Find The Forage, Find The Muskies

Pete Maina and muskieBack when I was a muskie guide, I wish I’d have gotten a nickel for every time I was asked: “Are ya seein’ any muskies on the graph?” I can certainly understand why someone would ask. But let’s think about this ... and you’ll soon understand why my standard answer was always: “I’m looking for what they eat.”

Muskies, and all fish for that matter, spend much more time not eating than otherwise. Big predators spend even less time eating than smaller fishes (due mostly to their metabolism), since they rule the water when conditions are right and they’re in the mood – and can often finish their meal with a single large item or two, completing their job in a flash. Muskies are lucky when you think about it: Eating is the only job they have. Once they get big, that’s all they have to do – and once mid-size, they really don’t have to worry about the tables turning on them.

Like us, they like to “get their job done as quickly and easily as possible,” so they can lie around. In other words, muskies spend a lot of time not at all concerned about eating. Therefore, it’s not enough to simply locate muskies; we need to find muskies that are eating. The easiest way to do this is to locate what should be the easiest feeding scenario for them. In other words, find big numbers of what muskies eat. When they’re hungry, they go there via necessity ... with your electronics and naked eye, concentrate on ambush structure and the fish’s forage – not the fish itself, as much. 

Defining Forage

So what is muskie forage? Basically anything. A muskie will eat anything they can swallow, and they’ll push this limit at times; they will, however, dine on small stuff, too. This includes everything from perch, to suckers, to crawfish, to smaller muskies. Nothing is safe, really. While technically not thinking critters, muskies do learn through “trial and error” that some meals are easier to catch than others. Stomach content surveys on muskie reveal a wide array of items, but certain species make up the bulk of their nutrition.

This can change seasonally due to forage movements, but it seems that certain types make up the overall bulk. In northern Wisconsin waters, perch and sucker species lead the list, followed by panfish and minnow-species. It pays to know what type of forage is offering a high percentage success rate to the big predator. Knowledge of this aids anglers in location and the best probable presentations to trigger muskie. Bottom line: If it’s a body of water you plan to fish on a regular basis, learn the water’s prime forage species and their seasonal movements on that particular body of water.

The two things that make a forage desirable (i.e. easy to catch) are sheer numbers and mandatory movement. Any time you can find big numbers of forage, especially if they’re tightly grouped, it’s good news. If, for some reason, groups of forage are making predictable daily movements, muskies will definitely pick up on this and take advantage. A good example is spawning fish, which, depending on the species, may be occurring in spring or fall. For instance, cisco/tullibee make movements from deep to shallow nightly during their fall spawning run. A muskie cruising on the edge of a cisco’s spawning zone is in a real good spot to eat!

Putting It Together

Through a variety of sources available (including the local DNR office, local bait shops and local anglers), find out as much as possible about a water’s forage. Besides the obvious, also ask if any of the prime muskie forage types make significant movements at certain times of year; do they bunch-up for some reason at certain times? 

The rest simply comes with experience and time on the water, but you need to pay attention. Many people never really take that extra step (detailing forage) that can make all the difference in patterning muskies. Remember that muskies actually feed little, and consider that they often feed in spurts of activity triggered by weather -- and that such weather generally means the majority of muskie will be firing up during this period, knowing the “where” and “what type” for the forage base becomes even more important. A good angler is in a situation to get the maximum benefit from accelerated feeding periods.

Learn the movements and prime locations of forage by watching for forage in the shallows and viewing other anglers. Also do the best you possibly can in learning to read your electronics, to hopefully judge fish types and general size. Other anglers are generally no help in locating species like suckers and cisco, but they can sure be helpful in locating walleyes, bass and panfish. Note these locations and the respective season (especially as it relates to the water temp range). 

Most fish movements are pretty predictable; the same structures will attract the same species during certain time frames. This is why you see boats in certain areas year after year. Take note. Find out when all fish spawn and where. Prime locations for different forage bases to spawn will vary. Knowing where and being able to predict spawns is very important. Do your best to pin down forage movements.

Once you have a good understanding of the forage, using it is quite simple, really. Sheer numbers of forage draw the predator. Even though it may be a mixture of several different types, quantities of forage is a great find. Big groups of the same forage type, though, may offer more of an advantage. This would come in the form of lure selection and presentation thereof.

Choosing A Lure

“Matching the hatch” is often an issue while targeting any fish species. Like most tactics and theories in fishing, matching is somewhat overrated; there are times it just doesn’t matter. But, the heavier the numbers of the same species and the tighter they are grouped, the more matching the hatch becomes an issue. Good examples of this are schooling fish like perch and cisco. When targeting schools of these forage bases, mimicking the general size, shape and color of the forage will make all the difference at times. The only way is to know what the forage is.

The best percentage approach when fishing a certain forage is to mimic the forage itself, and place presentations at the same level or above, and on the “edges” of the fish (forage) zone. Consider that, almost always, the predator is on the fringe or edge of the highest concentrations of baitfish. If in the middle, the forage wouldn’t be there. By concentrating on the edges of the zone, presentations look like strays run amuck (easy meals). Generally, fish imitators with erratic retrieves are most successful.

What about spinners, jigs or surface lures? None really look anything like the actual fish muskies have arrived to feed on, but they will still work. Color matching may still be a factor, even though the actual forage looks nothing like the lure-type. Again, there are no absolutes in muskie fishing, but it’s a high percentage starting point to match colors. The key to always remember is that forage is what will attract “feeding” muskies … from there – they’re just going to adapt to fill their bellies.

Where To Find Forage, Through The Seasons

Finding ForageFinding forage works. Following are some general rules that should help you quicken the learning process of knowing the seasonal movements of your main forage bases. During the spring season, expect to be thinking shallow -- not always the shallowest water in the lake, though. Many prime forage species spawn in the spring, including sucker. Know when according to water temp (locals or fisheries personnel), and locate prime areas. Suckers will spawn in harder-bottom areas where available; sand is preferred over rock, though.

Panfish prefer a siltier bottom, but preferably with sandy underlining. Generally, any silty to mucky bottom bay will produce early vegetation growth and will be a hotspot for a variety of spawners, including minnow species. Look for northern pike to spawn first, followed by walleye and the rest of the species previously mentioned. Of course, walleye prefer hard-bottom, gravel areas for spawning, and while they may not be preferred forage year-round, when they bunch up, they are. 

Muskie generally spawn after walleyes, with water temps in the low to mid fifties. Prime new weed growth in spawning zones will be holding new hatchlings and other critters there to eat them. 

Open water fish may be bunched up, too. This is one of the most underrated early season patterns. Understand that open water forage fish will be suspending high at this time of year, since they choose to enjoy the warmer water of the upper column warmed by the sun. Always keep in mind that fish that are used to living in deeper water will return there soon after spawning.        

The majority of the forage is smaller at this time of year. The smaller stuff also tends to be a little uneducated in the ways of predation, and also school more tightly. This makes the smaller forage a higher percentage game for the muskies, and why smaller presentations often work the best for early season muskies.  

Summer provides a mixed bag, really. Fish are scattered all over at this time. Vegetation is always good, but everything from the shallowest heavy cover to wide open water will offer feeding opportunities. Summer is a fairly long period of little change (mid June to late August).

This is a time to pattern forage types on individual waters and realize that their locations will remain fairly consistent. Fish around them. Realize that even though fish will be seen all over in open water, that muskies cannot go below the thermocline because oxygen levels are too low. Don’t bother fishing in the lower water column in main lake.

Late fall is a more predictable time in forage location. This, coupled with the fact that female muskies are fueling up to handle the winter, is the reason late fall is the ultimate time for trophy production. Certainly one thing to watch for is fall spawners like cisco; wherever these baitfish are present, be confident that big muskies will be following their fall spawning run. They like shallow, sandy, gravelly areas with immediate access to deep water for spawning.

In general, all forage will be hanging deeper. Deep breaklines and hard-to-soft bottom transitions become key areas for concentrating forage. Big, shoreline-related structures will hold the bulk of the fish. There seems to be movement to shoreline areas and nearby bars. Wide open water offers the lowest odds, while smaller main lake structures tend to lose their appeal, too.

Muskies seem to really be tuned in to the larger forage at this time. After a full summer growing season, many species that were minnow-sized in the spring are now substantially larger. So, the overall size range of forage is bigger. Muskies concentrate a lot on sucker species late in the season. In many deeper-lake situations, these fish were unavailable to them during the summer since they were living below the thermocline. These, too, are big targets.

Most forage will be tighter to structure and to the bottom at this time of the season. They may not show up well on electronics when really sitting tight. Knowledge of probable locations is key. Generally, larger baits are better overall than at any other time of the year. Expect shallower movements on warming days, especially with sunlight.

Finding high concentrations of forage is “always” the biggest factor in locating feeding predators. The higher the concentrations, the better your odds … keeping this simple fact in mind will mean more boated muskies.  

by Pete Maina

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