If early summer is a numbers game and fall is trophy hunting, then midsummer represents the best of both muskie fishing worlds. At least, that’s what Steve Heiting believes, and he should know. The former editor of Musky Hunter magazine now makes his living as a musketeer guide, seminar speaker and host of the annual University of Esox events held in Wisconsin and Canada. “Midsummer is really kind of a perfect storm.” says Heiting. “The water temperatures are warm, so the metabolism of the fish is high. And all the fish, from the young males to the big females, are eating the most now that they will eat all year. And to top it all off, they are hitting the baits aggressively.”
In other words, you have to get out there. Of course, these are still muskies; they won’t feed as often and as enthusiastically as bluegills, walleyes or bass. But when a 40-inch fish hits your lure, you’ll remember it for the rest of the year. So how do you make it happen? You follow Heiting belwo’s top six tips for midsummer muskie boating.
1. Follow the bait fish.
Summer muskies are focused on feeding and the best angler looks for and mimics the appearance of muscle baitfish as dinner now. “One of the classic mid-summer bites occurs when baitfish like whitefish, perch, crappie and bluegills are suspended in different water depths,” says Heiting. “Muskies will go after those groups of fish, which isn’t always about cover or structure — like they do at other times of the year — but about water temperature. So it may seem a bit strange at first to be fishing in 50 meters of water without a weed bed or similar cover nearby, but this is where you will find fish. And it’s important to remember that when a moose is hungry, it will follow a bait that catches its attention. He might be hanging in 15 feet of water and your bait is only 5 feet away, but with a flick of his tail, that moss is on your bait in an instant.”
The exception to the above rule is in lakes where summer temperatures do not rise much. “Some Canadian and other northern lakes we fish can get up to 76 degrees, which is cool for summer. In those situations, the baitfish will be in shallower water, in relation to rocks, weeds, islands and points, and you have to follow. Use the side image of your electronics if you have it to keep track of the baitfish and the muscle won’t be far away.”
2. Watch out for the moon for more muscle.
Musky anglers have a few things in common with deer hunters (not coincidentally, Heiting is a dedicated whitetail nut), but chasing the moon is one of the biggest similarities. “In my experience, the best bites coincide with moonrise and moonset, as well as when the moon is directly overhead or underfoot,” Heiting says. “I keep track of this using two apps on my phone: iSolunar is $4.95 and tracks the moon and other factors and tells you the best times to be on the water. The Musky Hunter TV app does a similar job, but it’s free.”
Heiting says it’s also important to pay attention to the basics. “Like deer, muskies are crepuscular, so dawn and dusk are always prime times. They also respond to barometric pressure; a moving barometer, especially a falling one, is always good. A rising barometer means a front has passed and the bite is probably ending, or will end soon. It is important to remember that muskies are creatures of their environment. They’re just more likely to bite when conditions are right and less likely to bite when conditions are less than ideal.”
3. Choose the right summer muskie baits.
Heiting will experiment with different baits depending on the conditions, but there are four lures he trusts more than others during the summer. “The Double Cowgirl is the closest thing to a magic muskie bait made in the last 40 years,” he says. “The swinging flashabou and twin vibrating blades work together to deliver aggressive strikes.” The Mepps Double Blade Musky Flashabou is his secret weapon during a good bucket bite. “I fish it fast, using short casts and fast retrieves to cover a lot of water. It’s a great lure to use when fishing with a partner casting a Double Cowgirl; if he has a pursuit with Cowgirl, throw the Mepps at the same fish and it will probably hit him.” Pro says the Joe Bucher Outdoors Top Raider is synonymous with summer muskie fishing. “It’s been dethroned by 20 other lure manufacturers, but the original Top Raider is still my favorite and one of the main reasons is the tail hook that will pick up a fish that just slips off the bait. It’s another great lure to fish with a bucket.” Finally, Heiting calls Muskie Innovations’ Swimmin’ Dawg the perfect bait to use on suspended fish feeding on ciscoes. “I work it to within 2 or 3 feet of the surface. A muskie might be hanging a little deeper and he’ll see that lure and be on it right away.”
4. Learn how to deal with pressure.
Unless you’re fishing a secluded lake, human activity — other anglers, boaters, jet skiers — can affect where and how often muskies bite. “Whenever I see heavy boat traffic, I make it a point to be on the water at dawn or earlier,” Heiting says. “It eliminates most or all of the pressure from other people. Similarly, I will go out for the sunset bite and continue fishing for 2 or 3 hours afterwards, especially if the weather and moon conditions are right.”
Heiting says it’s always a good policy to fish into the wind, but it’s especially important when there’s fishing or other pressures affecting the muskies. “If I’m fishing in the wind and I have a chase, all I have to do is drop the trolling motor and the boat is steady for a bit and I have another strike. But if I’m fishing with the wind on my tail and I have a chase, chances are the breeze will push me right at the fish and my first cast will likely spook it.”
5. Share the wealth of muskie fishing.
In addition to spending time with like-minded anglers, Heiting says his University of Esox events have taught him the importance of trading intelligence. “We share information with each other throughout the experience. We have zero interest in identifying individual fish to each other so others can go out and catch it, but we do discuss the patterns we’re observing and the lures that are working. I’ve learned that talking to other anglers and being willing to talk to them has put me in better techniques and lures, and therefore better success, wherever I’ve fished.”
Similarly, Heiting’s guiding experience has shown that two people working together can simply carry more muscle. “Obviously you’ve got twice as much bait in there and you’re covering twice as much water as you would alone. This allows you to experiment with different baits and retrieves to see what works best. Another technique you can pull off more easily with two anglers is to set up a slightly smaller version of the same bait when you get a chase from a fish. Many times a fish will refuse to hit that initial lure, but if you make a similar bait just a size or two smaller, it will break it. You can achieve that if you’re fishing by yourself, of course, but a second guy can make it happen faster, and sometimes that makes a big difference.”
6. Mark the mosquito bite.
One of the foundations of Heiting’s strategy is to pay attention to the spots where big fish are caught or raised. The old myth was that muskies are ‘territorial’ and ‘defend’ an area from other fish. This is completely deprecated. While a big fish may be fairly loyal to one area, that doesn’t mean other muskies aren’t nearby. Something about the place – bait fish, cover, structure, water temperature, etc. – it is simply attractive to mosquitoes. A few years ago, I gained 12 muscles in one week at one point. The bite was between dusk and about 9:15pm and we pulled at least two fish from that spot every evening during that time period.
Of course, not every moose encounter will produce such big-fish action, but Heiting stresses the need to pay attention to areas that are producing fish and return to them. “Telemetry studies have shown that a muskrat’s home range in some lakes can be as much as 400 hectares,” he says. “That’s definitely a lot of water. But the same studies have shown that a fish may have favored spots within that range that are up to 100 meters. Now this is much more manageable, and if you can find some of those areas, your success rates go up. My basic philosophy is when the bite is aggressive, I fish fast and mix it up, moving between spots I know hold fish and exploring new territories. And when the fishing is slow, I also slow down, methodically working those hot spots I discover during a hot bite.”