If early summer is a numbers game, and fall is the trophy hunt, then midsummer represents the best of both musky fishing worlds. At least, that’s what Steve Heiting believes, and he ought to know. The former editor of Musky Hunter magazine now makes his living as a musky guide, seminar speaker, and the host of annual University of Esox events held in Wisconsin and Canada. “Midsummer is really kind of the perfect storm.” Heiting says. “Water temps are warm, so fish metabolism is high. And all fish, from young males to big females, are eating the most right now that they will all year. And to top it all off, they’re hitting baits aggressively.”
In other words, you need to get out there. Of course, these are still muskies; they won’t feed as often and enthusiastically as bluegills, crappies, or bass. But when when a 40-inch fish does smack your lure, you’ll remember it for the rest of the year. So how do you make it happen? You follow Heiting’s top six tips belwo for boating midsummer muskies.
1. Follow the baitfish.
Summer muskies are focused on feeding, and the best fisherman seek and imitate the baitfish muskies view as dinner now. “One of the classic midsummer bites occurs when baitfish like whitefish, perch, crappie, and bluegills suspend at varying water depths,” Heiting says. “Muskies are going to follow those schools of fish, which are not always relating to cover or structure—as they do at other times of year—but water temperature. So it can feel kind of strange at first to be fishing in 50 feet of water without a weedbed or similar cover nearby, but that’s where you’re going to find fish. And it’s important to remember that when a musky is hungry, he’ll chase down a bait that catches his attention. He can be hanging in 15 feet of water and your bait is only at 5 feet, but with one push of his tail, that musky is on your bait in a flash.”
The exception to the rule above is in lakes where summer temps don’t get very high. “Some Canadian and other northern lakes we fish may top out at 76 degrees, which is cool for summer. In those situations, baitfish will be in shallower water, relating to rocks, weeds, islands, and points, and you have to follow. Use your electronic’s side-imaging if you have it to keep track of baitfish, and the muskies won’t be far away.”
2. Mind the moon for more muskies.
Musky anglers have some things in common with deer hunters (not coincidentally, Heiting is a devoted whitetail nut), but following the moon is one of the biggest similarities. “In my experience, the best bites coincide with moonrise and moonset, as well as times when the moon is directly overhead or under foot,” Heiting says. “I keep track of this using two apps on my phone: iSolunar cost $4.95 and tracks the moon and other factors and clues you in to the best times to be on the water. The Musky Hunter TV app does a similar job but is free.”
Heiting says paying attention to the basics is important as well. “Just like deer, muskies are crepuscular, so dawn and dusk are always prime time. They also respond to barometric pressure; a moving barometer, especially one that’s falling, is always good. A rising barometer means a front has passed through and the bite is probably ending, or will soon. It’s critical to remember that muskies are creatures of their environment. They’re just more likely to bite when conditions are right, and less likely to when conditions are less than ideal.”
3. Choose the Right Summer Muskie Baits.
Heiting will experiment with different baits depending on conditions, but there are four lures he trusts more than others during summer. “The Double Cowgirl is the closest thing to a magic musky bait made in the last 40 years,” he says. “The wiggling flashabou and vibrating twin blades work together to trigger aggressive strikes.” The Mepps Double Blade Musky Flashabou is his secret weapon during a good bucktail bite. “I fish it fast, using short casts and quick retrieves to cover a lot of water. It’s an excellent lure to use when fishing with a partner who’s throwing a Double Cowgirl; if he gets a follow with the Cowgirl, throw the Mepps at that same fish, and it’ll probably hit it.” The pro says that the Joe Bucher Outdoors Top Raider is synonymous with summer muskie fishing. “It’s been knocked off by 20 other lure makers, but the original Top Raider is still my favorite and one of the main reasons is the rear tail hook that will get a fish that just swipes at the bait. It’s another great lure to fish in conjunction with a bucktail.” Finally, Heiting calls Muskie Innovations’ Swimmin’ Dawg the perfect bait to use on suspended fish feeding on ciscoes. “I work it within 2 or 3 feet of the surface. A muskie can be hanging down quite a bit deeper and he’ll see that lure and be on it in a flash.”
4. Learn how to deal with pressure.
Unless you’re fishing an isolated lake, human activity—other fishermen, boaters, jet skiers–can affect where and how often muskies bite. “Any time I’m seeing excessive boat traffic, I make it a point to be on the water at dawn or before,” Heiting says. “That eliminates most or all of the pressure from other people. Similarly, I’ll go out for the sundown bite and keep fishing for 2 or 3 hours afterward, especially if the weather and moon conditions are right.”
Heiting says it always good policy to fish into the wind, but it’s especially important when there’s fishing or other pressure affecting muskies. “If I’m fishing into the wind and get a follow, all I have to do is let up on the trolling motor and the boat is stable for a bit and i’ve got another shot. But if I’m fishing with the wind at my tail and get a follow, chances are that breeze is pushing me right into the fish, and my first cast is likely to spook him.”
5. Share the muskie-fishing wealth.
Aside from just spending time with like-minded anglers, Heiting says his University of Esox events haave taught him the importance of trading intel. “We share information with each other during the entire experience. We have zero interest in clueing each other into individual fish so others can go out and catch it, but we discuss patterns we’re observing and lures that are working. I’ve learned that chatting with other fishermen, and being willing to chat with them, has put me on to 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 boat more muskies. “Obviously you have twice as many baits out there, and you’re covering twice as much water as you would alone. That allows you to experiment with different baits and retrieves to see what’s working best. Another technique you can pull off more easily with two anglers is to pitch a slightly-smaller version of the same bait when you get a follow from a fish. Many times a fish will refuse to hit that initial lure, but if you pitch a similar bait just a size or two smaller, he’ll smash it. You can pull this off 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. Bookmark the musky bite.
One of the cornerstones of Heiting’s strategy is paying attention to spots where big fish are caught or raised. “The old myth was that muskies are ‘territorial’ and ‘defend’ an area from other fish. That’s been totally debunked. While a big fish may be reasonably faithful to an area, that doesn’t mean other muskies aren’t nearby. Something about the spot—baitfish, cover, structure, water temp, etc.—is just attractive to muskies. A few years back, I caught 12 muskies in one week off a single point. The bite was between dusk and about 9:15 p.m., and we pulled at least two fish off that spot every evening during that time period.”
Obviously not every musky hangout will produce such multi-fish action, but Heiting stresses the need to pay attention to areas that produce fish and to return to them. “Telemetry studies have shown that the home range of a musky on some lakes can be as large as 400 acres,” he says. “That’s obviously a lot of water. But those same studies have shown a fish might have favored spots within that range that are as small as 100 yards. Now that’s a lot more manageable, and if you can find some of those areas, your success rates soar. 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 territory. And when the fishing is slow, I slow down too, methodically working those hotspots I discovered during a hot bite.”