover is required by the predator, little offers more value than a healthy weedbed and, in fact, nothing will house a more complete and diverse population of potential forage. These are all key considerations.
Weedbeds in lakes such as Wabigoon will collectively hold up to 80 percent of the total musky population and can be productive three to four times as long as other prime structures, opposed to those found on Lake of the Woods which may only house 40 to 50 percent of the musky population during limited periods. While fishing Wabigoon back in the 1970s I stumbled on some idiosyncrasies of which I found most interesting and still apply today. During the periods of 67- to 77-degree water temperatures, it can be very difficult to entice fish activity in clear water systems under bright sunny conditions, so I started to seek darker water systems to overcome this apparent problem. Knowing I couldn’t change the weather conditions to those I preferred, I decided to adapt, by temporarily changing locations. In doing so I realized the darker the water, the quicker it warmed. As well as warming quicker it also promoted development of vegetation much earlier and quicker. So in fact, if I were to arrive at my chosen clear water system and was faced with bight conditions, I would trailer to a darker lake, in this case from Eagle to Wabigoon. What was most interesting was the fact in the case of the ‘Goon, the calmer the water, the brighter the conditions, the better it was. The sediment so profound in Wabigoon would stir up very easily under windy conditions, and settle under calm periods, which actually enhanced my results. The point is, wether you are moving around a very large system such as Lake of the Woods, or moving from lake to lake in northern Wisconsin, you can circumvent existing conditions to some degree by relocating.
77: Peaking out
Summer peak is defined by the pinnacle in water temperature for the season, the temperature you can hope to expect in midsummer across northern regions of the musky habitat. Some years, like last for instance, many waters never attained this surface temperature. However, at 77 degrees, muskies will feed more frequently than any other time of year, possibly as often as every eight hours. Combine a stretch of stable weather during this period and you can expect multiple daily catches and numerous follows likely on the right water. If you are fortunate enough to experience this anomaly, suffice it to say, fishing can be as good as it gets!
On the contrary, during unstable weather expect the musky to be more finicky than at any other period of the season. They will make very dramatic moves during this peak period based on changes in their environment. Periods of cold fronts will force the musky to adhere to harder breaking areas more consistently than they would during more favorable conditions. Again, history will tell us they like it warm. If the water temperatures reach or exceed say 77 degrees and rapidly fall back into the high 60s, obviously due to a severe cold front, larger female muskies will simply escape by going vertical and dropping below the negative influences until things improve, at which time she will again make another vertical move, ascending to her preferred comfort zone. This will hold true throughout the muskies’ natural range.
67: Fall Transition
On the back side of 67 degrees is when the fall transition generally begins. Fish are now more likely to be found on vertical sections of structure, where easy access to deep water is generally available. Sharp vertical points leading into inside turns are fish magnets. The cool nights have begun. Day to day fluctuations in water temperatures will dictate absolute depths fish use. On warm days fish may still be found shallow, but in cooling temperatures fish again tend to drop down. Always keep in mind, for midday peak warmth during a cooling trend may quickly reverse this process and again bring fish shallow. It’s important to recognize that during this early fall period, frontal systems move through quicker as the region loses it’s stronghold on summer’s more favorable weather patterns.
On natural lakes in the Midwest or throughout Canada, the more intuitive anglers will be tuned into the process of identifying and following roaming forage during this key period. Between now and the 57-degree benchmark, baitfish such as crappies, ciscoes, tullibees and others will start to congregate in the course of their normal daily activities and will often come into contact with prime musky structural elements as they travel throughout the system. It’s during this period that the predator will begin to show signs of conserving their energy supplies by dramatically reducing their daily movements and closely adhering to the art of ambush, tending to use vertical structure more frequently. Casting and trolling the more vertical structures, adjacent prime summer locations, should be a primary consideration.
The benchmark water temperature of 57 degrees signifies entry to fall and coincides with the turnover period. Muskies have again begun to travel away from their summer home ranges. This marks the period when much of the available vegetation begins to die. Fish will again set up in transition areas. Sharp vertical points, shorelines and walls become prime candidates. This is the time multiple forage species begin to stage off breaklines. Although casting these areas can be effective, trolling now becomes a prime consideration. Active fish will primarily be at the mid-depth levels at 8 to 15 feet, although on days following turnover they can be at any depth. However, during warming trends fish again may move shallow.
This is the period when conservation of energy falls into second place as they endure the relocation process. Fish this period much like you would the spring period of the same temperatures. Forage is on the move, selecting their primary comfort zones, and muskies follow. Any warming patterns have produced some of my largest fish while casting surface lures on existing outside weedlines. Kyle, on the other hand, has reported many multi-fish days trolling. As long as the muskies are on the move, they are using energy and will be feeding, but they are not necessarily using defined, prime, spot-on-a-spot structures and you will have to cover water to find them.
47: Fall Trophy Hunting
When water temperatures plunge to 47 degrees, muskies are well-entrenched in the fall season. Fish are well-established in transition areas again utilizing vertical structure. They are now in the process of energy conservation and some of the larger females may even experience the beginning stages of egg production. Muskies are feeding and focusing on forage with high fat content, like suckers and ciscoes. Fish will most often be at their peak weight. Trolling these areas is now a primary consideration. Again fish may still respond during warming trends by moving shallow. Fish utilizing shallow structure and remaining vegetation make casting an effective option.
37: Break Out The Parka
Fish are now usually found in deep water in their established wintering zones. Once the water temp drops to 39 degrees the upper level of the water column sinks and as the surface of the water column continues to cool, fish will seek the warmer deeper layer. Deep trolling and casting becomes an effective tactic. Muskies will often relocate to areas previously void of fish and may use open water far removed from any defined structure. Trolling areas out and away from structure is an effective tactic during this late fall period. Locating baitfish that have often pulled away from structure is the key to success.
There you have it, the "Seven Degrees of Musky Location." Hopefully this will provide an easy to remember guideline to locating muskies more quickly throughout the season. Remember, practice "CPR, Catch, Photo and Release", the future of fishing is in your hands.
Bob Mehsikomer is the host of FishnStixTV (Facebook LIVE show). Simply Fishing Television Series on Youtube and can be reached at 612-670-0744