GOT TO...FISH IT CLEAN"
Especially in dark water situations
putting a lure in an active
Musky's strike zone may take more than a few casts
JOHN DETTLOFF ©
It was the spring of 1923, when veteran Musky man Jack Trombly and a young Louie Spray
made an observation that was to forever change the way in which they Musky fished. From
that day forward, both men began to make a conscious effort to stick with a likely spot in
other words, "to fish it clean" - rather than always being in a hurry to get to
the next spot. Recalling that spring day more than 74 years ago, Spray wrote:
"While Trombly and I were walking the tracks, heading for Black Lake, we stopped
on the railroad bridge which crossed the Chippewa River at the outlet of Blaisdell Lake,
Wisconsin. There was a fellow casting from the north shore of the river, about 100 feet
above the bridge. The sun was shining just right and we saw two nice muskies lying just
below a very large rock that stuck two or three feet out of the water.
"We told the guy fishing about it, but he mistrusted us and paid no attention. I
finally ran over to him and asked to use his rod while he went and looked for himself. He
took one look and lost no time getting back, where he very rudely grabbed the rod out of
my hand right in the middle of a cast! When I went back up onto the bridge, Jack said I
had been laying it all around them but they never even looked at it. This guy could handle
a rod and was laying it right in there too but, like Jack said, the two muskies paid no
"After watching for a while, we decided to start back towards Black Lake. We had
only gone perhaps 400 or 500 feet, when the fellow hollered, 'Come and help me, I got one
on!' So we ran back. Jack took one quick look and cut the man a nice club. The fisherman
didn't want to wade out into that cold water but we both told him, if he expected to land
that fish, he was going to have to get way out there. So he waded out about hip deep.
"He knew how to fight a fish alright. Got him up finally and cracked him on the
head, waited a few seconds until after the fish had his last little struggle, and then
took him by the gills and brought him ashore. It was probably 38 or 40 inches long. It was
certainly a nice little Musky."
So right then and there, one Louie Spray had learned the lesson of all Musky lessons:
persistence pays off. Or' as my friend Bruce Tasker has always said, "You've got to
fish it clean." I believe it was during a late August morning in 1979 when I first
heard this casual utterance from Bruce as he knowingly oared his 1 6-foot Shell Lake guide
boat along the edge of one of the Chippewa Flowage's many prime shallow water Musky bars.
And while the importance of this soft-spoken directive might not have been recognized by
others, something in the way this sagely, white-haired Musky man spoke those words seemed
to indicate that what Bruce said was worth remembering.
Being all ears and hungry to learn any tidbits of Musky wisdom that Bruce was willing
to share with my partner and myself, I don't think I took any of Bruce's comments lightly.
Still, his words, "You've got to fish it clean," seemed to implant deeply in my
There was a clear blue sky, slight west breeze rippling the water, and temperatures
were pushing well above 70 degrees that morning. Not what one would consider to be good
Musky fishing conditions but, as Bruce has always said, "a Musky will always violate
any theory you might have." Within an hour we rose our first fish, one that made an
impressive boil behind my black Topper. The fish came out from two large stumps which were
hung up on a small sand point. After thoroughly working the rest of the bar, Bruce quietly
repositioned his boat for yet another drift on the spot. "This must be what Bruce
meant by fishing an area clean," I thought.
Handing me one of his red bucktails with a chartreuse twister impaled on the middle
treble hook, Bruce said, "Try this." I wasn't about to argue. Within just a few
casts, a beautiful 27- to 30-pound Musky followed to the boat. What a sight! At the time,
it was one of the biggest muskies that I had ever seen. Deciding to let this fish rest for
a bit, Bruce took my partner and me over to some nearby islands. And after raising three
more muskies we realized that the muskies were active.
Not wanting to give up on the big one we raised an hour earlier, Bruce took us back to
give her a try. And I'm glad he did; on my very first cast a Musky nailed my black Topper.
The initial foam job that took place after I set the hooks made us all think I had the big
one, but after fighting it for a few seconds we soon realized it was a different fish
still, a 40 1/2-incher.
This is just one example of how thoroughly one may sometimes have to fish an area
before catching a Musky. While the Musky that I caught is likely to have moved to the spot
during the time we were resting the bigger fish, I know through personal experience that
many times it takes a lot of coaxing before a Musky will strike.
AN OLD DARK WATER TRICK
Have you ever tried fishing a dark water lake or flowage and after seemingly hitting
every likely spot, you have little more to show for your efforts than a couple of sore
arms and a slightly bruised ego? Have you ever been mystified upon hearing how others were
able to pull fish off of some of the very same spots that you yourself had just fished,
but with no success? Perhaps you're not spending enough time covering each spot. Perhaps
you're not fishing them clean.
While it seems that there never ceases to be some new fishing secret or gadget that
promises instant Musky fishing success these days, I think that sometimes too much
emphasis can he put upon these kinds of things and often the more basic tips can be
overlooked. In this faster paced day and era of high speed fishing boats it has made
today's fisherman a bit less patient than those of an earlier time. And that's why I
consider fishing an area clean to be one of the cornerstone dark water Musky fishing tips.
the darker the water, the smaller a Musky's strike zone and the more
casts it will take to cover a given spot. Run & gun tactics work much better in clear
water situations but don't be in such a hurry when it comes to fishing dark water. You'd
be surprised how many muskies that you may be passing over. An unforgettable guiding
experience that I had four years ago on June 29th most vividly illustrates this point. I
was guiding Steve and Teri Van Heuklin for a split full day. With no action during the
early morning, I had hoped the evening would yield better results after our midday break.
Before beginning the second half of our guide day, I noticed the clear skies quickly begin
to darken and I began to get excited about what could transpire that evening. After a
visit from my old friend Mitch Kmiotek late that afternoon, he got me so hyped up that I
could hardly wait to hit the water again. Mitch, you see, has to be the world's greatest
teller of Musky stories and after listening to a few of his classic tales, I returned to
my boat primed for the second half of our guide day.
first spot Steve caught a small Musky on a Water Thumper. Then we hit a small reed point
not the type of spot that takes very long to hit, and not the type of spot you would think
would hold numerous muskies at the same time. While holding the boat in position for Steve
and Teri to cast along the edge of the reeds, I noticed one little "hole" that
was left open by them - a tiny spot that their lures had missed.
After holding our position so my clients could get a lure into that spot, I noticed a
barrage of lures land everywhere around that spot but not in the spot. Surely, there
couldn't be any hungry muskies left anywhere along the edge of those reeds or could
there be? Well, I wasn't about to move the boat until I found out and a lure landed
precisely in that spot.
Getting a bit weary of casting that same old stand of reeds, Steve was beginning to
question to himself why the boat wasn't moving. Just then, Steve's black Hawg Wobbler
landed exactly on target and I thought to myself, "Bingo, that's the spot." As
soon as he moved his lure, a 30-pounder exploded on his bait and came flying wildly out of
the water! The fish was on halfway to the boat, did some wild turns, and threw the lure.
And even though I knew that you can't afford to leave any open holes when you're working
an area in such a progression, part of me still thought, "Where did he come
But I knew better.
You have to fish your spots clean! The fight only lasted for a matter of seconds but what
a sight. Amazingly, on Steve's very next cast, he had another big one eat his Hawg
Wobbler. It later measured 44 1/2 inches. Had we breezed through the area, we never would
have dealt with those two fish. After working over the rest
of the area, we returned about 45 minutes later - just in case the 30-pounder was still on
On edge because of what could be still lurking in the area, we all just about jumped
out of our skins when a 40-incher annihilated Teri's black Globe on her first cast into
the area. Three nice muskies all relating to the same small piece of structure at the same
time. It was just as if we had lived out one of ol' Mitch's 50-year-old Musky tales.
It's not necessarily knowing where the spots are that is always the most important
thing but how you fish them that makes all the difference. Very often I will take my
clients to some spots that they have already fished before. And a common question from
many of these first time clients is, "Do you always spend this much time on this spot
or do you just have a big one spotted here?" These kinds of questions often end up
coming from people who are probably breezing through their spots too quickly and are not
fishing them clean.
FOCUS ON PRIMARY HOLDING AREAS
Every structural element has primary holding areas such as weedbeds, stumps or brush;
perhaps a small piece of submerged bog and contour irregularities like points, inside
turns, small holes and quick dropping edges. After spending enough hours on a particular
spot, you'll begin to discover which of these primary holding areas are defining the
spot's core areas. While it does remain important to still fish an entire spot, keying on
its primary holding areas and fishing them thoroughly will undoubtedly yield much better
results in the long run than just randomly breezing through a spot using run and gun
control is essential for thorough coverage of your spots. While working my boat through an
area, I hover my boat adjacent to any primary holding structures which have proven
themselves as being high percentage honey holes, allowing my clients to saturate these
core areas with as many casts as it takes to thoroughly cover them. Certain specific spots
have shown themselves to be so consistent that I'll even do a "double hover"
working them over with unrelenting confidence.
A somewhat expanded version of the double hover approach is to work a
small point bar thoroughly from both edges. There are many small point bars that can be
easily covered by working them from just one edge and many Musky anglers would consider a
spot covered in such a way to be adequate. More often than not, it won't be adequately
covered until you work that same point bar from the opposite edge. I'm not sure whether
it's the slightly different angle of lure presentation or it's just not until the second
progression of overlapped casts that the lure just happens to find that precise strike
zone of a hungry Musky. It's often not until my second edge drift on a point bar that I
get a Musky to show itself.
CORNERING A MUSKY
When you finally get a Musky to either make an aggressive follow or hit short at a
lure, there are ways of catching them. While the muskies in some waters seem to have
permanent addresses among certain holding areas, the residents of other Musky waters tend
to be a bit more nomadic and can be more difficult to pin down. These roamers don't seem
to hang as long on one particular spot and are most catchable if an angler sticks with a
spot right after he raises a Musky.
My experience with Chippewa Flowage muskies is that they often possess this more
nomadic trait. Whether the numerous rivers which feed the flowage con-tribute to this
increased musky movement or it's the consistent pattern of boat traffic that keeps the
muskies on the move is difficult to say. I've learned that the longer you let a flowage
Musky rest, the less likely you are to ever see it again. So when I raise one, I'll make
sure I work the area over before I give up. And, if I want to try for a specific fish on
the next day, I'll try it again at exactly the same time of day. Very often you can raise
the same fish two days in a row by trying it at the same time the next day.
If you think a fish is really something worth chasing, I still think there's no better
way of getting him than by 'dying" on the spot and emptying your tackle box at him.
Muskies tend to position themselves in certain little ambush haunts. When you have a Musky
follow or take a pass at your lure, that fish will usually settle right back into the
exact little ambush haunt from which it originally came.
If you're trying for a specific Musky that you have just raised, keep working the rest
of the area because there's likely to be another Musky using the same area. Then quietly
work back for a second pass through the exact spot from which the first Musky came. Try
different lures, working the spot from different angles, and be patient! Don't give up too
quickly. Many a time I've spent more than a half-hour pounding one little haunt before
I've finally been able to catch my finicky quarry.
I'll never forget one such occurrence. It was a cool, clear mid-September evening in
1995 when I had a tremendous short hit behind my black Heddon Crazy Crawler at
around 8:45 p.m. The fish threw water high into the air and made a loud explosion that
could only have been made by something rather respectable. This was certainly a fish that
I needed to get a better look at in the bottom of my net!
Camping on the spot, I decided to lay claim to the area for the remainder of the night.
I worked the entire bar over with a variety of lures, often changing back to Creepers and
heavily saturating the exact spot that the fish originated. After 45 minutes, the dusk had
turned into total darkness and a brilliant canopy of stars had formed overhead. The cool
autumn night had gotten even crisper and the quiet hum of my flasher unit began to lull me
into a semi-sleep state. Just then I felt a sudden jolt as the big Musky took an
authoritative swat at my green LeLure Creeper but I failed to connect with the hooks. And
it was in the very same spot as before!
This Musky almost seemed to be toying with me, but I figured if I maintained my quiet
presence and stuck it out, this fish could make a big mistake. So, even though I was dead
tired and it was all I could do to keep my eyes open (being sleep deprived from having a
newborn baby at home), I opted to continue my vigil on the spot. After about 15 intense
minutes of whipping the water to a froth where the Musky last dared to show itself, I
eased back into a more comfortable pace and systematically began to work the entire bar
with my Creeper.
The passing of 30 more minutes of undisturbed casting, the millions of bright
pulsations in the heavens making my eyes grow heavier, and the utter stillness of the
night all finally joined together to allow sleep to finally overtake my consciousness.
Somehow being able to continue standing and turning my reel handle, I fell into intervals
of 2-minute sleeps while slowly retrieving my lure
sleeps which were only briefly
interrupted by each successive cast. I was just conscious enough to faintly hear the
muffled sound of my Creeper plop-plopping on the water and the huge explosion that
While still asleep, on reflex I was still able to set the hook and then three seconds
into the fight I finally woke up! This time I felt meat and I could see white water flying
in the distance. Being rather sluggish from my slumber, fighting this fish was more
difficult than usual. And the numbness in my hands brought on by the cool night air only
added to the challenge. But I was able to land this nice 23-pound Musky
.a fish which
took a full hour and a half to finally eat my lure, yet another example of why it pays to
slow down and fish a spot thoroughly.
What better endorsement could you have for a Musky fishing method than if you fish your
spots clean, you too might find yourself catching muskies in your sleep!