I desperately want to become a better musky fisherman. While all the amazing trout fishing of the intermountain west often distracts me, I made dedicated attempts at catching musky during the past three years. After several mostly unsuccessful attempts at tiger musky this summer, I realized that I am a pretty terrible musky fisherman. I devised a plan while driving home from yet another empty effort. I would trick my friend and musky guide/expert, Weston Thier, in to giving me all his musky secrets under the guise of writing an interview for the Fishwest Blog. My plot was successful, and Weston spilled many of his secrets! Below, I share these secrets in a follow-up to the musky article I wrote earlier this year Of course, even better than Weston’s written insight is a day on the water with him. Scroll to the bottom of this article to find out how to fish with Weston for musky in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Chad: Describe your strategy regarding fly selection. How does your fly selection change as the year progresses? How do you adjust the size of your fly throughout the year? Under what conditions do you consider using topwater flies? Do certain conditions dictate the use of a particular color?
Weston: Selecting musky flies to use on a day’s float is funny business. Given the wide array of critters that comprise a musky’s diet, there is rarely a wrong answer to the question: “which fly should I use?” That being said, I follow a few general guidelines. There is a belief in the musky fly fishing world that small flies work better in the spring/early summer when young baitfish are prevalent. I don’t necessarily find this to be the case, and I fish plenty of large musky flies early in the year. I find myself fishing larger flies any time there is a lot of water in a river system. Oftentimes, this means spring and fall in Wisconsin. As the water warms in the summer, I typically shoot for slightly smaller fly patterns to use on the rivers. Some of my favorite days have come in July when the whole food chain is activated (i.e. smallies, pike, etc.) and I’ll fish a 4-8” long streamer, with good shots at catching the entire gamut of species, including large muskies.
I generally use the traditional brightly-colored patterns (i.e. orange, chartreuse, fire tiger, bright pink) in dark, tannin-stained waters. I err toward more natural colors such as tans, greys, and light pink on clear water systems. Black is my favorite color in dirty, silted water. This is far from a scientific application, as muskies are much less discerning of realistic imitation than trout and smallmouth. As such, I often make exceptions to the above color guidelines. What we’re really trying to do is catch the muskies’ attention and trigger a hyper-predatory response. Experimenting with color combos and finding your own confidence colors is key.
Musky exhibit a documented appetite for baby mergansers, chipmunks, and other large prey. Ergo, targeting muskies with large topwater flies is an exciting and effective way to fish. I give topwater fishing a shot almost any day of the year. Reach for the popper rod when hen you begin to see baby ducks skittering around behind their mothers in June. Similarly, midsummer is a good time to fish on top due to the prevalence of frogs and wounded baitfish. I generally fish less topwater in the fall, but I have seen muskies eat poppers during late autumn, so I never leave the landing without a few floating flies.
Chad: Interestingly, your advice regarding color and size rang true for me while chasing tiger musky earlier this spring. During high, clear water conditions on a reservoir in Utah, I had by far the most action on your pink/white Swim Jimmy (a fairly large pattern).
Catching fish on my own personally-tied patterns is one of the next steps I’d like to take on my musky-fishing journey. I can’t imagine many better experiences in fly fishing than catching a 40”+ fish on my own streamer. Your flies are amazing, and clearly they catch fish. Describe the most important features of a good musky fly. What are your primary concerns when you sit down to tie one?
Weston: Profile and movement. Those are my two greatest concerns when sitting down at the vise to twist up a new musky fly. I want every one of my flies to turn on its side in dramatic fashion after a good strip-pause sequence. “Walking the dog” is a common expression for this type of motion, and it is what I find most effective in triggering muskies’ predatory response. At the vise, it can be achieved by reverse tying bucktail in a taper imitating a fish’s body. I often finish my flies with bulkheads tied of spun bucktail, but on articulated flies I tend to prefer epoxy or traditional thread heads, as the articulations themselves usually provide the necessary effect sans bulkhead. Watch how your flies swim in the water with a variety of different retrieve styles. Sometimes it takes a bit of experimentation to really feel how to most effectively fish a particular pattern.
Chad: Now that we have a better understanding of fly selection, I would like to move on to discussing various conditions and how they affect the odds of sticking a musky. Would you be willing to elaborate on any particular set of conditions you look for when considering the timing of your efforts to catch a musky?
Weston: Countless factors that have the potential to affect muskies’ activity level. That said, here are a few of my favorite conditions in Northern Wisconsin.
- Flush water levels. When there is a lot of water in a river system, the fish will use it. As forage fish push up into the edges of the river, so do the muskies. Also, riverside features such as boulders and rocks become cover, meaning sections of water that are relatively barren during low water can be good fish-holding lies.
- Tannic or stained water. Clear water is hard to fish. It gives a tough fish even more excuses to examine and spurn our offerings. Some stain or tannins in the water will allow the fish to feel more comfortable and give us a bit more of a buffer when trying to convince them to eat our flies.
- Water Temperature. In the spring and early summer, look for activity to steadily climb as water temps rise into the 60s and 70s for the first time of the year. The food chain is being activated across the board and muskies rarely miss the memo. Similarly, in combination with the diminishing daylight, dropping water temperatures signal the beginning of fall/winter and muskies have a propensity to “put on the feed bag.” Side Note: if water temps exceed 80 degrees during midsummer, crack a beer and give the fish a rest. This is essentially the equivalent of catching a trout in plus 70 degree water temps, and fish mortality post-release goes way up during this time.
Chad: Let’s move on to a topic that I find more mysterious and vexing than any of those other factors: moon phases. Do you consider moon phases when chasing musky? Full moon? New moon? Is it all just a bunch of voodoo? I have caught most of my musky on the full moon and I admit that I am starting to think there is something to it…
Weston: I have a two-fold answer to these questions. Yes, pay attention to the phase of the moon, but don’t treat an “unfavorable moon” as a limiting factor. I believe that muskies are more active during the full and new moons. As with their mammalian counterparts, fish can feel lunar extremes, so I do pay attention and anticipate these events. I also note the rising and setting of the moon throughout a day. There are numerous phone applications and websites that make this info readily available, and it is worthy to note that if the fish need a little extra incentive to get moving, they sometimes choose these daily lunar occurrences to do so. Does that mean you should fish only half as hard until it’s time for the moonset? Of course not. But consider eating lunch a good hour or so before a fishable moonrise/moonset, and use the heightened confidence to your advantage.
Chad: What common mistakes do you see novice musky anglers make when you take them out?
Weston: Novice musky fishermen frequently lack thoroughness when approaching a piece of water. I always tell clients that the best musky fisherman are simply ultra-diligent, focused, and stubborn. Don’t take your eyes off of your fly before finishing a cast. You must be present during each and every retrieve until the fly is completely out of the water. Watch the fly, and multiple feet behind the fly, all the way into the boat (or your feet), even as the fly is leaving the water. A novice musky angler may get lucky on their first day out. However, if you want to have good shots throughout the year, focus on the entirety of the retrieve is a must.
Chad: This is a great point, and I have personally seen musky missed at the boat due to a brief lapse in focus. The tendency of musky to follow a fly all the way to the boat is one of the features that makes them such an exciting quarry. What strategies do you use to get these following musky to actually eat?
Weston: There are numerous tricks you can employ to get a following musky to commit. I always keep my retrieve moving as it gets near the boat with a musky in tow. Some folks like to give an extra hard strip at this point with a focus on the pause, to see if the fish engulfs the fly prior to the figure 8. Everyone has their own style of going through a figure 8. Because musky often hit on the turn of the 8, I put special emphasis on that portion, making sure all the while to keep my fly as deep and far away from the boat as possible. If you can, avoid executing the 8 through a shadow. Avoid pausing the fly for more than a nanosecond. Generally speaking, keep the fly moving at a relatively constant speed, in a full circle or traditional 8 motion. This will mean you have a maximum of two feet of leader outside of your rod tip. As you make the turn, the change in direction is often what triggers the strike. And remember: you should be figure 8’ing on EVERY cast.
Chad: Do you find musky to be territorial? My friend caught the same trophy musky a second time, a year after he originally caught it. He caught it the second time within 100 feet of where it was originally caught. With some other apex predator fish, I find that they will inhabit the same spot for months or even years at a time. If you miss a big fish, will you go back to the same spot later that afternoon to see if its still there? Later that week? The next year?
Weston: Muskies are territorial by nature. I have seen many fish hang in the relative same area of river or lake throughout a season, sometimes for several seasons. This seems to be especially true of the larger, older fish. If I miss a fish in the morning, I usually let it rest for at least a day, or better yet a few. But I make a mental note as to where exactly that fish was, because she probably won’t have gone far the next time I’m around. Will that same fish be there next year? That’s more of a crapshoot. Depending on conditions, sometimes muskies move large distances over time. However, by and large these are territorial critters and it is a good practice to remember where a large fish resided a year or two prior so as to target her in the future.
Chad: Do you have any thoughts on what makes the optimal rod for musky fly fishing?
Weston: I prefer a medium-fast to fast action fly rod, a 10 or 11 wt., with some backbone on the lower end. You’ll want the extra cajones when muscling in a large ‘ski, and it makes figure 8’ing more effective as well. All my custom rods have longer fighting butts to assist in the figure eight. Stay away from ultra-light and ultra-stiff fly rods. An effective all-day musky cast should be fluid and takes time to develop. An ultra-fast rod will be jerkier and thus puts unnecessary strain on the angler’s joints and ligaments throughout the day.
Chad: I agree on all accounts. A rod that can blast it out there without destroying your arm is key. I find my 10 weight Scott Meridian to be a perfect tool for the job, although there are many good options.
It is my belief that musky are the most underrated gamefish in all of fly fishing. When I was in Wisconsin, it blew my mind that I could float dozens of miles on rivers and see few if any other musky fishermen. And it’s not like we’re fishing for bluegill here… we are talking about aggressive predator bigger than any fish most fly fishermen have ever caught! In your opinion, what sets musky apart from other game fish?
Weston: Many people describe muskies in terms such as “ugly,” “vicious,” and “scary-looking.” I see them as the opposite. A mature, wild musky is one of the most strikingly beautiful and prehistoric creatures I’ve had the pleasure of coming into contact with. Every one of them is different in both visual characteristics and what they do in the water or on the end of your line. Watching a musky stalk, accelerate toward, and engulf a fly on a figure 8 is life-changing. They are truly unlike any other fish out there, and this uniqueness in appearance and behavior is what makes them special.
Chad: Describe the focus of your business in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. What is the best way to set up a musky adventure with you? What else should your potential client do to prepare for a trip to your neck of the woods?
Weston: Fontinalis Fly Fishing, the name of my guide service, specializes in not only muskies but also trout, steelhead, and bass. Generally, my fall is filled mostly with musky clientele, as we are located in the “Holy Water” of musky territory. A good number of my musky clients like to chase steelhead as well, so I do some multi-day split trips, giving anglers the chance to tick off multiple bucket-list species during the same trip. I ask all of my prospective anglers to educate themselves on the rigors and joys of musky fly fishing, and come ready for a fun grind! Above all, know that if you’re looking for the absolute pinnacle of streamer fishing, you have come to the right place. My website is fontinalisflyfishing.com, and inquiries about guided trips can be made there or e-mailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.