When most people think big muskies they automatically think big baits and big water.
And why do we automatically equate big muskies with big waters? Simple: food source.
The forage base in big waters is typically much fattier (think ciscoes and whitefish), and thus grows some giant fish. So, when on a quest for that lifetime fish, we usually resort to fishing the classic big-muskie lakes and rivers.
And that usually means long days of running and gunning, casting, sometimes days without even a follow. It can get tedious, to the point where seasoned muskie guys have contemplated selling their gear.
Over the years, though, I’ve found a solution to the monotony of big-water fishing. And that’s small baits fished in small waters can produce some giant fish.
Case in point: One of my favorite bodies of water for numbers of big muskies is no deeper than 18 feet and looks like a mud hole. Most anglers drive past and never give it a second look. Muskies average 44-46 inches in this lake and it’s not uncommon to boat 4 fish and see over 20 in a single day, despite the heavy fishing pressure smaller lakes can experience.
Believe it or not, I have pulled multiple 50-inch fish out of this particular lake and other small lakes and river systems using small, low-profile baits!
Here are some things I look for when hunting big muskies on small waters.
Do Your Homework
Visit your state’s conservation agency website. I usually start by checking stocking and netting info, which can help quickly eliminate waters before launching your boat. I also examine species, size and numbers data, paying particular attention to muskie food sources like perch, bullheads and panfish. More often than not, you won’t find the cisco or whitefish forage base found in bigger, deeper and cooler waters. But, if you do, certainly add the lake to your list!
Next, if you’re looking for that hidden gem only locals fish and never talk about, I like to look at how far the lake or river is located from a major road or highway. Secret lakes will often be isolated.
There are always exceptions, though. My hidden gem is right off a heavily-used highway and people just drive by, never giving it a second look. Don’t overlook the conspicuous lakes!
Small bucktails, spinnerbaits, jigs and topwaters are all good baits for smaller lakes. I don’t throw a lot of plastics. For one, in smaller lakes it’s typically difficult to make the long casts necessarily to work the baits properly; the structure just isn’t that expansive.
However, I will use plastics after a follow, pitching a tube to see if it I can get the fish to commit. I have done well with this technique rather than casting them all day.
As for lure size, I usually keep the lure less than 8 inches in length, and sometimes smaller is even better. Think of the forage size in these waters—for the most part, it’s not very big.
Petite baits work especially well in the small lakes of the northern states because these waters warm up faster than their bigger, deeper counterparts. Consequently, the fish are more active earlier in the season. The water temperature during the hottest days of summer can reach the upper 80s and even 90s on calm, sunny days, forcing muskies to eat almost around the clock to keep up with their metabolism. Of course, this full throttle feeding greatly increases your chances of hookups!
Concentrate on weed flats, steep drop-offs, points, inside corners, and areas where the bottom content changes. Weed flats are especially good early in the season and can hold a lot of feeding fish. The same goes for bottom content transition areas; sand or rock warms up fast on sunny days and will hold heat. You will find muskies roaming these warmer areas, looking for an easy meal.
Steep drop-offs, points, and inside corners are great ambush points and will hold muskies, especially as the water temperature starts to rise. The best ambush points almost always hold the biggest fish, so mark a spot where you catch a fish because chances are good that it’ll hold another fish on another day.
Hone Your Skills
Whether you’re an avid muskie angler or just starting out, smaller bodies of water can be a great places for you to hone your skills. Take what you’ve learned to larger lakes and rivers.
When you’re able to see as many as 20 muskies a day you really get a chance to work on technique. You’ll learn when to speed your bait up or slow it down, the best figure-8 tactics when a fish follows, and just understanding what makes muskies tick.
Bonus Video: 3-Cast Muskie