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I am writing this article in response to the weather patterns that occurred during the 2007 and 2008 musky seasons.  Granted, I am only 29 years old and have completed only 17 seasons of musky fishing, but those two years brought weather conditions like I had never seen before.  There are many theories that attempt to explain the unusual weather patterns of the last few years, but I will discuss none of these theories or their validity.  Discussion of such theories ends in heated debate and that is not what this article is about.  I am writing this to discuss unusual weather I have encountered, how it affected my musky fishing, and what I learned.  Adverse weather can make fishing poor, but it can also make fishing better and even create opportunities that hadn’t previously existed. 

Finally Got Right In 2007

Finally Got Right In 2007

June of 2007 brought heat like I had never experienced.  Waters across Wisconsin and Minnesota warmed rapidly.  So rapidly in fact that summer peak surface temperatures of 70-74 F occurred only in narrow windows early in the season.  The heat also combined with far below average precipitation.  Less rain meant more sunny days and less fresh water to replenish lakes and water ways.  Low water combined with warmer surface temperatures and lots of sun caused many lakes to develop serious algae blooms.  The smaller lakes I fish near my west metro home were 80 degree tubs of goo by the second week of June.  Muskies willing to strike lures became hard to come by in many waters.  In waters where muskies were still being caught I heard many boat landing stories of unsuccessful releases.  Many anglers were not prepared for the quick in water releases necessary to keep muskies alive in such water temperatures.

From the middle of June to the middle of August I gave up on fishing lakes unless they were in the northern most regions of Wisconsin and Minnesota.  I opted instead to fish fast moving rivers and slow rivers with cool water tributaries.  I learned that small cool water inlets can hold many muskies if the rest of the system is 80 degrees plus.  I also learned that in fast moving rivers, muskies do not prefer the slow deep water if the water gets too warm.

The fast rivers I fished in the summer of 07 were very low due to the near drought conditions.  Because of this, I thought the muskies would be holding in the deepest water I could find.  However the deepest water I could find was also very slow and stagnant in appearance, but I fished it any way and moved no fish.  I found where the muskies were holding by accident when I quickly drifted through fast shallow water between the slow deep holes.  In these areas I began to spook numerous large muskies.  Most held tight to whatever weeds, wood, or rocks they could find; but some held to no structure at all.  Targeting these spooky fish proved very difficult and boat positioning in the fast shallow water was no picnic either.  Working against the current with my electric motor seemed to give me the best boat control and opportunity to make presentations.  I compare it to working into high winds for the best boat control.  I also found that casting to likely areas from a long distance with shallow running presentations would take a few strikes, although I still spooked many more fish than I caught.

I think the muskies were in these areas because emerging obstructions caused surface interruptions where the current mixed a little more oxygen into the water.  Also, the fast current moved as much of the slightly oxygenated water across their gills as possible with little or no effort on their part.  After all, the warmer the water is the more oxygen the muskies’ bodies require.  Unfortunately, the warmer the water becomes, the less dissolved oxygen it can contain.  Obviously, this creates a deadly combination for the muskies.  Any extended physical exertion (such as predation) can cause a decrease in the oxygen level and an increase in lactic acid within the musky, the combination of which can be lethal.  It is for this reason that muskies are much less willing to chase lures when water temperatures are 78-84 F.  If muskies are hooked during times like these, great care must be taken to play the fish as quickly as possible and minimize the time the fish is out of the water (no more than 10-15 seconds).  Never taking the fish out of the water is the most desirable.

As the dead of summer progressed into late summer, the nights began to cool and so did the water.  By the last week of August the water temperature in my rivers had dropped 6-12 degrees in a week.  I learned that extremely hot weather is needed to sustain water temps over 80 degrees in any body of water, but especially fast moving water.  Usually this means many days in the upper 80’s and lower 90’s without the usual cool north country nights.  As soon as the heat breaks, the water will cool rapidly.  In my slow rivers, the muskies moved off of the cool water inlets and began using weed edges directly adjacent when the main river temperatures hit 74 F.  In my fast moving rivers the muskies moved into more traditional locations immediately as well.  I really don’t think they liked being exposed in the shallow water.  It goes to show how desperate these fish were, that they exposed themselves like this being a creature devoted to such seclusion.

My lakes took a little longer to get right.  As I waited for them to cool, I experienced good action in my rivers until early October.  High water chased me off of some of the small fast ones and cooling water caused limited muskies to scatter into vast deep areas in large slow ones.  In the second week of October I began fishing lakes again.  Some were still too bloomed out.  Others were just not cooling quickly enough to get good fall action.  During the second week of October, I found water in lakes still holding in the upper 60’s F.  In September, this is when action usually gets good, but I think the muskies where wanting cooler water.  I was finding poor action and was convinced that if I found water 55 F or cooler I would find good action.  On October 15th I found a lake with a surface temperature of 55 F.  That day I caught 42” and 48” muskies and over the following 6 day period, 5 more muskies went into my boat in 3 outings to the same lake, all 42” or longer, including a 54” monster that went to my friend James.

Some lakes however were still not ready to produce good musky fishing.  One of my favorite small lakes was still bloomed out on the 18th of October and still not producing any substantial action.  However, I fished the same lake again on the 28th of October and it was a whole new ball game.  The water temperature was 51 F and the bloom had died leaving the water as clear as I had ever seen it in that lake.  In 3 hours, Nicole and I moved 15 muskies over 40” and took a double measuring 44” and 43”.  Obviously the improvement in conditions caused a feeding frenzy of fish literally starved for good conditions, starved for over 4 months as a matter of fact.  Over the next two weeks, this lake put a dozen more fish in my boat 41”-48”.  I learned that the longer a lake stays bad, the better the action will be when it finally gets good.

On that same lake, the summer algae bloom killed the vast majority of its aquatic vegetation.  There just wasn’t enough clarity to allow sunlight to penetrate and sustain it.  By the time the water cleared only a few sparse weed patches existed in the entire lake, and they grew no deeper than 2-3’.  To make the situation even stranger, the crappies moved up onto the edges of these weeds in thick schools and were still there during freeze up when I stopped fishing the lake for the season.  The muskies also moved in thick to feed on the crappies, and as I tried to catch them I watched them herding the crappies against the weed edges then tearing through them.  Some would ambush the broken schools of crappie as they spooked from my boat.  It seemed that the crappies were moving too fast for the muskies, but when everything settled the musky would be lying there with a crappie half in its mouth.  This went on all day every day for two weeks.  I can only imagine the stomach contents of these muskies.  They were absolutely terrorizing these crappies in water 1.5’-3’ deep, and these weren’t small muskies either. They were all 40-48”.

Another thing that surprised me is the activity level of these muskies.  They were absolutely slashing through the crappies, even when the water reached 39 F.  When I could get them to bite my presentations (which wasn’t as often as you may think given the circumstances) they still preferred them slow, and I did try faster presentations.  It went against everything I knew about late fall muskies, and I know that cold water muskies are not usually this active, but it was certainly evidence that exceptions to this rule do exist.  I learned that fish don’t always do what they are supposed to and that muskies will follow forage anywhere, including knee deep freezing water.

My action stayed good for most of November, but then in the last week and a half of November the unseasonably warm weather turned unseasonably cold, and my lakes iced heavily before the season was done.  Months of above average temperatures turned into months of below average temperatures.  The winter of 07/08 reminded me of growing up in northern Wisconsin, even in the Twin Cities metro area.  I travel across the nation for my job, and all winter and into spring I encountered temperatures well below average with no reprieves for months.

In late January 2008 I fished muskies in central Tennessee.  Normal daily highs for that time and region are the low 50’s F, but in 3 days of fishing we experienced nothing above the upper 30’s F.  Water temperatures were 36-38 F and we had to break ice at the landing to get out.  In spite of fishing the coldest water I have ever fished we landed 13 muskies in 3 days (14 hours) of fishing.  I already knew extremely slow fishing was a must in cold water and it proved to be a valuable skill.

I didn’t get out after the muskies again until May on the southern Wisconsin River.  I had to choose my location carefully as much of the Wisconsin River that opened on the first Saturday in May was at or near flood stage.  Since summer of 07 Southern Wisconsin had received well above average precipitation, while Northern Wisconsin for the most part had been well below average levels of precipitation.  The fact that these two weather patterns bordered one another is amazing considering that they were so prolonged, severe, isolated, and opposite of each other.

So I found the northernmost stretch of the Wisconsin River in the southern zone.  Spring was behind and the river was high and cold.  Spring was behind everywhere, the icy grip of winter just wouldn’t quite let go.  I managed to salvage the trip with a decent spawn or post spawn male, but by and large the muskies were very inactive in spite of my meticulous efforts.  If the fishing is poor, I learned that sometimes a 37” musky is better than nothing even if you had to work your but off to catch it.

Later in May I fished on the Wisconsin/Michigan boundary waters and it was still cold.  In two days, I couldn’t move a musky.  I had had a lot of experience on the water I was on, and it had been a good early season producer in past years, but things were just so far behind and the fish were reluctant to say the least.  I tried every cold water tactic I knew including finesse live bait, but to no avail.  I learned that you can’t force a musky to bite, and that it is best not to waste precious resources on futile enterprises.

I fished Wisconsin’s northern zone opener on the St. Croix River.  The weeds I usually fish were still very low and the water was cool in spite of being stained.  However, we struck early during a sunrise feeding window and took a well built 44” musky and raised a few others within half an hour.  However, success in this location evaded me in the weeks to come even though conditions seemed to improve.  Sometimes the muskies don’t do what they are supposed to, but when they give you a feeding window it is best to take advantage of it.  When the bite ends, find a new one.

On the Minnesota opener I made the mistake of not fishing my local lakes in the west metro thinking they would be poor like the year previous.  However I fished the day after on the west metro to find water temperatures perfect, beautiful weed growth, no algae bloom, and active muskies.  I moved many nice fish, but took no strikes that Sunday.  Had I been there the day before to show the same muskies the first lures of the season, I am confident I would have taken a strike.  I learned that different seasonal weather patterns can bring about very different conditions from one year to the next.

I was planning to rely on rivers for most of my fishing during June and July, because I don’t like dealing with summertime pressure that most lakes receive.  However, the rivers that I fished during the droughts of the previous summer where now very high, fast, and murky.  I did find action in my local west metro lakes that hadn’t bloomed out yet due to cooler and cloudier weather than normal.  Results were spotty but when I hit it right, I had some excellent days.

The summer of 2008 was much more normal, though it was still very dry in many areas across the north land.  Surface temperatures never hit the levels they were at by late June of the previous season.  Rare storm fronts and good moon phases produced good but isolated bites for me and those I spoke with, but overall it was typical dog days.  I hit a good morning in early August, landing 4 muskies measuring 40”, 43”, 43”, and 46” in two hours all on top water.  I learned that loud surface lures can call in muskies even if there is no water clarity at all due to algae bloom.  The bite was shallow and continued on mornings if the night had been cool enough for the muskies to feel comfortable moving up.  I learned that a few degrees of surface temperature can make a big difference even if the change only lasts a few hours.  The bite always ended after the sun had been up for an hour and the water warmed again.

September came with normal cooler temperatures, but precipitation was still very low.  Lakes that I had been struggling with due to warm water and algae bloom cooled and cleared and the muskies came on big time.  Two days before the September full moon, my brother in law and I hit 6 hours of perfect weather.  It was heavily overcast with intermittent light rain and light winds.  We boated 37”, 47”, 48”, 49”, and 53” muskies and a 42” tiger.  We knew where the fish were and when they came on we hit them hard.  I learned that it pays off to track the location of fish even in not so great conditions, so that when conditions improve the cooperative fish can be targeted as efficiently as possible.

October came with the normal weather, winterlike some days, summery others.  Turnover came to different lakes at different times like usual.  To find the best action, I opted to fish lakes that had stabilized instead of trying to find action in unstable water.  Smaller shallow lakes were ready to go much before larger and deeper bodies of water.  I called it quits on my younger more foolish days of beating a dead horse, and stuck to the bodies of water in which I found stable water and biting muskies.

During November, the lake I had been counting on for a late fall hog threw me a curve ball.  Instead of staying on the weed edges until freeze up, the few big muskies I had been working on all season seemed to scatter into vast deeper water.  I didn’t have the time, resources, or patients to locate the proverbial needle in the hay stack, so when my friend Ryan got on an excellent weed edge live bait bite on another lake, I happily hit it with him until the end of the season.  His timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as my late fall go to lake from the previous season was oddly holding onto an extreme algae bloom making action very poor.  Again, don’t try to force it, the muskies will usually be biting somewhere.  You just have to look.

Action peaked for Ryan and I when water surface temperatures reached 44-42 F.  Active muskies began to school up on specific structures.  One evening, after moving nothing all day, I took 3 muskies from one weedy point in 45 minutes.  The last one, right at dark, measured 51”.  When water temperatures hit 41-38 F, bites became much tougher to trigger.  Slower and more precise presentations became a must.  There was no longer any time to search for muskies on unproven weedlines.  Once again, the importance of water temperature, low light conditions, and key structures was very evident.

I look forward to each new season, but make few solid long term plans.  I learned that playing the game day by day is best.  Learning from past success is excellent, but duplicating it can be tricky.  Don’t try to force it.  Let the muskies tell you when, where, and on what they will bite.  Keep an open mind and be ready for anything.  Be versatile and count nothing out.

 

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