Melton Hill Musky Fishing
The morning was still with no wind to be found. It was one of the first steamy Southern mornings on my Tennessee home waters. I maneuvered my boat around the leading edge of a shallow sand flat, quietly working my Buchertail 500 Tinsel X-mas Tree spinner, just teasing the remnants of last year’s decaying weeds. The surface temperatures were already creeping into the high 60's; the trees had already bloomed, and were now wearing full foliage. All of the other anglers had moved on to the classic structures, but I was there to pursue a hunch. It was then, she made her move. The Buchertail had suspended mid-flight. From past experience, both success and failures, I knew to set the hook and set it hard. From that moment, I just held on tight for the all too familiar 50 inch class head shake.
Once she was out of the net and in the boat, I realized that this Southern Mama hadn't followed the rules. From her distended belly to the eggs she left behind on my bumper board, it was obvious that she had not gotten the memo: the spawn was over. All pseudo intellectual muskie hunters had claimed this "fact" with authority in the previous weeks, but this ol' girl was proof positive that nothing is set in stone. Traditional patterning seems to go out the window when dealing with the fish that call these waters home; and in the words of my friend from up North, "Southern Muskies are a tad puzzling."
It's because of moments like these that I would like to share some of my own experience in decoding what is the Southern Musky.
Sometimes when searching for a pattern, you must lay out all of the pieces and keep the big picture in sight, it seems like only then can you find the common themes and patterns. Using this method, I have found that first key to tackling the Southern Musky lies in understanding water temperature. One hard learned lesson is that it doesn't always matter what your surface readings are, but what lies beneath that hints toward Musky patterns. Early in the first long days of spring, Southern waters begin to warm quickly. Surface temperature readings of high 60's and low 70's are far from unusual in March and April. You may even discover that by May, surface temps have neared 80 degrees F. It is important to remember that a large number of Southern Reservoirs are supplied by colder mountain waters which begin their decent in the Appalachian and Smoky Mountain chains. Lakes, such as Fontana in North Carolina and Norris in Tennessee, are known to hold monster muskies and have depths as great as 200 feet. These lakes and others supply many of the downstream Reservoirs with cold flowage year around. It is this variable that can make gauging the Southern Muskies "seasonal staging" a slippery slope. For example, I give you the big girl from April that hadn't yet spawned despite one of the warmest winters on record and my mid-January topwater trophy. These fish alone required that commonly understood patterns could just be thrown out the window once you cross into Dixieland.
The seasonal movements and "attitudes" of muskies in Southern Waterways can be far removed from your surface readings. One way to tackle this is by using an inexpensive submersible thermometer. This will help you accurately gauge the temperature at various water depths. From here, you can narrow down target depths and understand a little more about the world below the surface. I like to measure the temperature in 5 foot increments. This allows me to narrow my search for the "goldie locks" zone, where conditions are the most agreeable for Muskies. Also, some Southern waterways do not stratify and there is no obvious thermocline present to dictate maximum presentation depths. And though focusing on temperature bands from the high 50's through low 70's are obvious targets, sometimes finding that "magical" subsurface layer which gives the musky maximum comfort to hunt can lead to an unforgettable day.
Another helpful key to our puzzle is dissecting the any waterway into manageable target areas. Classic structure and cover is easy to find down South, but it can leave even the most experienced Musky angler frustrated when you keep knocking but nobody's home. Imagine you must narrow down an seemingly endless field of weed edge, standing timber, rocks, breaklines, river channels, points, open water, large creek mouths, islands, humps, reefs, marinas, sand flats, fish cribs, and lay downs, which are all subjected to changing river currents. On top of all of this, you are up against waters that frequently rise and fall with the push of a button. These are just some of the conditions and factors you face on many Southern Lakes and Reservoirs. And although the endless acres of endless changing structure seems daunting, you must remember that when facing a behemoth, you must cut it down to a manageable size.
Whether it is your first trip south or you’re lucky enough to be a native, the key to success on these waterways is dissecting it into manageable sections with varying points of interest. In Southern waters, much like the giant Canadian Lakes, you can't fish it all in one day. I have found that the best approach when choosing how to begin, is finding a section of water that has multiple classic Musky holding areas and dissecting it thoroughly and efficiently using multiple presentations. More often than not, anglers find that fish are holding in areas outside of our comfort zone. This is where it becomes paramount that your build self-confidence when casting to open water and breaklines, forgoing visible cover. Selecting target structure or cover based solely on the season in Southern waterways can also be a fool’s errand, as once again these Southern Muskies are not playing by the rules.
I have found that there are several tactics that can help you find success with all of these variables in play. A successful plan of attack can be to work a piece of shallow cover, then immediately follow that with the most nearby dramatic structural change. So instead of steadily trolling along a shoreline or weed edge, focus on working in block grids that include as many fish attracting elements as possible; for instance, fish a weed edge for a period, then the open water behind it, and follow that with the closest breakline, all staying within the same block area. This is where presentation and lure selection becomes very important. Structure/cover, water temperature, weather, and forage dictate lure selection, but it is up to you to entice triggering qualities, all the while dialing in the rate of retrieve. A huge advantage in these hunting conditions is mastering multiple retrieves with one lure, varying speed and depth, thus getting the most from your lures and eliminating guess work and missed opportunities. Selecting the right locations to target can be a daunting task on any body of water, but to insure down south success, you need to come prepared to fish fast and effectively along all types of structure. By following the first key in finding the "goldie locks" zone for maximum activity, now we can add to that dissecting your waterway and being prepared for constant changing conditions. It seems a simple solution, be where the active fish are, and find out what turns them on.
One of my favorite things to tell friends and guests on my boat is "go big and go home empty handed". It seems cheesy but it helps drive home another key to the Southern Musky puzzle: forage dictates bait size not the date on the calendar. This point holds true especially in Southern waterways as the primary Musky forage is threadfin and gizzard shad. Yes, some shad can grow to 10-12 inches in length, but the primary focus should be on the snack-sized forage, 3-7 inches. Melton Hill Muskies will at times form ambush packs and rush schools of shad with frenzied attacks; these Musky are not on the "eat one large meal" diet, so more times than not a four inch crank bait will far out perform a 16oz hunk of rubber. One of the most important elements of locating any active Musky is understanding its forage base. Knowing this and utilizing your on-board electronics to locate bait movements, is key to finding these Muskies.
Shad have seasonal movements that contradict some of our traditional Musky thinking, but sometimes it's better to follow the food and not the dogma that has been beat into our heads. Locating and properly presenting around schools of baitfish is sometimes the only way to contact active fish in mid-summer and early fall. Once located, I tend to lean on matching the "hatch" in size but not color. A quickly retrieved Baby Shallow Raider in Firetiger has all of the moves of a wounded shad but stands out in the sea of silver baitfish. Another tactic would be vertically working a Single Blade Spinner Bait. This can grab a lot of attention falling just outside the edge of roaming school. This tactic of using downsized lure presentations doesn't apply to only working around bait schools; smaller minnow baits seem to excel in Southern waters year around. Smaller crankbaits, slowly worked around rocks and points can be a deadly presentation. So when tackling the lakes, rivers, and reservoirs of the South, remember that bigger isn't necessarily always better, in fact it usually never is
The puzzle of Melton Hill Musky fishing is not always an easy one to solve, but there is an overarching theme: be where the active fish are and give them what they want. Sometimes, the pieces doesn’t always come together the way we think they should. Southern waters and reservoirs test our traditional notions of Musky behavior and movements, but not in a way that’s truly foreign or mysterious. Muskies, regardless of their longitude, have the same basic needs, sometimes we just need to break out of our comfort zone to find theirs.
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