By Steve Heiting
Waves pushed by a southwest wind pounded the shallow sand flat as I positioned the boat so the baits would splash down along the breakline. Sunset was an hour away, but despite what I considered great conditions for muskie fishing, my partners and I had yet to have any action.
After we finished working the spot, I stowed the trolling motor and started the outboard. But as the boat eased deeper, I spotted the image of a muskie on the side-imaging function of my electronics, holding about a third of the way beneath the surface in 18 feet of water. I marked its location with a waypoint and deployed the trolling motor, but the muskie didn’t show despite repeated casts. We moved on with the intent of returning at dark.
We motored to a deep slot about a quarter-mile away. As the boat slowed I saw another muskie via side imaging. I spun the boat upwind of the fish while marking its position with a waypoint. Within five casts this fish was in the net, photographed and released.
An hour later, I slid the boat near the breakline where the first muskie had been scanned. Twenty casts later the fish had not made an appearance, so I moved the boat about 50 feet down the breakline in case it had moved. On my next cast to the breakline, my rod was rocked by a solid strike. The muskie didn’t jump, but the rod tip bounced with strong headshakes as it bulldogged toward the boat. Following a short bout of boatside give-and-take, my friend Jeremy swung the net. After photos, this fish, too, was released.
Modern electronics have literally made “spot-and-stalk” muskie hunting possible. I’ve said before that nothing can hide from side imaging, and the newest generations of this feature provide so much detail that muskies can often be “seen” even if they don’t follow. Muskies being muskies, many times they didn’t bite when we later returned to fish that were seen on electronics. Many times last season, side imaging showed muskies that didn’t respond to our baits until we returned to catch them later during more favorable conditions.
I’ve been using electronics equipped with side imaging since the technology became available around 15 years ago. I was able to spot fish cribs, logs, weeds and rock piles, and even the occasional sunken boat. All hold fish and immediately the electronics made me a more efficient angler. One day while fishing for spawning walleyes on the opener during a spring when ice-out occurred just days prior, I was amazed when I could quickly relocate schools of spawning walleyes as they moved – the walleyes appeared as a cluster of small, teardrop shapes. When I saw my first muskie with side imaging while scanning a sandy bay that summer, I couldn’t believe I could make out each of the fish’s fins.
Now, several generations of side imaging later, some interpretation of the images it produces remains necessary. However, in many cases there is no doubt of what you’re viewing, especially with as large of a target as a muskie. Some anglers have even been able to recognize individual fish a day or two after they caught them because they could see the fish’s unusually-shaped or scarred fins.
If you’re new to side imaging, do yourself a favor and take the time to first scan your favorite spots on your favorite waters before fishing. You’ll see the spots’ exact layout, when in the past you could only imagine what was there. Use waypoints to mark unique features.
Start scanning with the range set around 50 feet. Less range always means more detail, which will help you learn to interpret what you’re seeing. As you become accustomed to side imaging, you may wish to set your range at about a cast length from the boat, say 80 to 90 feet. Generally, when fishing shallow water you’ll want to scan a lower range to see more detail, and when fishing deeper water you can scan a greater range.
There are no “perfect” settings for side imaging sensitivity, contrast or sharpness. Plankton, suspended sediment, algae and wind all have an effect on how electronics will read. For this reason some anglers adjust their settings every day until they find what looks best. Since side imaging is derived from a sonar beam, the best images will be produced at roughly 3 to 5 mph.
Muskies easily stand out in areas with little or no structure nearby, such as when they are suspended in open water, or are holding over sand. Muskies in thin weeds can be readily seen, but if they’re buried in the weeds or lying in rocks it will be more difficult to pick them out. Mark any muskies you see with waypoints so you can return to them later if they don’t react to initial offerings. Hence the term “spot-and-stalk.”
How much time you choose to spend looking at your screen is up to you. I run a view containing side imaging continuously when fishing for suspended muskies, but only check it when I am otherwise checking the depth or looking for baitfish. Some guides have been known to watch it continuously in the hope of spotting muskies for their clients.
Does side-imaging offer an unfair advantage to anglers who use it? Perhaps, but even if you know of a muskie’s whereabouts, you still must make it bite. In that regard, the muskie remains in complete control.