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A Beginner's Guide to Muskies on the Fly

Obsessing over the small details.

A Beginner's Guide to Muskies on the Fly

The first step to achieving muskie success is fishing only where muskies live and feed. (George Daniel photo)

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Most people think of me as a trout fisherman but my obsession (aka muskie madness) over the last nine years has been chasing muskies during the cold seasons. They say a muskie is a fish of 10,000 casts. In my case, it may have taken 15,000 casts. The purpose of this article is to reduce that dreaded 10,000 number by providing several of my favorite muskie tips–things I wish I had known when I began.

This is not an article for intermediate to advanced muskie anglers–I’m not qualified to provide such information. After almost a decade of muskie fishing I still feel like a newbie, but I’ve acquired enough examined experience to provide tips for those starting out muskie fishing.

Pick Prime Real Estate

The CEO of McDonald’s once said he was not in the burger business—he was in the real estate business. Successful muskie anglers have a similar mindset as they target only the best muskie waters. It sounds like common sense, but I feel the first step to achieving muskie success is fishing only where muskies live and feed. When it comes to trout or bass fishing, I’ve read that 80% of fish hold in 20% of the water. If this is true, then I feel that 97% of muskies live in about 3% of the water.

One report I read mentioned a well-known Minnesota muskie lake averaging one adult muskie for every 17 acres. That’s a lot of water with a few fish. Such odds can make you feel hopeless when muskie fishing. I feel the same way when chasing muskies on both small and large bodies of water in my home state of Pennsylvania. It often feels like I’m looking for a needle in a haystack. But over the years, I’ve begun to find areas where muskies routinely feed throughout the year.

A fly angler looking down on a muskie in a landing net over the side of a boat.
Muskies feed with greater confidence in deeper water. Whenever possible, use depth to your advantage. (George Daniel photo)

For many, electronics are a godsend, but I’ve never owned or operated any form of fish finder. This may change in time. However, I’ve located most of my favorite muskie water by scouting during the summer and early fall months when water levels are low and clear. This is still a favorite thing for me to do on my stand-up paddleboard during extremely low water. The advantage to a paddleboard (or any similar watercraft) is how little water the small boat pushes, allowing you to sneak up on wary fish. I’ve quietly drifted upon many tailing carp and muskies. I’ve taken mental notes, photographs, and videos so I can recall where these muskie lairs are located when higher flows return.

This doesn’t apply only to muskies but to any species. I’ve floated some of my favorite trout and smallmouth waters with my SUP during extreme low flows while looking for top target locations. It’s a fun way to pass the time when the water is too low or too warm to fish. It also explains why I catch fish in certain areas during higher flows, when I couldn’t see stream bottom. I’ve learned so much about my local streams and rivers by walking or floating sections during extreme low flows.

Look for the likely spots like logjams, submerged logs, boulders, and weed beds. Think about shipwrecks and their attraction to baitfish and sharks. Again, during low flows you’ll notice some areas are prone for large timber to settle and accumulate. These natural fallout locations are some of the most productive muskie spots. Many of these logsjams occur in deeper water or mid-channel locations—areas you would never know existed unless you have electronics or have seen the bottom during extremely low flows.  If you have a fishy sense, you’ll quickly pick up on the vibe of an area and know if it’s likely to hold a muskie or two.

I also enjoy snorkeling with my family during the summer months. We like to find smaller logjams and explore them like a sunken pirate ship. On one occasion, I found a submerged labyrinth of logs pinned against a bridge pier. Several feet high, and about 10 feet deep, this logjam sent an uneasy vibe down my spine.

While I was attempting to reposition some of the submerged debris underwater, a small log fell slowly onto the muddy stream bottom, causing a large plume of mud to form. The contact between log and the muddy stream bottom created zero visibility for a short time. When the mud cleared, I saw a 30-inch muskie suspended in the water looking eye level at me no more than 3 feet away. It just stayed there until I started waving a stick at it. Eventually it turned and slowly swam away from the logjam. This incident has made me rethink snorkeling near several large logjams on my local rivers. If a logjam looks a little too creepy to snorkel around—it likely has a muskie nearby.

Don’t expect muskie anglers to share their spots like many bass and trout anglers happily do. Muskie water is a scarce resource, and the anglers I know don’t give up their locations with social media posts. They won’t even show close friends or family members. Muskie anglers abide by the first and second rules of Fight Club: “You do not talk about fight club.” There’s only so many spots to target and only a few fish to hunt.

A fly connected to a swivel.
A barrel swivel on the leader can help avoid losing fish when they “gator roll” and attempt to untwist themselves from the hook. If you use a Scientific Anglers Locking Snap at the end of the steel bite tippet, you can change flies easily and won’t lose any of the steel bite tippet. (George Daniel photo)

If you want to speed up the process of finding muskie spots, then consider hiring a muskie guide to learn your local water. If you’re a local, don’t count on your guide showing you the best spots either. You may purchase electronics to help locate prime real estate. More important, pay attention to where other muskie anglers spend their time. This is not suggesting you should stalk other muskie anglers! However, if you happen to see successful anglers on the water, pay attention to the areas they hit.


Leave No Meat on the Bone

Scarcity creates a sense of economy. Muskie anglers remind me of my grandparents’ generation, and how nothing was wasted during or after a meal. I remember my grandparents would spend considerable time after Thanksgiving dinner boiling the bones and peeling every scrap of meat off that turkey carcass. Everything would be used the next day to make turkey soup.

Muskie anglers should have this same scarcity mindset and thoroughly cover water before moving to the next spot. In other words, thoroughly hit the spots before moving to the next location. Pick at the bones until there’s nothing left. My initial approach was to cover lots of water. This “spray and pray” approach resulted in lots of floating, thousands of casts, and few fish. Today, I cherry pick the best spots. Motorboats make this easy as some of my favorite locations are miles away from each other on the river. If floating from a raft or kayak, I paddle or row to the next spot while passing over a lot of water.

I first learned about this cherry-picking idea when fishing with Blane Chocklett. At first, I thought it was insane to stay in one location for an extended period. I was an impatient angler. I expected immediate results and would just keep floating while covering all the water, thinking this was a far more effective method to catching fish. Muskie fishing (and Blane) taught me patience. Now I understand the importance of staying in a good section of water, making multiple casts from all angles before moving to the next spot.

North of the Middle

This is something I learned the hard way. A few individuals suggested I use a stinger hook or position a second hook point lower on the pattern to improve hookups. So, most of my earlier muskie patterns were articulated patterns with rear hooks positioned only inches away from the tail. These second hook points did improve my hook-up ratio but also increased the times I gill-hooked a muskie.

It’s a mess anytime a muskie inhales an entire articulated streamer (with two hook points). Even with jaw spreaders it takes too long to remove a mangled mass buried inside the muskie’s mouth. After several similar instances, I began talking to other industry friends and found most of them use flies with a single hook. For example, Blane mentioned he uses only one hook point, which is positioned “just a little north of middle.”

An aerial photo of two anglers in a boat fishing near shore.
One key to muskie fishing is to cherry pick the prime real estate and bypass more marginal water. Look for submerged logs, boulder gardens, and weed beds, and swim your fly from shallower water into deeper water if possible. Scouting this water in the low flows of later summer and early fall can help you locate the best muskie water. (George Daniel photo)

My limited experience has shown me firsthand that muskies will devour your entire streamer. Having one point positioned “a little north of middle” still allows me to land plenty of fish and more importantly eliminate gill-hooking any fish. I’ve been told that the 30-inch-plus muskie I frequently catch on my home waters take seven years to reach that mark. These magnificent specimens provide amazing angling opportunities and deserve to be caught and released in the most ethical ways. Using single hook patterns (I now use barbless) with only one hook point positioned near the halfway mark is one way to prevent gill hooking these amazing fish.

Several manufacturers now produce predator-style hooks for muskie flies. They are excellent for building larger profile patterns, and have the strength to withstand the force of a double-digit pound fish fighting for its life. The downside of some of these hooks is the point is too thick. Thicker hook points require excessive force to bury the hook deep.

The Partridge Universal Predator hook is my favorite muskie hook. They have a strong but needlelike point that can penetrate a muskie’s jaw. I’ve never had one of these hooks bend out on me. Although these points are sharp right out of the package, I still take a hook file to any pattern before fishing it in the water. Anytime you snag a rock or log, check the hook point before making another cast. Every hook point has a shelf life in terms of how many sharpenings it can take before losing the needlelike quality. Once the needle point is gone off these hooks, I pull the pattern from my box, cut off the hook point, and use it as a Christmas tree decoration. This may seem excessive but muskie opportunities are scarce, so do everything you can to capitalize on each opportunity.

Put Your Back Into It

Even with a sharp hook point and a great strip-set, sometimes that’s still not enough force to bury the hook deep into a muskie’s bony jaw. I add extra power to the good strip-set by putting my back into it. Basically, what I do is lean down toward the water during the retrieve and figure-8 movements. Both my rod hand and line hand are often fully extended away from my body as well.

When it’s time to set the hook, I quickly pull both elbows back toward my body as I snap my back to an upright position. It’s a violent move, but it creates the force I need to bury the hook. Note: Your back doctor will not approve of this tactic. This is just a suggestion to get you to think creatively about how you can create the most amount of force when trying to pierce thick armor with your hook point.

Use Swivels

The barrel swivel is essential when playing large fish. It’s within these large fish’s DNA to begin “gator rolling” when they are hooked. Remember being taught in school to stop, drop, and roll if you find yourself on fire? Well, it appears large fish receive a similar message to gator roll the moment they’re hooked.

A fly angler looking down at his streamer fly box.
For the benefit of the fish, use flies with a sharp single barbless hook positioned “just north of the middle.” (George Daniel photo)

No matter how sharp your hook point is, or even if you use a barb on the hook, a continuously rolling fish will often create enough torque to detach themselves from the hook. Basically, they are unscrewing themselves from your hook point.

I’ve lost so many good fish in my life as a result of a large fish gator rolling near the surface. A simple device like a barrel swivel acts like a screwdriver with a detached (full rotary) handle. You can turn and twist the handle, but the detached property of the tool won’t allow any torque to occur between driver head and the screw. The handle turns and twists, but the screw doesn’t move due to a lack of torque created by the loose handle.

You only get so many opportunities to land a muskie so use tools that give you a fair chance of bringing these fish to the net. I position a barrel swivel between my leader (4' to 6' of Scientific Anglers 40-pound Absolute Fluorocarbon Shock) and bite tippet (12" of Scientific Anglers 35-pound Absolute Predator Toothy Fish). I attach a Locking Snap directly to the end of the bite tippet so I can snap flies on/off instead of tying knots.

A bite tippet is made of steel or extra thick fluorocarbon to avoid getting cut off. With muskies, I use steel tippet. Steel tippet (by nature) is difficult to knot and is expensive. The snap swivel allows for an easy connection between bite wire and fly. Although some anglers prefer tying directly to the fly to reduce excessive metal hanging from the pattern, I can’t say I’ve noticed any difference. And remember anytime you tie directly onto the hook, you’ll lose several inches of expensive bite tippet. A Locking Snap allows countless fly changes without ever having to tie on new bite tippet.

Confidence Eats

Muskies feed with greater confidence in deeper water. Whenever possible, use depth to your advantage. First, try to position and float your watercraft over deeper water while retrieving your flies. Muskies are known for following flies all the way back to the boat. If you’re fishing midstream and casting to a bank, this happens all the time as the boat is often floating over deeper water. However, several sections of water I fish involve floating closer to one side of a bank and casting toward the midstream areas with sunken timber. I moved multiple muskies here during several trips, but the issue was my boat was floating in less than a foot of water as I was making casts into water over 6 feet deep. As each fish appeared from the depths, and followed my fly toward the boat, they would peel away the moment they encountered a shallow gravel bar.

Then I remembered talking with another friend, Joe Goodspeed, and recalled his advice to entice muskies to follow your fly into deeper water (if possible). His belief was that fish are more confident and aggressive in deeper water. Brilliant!

The next few floats I positioned the boat so I was floating in deeper water. When fish followed the fly, they were moving into deeper water. While I only landed one fish during the next few outings, other fish followed the fly all the way to the boat—instead of peeling away—and even followed the fly through several figure-8 movements.

I guess muskies think twice about chasing flies into shallow water the same way military forces think twice about passing through a potential choke point. I’ve witnessed countless muskies chasing bait into shallow water, but rarely can I persuade a muskie to follow my streamer toward a large boat in shallow water.

Fly angler George Daniel holding a muskie in a boat.
Author George Daniel uses Partridge Universal Predator hooks and sharpens them before each use. When he sets the hook, he makes a strip-set by violently pulling the line hand and the rod hand away from the fish, leading backward with both elbows. If possible, he lurches upward from a leaning-forward position to a leaning-backward position to add additional force. (George Daniel photo)

Depth is also a factor when using the figure-8. Dig deep with your rod tip when employing the figure-8, especially when the water is calm and clear. This is when the rear handle on the grip provides greater leverage as you dig the tip into the depths. Your forearms will burn, but I believe a deeper fly converts more fish. In muddy water or when the surface is broken (pocket water or during a strong wind) depth may not be as important. I begin digging the rod tip deep well before my fly reaches the boat and before doing the figure-8.

Two more tips on the importance of the figure-8: First, even if you don’t see any sign of a muskie following the fly, always finish your retrieve with a figure-8 presentation. I’ve seen muskies stalk my streamer for 50 feet while staying 4 feet away. I’ve also seen them follow the streamer several feet below the level of the fly where you can just barely see them—or don’t see them at all. Don’t always expect muskies to be right on top of your fly. Muskies don’t jump on a fly, they investigate before deciding. This was another great lesson Blane Chocklett ingrained into my muscle memory. I’ve had countless fish suddenly appear on a figure-8 movement when there was zero sign of anything following my fly. Always finish strong!

Second, my fishing partner told me about a conversation he recently had with a local angler who uses spin equipment and catches a lot muskies each season. My friend was asking about how helpful his electronics are in finding fish. Of course, the electronics help him locate baitfish, muskies, and ideal habitat. However, he said the best use for his equipment now (since he knows most of the spots by memory) is knowing when a muskie is still located near his boat during the figure-8. In other words, he keeps doing a figure-8 until he sees the fish swim away in the radar. There were times when he had a fish lurk under the boat for what seemed like several minutes before deciding to eat. Now I know why Blane had me figure-8 for several minutes anytime he thought he noticed any signs of a muskie. Having the electronics to prove a fish is still within striking range is fantastic, and is likely the reason I’ll be purchasing a setup for this fall season.

Hopefully this information will help you reduce the time it takes to connect with one of the more challenging fish species. I don’t want you to suffer as much as I did before landing my first muskie, but I do want you to experience a little bit of the misery. The more you suffer, the greater the sensation will be when you connect with your first muskie. Suffering is a penance we pay to the muskie gods but it’s worth it! I hope these simple tips help you get started in the muskie game.

George Daniel is the author of Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole, 2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly, an educational/guide company in Pennsylvania. He was a coach for both the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA and is now the director of the Joe Humphreys Fly Fishing Program at Penn State University.

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