February 15, 2016
Big water, big flies, and a top-of-the-food-chain predator push the limits of fly-fishing sanity
The image of the big white streamer disappearing into the mouth of my first musky on a fly is one that doesn't diminish with time. When I reflect on that event, the excitement and feeling of accomplishment are as vivid today as on that fine June morning almost 20 years ago. I have relived the same satisfying sense of achievement with every musky I have caught since that day.
While even conventional anglers have called Esox masquinongy "the fish of 10,000 casts," with enlightened fisheries management, better information, and a vast improvement in fly-fishing gear, the opportunities to take muskies on a fly have never been better than they are today. More and more fly anglers are discovering this fact each year.
Muskies are the largest members of the pike family, and their name is an abbreviation for muskellunge or maskinonge as they are officially referred to in Canada. The name is derived from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe meaning "ugly pike." Like pike, muskies have elongated bodies with dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins set well back, and flat, wide heads with frightening teeth. Most of the teeth angle backward to prevent the escape of captured prey.
Their natural range stretches from Quebec and northern Vermont westward over the lower portion of Ontario, and south with historic strongholds in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The native range even reaches as far south as West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
There are three recognized subspecies within this indigenous area—the Great Lakes, the Ohio or Chautauqua, and the tiger or northern muskellunge. Stocked muskies have created some significant fisheries in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and a handful of other states. Since muskies are on top of the food pyramid, it is natural that there are relatively few of them in any given body of water. This makes them susceptible to overharvest, and populations in some watersheds have also been reduced or eliminated by destruction of spawning habitat or disease. Stocking programs have either restored or augmented local populations and are a key management tool.
Muskies are mostly solitary fish that use aggressive ambush strategies to feed selectively on high-protein items such as ciscoes, suckers, perch, bullheads, and shiners. While baitfish make up the majority of their diet, muskies also eat crayfish, frogs, birds, and small mammals. They prefer large food items and are known to eat prey up to a third of their own body length. Given their preference to ambush unsuspecting prey, muskies that follow a fly often lose interest before ever going into attack mode.
Muskies live as long as 20 years. This longevity combined with an adequate food source allows them to attain intimidating sizes. The average musky in most waters today is 30 to 38 inches in length and about 8 to 16 pounds. In protein-rich watersheds, they can grow much larger. Thick-bodied fish in the upper 40-inch range or larger can tip the scales from 30 to 50 pounds. There have been documented 50-inch muskies caught on flies and the recognized world record for conventional tackle is the much-debated 1949 Louis Spray fish that reportedly weighed just shy of 70 pounds.
The size and intriguing nature of muskies have created a whole culture dedicated to the patience and persistence that are the hallmarks of successful musky anglers. My introduction to musky lore occurred at a young age. An old taxidermy mount of a muskellunge at a local fishing club on the Niagara River caught my attention from the very first time I set foot in the clubhouse. It was so large, it appeared a grown person could fit their leg inside the gaping mouth.
Eventually, my skills advanced to a point where I have connected with a few of these legendary fish on waters both nearby and distant, including my personal best on a fly that by length and girth calculation weighed more than 35 pounds. Based on my memory, that fish was similar in size to the taxidermy mount that inspired my interest in muskies in the first place.
Enjoy the Hunt
By committing to fly fish for muskies you must happily accept the challenge presented by these top-of-the-food-chain predators. As with other difficult, elusive gamefish, good days are measured in quality — not quantity. Follows, strikes, mere sightings, or encounters of any kind are small but important victories in the musky game, and serious musky enthusiasts normally count these as positive parts of the experience.
You gain knowledge from an encounter in a particular spot or from a certain piece of structure, and that information can be used later. A musky that follows the fly has at least shown interest. The next time, if its mood is different, and the fly is presented more effectively, it may attack.
Maintaining your focus is critical. How you react in a split second can often decide the success of a day or even an entire season. Hours or even days can go by without a fish, and if you blow your single opportunity because your mind wandered off and you weren't prepared, you will have plenty of time to anguish over that mistake.
But it would be incorrect to paint a picture that fly fishing for muskies is always difficult. Musky fishing is often best on overcast, chilly autumn days. I prefer a stable weather pattern, water temperatures that have not dropped dramatically, and a new moon. Over the years I have experienced numerous days with multiple fish in these conditions.
Finding muskies is usually dependent on assessing structure and finding ambush points. In each body of water there are certain areas that attract and hold fish. Small to medium rivers may be the easiest musky waters to read. Generally, muskies are out of the main current flow, and this easily eliminates much of the river. Slower flows strewn with logjams are prime holding spots. Small bays and pockets created by the contour of the bank, the slack current off to the side of a riffle, and the downstream side of an island all create optimum holding areas. Boulders and bottom contour changes in the middle of a slower run or pool, weed beds, and weedy edges all attract muskies.
On big rivers, structure is more difficult to identify. I look for large weed beds out of the main flow or dramatic changes in the bottom terrain. Both types of structure attract bait, which in turn attracts large predators such as muskies. I have also relied on sight-fishing for muskies cruising sandy flats in the early part of the season. Post-spawn fish commonly frequent these areas before dispersing to more permanent holds for the summer.
In lakes, both weed beds and points created by the shoreline jutting into the water should be your primary focus. Muskies hold along weedy edges, in pockets within the weed beds, and even suspended over the weed tops. My fishing partner Steve Wascher, who has a great knack for identifying structure, looks for inside corners in the weed edges, and has proved this type of structure consistently holds muskies. Points of land are important since the contour condenses and traps baitfish, and the rise in the bottom provides a perfect ambush spot.
On large lakes, some muskies are nomadic, particularly in the summer and fall as they follow large pods of bait. Targeting fish with this behavior is difficult, even with conventional gear. It's far more productive to identify structure and try to find the muskies that associate themselves with it.
Rods that can cast larger flies and handle big fish in tight quarters are the best choices for muskies. I use 9-foot, 9- or 10-weight rods, but there are some new 10-weights that are only 8 feet and provide advantages when working the fly on a short line.
A good musky reel should have a smooth drag that can be tightened down when fighting a fish near obstructions. Just as important as the function of the reel is its weight — it should balance the rod so as not to increase the fatigue factor. A good rod and reel should feel light and comfortable since casting large flies for hours and hours is part of the game.
Lines for musky fishing range from floating and intermediate sinking, to 30-foot fast-sinking integrated shooting heads. Use floaters and intermediates for surface flies or when fishing in the top two to three feet. A floater with an exaggerated weight-forward taper such as the Scientific Anglers Pike/Muskie line aids in turning over large, wind-resistant flies.
Loop 4- to 6-foot tips of T-14 or LC-13 onto the front end of the floating line to sink the fly down to 5- or 6-foot depths. The added weight also helps load the rod quickly for the next cast. For fishing depths from 6 to 20 feet, I rely on 400- or 500-grain lines with a 30-foot sinking-tip section and either floating or intermediate running line.
For leaders, I generally use a formula of 60 percent butt section (.029" fluorocarbon), 25 percent class tippet (16-pound-test fluorocarbon), and 15 percent bite tippet to build my own 6- to 10-foot leaders. I use shorter leaders on sinking-tip lines and longer leaders on floating lines. Since muskies have razor-sharp teeth, a bite tippet of Micro Supreme by American Fishing Wire, or 50- to 60-pound fluorocarbon is mandatory.
Micro Supreme wire is flexible and knots easily to the tippet and the fly. However, fluorocarbon is a stealthier approach in clear water. The only downside of fluorocarbon tippet is that a slight chance of a bite-off remains. Muskies can't bite through wire.
Making a leader like this requires specialized knots that most trout fishermen don't regularly use. An easy way to get started is to use Airflo Titanium Predator leaders, which are made for exactly this purpose.
I use 2/0 to 6/0 hooks for musky flies and keep them ultra sharp. Getting a musky to take the fly is only half the battle. Keeping one hooked is just as important so you need the hook to penetrate quickly and deeply.
Successful musky flies have good movement in the water and are constructed to reduce wind resistance so you can actually cast them. Flies that can be cast all day, but provide the illusion of size are often the most effective.
My successful flies for spring and early summer are much smaller than those for late summer and fall. In the spring I have been successful on flies as small as 4 inches. In the fall I use flies from 8 to 12 inches. It makes logical sense when you consider the prevalent sizes of the bait as you progress through the season.
Except for the shallow bays of larger bodies of water, or some smaller rivers that can be easily waded, a watercraft of some sort allows you to cover more water. They can vary from 16- to 20-foot center-console johnboats to drift boats to inflatable pontoon boats and kayaks.
On larger rivers and lakes, a boat with a motor is essential. An electric motor on the bow allows you to precisely cover key structure. Spacious casting decks free of obstructions are important, especially on windy days. A drift boat is ideal for covering larger to medium-sized rivers typically found in the Midwest and Ontario. Covering quality bankside structure from a drift boat with a good oarsman is a pleasure.
- Red/pink and gray/white are effective colors for muskies. Use 8- to 12-inch flies in the fall, and smaller flies down to 4 inches when the prevalent bait is smaller. Photo Rick Kustich
Your casting directly impacts the amount of time the fly is in the water. This is often the determining factor in catching muskies. If it takes you five false casts to cast 40 feet, you'll actually be fishing your fly much less than half of the time as someone who can make three false casts and belt out 80 feet.
On larger rivers and lakes where deeper presentations are required, casting longer allows the fly to reach greater depths and maintain that depth for a longer period of time. Except for when casting into a headwind, I try to make 80-foot casts to increase my chances over the course of the day.
When fishing small or medium rivers, or sight-fishing sandy flats, accuracy is more important. Placing a fly within inches of a logjam, or on the nose of a laid-up musky at 50 feet is much more important than distance. However, to make that 50-foot cast in the wind with a 10-inch fly probably requires the same skills as a 90-foot cast in other situations.
Consistency is probably the most important casting characteristic for musky anglers. Your ability to make efficient, repeatable casts tight to structure is the most effective way to cover all the water.
Casting rhythm usually begins with good line control. When fishing from a boat, strip the line into a pile that is free from obstructions. During windy conditions, strip the line into a cylinder or basket to keep it from tangling and blowing around the boat. When it is warm, I fish barefoot just like tarpon fishing so I can feel any line under my toes before I make my cast.
When casting to structure it is important to control slack at the end of the cast. I keep close contact with the line by forming a circle with my thumb and index finger and shooting the line through the circle, instead of just letting the line fly any which way. When the cast is complete, the line is already in my line hand and I can quickly pinch it against the cork with my rod hand to begin the retrieve immediately.
I always strip the fly all the way back to the boat so that only the tip of the line extends past the rod tip. I use the tension of the fly and leader in the water to pull more line past the tip by sweeping the rod low and then roll casting in the direction of my next cast. With one or at most two false casts, I can shoot line to the desired length.
Being able to double haul is critical. Hauling builds the line speed you need both for distance and to turn over large flies. It takes practice to be proficient at double hauling. I practice casting regularly through the year to maintain my timing.
Another approach to casting big, heavy flies—especially when accuracy is more important than distance—is to use a single water haul with no false casting. Guide Ken Collins recently demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach to me on an Ontario musky river.
The basic technique for muskies is to cast the fly near likely cover and retrieve it back by stripping line with the line hand. The speed and cadence of the retrieve often makes a huge difference. The type of retrieve that induces a fish to attack varies from day to day or from one body of water to the next. The problem with muskies is that there is so little feedback, it's hard to know which is the right retrieve on that day. Fast, jerky strips or long, slow pulls?
My basic retrieve is fast and erratic with a sharp strip with the line hand. Weighted flies enhance this erratic motion. Sometimes slower is better, as it gives the appearance of a baitfish in distress. I have also found a slower approach works best in cold water.
Spotting fish in the shallows and making accurate, stealthy presentations is a strategy that reduces your casting time. But not every fish in the shallows will attack a fly—they need just the right cast and retrieve to react aggressively.
My preferred cast to a musky facing me is to drop the fly inches from the fish's nose and retrieve the fly as it sinks. When a musky is perpendicular to my casting angle, I cast past the fish, and retrieve the fly two to three feet in front of it.
One of the most exciting and yet frustrating aspects of fishing for muskies is their tendency to follow the fly back to the end of the retrieve. They often follow a fly right to the boat, only to turn at the last moment, leaving you with only a glimpse and a lump in your throat.
There are a two tricks that can help entice a follower into taking right at the boat—one of the biggest thrills in all musky fishing. When a I spot a musky following my fly I immediately speed up the retrieve to give the impression that the baitfish is fleeing. If the fly still reaches the boat, I make a directional change by sweeping the rod low and to the side. This often brings a heart-stopping strike from a fish that is really locked in on the fly. At the end of each retrieve I speed up the fly by sweeping my arm in a similar fashion, just in case there is a musky following that I didn't identify.
Keeping a musky hooked begins with a good hook-set. Strip-set the fly after the musky has clamped down and turned away. As I have learned the hard way, setting the hook too early can simply pull the fly from the musky's mouth.
I use a handful of patterns designed to be both suggestive and realistic. Clouser Minnows as short as 4 inches are best in the late spring and early summer post-spawn period. Lightly weighted Clousers are best for sight-fishing. Use heavy eyes for water 4 feet deep or more. Heavier flies also work best in attaining a precise presentation in water with current.
I tie many of my larger summer and fall flies on plastic tubes. The bite tippet is inserted through the tube and attached to a hook at the rear of the tube. The length of the tube controls where the hook is placed in relationship to the material. With a long tube, the hook is at the rear of a longer fly. This rigging is an advantage when a fish bites only the rear of the fly. This is usually not an issue with an aggressive musky that takes the entire fly in one gulp, but it's important to do everything you can to maximize your chances.
Most of my big patterns are a combination of long saddle hackle or cock feathers, Icelandic sheep hair, and an element of flash. It seems like a handful of colors keep emerging as the most consistent producers: all white (also with overtones of gray), all black, white/black, and chartreuse/yellow/orange.
On a recent trip to Wisconsin, Larry Mann demonstrated the importance of red and pink in his arsenal.My fishing partner Steve Wascher has a series of flies he calls Esoxulators. The fly is designed to maintain a broad silhouette in the water yet be relatively easy to cast.
Ken Collins has also created a multi-segment fly that produces an incredibly seductive movement in the water. For commercially tied patterns I like Enrico Puglisi flies—they swim well in the water and are easy to cast.
- Small, wadable rivers are the easiest places to read the water. Look for slack water to the sides of riffles, slow-water bays, and weed beds out of the main current flow. Photo Aaron Otto
I fish for muskies mostly in my home waters of New York State, mostly due to their easy proximity. Growing up near the Niagara River, it was inevitable that my passion for fly fishing would intersect with old Esox. The musky population in the Niagara is currently in decline, a situation that I can only hope is temporary. New York also boasts the St. Lawrence River, and there are more than a handful of other lakes and small rivers in the central/southern portion of the state with significant musky populations.
Some of the best and most diverse opportunities for fly fishing for muskies are in northern Wisconsin. Strewn with numerous lakes, rivers, and impoundments in a beautiful north woods setting, this wide swath of country offers more than a lifetime's worth of musky water.
The debate rages on as to whether Hayward in the west or Boulder Junction in the east is the epicenter of Wisconsin musky fishing. The fact that there are three fly shops in the area that specialize in fly fishing for muskies lends credence to the idea that Wisconsin is the center of the musky fly-fishing universe.
My experience in the Badger State has been one of warm hospitality and beautiful rivers that support good musky populations which can easily be covered by anglers with moderate casting skills.
Southern Ontario also has some impressive musky fisheries such as Lake of the Woods, Georgian Bay, and the Ottawa River, as well as a vast number of more intimate rivers that are probably more easily covered with a fly.
Grand River Outfitters is ostensibly a trout shop, but owner Ken Collins is a musky aficionado and is well acquainted with all the best local musky waters.
Both Minnesota and Michigan host a number of lakes and rivers with both natural and stocked muskies. The fisheries created through an aggressive stocking program in the Twin Cities area provide a great fishing opportunity to a large population base.
The premier fishery in Michigan is Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. Nestled between Lake Huron and Lake Erie in the Great Lakes chain, Lake St. Clair supports a tremendous natural population of muskies. Combine this with relatively shallow water containing ample structure in the form of weed growth, and it is the perfect combination for fly fishers.
The typical musky season lasts from late spring until late fall. Muskies are spring spawners and in areas where natural reproduction occurs, the angling season begins after the spawn, which is normally in early to mid-June.
The early season often provides the opportunity for sight-fishing or targeting aggressive fish that are eager to build back up body mass after the ravages of the winter and the spawning process.
Musky fishing remains good throughout the summer but often slows a bit in the height of the season as the water warms and their mood becomes complacent.
Late summer and throughout the fall is my favorite period for muskies. They become more aggressive, and their instinctive behavior to pile on the pounds before winter creates vulnerability.
While fly fishing for muskie isn't easy and may not be for everyone, an encounter with this toothy predator is an experience that should be on the list of all serious fly fishers. Even when I don't connect with a musky, I count any day honing my skills on the water as time well spent.
Rick Kustich and his brother Jerry Kustich own West River Publishing (westriverpub.com). Rick's long list of publications includes the books Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead, Reflections on the Water, and the DVD Tube Flies for Steelhead.