By Jim Hagerty
Catching musky through the ice can be a challenge, but it does keep game-fishing opportunities alive all year.
Some of the biggest musky in the state are landed in the dead of winter. While some feel some are better than others, serious fishers understand fish behavior and know success comes with a bit of skill and inside information.
Musky fishing is sometimes compared to loading for bear. Even fishing with flies fails to measure up to the preparation, skill and brute strength required for a musky-hunting trip. The fish are the grizzlies of fresh water, and are in the killing business. Most times, an angler won’t even know a fish is in the vicinity until an old, cranky one jets out from the weedy haunts and rips his rig to pieces. Through the ice, it’s relatively the same story, but comes with a slightly different bait presentation.
Generally, musky spend most of their time 1 and 3 feet from the bottom—usually around weeds, mounds and other obstructions. As the serious angler knows, they roam slowly, almost undetected, and nail just about whatever crosses their path, even when the fish are not particularly hungry. Early in the ice season, the fish will hover around similar terrain in shallow water. This allows them to fatten up where there’s still fresh vegetation and food for feeder fish.
As the winter progresses, musky move to warmer mid-depths in search of the same cover. They usually remain active while they prepare for the spring spawn. The key to success in the deeps lies in presentation and a willingness to grapple. Fights may not be tenacious as a summer tussle; however, the ice is usually used to a fish’s advantage.
Jigging for success
Whether you chose live bait or lures, jigging is king. An extremely hungry, winter fish will strike like a sniper’s bullet just as he would in the heat of July. Most bites, however, won’t be as eventful. As with most species, musky will conserve their energy in winter and only bite a still victim.
A standard raise/drop jigging method allows your bait to sink, making way for the keen eyes of the musky to know there’s a free meal within his kill zone. Again, don’t expect to be jolted as soon as your bait falls below the ice. Allow your rig to drop about a foot or 2 above bottom. Every 5 to 10 seconds, raise the tip of your pole to slowly sink the jig back down. If need be, gradually increase the intensity of tip movement, moving toward slight snaps every few seconds. This will bounce the bait a couple of inches. This is often required when fish are more active and have the tendency of being attracted to faster-moving fare.
Fish population, outdoor temperature and overall musky behavior will determine which baits will prove successful. Under most circumstances, live suckers, shad and shiners are solid musky bait. Live bait works best for tip-up rigs and jigging.
The best lures come in the form of flash spoons and swimming jigs, which work best for active musky in the shallows. Flash spoons are best used in conjunction with live bait when fish are a bit sluggish. When all else fails, adding a minnow head or chunk of cut bait to a spoon hook can help taunt stubborn musky to the point of striking out of spite.
Outdoors news and photos can be sent directly to Jim Hagerty at email@example.com. Glossies and hard-copy press kits can be mailed or delivered to The Rock River Times’ office at 128 N. Church St., Rockford, IL 61101. Jim can be reached at (815) 964-9767.
From the Jan. 20-26, 2010 issue