I recently returned to Chicago from my second major trip of the year, to work for 10 days until my next trip. I fished May 31st thru the 15th. Just like my incredible month of May with the smallmouth bass, June was spectacular as fish were in midst of spawning, or concluding. As for other species, I didn’t spend too much time on them, and the musky fishing was the worst and most atrocious I’ve ever experienced in Wisconsin for early June. This won’t be much of a musky report.
During my month of May, I got spoiled by all the big bass and nice walleyes that were caught. Based on the fish my friends and I caught during the first week of June, we got spoiled again! With the bass either spawning (conditioned on beds and not hungry), and in post spawn (still thick in number and very hungry), the fishing will remain pretty good for them into early July as they begin dispersing and transitioning into their deeper summertime locations. At this writing, the spawn has been completed on every lake I fish, and as far as I know.
During this month, summer came fast and along with the heat and humidity came swarms of mosquitoes. Like the awful musky fishing experienced, the mosquitoes were the worst they’ve ever been.
During these two weeks of fishing, I fished solo roughly 75% of the time and then enjoyed being in the company of my friends on the weekends. With each lake fishing differently and in different stages of the bass spawn, I also increased my lake hopping routine by fishing a total of 26 different lakes and three river systems, and adding some new places into the mix. Like last month, I focused most of my time on trophies and very little on numbers. By the end of these two weeks, I was finally able to run my first float trips of the season with the jon for muskies on area rivers.
The week of June 1st through 8th already felt like the dog days of summer. The best smallmouth feeding windows took place in early mornings and late afternoons and again in the evenings until the mosquitoes came out like clockwork at 9pm each night. During this week, water temperatures eventually reached its peak at 72 degrees. With this warm weather, fish spawned quickly and were done for the most part by the beginning of the next week. The fishing during this warm water period was HOT, and highlighted by the amazing early season topwater bite we had.
Topwaters from mid-lake structures? I’ve seen stranger things happen in early June, but this 50 fish afternoon, all on surface lures from mid-lake structures near open water, was ridiculous and something rarely seen for “spring”.
Just as May was oddly reminiscent to last year, June has been near identical to last year as well. Like last year, I began my month fishing on the largest, deepest, and coldest lakes in the region containing ciscoes and smelt, and lower smallmouth bass population densities. As a result of forage and less fish, these lakes have the larger average fish sizes, and the best probability at yielding a potential state record.
Despite having to fish these very large lakes long and hard in order to locate pre-spawn fish, I caught several nice specimens surpassing 20 inches. Unlike last month, absolutely none of my fish were hitting jerkbaits. The presentations for June have been entirely topwaters and surface poppers, powerfishing with shallow crankbaits, burning Freedom Lures spinnerbaits, swimming 5 inch Kalin’s grubs on a minnow head, and going through lots of bags of Strike King Coffee Tubes.
A few unique patterns emerged in June, which I thought were interesting. Before and after the spawn, fish were frequently observed cruising in wolfpacks in depths as shallow as 1 foot deep. I was catching these mobile fish by staying mobile myself, raising the trolling motor and casting with the 5 inch Kalin’s swimming grub rigged with a minnow styled jig head. A second pattern was fish already utilizing shallow mid-lake structures near deep open water. Some fish were spawning in these locations while others were already using them as holding and feeding areas. On windy days, crankbaits such as the Crankin Rap were catching fish in number. Meanwhile, on calm flat days, topwaters such as the Rapala X-Rap Pop were catching numbers and sizes and a ridiculous amount. The third pattern by end of the first week was the tube jig, as smallmouths wanted it meticulously scurried and dragged along the bottom. At this time, fish wanted nothing else besides a simple tube jig.
The big, deep clear lakes fished much better than the dark stained waters I fish often.
Here’s some prespawn and postspawn tanks caught with the variety of presentations above.
^ Swimming grub in shallow depths accounted for this obese fish on 6/4.
^ Rapala Crankin Rap became a standby for me this time last year. 19.5 incher crushed it on first cast from this spot.
^ Per the recommendation of my buddy and guide Rob Manthei, I explored this lake for a first time try and was rewarded with my fourth 21 incher of 2014. My largest fish of June, so far. It crushed the Freedom Lures spinnerbait from deep cribs, 6/3.
^ The tube jig was a player early and often. About 80% of the big fish caught in June came on Stankx Bait Company tubes and Strike King Coffee Tubes.
^ Again, one of Manthei’s recommendations: I fished another new lake on 6/4 and pulled out this pair of unmeasured giants. Both fish on tube jigs.
At the end of week 1, my good buddy Zach Quinn joined me for a weekend of trophy hunting. He had the time of his life catching an infinite number of 18 and 19 inchers from the six different lakes we fished during those three days. He fishes the region often, as his family has a summer home on the Three Lakes Chain. Due to work schedule and married life, his fishing time has been limited. The company was entertaining and I’m glad he returned home as a happy angler. The remainder of the bass photos are the better fish from my weekend with Zach.
^ We started off the weekend by fishing a new lake I hadn’t fished before, one with catch & release only regulations. We caught lots of these.
^ Tube jigs accounted for much of everything caught on this C&R only lake.
^ On the afternoon of 6/6, a 50 fish afternoon was enjoyed, courtesy of topwaters and the Rapala X-Rap pop. Water temperatures on this day peaked at 72 degrees which is never happens on the first week of June.
^ Another tube jig fish.
^ Another tube jig fish. A lot of casting and dragging was required for this. The bass wanting nothing else, other than tube jig. Didn’t matter which brand, color, or scent type.
^ Zach with his largest from the weekend, a 19.5 incher.
^ Same fish from above.
^ Another tube jig fish.
^ Here’s a spawned out 19.5 incher, caught on tube jig.
Lacking the motivation with continuing on with my trophy bass pursuits unless I was exploring a brand new lake or had requests to take some friends out on a trip, I began musky fishing on Monday, June 9th. This turned into a regrettable decision as the fishing was the worst I’ve ever experienced in early June.
First, the weedgrowth was lacking and nonexistant on several lakes, flowages and rivers. The very cold winter and ice cover killed off a lot of plant life and whatever growth was sprouting was only beginning to form.
Second, with the cold spring, musky spawn was delayed by several days and only wrapped up on the first week of June. This resulted in little undesirable fish being active and the large females inactive and disinterested in feeding.
Third, multiple coldfronts and post frontal days put a hamper in any activity I had. On this week last year, a friend and I raised nearly 110 fish during an 8 day period. Last week, I raised only a lousy 30 muskies from 10 or so different lakes. Of those 30, I caught four with none over 36 inches. Each evening I ended up raising one “giant 45+” from a different lake but the most action they’d provide me with was nipping the rear hooks of a topwater at boatside, open mouths wide and let a 10 inch jerkbait swim right through them, or t-bone a lure and miraculously avoid hook penetration. How? Why? I don’t know. I focus on bass up here for a reason I guess…..
Now here’s a story…..
The largest muskellunge contacted was a 48 inch class fish on a river float with the jon on an undisclosed stream. At moonrise on 6/13 (8-9pm with full moon) I drifted downstream to one of my favorite pools of river which I’ve pulled and raised a number of muskies from before. First cast into the riffles with topwater a HUGE WAKE lunges towards the prop bait and proceeds to follow it twice in the figure-eight without opening her jaws. A while later I circled back into the area working a Manta and she came back again, proceeding to follow into the figure-eight twice, again without opening up. I then tossed back the original topwater and she returned for the third time, less interested. After that, I worked a few throwback baits quickly and fish wasn’t to be seen again. I revisited the same flow and stretch of water on a float trip the next day and big fish was nowhere to be found. The problem with river muskies is they are always migrating somewhere whether it’s for food or refuge. In summer 2008, I was able to follow the same 45 incher for three straight months WHILE WADING until I hooked and lost her. Thus I believe the same can be done here again, but this time I will hook and land her by boat. Luckily this spot is less than a 15 minute drive from the house so I’ll be floating this river a lot more in the next few months. I’ll find her again, whether in that same palace of hers or elsewhere in the river. Without question this was the largest and fattest musky I’ve ever seen in person from this particular section of river. A good 30 pounds of muscle.
All heartbreak aside, the muskies in early June have been very stubborn, inactive, and disengaged everywhere I fished and with everything I threw with them. They were even stubborn on the fly rod as I was finally able to hook into one on a float trip, and proceeded to lose it due to aerial acrobatics. It was a good 38 inch class fish that took one of Jonn Graham’s articulated flies; a custom he tied this winter to resemble river redhorse. Once the fish leaped out of water, the hooks came flying out. Nothing I could do on that one.
Now I know what the thrill of hooking a musky on the fly feels like. They EXPLODE with fly rod doubled over and it’s a battle like nothing I’ve seen nor experienced before. I’ve got the confidence now to make them strike. Just need to finally net one, and I will.
Thanks for matching the hatch, Jonn.
As a consolation prize, I did end up catching a number of big smallmouth with the fly. By accident.
So the bass fishing for June was excellent, and will continue to be excellent throughout summer. Meanwhile the muskies were awful and I can only hope the fishing conditions and their behaviors will improve. As far as I know, several guides were getting blanked as well, and not a whole lot of activity was going on for anyone. All I can do at this point is to keep fishing for them and hope for an improvement during the weeks to come. Right now my attitude for these fish sucks and if anyone came to me asking for a recommendation on where to catch and where to go, northern Wisconsin wouldn’t be on that list. I’ll keep those reasons to myself.
I’m in Chicago until Wednesday the 25th when I’ll be leaving for my next trip. I’ve gotta stop for a few days up north to fish a musky tournament on Saturday the 28th, hosted by my Muskies Inc. chapter, Northwoods Muskies. The next morning, I will be off to Ontario’s sunset country to fish Rainy Lake with Camp Narrows Lodge for a week. Since winter I’ve been doing a lot of web and promotional media work for them so this will be my opportunity to experience their outstanding smallmouth bass, walleye, and pike fishing and the amenities they offer. This trip will take me through either Monday July 7th, or Tuesday the 8th as I will be returning to the north and eventually returning here for a few weeks in July. No date has been set for my return, which is nice.
That’s all for this June.
If anyone wants information on lakes or has questions for me concerning the north, I’ll be more than happy to help anyone out. When I get the new boat at season’s end, I am contemplating on starting an “experimental” guide service for the 2015 season. Give me a shout anytime through my sites at www.ragasfishing.com and www.fishing-headquarters.com
Last but not least, short videos and daily documentaries from May and June have been posted in my YouTube video gallery.
I recently returned from a two week adventure to the north only to do laundry, produce a few videos, let the bass spawn, and painfully work a 60+hr work week. Because time is a commodity this week, before I leave again for the next trip on Saturday the 31st, here’s my northwoods report from May 10 through the 25th. I was originally planning to write weekly reports and post entries during my weekends but the fishing was too good to be sitting at the ‘net cafe.
Shortly before the adventure began…... May 3rd, the official Wisconsin season opener.
In the month of May, I’ve been up north for all but 7 days. In this period since we opened the cabin May 1st, I’ve observed ice-out and witnessed winter giving way to summer and totally disregarding spring. I fished in snow showers and hot 80 degree temperatures. I also caught a lot of fish whose bites and locations encompassed winter, pre-spawn, and spawning periods. Lots of walleyes (not much spearing going on this year), smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and crappies were caught.
During these few weeks of fishing, I kept my lake hopping routine at a minimum, and focused entirely on my annual spring milk run of 20 different lakes, with adding some new ones to the repertoire. Due to the lack of lake hopping, a lot of meticulous fishing was had on each lake. I wanted to fish each waterbody thoroughly, not skipping out on any of its spots or miss out on any feeding windows. I also focused more on trophies and less with numbers, and did so very successfully. Additionally, with the lake and river water levels high from a much needed snowy winter (my backyard lake rose about 2 feet), I also couldn’t run any float trips with the new jon boat for the second spring season in a row. My rivers likely won’t be fishable until mid June at the earliest.
The week of May 10 thru 17 felt like winter as we fished with bibs and winter hats and big smallmouth bass were leaving their wintering holes, slowly transitioning to the shallows. The fishing during this cold water period was HOT. Meanwhile the week of May 18 to the present the weather got warmer and big smallmouth bass were rapidly transitioning from pre-spawn into the spawning period. The fishing was also HOT. In these two weeks since ice out, water temperatures climbed more than 20 surface degrees, already prompting spawn to take place on majority of the lakes. The bite continues to be HOT and will be until the shallows will be full of beds.
Throughout the first week I fished solo and was joined by my local friends from the MInocqua/Lakeland area. I also fished with St. Germain guide and buddy, Rob Manthei, and television personality John Gillespie. The original plan was to shoot a trophy smallmouth bass segment but by the time I was scheduled to fish with them, they had an overload of smallmouth content. Therefore we attempted to film a combo multi-species crappie and largemouth bass show for Wisconsin’s Waters & Woods. The fish decided not to play nicely with us, so we’ll be doing a TBD re-shoot at some point in the future. Fish or no fish, it was a memorable day nonetheless to be in a boat with John and to go behind the scenes for a day. He is as comical in person as he is on television. Meanwhile in the second week, Jacob Saylor joined me for the fifth spring trip in a row.
With the late ice out and brutal winter, I had zero expectations for the month of May. However, this spring became oddly reminiscent to last year’s epic fishing that was experienced as the weather and fishing patterns aligned. As I kept last May’s log and data in mind, I carried on and everything from the weather to the fish and their locations worked themselves out better than expected. I had them dialed in from the start and was able to replicate the awesome fishing I had from this time last year.
The spring armory. Don’t leave home without it.
Throughout the first week of fishing when weather and water temperatures were at its coldest, I worked a lot of different largemouth bass water; all weedy, boggy, and dark watered nutrient-rich eutrophic lakes filled with backwaters, channels and warm water sources. With the brutal winter we had, I knew winter kills would pose a problem on many of my favorite bass and pike lakes that are out in the boonies. Thankfully they only suffered partial kills or none at all. I was grateful for that. I fished a lot of smaller backwoods lakes and places off the beaten path. Lots of new water was explored and I made the effort and burned the gas to get back into them with some pretty good results.
Swim jigs, chatterbaits and lipless crankbaits did much of the damage on LMB’s. Very few came on soft plastics. However, that’s all about to change as water temperatures are now approaching 60 degrees and June is already here. The biggest I only caught were up to 18 inches, so nothing too picture-worthy.
Ideally, I wish I had spent more time on the largemouths but I will save the big ones for the first two weeks of June when the weedgrowth begins blooming. The reason I didn’t do well on largemouths was because the weedgrowth was nonexistant on every lake I fished. As the weather and water temps warm, plant life will hopefully sprout, and the fishing will immediately get real good.
Additionally, walleyes were smacking my crankbaits hard whether it was on accident or purposely, and the smallmouths were waking up immediately following ice-out. I had to fish for what made the most sense…... Big smallmouth bass.
Besides the coldfront and ice-out largemouths, I caught a lot of walleyes too as they were either in abundance, in midst of the spawn or just finishing up. Most of them were targeted in the evenings while casting shorelines with crankbaits, and pitching jigs with oversized minnows. A number of them were also caught by accident while fishing and jigging for coldwater smallmouths. Here’s some of the better ones caught, along with a new Wisconsin personal best from my little private backyard lake which we estimated being close to 27 inches long. It hammered a Strike King chatterbait while fishing the boggy shorelines of my 20 acre lake. I contemplated on keeping it for a cool wall mount but the thought of rearing a potential 30 inch pet was too good of an idea to pass up. Like all big walleyes I catch, she still swims happily ever after. The last time I did a walleye stocking was in 2005-06, so I know where this big one came from…...
Here’s a few more samplers:
This concludes my 2014 walleye fishing until this summer’s trips to Ontario’s Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, and then up north and down south in the fall.
As the water temperatures finally warmed up to a modest and more respectable 44 degrees beginning on Wednesday May 14th, I began my full scale assault on smallmouth bass. I’ve dedicated the bulk of my last five seasons up north to the art of angling for these fish and I keep learning new things about the game. This spring has been a good representation of my continued self-education.
In my opinion, the first three weeks following ice-out, preceding to the spawning period offers anglers some of the best fishing of the year. About a week following ice out, smallmouths are usually schooled and stacked in large groups along the edges of structural elements - this is one of the few times you will ever find them in heavy concentrations. In contrast to largemouths which will move into shallow mud bays with warmer water, smallmouths move to warm water lake locations that are best influenced by wind direction, sunlight penetration, and proximity to annual spawning location.
Identify these spots, you can literally catch 100 fish or more in a single day. Although I didn’t focus on numbers at all these last few weeks, I concentrated every day on trophies and was greatly rewarded. And numbers of big fish were caught.
^ May 14th, first SMB of 2014.
The style of fishing employed during my first and second weeks greatly contrasted, all due to water temperatures. The first week I had water temps in the low 40’s and barely cresting above 50. This called for an exclusive jerkbait fishing program with a variety of suspending jerkbaits, and soft baits such as fluke styles fished weightless, or pitched and jigged vertically with a minnow head. In the second week, the first warm front of the spring arrived in which I saw water temperatures quickly rise from 50 degrees to as much as 60 degrees which is where we presently stand. My spring favorites, the jerkbait, gave way to a more diverse selection comprised of crankbaits, tube jigs, and soft plastics. Right now, either of these three are rocking out fish.
^ Posing with a 21 incher with my musky tournament partner & pal, Steve Peterson. Caught with the Dynamic Lures Travado. What a great suspending jerkbait that catches big bass. I’ve stocked up for next month’s trip to Rainy Lake!
Here’s my winning formula during the first week.
If you are a bank hugger, you weren’t going to catch any fish. It’s that simple. While folks kept waiting for water temperatures to warm, I was often the only boat out on my lakes fishing for bass. And I was catching lots.
In recent years, I’ve developed an affection for locating open water schools of smallmouth. Fish are often found with electronics in off shore locations, usually within short migratory distances from their spring staging spots. During most of my outings, I’ve began my search deep, looking for fish in the 15 to 30 foot zones and then progressing shallower and shallower. By working closely with my Lowrance Elite-7 HDI that’s equipped with Lake Insight HD charts and down imaging, I make quick drive-by’s along the deepest edges of spring feeding flats, and the sides of rock humps. In these open water locations, seeing the markings of schooling smallmouth will be obvious on-screen.
Offshore complexes were money on each of the ten smallmouth lakes I fished throughout the first week. This pattern eventually overlapped into the second week of fishing and subsided as soon as water temperatures warmed.
Below are some of the typical looking areas I pounded. Very little spot hopping and water coverage was required. Just be good at boat control and good with the electronics.
If you fail to contact fish early, move. It’s on to the next area that offers feeding and structure opportunities. In spring, they are not going to be located everywhere like they will be in summer, and in several spots like later on in the season. Look for places like this where fish want to be connected to structure, and puzzle these pieces together from the depths to shallows. Run these high percentage areas and you’re eventually bound to find fish foraging heavily in an area.
A key forage for my bodies of water in early spring are smelt, mud minnows and yellow perch. For that reason, I often focus on long, slender 3 to 5 inch baits.
What I did for much of the month was begin my offshore structure fishing with suspending jerkbaits. Some of the better ones producing fish consistently for me were the Rapala X-Rap in sizes 8 and 10, Matzuo Phantom Minnow, and Dynamic Lures JSpec and Travado. Then as fish grew conditioned to the suspenders, I followed up and generated more strikes with the fluke rigged either weightless or on a minnow head. I used this reciprocation a lot and it kept catching. You get the hint this will be an article for next year? You bet.
I use soft jerkbaits rigged on a minnow style jig head a lot in mid-summer and fall when smallmouths are deep. However, they also have a time and place in the spring, and that takes place from ice-out until fish move in too shallow, thus eventually making this technique ineffective. Soft jerkbaits in the “fluke” style such as a Trigger-X Minnow, GNUGEN Lures Live Minnow, and Stankx Bait Company Fluke are pitched and vertically jigged in horizontal presentations. I prefer using Northland Mimic Minnow, and Matzuo Minnow Head jigs in 1/8 or 1/4 oz sizes depending upon depth and wind.
Here’s some tanks caught with suspending jerkbaits.
^ Caught with Dynamic Lures Travado in Ghost Shad.
^ Caught with Dynamic Lures Travado in Ghost Shad.
^ My largest of the year so far, a 21 incher caught with the Dynamic Lures Travado in Ghost Shad color.
^ I have yet to catch a fish surpassing 20 inches on this lake, but at 19 inches above, and 18.5 inches here, this one is a dandy. Caught on Matzuo Phantom Minnow.
^ Jacob Saylor with a 20.5” caught with an X-Rap 08. This is a 20yr old fish from this particular lake. C&R is important for special fisheries like these. It works wonders and I advocate for Wisconsin to continue its spring C&R season for these next several years.
^ At 18 inches, this fish is considered a trophy on the 300 oligotrophic lake it came from. This lake will have lots of big ones in a few years if they keep growing like this guy. Caught with X-Rap 10 in Albino Shiner.
^ See how far away I am from shore? There’s no bank hugging in this early spring game.
^ Absolute giant here, and the fattest 20 incher I’ve ever pulled out from this particular lake. Wish I had a scale. Caught with Rapala X-Rap 10 in hot head color.
To maximize on catch rates and generate more strikes, the soft plastic jerkbait in fluke style were used as a throwback. It was deadly on these mid lake, offshore structures. The throwback softbaits caught A TON and kept the bite going even as if it seemed I had pounded it to death already. With this system, I kept catching fish for almost 4 hours straight on one single bar.
Here’s some nice catches made with the soft baits.
Winning formula for the second week.
By the time the second week of fishing arrived, water temperatures were slowly on the rise, and different patterns emerged but most of them still weren’t players. Fish were progressing shallower also, and it was unique to observe the progressions in locations between first week and now. I finally got a few fish to go on soft plastics such as tube jigs and swimming grubs to make things interesting. I was also able to get onto a crankbait bite that lasted in short spurts. With zero crayfish presence, I wasn’t banking on either tube nor crank to be players just yet, but they were once waters surpassed 55 degrees, and both resulted in some of my largest fish from this trip.
My second week of fishing had some ups and downs as certain lakes slowed by uncooperative weather, but a memorable day took place. Each spring it seems as if I have one day that stands out more than others, and it eventually turns itself into an epic day of fishing. Happened again this year.
On Friday, May 23rd, we dedicated the entire day’s fishing to trophy hunt. Anything less than 18 inches wasn’t worthy of a picture. We did film the entire day’s body of work on video and it will be produced shortly. We didn’t catch numbers, but quality was had. Two lakes were fished, and a slew of smallmouth up to 20.5 inches were caught from both. My pal Jake ended up catching his largest of the week from one lake, and I repeated the feat again on the second lake fished. On this day, the whole barn door blew open and multiple patterns emerged. Fish were going on jerkbaits, crankbaits, tube jigs, football heads, and soft plastics. The fish were hungry, males were invading the shallows for spawn, and big females were moving up the breakline to feed with fury before dropping eggs.
The top producer on this day was a new jig from a company I’ve been working with since 2013. Freedom Lures and what I fished with was the Zodiac Jig. It’s an interchangeable jig designed to be fished with any hook type. I had it rigged with a Strike King Coffee Tube.
By now, these bass photographed below are all spawning. Here were our notables from this magnificent day of fishing. Cant wait to get the video out. Just a remarkable day.
^ Any day you’re hooking into doubles is a good day. This tandem of smallies was caught with X-Raps on the first lake.
^ Jacob with his largest of the week, another 20.5” caught from the first lake.
Now the Freedom Lures fun begins. They make the most unique jigs I’ve ever fished with. I’m not sure if it was the plastic I was using, because Coffee Tubes are pretty damn good to begin with, but I attribute this day’s success with the jig. It was hooking fish right on the second lake as every hook-set with it felt like magic, and I put on a clinic with it. These next few fish all ranged between 18 and 19 inches.
I also said crankbaits finally started producing. Below is a back-to-back-to-back-to-back quadruple of smallmouths caught with last year’s top bass whacker of mine, the Rapala Crankin’ Rap. The biggest fish highlighted here is a 20.5”
At this writing, bass are either spawning or shortly beginning their spawn season on many area lakes. I’m glad to have taken the week off. This final outing on the 23rd capped off an excellent week and a half of smallmouth fishing, and I can’t wait for what’s in store for me this coming weekend. Patterns will change and I will turn my focus to the largest, coldest and deepest lakes in the area as I still have a second round of pre-spawners to catch.
Before returning home for the week, our final day was spent crappie fishing. I like to dedicate one day each spring to these fish and call it a crappiethon. We spent the entire day working our tans and covering two different lakes. We didn’t keep our limit because who in God’s name wants to spend 3+hrs filleting 25 fish apiece. But by day’s end, we had caught between 40 and 50 crappies on an assortment of plastics and took home 20 of them. Fish were beginning to move in for the spawn. Most fish caught and kept ranged between 10 and 12 inches. Anything over 12 such as the 13 inchers were released to grow bigger. Did you know it takes 8 to 12 years for a crappie to attain trophy sizes in the north? Lots of folks were out and taking advantage of this crappie “run”. While it’s an enjoyable event, it’s a bit disheartening when the meat hogs begin hurting the fisheries by slaughtering and keeping nearly everything they catch until a limit is reached. I am a proponent for reduced panfish limits or a 10” minimum length rule.
This day was all the major crappie fishing I’ll probably do for 2014.
My week off to heal the beat up hands and bass thumbs is nearly over. I depart for the north again during the wee hours of Saturday morning to search for more northwoods bronze and catch a few muskies. My goal is to always catch one surpassing seven pounds but the game is going to be different this time around. Fish will be spawning on most lakes while some will still be in pre-spawn cold water mode like last week was. Plastics and other diverse lures will finally come into play, and I will have to cover water. It will be interesting to examine. I’ve already got my list of lakes in mind. With the rivers finally receding from their spring floods, I will also get the river boat put to use and a few float trips will be in order.
For most of these next two weeks I will be fishing solo, and with friends and guides who live locally in the area. I can’t wait to have their company joining me in the retro Lund.
That’s all I’ve got for now, before eventually turning this two week report into an article or even a novel.
If anyone wants information on lakes or has questions for me concerning the north, I’ll be more than happy to help anyone out. When I get the new boat at season’s end, I am contemplating on starting an “experimental” guide service for the 2015 season. Give me a shout anytime through my sites at www.ragasfishing.com and www.fishing-headquarters.com
Videos will be making their way online soon.
Love me some walleyes and beer for breakfast.
If you were to ask any northern muskie angler what his or her favorite muskie fishing destinations are, the waterways of Northwestern Ontario, North central Minnesota, the clusters of lakes in Northern Wisconsin, and the Great Lakes are the likely unanimous choices. Two of these regions are undoubtedly mine. For anglers looking to escape the winter cabin fever and ditch the ice for more reasonable climates, word class muskie fishing can be sought south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the underfished, flourishing waterways and river systems of Tennessee.
I was granted my diplomatic immunity to TN.
Last week, I took the week off and had the pleasure of driving myself 550 miles south to finally meet and fish with a long time online acquaintance, friend and muskie fishing guide, Cory Allen, of Tennessee’s Stone’s Throw Adventures. I met Cory through a mutual musky friend of ours during the summer of 2012 and from there grew a friendship of many common interests comprised of big game fishing, outdoor writing, and creative collaborations for various publications including my own. It wasn’t until receiving last autumn’s invitation to fish Tennessee’s Melton Hill reservoir with him where I grew intrigued of some southern comfort and opportunity to catch one of those 50 inch beasts Allen and Melton Hill is known for today.
For anglers who are unfamiliar to southern fisheries, muskies are indeed native to some rivers and streams in Tennessee. Hard to believe, but they are riverine oriented fish and made their way south from the Ohio River valley. Their existing populations have have been stocked and fisheries rehabilitated with varying degrees of success. The hotbed of southern muskies has always been the famous Cave Run Reservoir of Northeast Kentucky. However, based entirely upon Allen’s success with clients and the number of 50 inch trophies boated and released in 2013, I’d have to think otherwise, as this venue gives The Cave a run for its money… and this may even include some famous northern muskie waters many of us fish.
Melton Hill, a 6,000 acre widened basin of the Clinch River is a 57 mile long highland reservoir whose water levels are controlled by the Norris Lake and Melton Hill Dams. The reservoir situated in between is a deep, clear, cool water environment that allows ideal dissolved oxygen levels and cool water temperatures to rear a stocked trout fishery, and a year-round musky fishery whose population is sustained through annual stocking and protected by a strict 50 inch size limit. What makes Melton Hill a unique fishery is that the warm water outflow of the Bull Run Steam Plant allows for productive multi species winter fishing in the pools downstream. Despite its daily operations, the warm water discharge does not impact summertime water temperatures, and neither does the reservoir establish a summer thermocline. It’s always a cool water fishery from top to bottom of the water column, thus allowing muskies to grow big and retain their heavy weights, and feed heavily on the smorgasbord of rich forage species consisting of stocked trout, redhorse, suckers, quillbacks, small buffalo fish, and threadfin and gizzard shad.
Before heading south, I knew this trip wouldn’t be a home run. Melton Hill isn’t a numbers lake by any means. It is purely trophy water with a musky fishery of moderate to medium population density with most specimens at 45 inches or greater. Those 10 to 20 fish follow days of the north I am accustomed to would not be happening. But whatever few fish we’d raise to boatside had a far greater probability of striking and being caught. Despite these odds, it felt great to escape from the cold, work on my spring training tan, and cast to open water. Big fish were the plan. I told Cory not to treat me as a client. Lets just fish, learn from another, enjoy one’s company, and have fun.
During our 4 and a half days of fishing, nature’s playbook indicated that muskies would be in their pre-spawn and spawning locations of the lake based on the 50 to 55 degree water temperatures registered. These areas included creek mouth staging areas, as well as deep into the back ends of coves and spawning bays, and even small ditches. Allen and I focused primarily on these lake locations as the week prior he and clients were locating and hooking into 50 inch fish. In order to stalk the shallows and creek outlets, downsized presentations such as loud rattlebaits, chatterbaits with paddle tail swimbait trailers, and small jerkbaits were the ideal players fished with a combination of 50 pound Cortland Masterbraid on our flipping sticks with high speed baitcasting reels, or 30 pound Cortland Masterbraid with Allen’s Tiger Wire 49-strand stainless leaders. All fished with 7 and a half foot medium heavy action spinning rods and reels.
These bite-size musky tactics have been popularized on many of my Northwoods waters, and Allen has been able to showcase their early season productivity on his southern waters within the pages of In-Fisherman Magazine.
Fishing these skinny water locations, Allen has hooked the biggest fish of his life on a 5 inch Rapala X-Rap. His other favorite early season musky baits also include 7 inch Senkos rigged weightless, and 7 inch Zoom Super Flukes on a 7/0 wide gap hook. According to him, they appeal to big muskies.
Unfortunately, these downsized presentations failed to register any fish for us because muskies had not yet moved into these coves and back bays. Was it time for them to begin spawning? Yes. But why fish weren’t being located or sighted we don’t know. The only reasoning we had could be due to drawdown as well as post-frontal conditions which for sure discombobulated the fish. We did spook few fish in the shallows but they were uninterested and nowhere close in numbers they should have been at in these areas. The only interested fish we enticed in the shallows was lost immediately. My wire leader was unknotted by a large fish that broke off the chatterbait and paddle trailer….. that was a first for me. We didn’t get a visual of the fish because it felt like massive razors sliced through based on the rapid few taps I felt with the rod. After both of us being analytical over the event several hours afterwards, we both speculate that it was a giant sunning herself in the chocolatey-milk shallows that was stimulated to strike the Strike King Poison chatterbait.
Besides stalking the shallows with our stealth mode combat tactics, trolling was a secondary option for catching fish. Melton Hill possesses depth, clear water, rock and some submerged wood cover within its coves and alongside deep channel edges. Because of its little cover, lack of vegetation, and minimal musky habitat along its banks, muskies tend to suspend off shore where there is a baitfish presence, or be drawn to the lake’s topographical features and patrol along the lake’s bottom. Trolling with crankbaits and powering the bottom is another of his lethal presentations for success and was done quite a bit in staging areas outside of creek mouths and along the deep edges of channels.
Trolling locations during spring are generally associated with creek mouths and the deepest sections of their arms. This was one such location where trolling was employed.
Throughout much of 2013, Allen utilized a system allowing the reciprocation for trolling and casting and made it popular in print with In-Fisherman and on the web at Fishing-Headquarters. It boated many muskies for his clients and I had the opportunity to try trolling for the first time ever. What allows him to utilize both techniques is through outfitting his 17 foot Tuffy Esox to accommodate both methods. With his Minn Kota Terrova iPilot up at his casting deck where I fished from, and a Yamaha 70 horse tiller on the transom where he always stands back and fishes from, he’s able to stand from the stern and run multiple single line trolling passes at speeds of 1 to 3 miles per hour, working deep topography as well as the numerous 12 to 30 foot deep breaklines Melton Hill possesses. If he ever locates something unique on his flasher whether it’s a school of baitfish or underwater structure likely containing fish, he kills the outboard and controls the Terrova with remote, dissecting the location with casting and jigging.
Allen’s trolling philosophy isn’t about putting multiple rods in holders and covering acreage of water in search of fish. He often maps out a piece of structure and uses trolling baits such as Musky Armor Krushers, Bagley Shads, Triple-D crankbaits, and spoon plugs to effectively cover it. Most trolling passes we made never extended farther than the edges of the structures we were fishing, but were short 50 to 100 yard drive-by’s which bumped and grinded over the deep structures.
With this single line trolling, we held the rod at all times. This form of trolling allows anglers to understand how the lure is running and what it is doing at all times. The rod’s vibration indicates what type of vibration and action the crankbait has at different speeds. Holding the rod also generates action and allows the bait to get pumped which can generate strikes from following fish and reel drags can then be adjusted whenever needed. With each bump and grind of the bottom, trolling noobs like myself can fully understand the nature of the structure and our trolling passes and lure depths can be adjusted accordingly. With rod in hand, we get to experience the excitement and rush of powerful strikes.
However, on this trip, we also failed to locate any muskies while trolling. Two other fish came to boatside but were done by casting with crankbaits along main lake areas containing warmer water temperatures. Both were big. A fish Cory hooked and lost at boatside was all of 45 inches, and another he raised on a Medussa was a 50 to 52 inch giant.
At this point of my trip summary, you may be wondering and asking yourselves why the hell is there even a fishing report and why is this worth writing about when zero fish were caught by a licensed fishing guide and professional, and an expert angler who travels, fishes tournaments and writes articles as one of his side jobs. I believe in the concept of learning whether fish are to be caught or not. And I am brutally honest and have no shame in my game. This latest trip fully illustrates that knowledge is power and you can always learn about a specific fishery by reading about one’s experience.
We fished the right locations, we threw the entire boat at them, and we fished specific locations which we knew held fish. But nothing was working and muskies showed their disinterest due to many biological factors and weather related events. For the first time ever, I came home a zero and caught nothing. The fishing was enjoyable, but brutal to the extent that absolutely nobody else on the lake was catching anything of any species - not even other guys or folks fishing the stacked pool below the steam plant.
A humbling experience, and a trip I will make once again this fall when my northern travels conclude. I completely see why Melton Hill is revered as a special, unique musky fishery. IT HAS IT!
Despite instantaneous multimedia coverage of the hottest action in musky angling, there remains a hidden chronicle and untapped population of musky at the bottom of the known musky range in Tennessee. These waters are still being charted in the musky world by guides like Cory Allen. There are subjects about the beast which are still unknown, and whose behaviors are still in the process of being figured out.
If interested in a 2014 fishing trip to Melton Hill, Tennessee (or any Tennessee waterways and river systems for the matter), I highly recommend hiring Allen to speed up the learning curve as he will put you on muskies on these waterways and teach you things that can be applied elsewhere in the musky range. He fishes the system year-round and is available weekly. His knowledge is nothing short of extraordinary, and he is not afraid to blend science, on the water limits, and unorthodox methods and innovation into catching fish. I truly believe he catches more 50 inch trophy muskies than anyone else in the country who is NOT fishing or guiding the Great Lakes, Minnesota, or Northwest Ontario. Believe it.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
As the title reads, we both succumbed to nasal congestion and colds following our 4.5 days of fishing.