A Pennsylvania Musky Fishing Seminar
by Darl Black
photos by the author
MUSKY! No other fish swimming in the waters of the Commonwealth causes so much excitement among anglers. Seeking trophy-sized muskellunge requires solid information about tackle, tactics, and fish location. The best place to get the lowdown on this topic is directly from anglers who specialize in these big fish, so I questioned four expert musky anglers who spend much of their time on Pennsylvania's lakes, impoundments, and rivers in quest of the largest member of the Esocids.
Of course, asking a group of experts does not mean each one always agrees with the others. Experience has been their teacher, and each has developed his own approach or response to a set of circumstances, sometimes in agreement with others, sometimes different. But their answers are based on success. So if success is what you seek, listen to these experts reveal their secrets.
Denny Barrett has been musky fishing for 13 years and averages 35 to 50 legal muskies a year. His largest 'lunge to date was a 47-incher, weighing 26 pounds. Denny focuses on northwestern Pennsylvania waters. The best day he ever experienced was the boating of six legal muskies in just four hours of fishing.
Frank Brown is founder of the Muskellunge Association of North America. He has chased muskies for about 10 years, taking from 10 to 40 legal fish per year. He lays claim to a 39-pounder caught in 1983 as his largest Pennsylvania 'lunge. Frank knows the southeast and southcentral waters of the state best.
Frank Esposito has pursued muskies for six years on the lakes and rivers of northwestern Pennsylvania. He averages 10 legal fish per season, with a 20-pound, 40-inch musky his largest to date.
Bob Tomasko is a full-time fishing guide and angling instructor. During the past eight years of Pennsylvania musky fishing, his biggest 'lunge has been a 27-pound, 46-inch fish. Bob averages about 20 legal fish per year, with another 20 fish credited to his clients. He fishes throughout the western portion of the state.
Describe your favorite type of Pennsylvania water for trophy muskies. Provide some detail as to depth, type of structure/cover, water color, and forage base.
Brown: I survey a lake to find the most productive areas in a short period. If muskies have been present in a lake for more than 10 years, there will be a trophy fish in each of them. My 39-pounder came from a 33-acre lake.
Tomasko: I like fishing for big muskies on reservoirs and natural lakes. My favorite water is a shallow reservoir. There is very little cover in this water. The important structures are the mid-lake humps that crest in about 6 feet of water. The maximum depth I fish for muskies on this water is about 6 feet; usually I'll be running my lures about 4 feet. The water clarity is very poor, maybe 12 inches of visibility during the summer. Gizzard shad are the major forage of these fish.
Esposito: I don't get too excited, even though I know that's what it's all about. I guess a trophy musky in the northeast (now I'm talking 50 inches plus) is going to come from the Susquehanna River.
Barrett: To catch trophy muskies, I prefer to fish reservoirs. Typically these reservoirs have rock ledges and stump areas on their dropoffs. These impoundments feature very limited weed growth and clear water. They sustain a mixture of fish, including trout, as well as baitfish like gizzard shad.
The other type of reservoir I fish for big muskies is known as a lowland reservoir. This type of waterway is noted for shallow water, limited structure changes, large flat areas, and an abundance of weed growth. The maximum depth in this type of lake is around 40 feet, with 15 to 20-foot depths very common. These waters are usually stained in appearance. Due to the shallow depth, rough fish like carp, suckers, and gizzard shad abound. These rough fish make an excellent food source for the muskies.
The average weight of muskies from both types of reservoirs tends to be heavier than fish from any other water.
How do you go about landing a musky that you intend to release?
Barrett: To release a musky, make sure you play the fish properly. A "green" musky with hooks sticking out of the mouth is a dangerous critter. Only if the fish is a trophy, over 50 inches or 30 pounds, do I net it. When the musky fins calmly beside your boat and doesn't attempt to run anymore, you can safely remove the hooks. If alone, loosen the drag on your reel and lay the rod down with the tip over the edge of the boat. Firmly grasp the musky over the back, behind the gill plates, with one hand. Do not grab the fish by the eyes or in the gills. This harms the fish! With the free hand, use 8-inch needle-nose pliers to remove the hooks. If necessary, to avoid further damage to a deeply hooked musky, use side cutters to cut the hook shank as close to the mouth as possible. Release the fish and it will swim away. During warm weather it may be necessary to take the musky by the tail and gently push and pull it along in the water to revive it.
Brown: The first thing I do is remove the manufacturer's hooks from each new plug and replace them with bronze treble hooks in sizes 2/0 to 7/0. All barbs are ground off. If a hook is difficult to remove, or if there are too many hooks in the fish, I simply cut all hooks with wire cutters. With few exceptions, I never put a hand on the fish.
Esposito: First make sure the musky is played out properly. Then without taking the fish out of the water, tail him. This is done by grabbing the narrow part of his tail. Then with long-nosed pliers, either you or your partner can gently remove the hooks. If you can't get them out, cut them. As far as nets go, when it comes to catch-and-release fishing, they are bad news. Muskies thrash around a lot when you net them and do themselves a whole lot of damage. So if you don't have to, do not use a net, and never use a gaff.
Tomasko: When the musky is tired out, lying on top of the water, I simply reach down with long-nose pliers and quickly twist the hook out. You never handle the fish in this manner.
In some cases, it is necessary to pick the fish up to remove the hook. This is accomplished by grabbing the fish with one hand across the back, 2 to 3 inches behind the gill cover. If you have large hands, you probably can handle fish up to 18 pounds this way. You must hold tightly to prevent the fish from slipping the grip. Be sure to keep your hands away from the gills and gill covers.
I always try to release my fish in shallow water, the shallower the better. If you release the fish over deep water, they instinctively dive toward the bottom. I don't feel this is the best situation because a pressure change may give the fish the bends. However, in shallow water, the musky will sit there until it has recovered enough to move out to its desired depth on its own power.
I never use a net unless the fish is hooked badly in the throat or if I intend to mount it.
I know all of you use a boat for musky fishing. What are your recommendations with regard to a boat, and what do you equip it with?
Barrett: If you're only fishing lakes in Pennsylvania, a 14-foot or 16-foot boat is adequate. Motors can range from 9.9 to 35 horsepower. If you're fishing only rivers and streams, you can get by with a small boat. The only electronic gear that is necessary is a good depth finder and an electric trolling motor.
Brown: A boat provides the greatest advantage to your fishing. Because most lakes I fish in Pennsylvania are limited to electric motors, I like a light boat that is easily propelled. Of course, you never stand in a boat that's not meant for it. I use electric motors, in bow and stern, with an 18- to 41-pound thrust range. The graph recorder, temperature meter, and pH indicator are also standard equipment. I also use a 9.9 outboard where gas motors are permitted.
Esposito: I prefer using a boat and think one is necessary. I use one of two crafts for my musky fishing, depending on the type of access and size of the water.
For the Susquehanna River, I use a 14-foot John boat with a 10-horsepower out board and a remote-controlled electric motor with 31 pounds of thrust.
For lakes like Wallenpaupack I use a 16-foot aluminum boat with a 70-horsepower motor and remote-controlled electric motor. This boat has a depth finder. I definitely lean toward a larger craft with built-in decks, and remote-controlled electric trolling motors in order to keep both hands free.
Tomasko: Fishing from a boat is almost a necessity. I recommend a boat with a minimum length of 16 feet, "V" or semivee hull, in either aluminum or fiberglass. You should only have a maximum of 35 horsepower so that the boat idles slowly enough for trolling. I could not fish without a graph recorder and flasher, and for maneuvering the boat for casting, an electric motor is needed. I prefer to have my electric motor mounted on the transom of the boat. Several of Pennsylvania's best musky lakes have a 10-horsepower limit, so if you have only one outboard, make it a 9.9 horse.
Live bait versus artificial lures for muskies—what is your opinion?
Barrett: I use both live bait and artificial lures for muskies. They both have a time and place. Live bait generally produces better in the colder waters of spring and again in late fall and winter. Chubs and suckers in the 6- to 8-inch size have been most productive for me.
Brown: I rarely use live bait, except through the ice. I trigger the musky's striking instincts by thrashing a lure through the water at high speeds. You can't do that with a live baitfish.
Tomasko: When it comes to choosing between artificial lutes and live bait, artificials win hands down. You can't speed-troll a live sucker. Artificials provide the opportunity for controlled depth and speed presentation.
Describe your preferred tackle, including rod, reel, line, and leaders.
Esposito: I've been using a 6-foot rod, a baitcasting reel and 20-pound-test monofilament for the past two years. 1 prefer not to use a leader because it takes some of the action away from the lure.
Barrett: I use two types of outfits for my musky fishing. The outfit I use for 95 percent of my trolling and plugging consists of a stiff graphite baitcasting rod, teamed up with a quality casting reel. As for line, I use Teflon-coated braided dacron in 30-pound test. I make my own leaders out of 85-pound-test single-strand wire, and I use ball bearing swivels and snaps.
The other type of outfit I use consists of a 6-foot, stiff-action graphite spinning rod and a spinning reel filled with 17-pound-test monofilament line. Again, I use my own custom-made wire leaders, and I drop to 27 pound-test wire. This outfit is used for jigging and live bait fishing.
Tomasko: There are two outfits that one must consider when talking about musky rods and reels. An angler should have a casting outfit and a trolling outfit. Each outfit has different characteristics.
For all-around casting I prefer a spinning outfit. My favorite is a 6-foot graphite, medium-heavy power, with a spinning reel. My line is clear in 12-pound^test. My leaders are hand-made, single-strand wire with a barrel swivel on one end and a Cross-Lok snap on the other end.
For trolling I do not think you need an expensive outfit. I use an inexpensive heavy action solid fiberglass rod that's 51A feet long. I couple it with a level-wind trolling reel and 14- or 17-pound-test line. The leaders I use for trolling are the same as those for casting.
If you plan to do some jerk-bait fishing, neither of the above rods does the job. For this I go to a casting reel and a long-handled popping rod, 14-pound-test clear line, and the leaders as described previously.
Brown: To control the action of the lure and get the musky excited, you need a short, stiff graphite, two-handed casting rod about 5 feet, 8 inches long. The Lew Childre SG6X-159, Loomis GMUR-587, and the Fenwick E59-PXH are excellent choices for thrashing those heavy plugs and jerk baits. A rod in a 6-foot, 2-inch length would be good for bucktails and spinners.
For reels, we use a high-speed, wide-spool casting model such as Childre BB2C, Shimano Mag 50, and Garcia 6500 or 7000 series. The line is 25-pound test. I tie a Palomar knot to connect the line to the leader. I recommend 25-pound-test line exclusively for the beginner. I've seen and heard of too many fish breaking loose, for one reason or another, with hooks and lures embedded in their mouths. After one has learned some refined techniques and has a little experience, he can drop down in line test, but it still reduces his chances of landing fish and endangers the fish.
For leaders I prefer a 12-inch single-strand bronze wire and Cross Lok snaps; ball-bearing swivels are used with spinning-type lures; barrel swivels can be used for straight-running plugs. I also carry seven-stranded bronze wire in 30- to 60-pound test and an assortment of snaps and swivels for on-the-job creations. For trolling I use 30- to 60-inch wire.
What are your ideas on trolling versus casting for muskies?
Esposito: How you take a trophy depends on your personal preference; I favor artificials and casting. I spend about 70 percent of my time casting and around 30 percent trolling. I have a problem with trolling; it tends to put me to sleep.
Barrett: I troll and cast for muskies because both methods are productive. Usually, trolling is done on reservoirs or large lakes with a lot of water to cover. Casting is usually done on rivers and lakes with heavy weed growth.
Brown: Both trolling and casting have their places. A feeding musky, in the early morning and late evening, positions itself in and around shallow water weedbeds. Here, casting a jerk bait, shallow-running plug, or top water lure would do the job. When the fish move deeper, we troll in the 18- to 25-foot depths.
Tomasko: Whatever it takes! And I'm not being smart about it. Each has its place depending on the situation. Stop in the local tackle shop and ask how the muskies are being caught on the particular water. For example, Pymatuning is a better trolling lake because of the little cover, expanses of relatively flat terrain, and dark water. Then look at Conneaut Lake; the thick vegetation makes it impossible to troll tight to the weed beds. Conneaut is a better casting lake.
Under what combination of water/weather conditions do you expect numbers of large muskies to be actively prowling?
Tomasko: In the early summer, during the first stretch of hot, muggy days and humid nights, well see all heck break loose with muskies on a feeding spree. This activity lasts a day or a week, until the first cold front moves into the area to change this condition.
Barrett: Most trophy muskies are taken in the months of July, August, and September. Generally stable, hot, muggy, humid weather turns the big fish on. Don't be misled, however; large muskies are caught every month of the year.
Esposito: I don't start concentrated musky fishing until about November, and then I fish hard until everything is frozen. The bigger muskies, which are females, are caught in late fall or winter. I wouldn't be surprised if a trophy came from 3 to 4 feet of water near a dropoff into at least 20 feet. In a river, the fish can be found in an eddy or at the mouth of a feeder stream; take your pick. The water will be somewhat murky and the weather conditions will be the type that makes ducks put on rain gear—windswept, rainy, overcast, and cold, with an active barometer.
Brown: A widely accepted angling philosophy applied to the movement of fish seems to be a certain combination of water conditions, temperature, weather, barometer, oxygen, pH, etc., to predict when fish will be active. All these conditions have a bearing on fish activity, but the main factor for musky movement is the amount of sunlight penetration in the water. Second in importance is water temperature, followed by oxygen, pH, and then the ] proverbial "cold front." I think clear skies and intensified sunlight penetration \drives muskies deep. Cloud cover and choppy water reduce the sunlight penetration, and the fish move about freely. In other words, conditions associated with high pressure have a negative effect on fishing; conditions associated with low pressure and approaching rain tend to make muskies more active.
Water temperature is also extremely important. The musky prefers a temperature range of 65 to 75 degrees. Above 75 degrees the musky goes deep and actively feeds only in the shallows after the water temperature cools.
One idea you can rely on is that the musky's resting area is close to its feeding grounds where a temperature as close to 70 degrees, a pH of 7 to 7.8, and an oxygen count of 4ppm is found below the limits of sunlight penetration.
Explain to Pennsylvania Angler readers one of your most successful tactics for taking muskies.
Barrett: My favorite, most successful method for taking muskies is casting jerk baits in natural lakes or impoundments with heavy weed growth. This tactic can be used from the first day of the season right up until the lake turns over in the fall.
As the name implies, you must jerk the oversized floating lure to impart action. Jerking causes the bait to dive and then struggle toward the surface like an injured baitfish. This is why a stiff graphite rod and 30-pound dacron line is used. There is very little stretch to dacron, which ensures a good hook set. I fish jerk baits over, around on the edges, and through weedbeds. This is shallow water fishing with depths not over 15 feet, and averages of only 5 to 10 feet. A bonus with this method is being able to see a lot of your fish strike the lure. A pair of polarized sunglasses greatly improves your vision and aids in spotting muskies following your lure.
Tomasko: One of my most productive techniques is speed trolling. This method is effective from July to late August. I search sunken islands and mid-lake humps with little weed cover. My speed is about 14-throttle on a 10-horse motor. Actually, the critical thing is to go fast enough to make the lure work properly. The baits I choose are the Creek Chub 6500 series and the large Swim Whizz, both in a perch finish. These plugs run about 4 feet deep. With the Swim Whizz, be sure to connect the leader to the lower eye.
While trolling, I run the graph over the humps and breaklines, watching for fish. The size and shape of the arc indicates if what I am marking may be a musky. If I mark muskies that are on top of a hump or riding near the surface, I may make repeated passes to present the lure to them; these fish are generally active and therefore catchable.
If I mark the fish off the side of the hump or near the bottom, I ignore further attempts at these fish; they are inactive. Of course, you don't catch every fish you mark, and every fish you catch does not necessarily show up on the graph ahead of time.
Brown: When the water temperature hits 58 to 62 degrees and the lake turns over, the muskies move down to the 18- to 24-foot depths. This time is when I enjoy the most exciting fishing of the year, and it's when I pick up the 30-pounders-plus year after year.
Spool up with fresh line. This is very important for cold • water fishing. Slip a %-ounce egg sinker on the line and tie the line using a Palomar knot to a 30-inch wire leader. Clip the snap to the top eye of a 7-inch Swim Whizz or Believer. Throw the plug as far off the back of the boat as possible and start trolling.
Troll fast enough with sufficient line out to drive the plug right down to the bottom. Hold on tightly to the rod— you'll be raking sticks and spewing mud in every direction. Troll in this manner for only 45 to 60 seconds and stop. Then rip the plug off the bottom with a thrashing side-to- side action while cranking the reel.
The bottom disturbance attracts any musky in the area. He will follow the lure, trying to figure out what is going on.
When you lift the plug off the bottom, the musky will slam it because the 'lunge will think it is a baitfish trying to escape. If there is no strike, continue to retrieve the lure in a thrashing action all the way to the boat. As the lure nears the boat, do not let it rise above the 4-foot depth. At this y Point, do a large "figure eight" with the lure. If no fish, start the process over again. This method has produced the most muskies of the fall season for me. Now you have the guarded secret!
Esposito: My favorite tactic for getting involved with a 'lunge is one that is very easy to master and has produced a number of nice fish for my partner and me. Using a 7-inch Rebel, I cast parallel to a weedbed or shoreline. I point the tip of the rod at the bait, give several quick turns on the reel handle, and pump the rod. Continue to reel fast and keep pumping the rod until you run out of water. This action causes the lure to dance frantically in the water, looking like an injured baitfish. I've used this technique on a year-round basis, but late fall and winter are the most productive seasons. I haven't hooked any muskies in water deeper than 15 or 20 feet, so I concentrate my fishing on weedbeds near dropoffs, windy coves with dropoffs, and in rivers at feeder streams or eddies.
Where do you think the next state record musky may come from?
Barrett: Our current record musky of 54 pounds, 3 ounces was caught in 1924 from Conneaut Lake. Since that time only a handful of fish have come close to 50 pounds. It will be quite a feat if someone can top that record catch. If broken, I would guess it could come from Pymatuning Reservoir, Conneaut Lake, Kinzua Reservoir, or Raystown Lake.
Esposito: A record fish could come from anywhere, but my bucks are down for the Susquehanna, Delaware, or Juniata rivers.
Tomasko: I think the next state record musky will come from one of two lakes. My first pick is Kinzua. It's not a lake for numbers of muskies, but it really gives up some big ones. My second bet would be Pymatuning. The angling pressure is great on this lake, but the muskies it turns out are real heavyweights.
Brown: If a record fish exists, it is an old fish, one that has survived many years of angling pressure. It's going to take a knowledgeable fisherman and extreme concentration to get that fish. Of course, someone may luck into it! Pymatuning and Conneaut have the best chances.
What is the most important advice you can offer the beginning musky angler?
Barrett: Start on a body of water that is noted for having numbers of muskies. This strategy greatly improves your odds. Your waterways conservation officer can tell you where these lakes are in your area.
Esposito: Be persistent and don't be in a big hurry to get your lure out of the water.
Tomasko: Take up golf—you'll get more satisfaction. But if you're really determined to chase muskies, sharpen each hook point on your lures. Never use a hook right from the package without sharpening it with a file.
Freelance writer-photographer Darl Black specializes in bass and musky fishing, and offers on-the-water seminars for anglers interested in catching these fish and improving their skills.
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