Enjoying a chilly day on the water
The deep pool we were fishing was located just upriver from where this smaller river joined a larger one. The spot was around 15-feet deep, surrounded by huge rocks that provided cover for fish as well as a barrier to current.
My guide client for the day, Brandon, pitched his Pegassus musky bait out the edge of the rocks and began a slow, twitch/pause retrieve. As the bait neared the boat, a broad-shouldered musky that looked to be in the low 40-inch range pounced on the lure.
Even in the 35-degree water the fish displayed extraordinary energy. A couple water-showering head shakes and it was gone long before she could be scooped up in the nearby net. The whole episode took only a few seconds to unfold, though the enthusiasm it inspired kept us cold throughout the day. Before the outing concluded at dusk, a musky in the mid-30-inch range was boated, this one coming on a half-ounce blade bait.
Two musky encounters in a day, particularly during a mid-winter day, might seem exceptional. But it’s really not. In rivers with solid musky numbers that commonly remain open, it’s reasonable to expect to bump heads with a fish or two during a relatively short outing, one that takes place during the warmest part of the day.
The opening experience illustrates some key points. For one, river muskies tend to remain active throughout the winter months, perhaps more so than their lake-dwelling brethren. Also, they tend to collect in river areas with little or mild current. This characteristic eliminates a lot of water and increases the chances of multiple muskies being in one location.
Lastly, they respond to both classic and non-traditional lure options. You can fish baits specific to targeting muskies, but you also downsize, still catch muskies, and catch other river species as well.
Even during the best days, fishing for river muskies during the late winter can be physically challenging. Your hands get cold, the wind has extra bite and simple chores such as changing lures can be taxing. For that reason, it’s wise to keep outings relatively short, during the warmest part of the day, during which you can put forth your best effort.
Productive classic musky baits tend to have certain characteristics in common. They can trigger bites while being fished slowly. They can cover a variety of depths and it’s wise to include baits that can be fished horizontally and ones that can be jigged vertically.
These parameters include rubber baits like the Bulldog, Medussa, Posseidon, Pegassus, and Bondy Bait. Heavy jig style lures like Bait Rigs’ Esox Cobra and J-Mac’s Musky Jig excel and have accounted for putting many river muskies in my boat. The jigs should be dressed with some sort of soft plastic trailer like a twister tail or soft swimbait. Trailers slow the jig’s descent and create a lengthier, more balanced profile.
Odds go to the smaller versions of these rubber baits. While river muskies can be active, the term is relative in keeping with the cold-water environment they are now in. They aren’t likely to move far for a lure, nor are they as apt to prefer a larger one.
Presentations should be made with this objective in mind: Keeping the lure in front of fish and making it easy for them to eat.
It’s common for more active muskies to be up near the bank, in water that may be warmed from the sun’s rays. But many times, the fish will be holding in deeper water. As such, another approach is to vertically jig a bait directly under the boat. The Bondy Bait was designed for such use on the Detroit River and excels at triggering lethargic bottom-hugging muskies. The Pegassus is another rubber bait that works well when vertically jigged. These baits should be slowly pumped upward, just off the bottom, then lowered on a relatively tight line.
An added beauty of fishing for late-winter river muskies is that it can be combined with targeting other species — which is a fancy way of saying you can fish for other species (most commonly walleyes, as they both tend to inhabit the same rivers and same pools) and not significantly reduce your odds of catching a musky.
Metal blade baits such as the Silver Buddy have accounted for dozens of my river muskies, as has the classic jig-n-minnow combination. Blade baits should be fished vertically, while instilling a short upward snap to activate the lure followed by a descent on a semi-slack line. The jig-n-minnow can be both cast and jigged vertically.
While I’ve found bite-offs rare in frigid river water – muskies often biting with the same finesse as a small river walleye – you can provide some protection by incorporating a fluorocarbon leader of 50-pound test and stronger snaps than you might use for walleyes. There are many YouTube videos that illustrate how to tie knots with larger diameter fluorocarbon, which is superior to crimps.
Keep in mind that this angling situation isn’t limited to boat anglers. Indeed, many muskies are taken by shore casters, particularly ones targeting junction holes during the evening twilight.
Jeff Knapp is an outdoors columnist for the Butler Eagle