For the ardent musky angler the 2014 Northern Zone Opener is going to be, shall we say, a bit different than in most recent years.
Following a long brutal winter, Memorial Weekend in the North Country will arrive with lakes featuring cooler than normal water temperatures, non-existent or sparse weed growth and muskies in spawn to post-spawn mode rather than the typical early summer patterns of late May. Mission impossible? Far from it, but anglers hoping for a little slime time in the ol’ Frabill net will most likely need to incorporate tactics and methods featuring smaller slower presentations.
Shallow will be the name of the game here in the greater Wausau area with the vast majority of fish in the post-spawn mode but not quite yet moving into pre-summer haunts. Water temperatures are still in the mid to upper 50 degree range, although the warmer weather this week will aide in lifting the surface temperatures of protected bays, backwaters and shallow isolated flats perhaps into the low 60’s – at least during the late afternoon hours. Weed growth looks to be limited, even more so than last season’s opener, meaning anglers should target what green weeds they find in addition to downed timber, shallow sandy flats and even shallow rocks, especially if it’s been sunny for a period of time.
As for lure selection, there are 4 bait categories every musky angler looking to get bit should have a Plano box or two of in the boat. Up first, small double bladed bucktails. Black/orange, firetiger and orange/chartreuse double bladed Mepps Aglias are the perfect choice for these conditions on the Wisconsin River system. The smaller profile and added lift of the twin blades allows you to fish slower while still covering water in search of active colder water springtime muskies. Smaller twitch style lures like Musky Mania Tackle’s 6” Jake and the Rapala Husky Jerk are one of my next choices for scoring on early season bruisers. While the Husky Jerk comes suspending, I like to weight my 6” Jakes so they also just suspend, making them hang in the strike zone longer and ultimately become irresistible to ‘skis.
Jig-and-plastic combinations are solid choices year round, but especially in the spring. My personal preference is a flat-rigged 6” Mister Twister Saltwater Sassy Shad in chartreuse pearl for sunny days, and white pearl/black back for darker conditions. The beauty of the jig-and-plastic is its versatility – it will catch fish on a straight retrieve or when jigged back to the boat. My last-but-not-certainly-least lure choice is a glide bait. Glide baits excel in these conditions due to their ability to provide maximum action with minimal horizontal movement, thus again staying in the strike zone longer. Baits such as Phantom’s 6”-7 ½” Softail and Phantail, along with Drifter Tackle’s 9” Hell Puppy are a perfect fit. As with any early season presentation, the key to eliciting strikes is varying retrieve cadence and speed.
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Rob Manthei, veteran Vilas county guide and owner of Fibber’s Restaurant and Bar on Big St. Germain has a few thoughts for musky aficionados heading into his neck of the woods this weekend.
“I’ve seen several muskies up shallow doing their thing the past week,” Manthei explains, “I’ve also had 3 muskies in the boat while walleye guiding. I think the smaller lakes will have some action with water temps getting close to 60 degrees.” As for bait selection, Rob plans on keeping it simple. “For lures on the smaller lakes, I would look for smaller twitch baits like 6” Jakes, Big Games, or Cranes,” he explains, “It’s awful tough to beat these lures during a late spring.” As for Rob’s other options – “My second choice would be some small gliders like Hellhounds or Phantoms.”
While Vilas County is certainly home to some smaller fisheries, it also boasts some bigger well-know bodies of water as well
“On larger lakes, if the conditions allow it, I would recommend doing some sight fishing,” Manthei begins. “Jig and Reaper combinations are the best thing for this style of fishing, hands down. Look for large shallow sand flats and spot the muskies cruising. Cast out in front of them and try to entice the fish.”
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Chippewa Flowage legend Dave Dorazio has seen plenty of opening weekends like this in his illustrious career, and knows just what it takes to catch muskies from Wisconsin’s Northwestern region after a cold spring.
“I expect that the 2014 musky opener will be a bit different than many anglers are used to,” Dorazio beings. He adds, “Due to the long, cold winter and late spring, weed growth will be minimal. Do not pass up any green weeds that you find! When the weeds are nearly nonexistent, a few short, scraggly green weeds can be enough to hold a nice fish.” What if the body of water or section of lake you are fishing does not have any weeds? “Look for rock bars and areas with wood cover,” Dave suggests, “Muskies on the Chip will use woody and boggy areas if weeds are not present.”
With location covered, Dorazio embellishes on his most productive lures for late-spring muskies.
“My favorite lures for the spring season are 6" minnow baits, specifically, the 6" Slammer - perch and walleye patterns produce fish, but my favorite by far is the Red Dragon,” he notes as if sharing a long-held family secret. Dave prefers to twitch these baits and insists on always incorporating a pause into the retrieve. “Many muskies will be triggered by this pause!” he exclaims vehemently. Twitch baits are not the only weapon in Dave’s arsenal however. “If water temps are warming, I like to try a small bucktail. I prefer the Ghost Tails in the 5" model,” he explains. As he notes, “With a bucktail, you can cover more water in search of active muskies.”
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Bay of Green Bay and Fox River:
One of Green Bay’s most noted musky authorities, Captain Brett Jolly, notes that with the late spring fish will be shallow and still spawning.
“Look for shallow bays and tributary rivers off of the bay,” he suggests. Going on Captain Jolly notes, “You can expect big crowds on the Fox River. I recommend avoiding the crowds to catch more fish.” With that in mind, where does a Green Bay area angler fish then? Captain Jolly adds in a hushed tone, “The bays and rivers to the North will hold a lot of fish and they will be far less pressured. That's where I'll be!”
As for lure selection, Jolly offers anglers plying the waters of the bay of Green Bay with a couple of suggestions. “Typically small bucktails like Spanky's Double 8 or twitch baits like the Musky Innovations Shallow Invader will be best,” he shares. Anglers need remain versatile though as Brett adds, “At times top waters and jerk baits will produce as well. In dirtier water brighter baits and gold or copper blades will work best. Small baits will likely be best but don't be afraid to throw some bigger double-tens if it is hot out.” On a final note, anglers may want to keep the planer boards and trolling rods at the ready as Captain Brett explains, “Trolling is always a good option, as pre-spawn or post spawn fish often suspend adjacent to shallow spawning areas.”
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Captain Brett Jolly
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Joel DeBoer is owner of Wisconsin Angling Adventures Guide Service, www.wisconsinanglingadventures.com.