November 22, 2021
Muskies are often called “the fish of 10,000 casts” because they have historically been misunderstood, not widespread, and difficult to catch. But unlike species such as West Coast steelhead, their distribution in recent decades is actually expanding. And because anglers today know more about these fish, and when and where to target them, and because we’ve got better flies and tackle, it’s not as difficult to catch muskies on fly as it used to be. It’s now like the fish of 500 casts if you learn their habits during seasonal changes—maybe even the fish of one cast if you’re there at the right time with the right fly.
My Fly Fishing Muskie Mentors
My first time seeing a muskie was on a trip with my uncle. We borrowed a canoe and set out for a day on the river chasing smallmouth bass. We had hellgrammites, soft plastics, and different crankbaits set up on our conventional spinning and baitcasting rods. I don’t remember much about the fishing that day, other than when my uncle hooked into what looked at first like a log. I’ll never forget watching that fish go airborne with crazy gill-rattling headshakes. Unfortunately, the battle didn’t last very long due to my uncle’s light nylon monofilament, and the sharp teeth of the muskie, but that memory lasted a lifetime.
A few years later, I was staying at my grandmother’s house watching Saturday morning fishing shows. Back then I wasn’t able to get cable TV at home. A big part of a trip to grandma’s house was watching my favorite TV shows like The Hunt For Big Fish with Larry Dahlberg and The Walker’s Cay Chronicles hosted by Flip Pallot. One morning, Larry targeted muskies with a fly rod and his own Dahlberg Diver. That episode brought back memories of my uncle’s encounter, and inspired me to start chasing muskies on my own.
When I started fly fishing for muskies in Virginia back in the 90s, there was very little information out there. At that time, I had just opened a fly shop and was guiding for trout and smallmouth bass. I also started to attend and tie at The Fly Fishing Shows during the winter. That’s where I met fly tier Bob Popovics. Watching him demonstrate his revolutionary fly designs like the Hollow Fleye and Beast Fleye helped steer and shape my guiding and fly-tying career.
One of the biggest challenges of fly fishing for muskies is learning what to cast, and how to engage them to strike the fly. I’ve learned much of that alongside my longtime friend David Gahrst. When I first started my fly shop and guide service, David got into muskie fishing with conventional tackle. We often met in the evenings after I finished guiding, and we went to areas where I knew there were muskies. Our fishing relationship was perfect because I could see and learn how the fish reacted to David’s lures.
I spent many days and hours trying new flies and techniques, but I had little or no interest from the muskies. Meanwhile, David caught a fish just about every time we went. It greatly shortened my learning curve. I was learning from each outing, and started piecing together what seemed to catch the muskies’ attention. I found that the flies I was using didn’t have much erratic movement, and few of the triggering qualities that muskies looked for.
When you are learning to catch muskies on fly, nothing beats this kind of time on the water. This is when you can observe fish behavior, whether it is reacting to baitfish or other prey items, how they interact with each other, or how they react to our flies/lures. These observations provide clues that you can build on to make your times on the water more productive. Many people do not have the luxury of a lot of time to spend on the water. Why make 10,000 casts when you can make 1,000 and get the same result? This is where your understanding of what makes this fish tick comes into play. The key is knowing how to trigger the fish into an attack.
Larry Dahlberg started as my TV idol and turned into my mentor and a good friend. He has always advised me to look into the mechanics of what we’re doing on the water, the attracting and triggering qualities of our lures or flies, and how the fish respond to those flies. Larry constantly references Doug “The Bass Professor” Hannon on the subject of the attracting versus the triggering qualities of lures. Hannon wrote that lures with a mechanical action (for example crankbaits and spinnerbaits) excel at attracting bass, while lures with a more random action (plastic worms, tube baits, and jigs) are more effective at triggering a strike. Hannon’s theories have been hugely formative in how I approach fly tying, and fly fishing, for muskies.
Muskies have long snouts and heads, with sharp teeth built for slashing, grabbing, and maiming their prey. They also have long bodies built for short bursts of electrifying speed, but not for endurance. Their eyes are situated on top of their heads, an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to attack from below and behind their unsuspecting quarry. Many freshwater apex predators—everything from arapaima to taimen and bull trout—have eyes set on top in a similar way. It helps make them effective predators.
Muskies are so efficient at killing and capturing prey that this in itself makes them tougher to catch than most fish. Tailwater trout are almost always feeding, constantly snacking on tiny food items. In comparison, muskies grab a huge meal occasionally, and spend most of their time lying around sleeping and digesting.
I compare muskies to snakes, as they may feed only once or twice per week depending on the size of the food sources available to them. The size of these foods should dictate the size of your fly.
Muskies prefer larger, soft-fined fish like suckers, chubs, and in some lakes, larger gizzard shad. They have also been known to eat rodents, frogs, crayfish, and ducks. But to be effective, fly fishers need to focus on the most common foods, not the exceptions.
I generally use larger flies from 8 to 15 inches to make the fly noticeable, and to make it worthwhile for muskies to pursue. Muskies are sometimes in shallow water where you can sight fish for them, but often you are blind casting to likely spots, and a larger offering generally gets more attention.
If you are dealing with heavily pressured fish, and clear low water, smaller flies can sometimes be better. This is especially true if you know exactly where a muskie lives or may be holding. In these cases, you are not prospecting, so you don’t need a fly that grabs attention from a long distance.
Sometimes color comes into play and can be a key attracting quality and also a trigger. Bright flashy flies will often get a fish to look, but most often, a more natural imitation color triggers a bite. Water clarity and water volume play key roles in color selection as well.
Generally in turbid and in higher-velocity water, I choose bright colors and/or contrasting colors. In low, clear water, I favor natural colors that closely mimic natural food sources.
Fly Movement for Muskie Fishing
Doug Hannon believed that all lures need both attracting and triggering qualities, and I use a similar philosophy for fly design. However, I’ve found through decades of observation that the most effective way to trigger a strike is through lifelike, non-mechanical movement.
I prefer flies that have a side-to-side motion and flies that hover when I pause the retrieve. This imitates the swimming motion of real baitfish, and provides ample opportunity for an ambush strike.
The best part of this style of fly is its random, erratic action. It represents a wounded or dying baitfish, which is a major triggering quality. Most of this is done in the retrieve by starting and stopping the fly with quick strips of the line, then a pause, then a long strip and another pause.
This technique requires you to constantly see the fly in your mind’s eye as you are retrieving it. You need to imagine what the fly is doing at all times, and believe a fish is stalking it. Faith is a big part of this. If you’re not putting everything you’ve got into the retrieve, the fly will move in a mechanical, unappealing motion.
Sometimes a more swim-style fly with more speed can produce a bite. This is most often driven by water temperature.
Remember, muskies are like snakes—when they are warmer they eat more and attack more. In warmer, 55- to 65-degree water, you’ll get more of these “fleeing-the-area” type bites. Never run from a predator—they can’t stand to let their prey escape. Sometimes clear water will also require you to go for the flight-or-fight response, and in these conditions, you don’t want to give them too long to inspect the fly.
Rattles built into flies help with many types of predator fish, especially in murky water, and they can also improve your muskie flies. But generally, flies don’t compare well in the sound category. Lures with spinner blades, bills, and other mechanisms definitely outshine flies. You can add collars on flies for diving, and to create bubble trails. You can also add rubber curly tails to give off vibration, and multiple body segments that help aid in movement. This adds a presence in the water that muskies can sense with their lateral lines.
Muskies can be targeted in Canada and many U.S. states, and they grow to very large sizes. I no longer measure the muskies I put in the net, but their top size in most watersheds is about 60 inches, and anything over 50 inches is an incredible trophy. The muskie on the cover of this issue of Fly Fisherman is a dream fish for anyone, and was caught by my friend and client Rob Smith of Atlanta, Georgia.
Muskies are native to the Mississippi River basin and its tributaries, the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and all their tributaries, and the Hudson Bay Watershed. These areas basically cover from Tennessee and North Carolina all the way up to Canada’s far north and through the U.S. Midwest.
Muskies are spring spawners and usually start spawning when water temperatures get into the high 50s or low 60s. They are broadcast spawners, meaning the female pairs up with multiple males and they swim around shallow areas depositing eggs on grass shoots, leaf debris, or whatever is available. They do not build nests or stay around to protect their young like smallmouth bass or some other gamefish. This is nature’s way of keeping this apex predator in check.
Muskies are ambush feeders and sometimes hunt in packs to corral shad or schools of suckers. Most often, however, they are solitary hunters and they haunt logjams, shallow bays, drop-offs, and weed beds where baitfish are seeking shelter. They feed and hunt most actively when water temperatures are below 70 degrees. In their southern range, warm water and low dissolved oxygen levels can be fatal to muskies, especially with the added stressors of fishing for them, so just as with trout, I don’t fish for muskies when water temperatures rise into the danger zone.
Learn from Other Fishermen and Techniques
I have been chasing muskies most of my life. I have been successful by being persistent and by trying new things. Larry Dahlberg is one of the greatest fly fishers I know, but he always tells me, “Don’t look through the keyhole of fly fishing.” It’s okay to learn from other fishermen and other techniques—including live bait and artificial lures—to truly understand our target species and improve our fly-fishing success. This has been a valuable lesson in my entire angling carrier, not just in fly fishing.
Patterns. There have been many advancements in fly design over the years. Most modern designs are based on a couple of innovators who paved the way for this generation of fly fishers. These pioneers include but are not limited to Larry Dahlberg and his Diver series, and Bob Popovics and his Hollow Fleyes and Beast Fleyes. I know there are others, but I feel these are the foundations that most modern muskie flies have been derived from.
There are many flies out there today that make catching muskies with a fly rod more practical than ever before. These include Matt Gajewski’s Yard Sale, Slip-N-Slide, and Devil Dancer; Chris Willen’s Double Nickel, and my own Game Changer series and T-Bones. With these patterns in different colors and sizes, you have everything you need to make muskie fishing more fruitful.
Leaders. My leader setup for muskies is simple. I use a 40-pound-test wire bite leader that’s about 20" long, and I connect that to about 4' or 5' of 30- or 40-pound-test fluorocarbon. Having the bite leader that long serves two purposes. The length allows for several fly changes before I have to put a new section on, and the connection from the bite section to the leader is where I instruct my guests to position the rod tip for their figure-8 maneuvers. In other words, when they put their rod tip in the water and perform a figure 8, the fly is about 20" away, following each movement of the rod tip. The farther away the fly is from the rod tip during a figure-8 maneuver, the longer it takes the fly to respond to the rod movement.
I keep the total leader length short for better fly turnover, and also to make it a clean, easy transition from the retrieve to the figure-8 maneuver. A single piece of straight fluorocarbon gives you a smooth transition from the fly line to the bite tippet. If you are retrieving the fly and a fish is hot on it, there is just one connection, and you’ll feel the click at the rod tip as the fly line leader knot passes through. This alerts you that you have only one long strip to get to the bite transition. These signals prevent you from fumbling around, and looking at the line to decide when to begin your figure 8. A misstep here causes the fly to stop moving, the muskie loses its focus on the fly, sees the boat, and the gig is over.
The knot connection from the wire bite tippet to the leader can be a simple loop, uni knot, or blood knot. I use an Albright knot.
Lines. Apart from the flies, the biggest improvement toward making fly fishing for muskies easier comes from fly lines. The biggest change is larger, more aggressive tapers to help turn over more wind-resistant/bulky flies. The right lines can help reduce fatigue, cover more water, sink to the correct depth, and avoid tangles. There is no perfect line for every situation. You have to fit the line to the conditions. If you have shallow water with very little current, you’ll want a floating line or something with an intermediate tip. If you have shallow water with faster currents, sometimes a full intermediate or light sinking tip is best.
I’ve worked with Scientific Anglers to help develop their Sonar Musky line. It has a powerful front taper and a fast-sinking head to help carry and turn over large flies. I also frequently use Sonar Titan Intermediate and Sonar Sink 25 lines. If you are serious about muskie fishing, you should have different lines to deal with different seasons, watersheds, and current conditions.
Reels. Muskies aren’t known to make long, blistering runs like a tarpon, or bulldoze you like a tuna. They are toe-to-toe brawlers, and it’s very rare to even get or put a muskie on a reel, but a reel is still an important consideration. It needs to be lightweight with a large arbor to help you pick up line quickly when the fish stops or comes toward you. A large arbor also helps avoid line coiling in cold water, and makes casting easier. Casting with extra unneeded weight in your hands for hours on end adds up. Cut the weight wherever you can.
Rods. Many rod companies have recently come out with new rods designed specifically for muskies. I worked with Temple Fork Outfitters on two rod series. My latest rod for TFO is called the BC Big Fly. Other companies like G.Loomis have really nice rods as well, like the IMX-PRO Muskie designed by my friend Chris Willen.
What I feel makes a great “big fly” rod may be different than you might think. Most people think you need a super-stiff rod to cast big flies. This would be true if you cast 30 to 50 times a day. However, once you pass that threshold you will begin to feel the pain. Your wrist, arm, and shoulder work far too hard to bend a stiff rod and cast a large fly. You want a rod that loads deeply and does much of the work for you. This results in less fatigue and soreness.
You also need an extended butt on the rod that helps in figure 8s and helps support your arm on the backcast. This allows you to position the extended handle against your forearm for support and strength. The line sizes for these rods are usually 10-, 11- and 12-weight rods. These line weights are not required to fight the fish, but they are essential to casting the right lines to deliver these large flies.
Accessories. Buy a pair of wire/bolt cutters—these will come in handy if you need to cut the hooks out of the fish, or more importantly cut the shank if you hook yourself. Get a true muskie net or cradle to ensure the fish is landed safely and returned to the water healthy. Frabill sells a good one. Carry a good pair of heavy-duty longnose pliers to retrieve the fly safely for you and the fish. Invest in a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. This is widely overlooked. I can’t tell you how many muskies I’ve caught because I’ve been able see them deep behind the fly—just out of sight of everyone else in the boat—and I’ve been able to react properly and seal the deal. I use Costa Sunrise Silver Mirror lens for low-light situations, and copper green mirror lenses for bright sunny days.
In today’s rushing and chaotic world, we have less time to pursue our favorite hobbies and pas-sions due to work, family life, and everything else that comes along. We don’t have time to make 10,000 casts for every fish, so it’s okay to learn from all possible sources and make your recreational time more enjoyable and more productive. Muskie fishing using any style of an-gling isn’t for the faint of heart, but if do your research and grind it out, it can be some of the most memorable and rewarding fishing you’ll ever find.
Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers. He’s a Fly Fisherman field editor, and his most recent story was “Snakebit” in the April-May 2021 issue. He is the author of the book Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020).