Article by: Jamie Wilson of Exist to Fish Canada
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They are at the top of the freshwater food chain. They are the heavyweight champions among freshwater gamefish in the northern states, and southern to northern Ontario. A Musky is a Musky right? Well, sort of. Let’s compare the obvious and not so obvious differences between Musky that reside in the famous Lake St. Clair and their counterparts in the diverse area of the Kawartha Lakes region in southern Ontario.
First off, the two main strains of Musky are the Lacustine (Kawarthas) and the Riverine (Great Lakes). Riverine Musky are located in the Great Lakes system that support forage such as Shad. These Musky are typically longer and fatter due to a much more abundant food source. Basically, they eat larger meals more often which allows for their larger structure. The Lacustine (Kawartha) Musky are usually supported by stocking and do not have forage in the same magnitude as the Riverine (Great Lakes) Musky. They do not gorge themselves on Shad and as a result, have much slower growth rates and slimmer profiles than their Riverine counterparts and will rarely surpass a length of 55 inches.
Another major difference between these two strains is spawning periods and habitat. Riverine Musky will spawn later, on gravel, as opposed to spawning earlier on aquatic vegetation/weeds as is the case with Kawartha Musky. These are the determining factors that contribute directly to the Kawartha Musky’s fragility, as they are sharing prime spawning grounds alongside invasive Pike. What this means is, Lacustrine Musky fry will get devoured by Pike fry thus leading to the potential downfall of Musky in the Kawarthas. However, some anglers believe that Kawartha Musky will adapt and bounce back. It is also documented that the Riverine/Great Lakes strain, actually spawn twice in some areas. The theory is that this is an adaptation to the co-existence with Pike, so in this case Pike do not pose a threat to Great Lakes Musky as they do in the Kawarthas. A third, very rare strain exists. The Tiger Musky is a hybrid of either main strain mixed with a Pike. They grow faster than Musky and are sterile. Every so often anglers will encounter these fish incidentally when targeting the more naturally occurring species.
Now let’s look at the approach two different anglers take when targeting these giant predators in these two vastly different regions.
Simon Barth (www.lakerunfishing.com) is a well-known guide on Lake St. Clair who understands the relationship of forage base and Musky behavior. So how does he target/pattern Musky on this abyss? “When looking for Musky in lakes with minimal structure such as St. Clair, I find that you have to chase bait. In the fall the Shad move tight to river mouths, rock piles and beaches and the Musky follow. On calm days you can often see schools of Shad dimpling the surface whereas during choppy conditions, your best bet is to follow contour lines and to use your sonar to find bait”. Once Simon finds Musky, how does he tempt them? Well, his train of thought goes something like this: “There are many factors that come into play; sometimes you are not privy to them. Some days everything clicks and some days nothing does. To better my odds I use different styles, sizes and colors of baits in a variety of areas and conditions on the lake. Water color often determines bait color. If you’re fishing a wind generated mud, the go-to is black and other dark colors. However, when you’re fishing water that is normally dirty, you can get away with natural colors”.
Riverine/Great Lakes Strain-Simon Barth by Simon Barth
As far as bait choice, the ‘Shadzilla’ by Water Wolf Lures is the staple. He explains “I find their versatility with the internally weighted harness is one of their best traits; I can fish them really shallow or really deep just by simply changing the harness. If the fish aren’t picking it up on a pull-pause cadence, I’ll slow roll it. Also, the ‘Shadzilla X’ has proven to perform very well in really cold water. This bait is effective when making short sweeps of the rod, just enough to get the bait to glide. The profile and action mimic fish/forage Musky feed on”.
Gear-wise Simon relies on xx-heavy St.Croix Legend Tournament “Big Dawg” and “Big Nasty” rods, large arbore casting reels spooled with 100-150lb braid coupled with a 150lb fluorocarbon leader with 100lb snaplocks being a must. “When you’re using soft plastics, you’ll lose a lot of fish due to a limp rod, resulting in the Musky busting their grip on the hookset.” He continues “don’t even go out without a pair of Knipex bolt cutters, 2-3 pliers ranging from short to long handle, and a large landing net designed for Musky. These items will help reduce post-mortality for the fish and will help keep you out of the hospital”.
That’s Simon Barth’s take on Lake St. Clair and the Riverine strain, but what about targeting Musky in the Kawarthas? Well, Chris Huskilson can definitely shed some light on the subject. “I use my sonar to locate suspended Musky, along with Perch, Walleye and Suckers the Musky are keying in on. Find the food and you will typically find the Musky”. The biggest difference to note when locating Musky in the Kawarthas vs St. Clair/Great Lakes is bait vs cover. As we mentioned, Musky on Lake St. Clair are baitfish oriented. Musky stack up on baitfish that have migrated to river/creek mouths whereas in the Kawarthas, the forage base is typically associated to cover, contours, and transitions in bottom composition and current. These factors equate to ‘edges’ or ambush points for their prey. Chris explains “I look for ‘edges’ that the prey are relating to. That can be any one or more afore-mentioned ‘edges’ with the key being relative proximity to deep water. The main forage base in the Kawarthas are Suckers, Walleye, Perch, Bluegill, Crappie and Brown Bullhead Catfish.
Lacustine/Kawartha strain-Chris Huskilson by Devin Kloosterman
Once fall is in full swing and water temps are in the low 50’s or high 40’s, a really slow presentation is called for. Also, Chris sticks with natural colors, nothing flashy or bright, mimicking the “food on the menu”. For fall, Chris’s top three baits include 11” & 13” un-weighted ‘Gator Tubes’, stuffed with Fizards attractant (for lazy follows), a ‘Shadzilla X’ fished like a jerkbait and a 10” ‘Shadzilla X’ dropshot rigged, both of which are from Water Wolf Lures. Also, Chris favors Walleye, Perch and brown Bullhead colors. The ‘Gator Tubes’ and ‘Shadzilla X’s’ are fished much the same way a Bass fishermen would work a jerkbait, utilizing a slow Twitch-pause cadence, while the dropshot rigged ‘Shadzilla X’ is worked much more methodically, like a Bass angler would for deep, cold-water Smallmouth (very slight twitches along bottom). Chris’ gear includes: Shimano Compre CPCM96XHTD Extra Heavy Fast Action Casting rod, Shimano Curado 300EJ CU300EJ Casting Reel spooled with 65lb Power Pro braid in green paired with a 150lb fluorocarbon leader.
Lacustine/Kawartha strain-Kevin Browne by Jamie Wilson
Kawartha Musky will rarely hit a figure 8. Why? They simply have different levels of aggression/behavioral differences due to forage base. Riverine strain/Great Lakes Musky on St. Clair that feed on Shad need to be fast and will be forced to make several attempts to contact schooling Shad (hence their willingness to chase down/commit to a bait boat side). Simon explains “I do get some Musky on figure 8’s in the Kawarthas, but most often they will have nothing to do with hitting a bait on an 8. My theory is as to why St. Clair Musky commit to figure 8’s is competition, as they travel in packs, so they have of a first come first serve mentality”. Chris Huskilson’s theory is this. “With a different forage base, Kawartha Musky will spend more time stalking prey than they do herding prey, as is the case on St. Clair. They are often pursuing a single target rather than a cloud of bait. This makes them more cautious boat-side, making the figure 8 less of a factor.”
That’s it, that’s all folks. Two strains, two geographical areas and two angler’s perspectives and opinions on their toothy friends. Different forage and surroundings determine growth rates and behavioral patterns, which in turn, alters the approach an angler must take to solve the riddle that encompasses these elusive fish. The heavier set Riverine/Great Lakes Musky resemble a Sumo wrestler, while the leaner muscled Lacustrine/Kawartha Musky look more like a boxer but make no mistake, they both fight like heavyweight champions.
Hope that clears a few things up for you. See you out there.
Author Bio: Jamie Wilson is a passionate lifelong multi-species angler specializing in both smallmouth and largemouth Bass. He is the lead author for Exist to Fish Canada and writer for such online publications as Angling Authority, Rahfish and now, Fishulo. Along with being a tournament angler, Jamie comes to us representing the Canadian Bass Angler Fan Page, and he is a staff member/promotional team member for Liquid Mayhem, Lake Fork Tackle, Rod Sox, Fizards, Easthill Outdoors, Riverrun Tackle, Musky Innovations, Bumblelure, Kamooki Lures ltd., and Bill's Bait and Tackle. Jamie is also a prostaff memeber for the camera accessory company EZCam Post!
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