Dead, Flat Calm
|By Jim Bortz, Field Editor
|The intensity of the August sun begins to fade as it nears the western horizon and colors of orange and purple bleed across the cloudless sky. While the heat reduction is a welcomed change, the humidity feels like a weight on my chest and the still air sticks to my sunburned skin.
The distant hum of a small outboard motor creeps into my consciousness as I deliberately make my way around the shallow, weed-covered point. All sounds seem to be amplified by the unruffled surface of the water. The occasional bluegill slashing at a caddis fly trumps the whir of my electric motor. The gurgling plops of my surface bait almost seem too much as it leaves a noticeable trail of bubbles on the otherwise motionless water. I consider switching to something a bit more subtle, but then I hear the water erupt.
My lure continues to track unmolested toward the boat and for a moment I’m confused, but then I hear it again and realize the commotion is behind me. The sounds are distinctive. Not the typical noise of a breeching carp, but the violent slashing spray of a large fish feeding near the surface and I nearly wrench my back twisting to look.
This is a familiar scenario and I know immediately what to do. Before my lure is even back to the boat, I abandon the point I am fishing in an attempt to take advantage of the situation. The trolling motor is on “high” and pulling my boat toward the fading rings caused by the disturbance some 75 yards away from the weed line.
I’m within casting distance just as the last ripples fade and fire my Turbo Jack as far as I can in that direction. When it hits the water, I rip it across the surface sending a mist of water five feet in the air. Then I rip it again, pausing briefly and then retrieving it to the boat. I make my next cast 20 feet or so to the right and repeat the action. Rip… Rip… Retrieve. But this time the lure disappears in an angry swirl. More out of reflex than conscious thought, I set and feel the solid connection.
The musky immediately leaps clear of the water, crashing sideways back to the surface. Then instantly is out of the water again – head shaking and gills flared in one of those spectacular displays that, when viewed on the slow-motion replay of memory, keep me awake at night.
So much has been written lately about the affects of wind on muskies, one might begin to think it’s next to impossible to find and catch fish without it. While wind can be an important factor in predicting the location of feeding muskies, a case can be made for avoiding places with names like “Hurricane Point” and “Whitecap Bay” when the gales are whipping the water to a froth.
Truth be told, I hate the wind. It makes my life miserable. It sucks the life out of me almost as fast as it does my trolling motor batteries. Once the wind hits 20mph, I’m done. I start looking for protected water. My hat is off to the guys who can keep pounding away while the whitecaps are rolling over the bow and the trolling motor is spending as much time out of the water as in. In conditions like that, I have a hard enough time just staying upright, let alone fishing effectively.
But what can I guy do when the biggest waves on the lake are the ones created by stepping off the dock and into the boat? There are some significant challenges to overcome on those days when the lake looks like a mirror. So let’s take a look at some things to consider on those dead flat days.
The biggest disadvantage to overcome while fishing in calm conditions is that muskies seem to be much more aware of their surroundings. Excessive boat noise is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make consistently while musky fishing. I’ve heard it said that muskies are so aggressive and/or unafraid that boat noise actually attracts them and may trigger them to strike. While stories of your Papa Joe smacking his boat paddle on the water to call up an otherwise snoozing musky make for wonderful campfire chatter, it’s not something I’d recommend if you’re serious about consistently putting big toothy critters in the boat – especially on water that gets a fair amount of fishing pressure.
Having a quiet boat will help put the odds in your favor. Now you may ask, what in the world makes a quiet boat? Well, if you’ve ever set foot in a boat with a completely carpeted interior, you start to understand. If that pedestal seat squeaks, for God’s sake, put some oil on it!
Of course, all the carpet and oil in the world won’t help if you’re just plain careless. Slamming the lids on your storage compartments, kicking your net out of the way, or just being generally heavy-hooved will send muskies bolting deep into cover or even completely off structure and into the surrounding depths. A little common sense goes a long way.
It’s a good idea on these dead flat days to shut your outboard down a good distance from the structure you plan to fish. Easing in with your trolling motor will and taking your time certainly helps.
A well maintained trolling motor can make a big difference too. If you’ve never had the prop off your electric, take it off and make sure there are no weeds, or anything else wrapped around the shaft. A single strand of milfoil trapped between the prop and the housing will create friction and vibration. This not only makes noise in the water, but puts an unnecessary strain on your batteries.
Just last season, I took the prop off a friend’s trolling motor and found about 100 feet of monofilament wound tightly around the shaft. It took about 20 minutes to untangle the mess and get it all cut off, but he was absolutely amazed at how much better it worked when I put it back together!
I fished with a fellow a few years ago who apparently had loose bolts on the trolling motor mount. Every time he changed speeds or directions, it sounded like someone was crushing walnuts against a flag pole! Not only was it annoying, but I have a feeling the fish didn’t find that sound very appealing. We never had a follow the entire afternoon.
On a related note, take a bit of care when easing your trolling motor into the water. Just dropping it over the side of the boat and slamming it into the locked position is just one more thing to put muskies on the alert. Again, just use a little common sense.
By midsummer, many weedbeds have reached the surface and are visible to the observant angler. Tips of cabbage or milfoil appear like tiny black specs and offer a visual target for a well-aimed lure.
When approaching the structure or cover you plan to fish, consider holding your boat an extra 15 or 20 feet out. This forces you to make considerably longer casts, but the lack of wind will help your accuracy and allow you to reach long range targets without backlashing your reel. Not only does it lessen the chance of spooking fish with your boat, it gives following fish more time to commit before you execute a figure-8. Also, long-bombing several casts out the “wrong” side of the boat and away from the structure is never a bad idea. Muskies will often cruise a considerable distance off structure and over flats or open water in calm conditions. It can be hard to make yourself do it at times, but on some days this approach outperforms the conventional method of casting toward the structure.
It only takes one long-distance hookset to realize the importance of having a low stretch fishing line. If you’re still fishing with Dacron or monofilament on your reels, you’re needlessly dumping fish that should make it to your net. Take the time to spool up with one of the new superbraids (80 or 100 pound test) and you’ll not only put more fish in your boat, you’ll have far fewer headaches throughout the season.
It’s also important to note that your figure-8 be nearly flawless when the lake is smooth. You will notice that you can see into the water and make shapes out much easier, but the same is true from under the water’s surface. It’s not uncommon for a musky to turn and head back into the cover before you ever get a look, leaving nothing but a rolling boil some distance behind your lure. A following musky is much more aware of your movement in the boat, so keep it to a minimum. Keep your arms in tight to your body and try not to lunge forward when you spot the fish. Move your rod with your hands and forearms while keeping the lure movements as smooth as possible. A 7 1/2- or 8-foot rod really helps in this situation.
Finally, consider downsizing your lures if you aren’t moving fish. Subtlety and musky fishing are rarely topics of the same conversation, but when the lake is reflecting the far shoreline like a glass tabletop, they go hand in hand. It’s not that the muskies won’t hit big lures, because they will. But when faced with these conditions, the sudden nearby splashdown of a 9-ounce, hook-laden projectile is as likely to spook muskies as attract them. A more subtle approach may be in order.
While a constant strong wind will concentrate active muskies in specific areas, there are plenty of cover and structure scenarios that will hold muskies — wind or not. The fish may be spread out over a much larger area without the benefit of a steady breeze, but they are by no means uncatchable. Learning to recognize and take advantage of these situations has provided me some of my most memorable days on the water. It’s important to be observant and take advantage of situations as they arise. Approach each day on the water with open eyes, as well as an open mind.
Musky Hunter Field Editor Jim Bortz lives in Stoneboro, Pennsylvania.