What is likely the least understood period in the muskie-fishing season is the time leading up to turnover, when anglers who target breaklines and deep water struggle.
The water often turns green with algae bloom, the weeds may begin to die, and many fishermen become nomadic as they look for lakes where the bite is still on.
The truth is, you don’t have to look far for hungry muskies. You just have to check out the shallows, what some call the “skinny” water.
Why muskies make this predictable movement to shallow water is anybody’s guess. Maybe the water is warmer, particularly in the afternoon, or maybe they like the sanctity of the thickest weeds in the lake. Whatever is affecting muskies is also affecting baitfish, because many of them take up residence in the shallows, too. That alone may be the reason muskies move in from the deep.
If you time it right, skinny water can produce some of the best muskie fishing of the season. Many of my best days – during which my partners and I boated eight to as many as 16 muskies in a day – occurred in early September.
This shallow-water bite usually starts in mid- to late August, when a cold front or two sends water temperatures plummeting to the mid-60s. Muskies that had been scarce during the dog days seem reinvigorated. The pattern continues until the lakes turn over, typically when water temperatures fall to the mid- to low 50s. If August’s cold fronts come early and the weather stabilizes somewhat, turnover may not come until early to mid-October, providing as much as two months of shallow-water action.
Skinny-water muskies are common everywhere. While thick weedbeds or reeds are the muskie magnet in some lakes, I’ve caught hundreds of muskies from rocky shorelines and structure during this time. Wind is usually a requirement for fishing reeds and rocks, but it isn’t necessary in the weeds. I’ve caught muskies under bright sun and completely overcast skies from weeds, reeds, and rocks.
Where do you begin? In articles and seminars I’ve previously used the term “six-and-in,” meaning 6 feet of water and shallower. Keep this in mind and you should find muskies.
Perhaps the most overlooked location is the inside weed edge. Many lakes have weeds that extend right from the water’s edge out to deeper water, but many others will have a distinct edge of weeds that begins at 3 or 4 feet of depth and extends deeper. This inner zone often has a harder bottom with sand and/or gravel, and scattered weeds. Bright sun can make this the warmest water in the lake, and when this happens in early fall, it can help produce the hottest muskie action.
Don’t make the same mistake I did when I first tried fishing the inside weed edge. I positioned my boat right over the inside edge and cast into the extreme shallows, often into water less than a foot deep, and brought my lures back toward deeper water. When the muskies I caught and raised never followed from the shallows, but instead materialized seemingly from nowhere at boatside, I realized the fish were holding tight to the inside edge – actually under my boat – and I had to reverse my approach and place my casts on that edge.
Now, when I fish the inside edge, I raise up my trolling motor so its head is barely beneath the surface, and tilt up my outboard. I then ease the boat into water that is no more than a foot deep and cast to that inside weed edge.
I’ve found that the best inside weed-edge action occurs in the early evening as the sun gets lower. I go to edges that force me to cast into the sun, because muskies will position themselves in the shade of the edge. A lure that suddenly lands above them and then scoots toward the shallows is hard for them to resist. And, with the sun in my face, my shadow isn’t looming over the water and possibly spooking a following muskie.
When fishing shallow rocks, look for large boulders that break up the wind and create slack water and shadows. A large muskie will use such a pinpoint “spot on the spot” to ambush unsuspecting baitfish. It may take multiple casts to such a spot to get the fish to react, but it can be stunning how quickly a giant may materialize. Two of the largest muskies that have ever visited my boat were caught from behind the same boulder, and each required three casts before it attacked.
Forget finesse when fishing skinny-water muskies. Giant, twin, 10-bladed bucktails are legendary for producing big muskies in any situation, but anglers fishing shallow weeds have discovered the extreme water movement created by the big blades seemingly parting weeds out of their way.
In thick-weed situations, a safety-pin spinnerbait with single, upward-riding hooks will slide through clingy vegetation. If weeds do foul the bait, they can be easily cleared with a hard rod snap. Topwaters are terrific, as are giant plastics like the Bull Dawg and big minnowbaits; always think water movement when picking through your tackle box.