Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Muskie Magic during last light bite

This big muskie caught at last light by Heiting had followed his bait earlier in the day but didn’t strike at that time. (Photo by Charlie Buhler)

By Steve Heiting

Contributing Writer


Thickening clouds and a setting sun had turned the sky almost completely black. The glow of the fishfinder screen revealed ciscoes rising toward the surface. I eased my boat toward an inside turn in the lake’s basin. The only sound was the lapping of waves against the hull.


I engaged the reel as my big swimbait splashed down unseen a cast’s length away. Three cranks later, my shoulders were jolted as a big muskie struck the soft lure. The hookset was solid. Wild headshakes telegraphed up the braided line, crazily rocking the rod tip. Before I could switch on the headlamp, the fish jumped in the darkness to gain slack. I reeled like a madman to catch up. Feeling the weight of the fish again, I breathed a sigh of relief and resumed the battle.


In the glow of the headlamp the muskie’s size was impressive, but I chuckled at the swimbait sticking from the corner of its mouth like a fat cigar. Having grabbed the lure with a headshot, the fish had obviously been serious about feeding.


As soon as the fish was boatside I moved quickly with the net, and another last-light muskie was mine. After a few quick photos, I eased it back into the lake and watched its tail paddle side to side as it waved goodbye, gained depth, and was gone.


You’ll hear the term “feeding window” used in muskie fishing to describe when they are triggered to bite by moon events, sunrise and set, and weather changes. All matter sometime during the season, but I firmly believe there is no greater feeding window than the last hour or so as day transitions to night.


Fish and animals are said to be crepuscular if they are active in twilight, but I’ve caught enough muskies at all hours of the day to know this doesn’t necessarily apply to them. Muskies’ eyesight is notoriously good and they will feed day and night. Possibly this provides the explanation. Does approaching darkness give them a sudden, visual advantage over baitfish? I think this is likely, just as walleyes have been found to have an advantage over perch as the sun lowers in the sky. But as with so many other aspects of muskie fishing, it’s best not to worry about the “why” and to simply take advantage of any edge.


For proof of how good last-light muskie fishing can be, I checked catch records I’ve maintained for almost 30 years. I found that I’ve caught muskies during the last light period from almost every lake I have fished, although some waters are better than others. In fact, of all the muskies I’ve caught from my favorite Wisconsin lake, over 56% have been hooked in the final hour of daylight. 


Like many of you, I work during the day so most of my muskie fishing on the lakes near home occurs during the evening. That fact alone skews the results from my favorite lake as well as others. Another factor that matters here is that I like to fish for suspended muskies. Plankton and bugs rise to the surface in low light and baitfish follow, creating the perfect opportunity for a hungry muskie lurking below. Considering the way I fish on the lakes near home, it makes sense that I catch a lot of muskies in low light.


So, I took my research a step further and analyzed my muskie catches on Lake of the Woods, where I’ve fished for two to three weeks per year for nearly a quarter-century. While there, I fish from morning until dark, with a day’s fishing usually lasting more than 12 hours. Suspended baitfish are inconsequential as most fishing is done around shallow structure and weedbeds. I found that more than 26% of the muskies caught from Lake of the Woods have been during the day’s final hour despite my effort extending throughout the day. Therefore, my catch records prove lowering daylight is the most important time to be fishing for muskies.


There is nothing special in the tactics I use for last light muskies, with the exception that I want my lure running shallow regardless if I’m casting to a rock reef or bombing casts over a 50-foot deep basin. Muskies’ eyes look up and they prefer to strike from below, and a bait silhouetted against the surface is a perfect target regardless of the depth of water I’m fishing. Thus, I use topwaters, bucktails, swimbaits and shallow-running crankbaits around weeds and rocks, as well as over deep water. The only time I will change to a deep-diving crankbait is when fishing for suspending muskies and my electronics show the ciscoes are staying in the 10- to 15-foot range. Even then I’ll use twitches and pauses to keep the crankbait in the 5- to 10-foot zone.


Because a dark muskie back is almost impossible to see in darkening water, a wide figure-eight after every cast is crucial to success. You should be doing this all day every day anyway, but it may be difficult for someone to buy in until they experience a boatside strike from an unseen fish.


Also, last light is the best time to return to a muskie that followed earlier. Again, this isn’t a time to worry about the why. Just know that if you want to catch a fish that followed you have to go back and try again.


The next time you’re dog tired and sunburned from a day of muskie fishing and the lure of dinner and a cold one is strong, stick it out just a little longer and take advantage of the last light.

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