It’s finally here fellow esox fly junkies! The long awaited spring thaw has arrived.The days are getting longer, the red wing black birds are back in town, the maple stands across the midwest are collecting sap, and before long the northern pike will start feeling frisky. All signs that a new musky fly fishing season is nearly upon us.
Spring in the upper midwest and across the country has always been an especially venerated time for musky fly fishers, and with good reason. It’s time to sift through that pile of flies you spun all winter long, deciding which ones are worthy to be called up to the fly box and which are destined to be given away to your buddies who don’t tie. It’s time to dust off your rods, double checking the guides all the way to the tip (please, for the love of all-time behemoth fish, I implore you to do this, especially if you have steel snake guides). It’s time to steal your waders away from the company of those all too delicate nymph rigs and swap your 12 foot, 7x leader out for a 3 foot piece of metal.
As musky fly fishers, we love to tinker and cantanker. We love chewing on the tripe of every little detail about this wild pursuit and passion. But what we love even more, especially after a long winter of prognosticating on all things toothy critter is getting the heck out the door actually and going fishing. So with the guts of another winter in the rearview, and the musky fly fishing season starting in earnest around the country soon (for those of us who can’t fish them all year), let’s take a closer look at a few tips, strategies, and reminders to help reduce the variables, get you out the door, and help make sure the spring season is a success wherever you are in musky country.
Before You Hit The Water: Gear Up
While we all know that musky fly gear conversation and acquisition can go on for a lifetime, the important takeaway here is to dial in your gear to the point where you have exactly what you need, nothing that you don’t, and that each item is in good enough shape that it can do its job when you need it to. Musky fly fishing is rarely a low stakes affair. Making sure your equipment and tools are accessible and fully functioning exactly when and how you need them to be is critical to ensuring that green and gold flash turns into high fives, river toasts, and a good old fashioned grip and grin.
As mentioned above, checking your rods is a key first step. There’s nothing easy in the life of a musky rod. Cold temperatures require us to break ice out of fragile guides, large flies load tension deep into blanks and can damage rod tips, and the tungsten sinking lines that put flies into the strike zone can also create sharp, line shearing edges on the rim of the upper guides. Before you hit the water, double check that there’s no structural deficiencies present in your rod, and if there are, swap it out or have it replaced. If you’re running steel snake guides on your musky rod, at the least double check early and often to ensure the guide has a smooth, snag-free rim and at best consider swapping out for ceramic guides.
Over the course of its life your musky fly line will endure a thousand varying tortures in addition to acting as the primary vehicle to deliver an apex predator from it’s lie to your net. Frequent freeze/thaw cycles, being crushed underfoot, constant sand and dirt scouring, and time under significant tension can all result in a fly line that coils, cracks, splits, and shears. Welded loops tear, backing can fray and shear, and if you’re anything like me, that 25-30 feet of head length can seem to disappear as the sum of unsalvageable snags. Before you hit the water this spring, examine your line. If you find excessive coiling, stretch your line out either with a buddy, or by attaching it to a fixed object (I’ve successfully used everything from a fence post to the 2 inch ball on my trailer hitch) and walk it back under tension to remove the coiling. This is also a great time to examine the line for any cracking, shearing, or excessive wear. Check welded loops if you’re running them and have a look at the integrity of the head of your line. Consider cleaning your line as well. There’s a good argument to be made that your fly line is the most important element of your musky fly fishing kit. Don’t cut corners here; if it’s in tough shape, replace it with a high quality musky fly line.
Terminal tackle in the musky fly fishing world focuses heavily on the amazing fly patterns we get to spend all day chucking, and for good reason. They’re big, beautiful hunks of colorful fur, feathers, and flash. With that said, don’t be so focused on admiring you or your favorite tyer’s pattern that you neglect your hooks. Sharpening your hooks with a high quality hook sharpener is a great way to make sure your next big strip set leads to a fish in the net and not cursing your luck. The nature of musky fly fishing means that hooks are constantly being abraded and dulled by wood and rock structure. Take the time to make sure the business end of those killer patterns is sharp and ready to rock!
Speaking of fish in the net, make sure that your net, long handled pliers, hook sharpener, jaw spreader (if you use one), and all your other critical tools are clean, organized, and ready to be deployed when you need them. Not only does it make your life simpler to have these items completely dialed in when you hit the water, but not having to scour every nook of your boat or pack when you’ve got a hand inside the mouth of an apex predator will facilitate a smooth, efficient release of your next big fish and improve released fish survival rate.
When You Hit The Water: Downsize Patterns and Stay Dynamic in Spring
While the world of musky fly fishing is often driven to bigger, broader, and longer patterns with increasing articulation points and shanks, the truth is that all predator fish, regardless of size, eat small fish. A lot of them. You don’t have to take my word for it. Peer reviewed studies have shown that while big fish do in fact eat other slightly less big prey, all predatory fish eat small fish.
While this is true year round, small bait fish are increasingly important in the springtime. Cold water continues to impact metabolism and feed response. Consider the situation from your own experience: how many times have you found yourself sluggish and not craving a big meal, yet grabbed willingly a handful of chips from the nearby bowl. While spring muskys may not be feeding aggressively enough to pursue and strike their largest prey, they are still driven by feast/famine instincts and are much less likely to turn down a small, erratic looking baitfish. Consider downsizing to 4-7 inch swim, jerk, or glide style flies this time of year. If fishing narrower water with ample structure and deep pocket corners, twitching a heavy jig style pattern with an upturned hook point can trigger a strike from the deep and the inverted hook orientation will help keep you out of snags.
While muskies can certainly frustrate a fly fisher with their unpredictable nature year round, keep in mind that spring fish can be especially difficult to predict and pin down. This is where the importance of being dynamic and responsive to what you’re seeing (and not seeing) becomes critical. If what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change up your style, strategy, presentation or location. Understanding not only the accepted axioms about where and how to find muskies, but also when to ignore those principles and change things up can often be the difference between getting on the board early in the spring, and coming home empty handed. Ultimately, trust what you’re seeing in front of your face and don’t be afraid to buck conventional approaches or strategies (let’s face it, you’re a musky fly fisher, so conventional approaches is probably not super high on your list, anyways) if the water in front of you is telling you the fish are behaving, holding, or triggering differently than you predicted.
Get Back Home! Spring Safety Considerations
Here’s a rare indisputable fact about musky fly fishing. Whatever your favorite “apres’ ‘sky” tradition is, be it a hot bowl of stew and a cold beer, a phone call to your buddy stuck at work, or heading to the social media outlet du jour to celebrate your day, it can only happen if you do, in fact, get off the water safely.
Spring musky fly fishing can present safety considerations with much higher stakes than the same scenario during the summertime. A capsized boat or filled waders which present a big pain in the butt and a soggy story to tell in August can present a legitimate survival scenario in the early season when spring melt increases flows and keeps water temperatures cold.
Depending on the time of year and your location, the obvious first step from a safety standpoint is to check the forecast (where you’ll be and upstream from you if fishing a river or flowage with active current) and pay particular attention to the presence of freezing temperatures. A free flowing river can still bring ice sheets and other seriously large detritus downstream which can pose legitimate hazards by the end of the day, especially in conjunction with steadily falling temperatures throughout your time on the water. Bear in mind that water is an immensely dynamic creature, and what appears to be safe to float and/or fish when you arrive can change in distinct, dramatic ways throughout the day. Keep a set of warm insulating layers in your vehicle, and consider an additional set in a dry bag if floating a river or lake. While you’ve got your dry bag out, throw some dry, reliable fire starting tools in there as well.
Finally, while I know how tough, resilient, and self-reliant musky fly fishers tend to be, don’t be too proud to leave basic location and timeline information with someone back in civilization. Make sure they’re someone you trust (not just so they don’t burn your favorite hidden landing or honey hole; you’ll need someone competent and capable of pulling the right levers in the event of an emergency). You know what’s worse than your buddy knowing which section of river you floated? Succumbing to hypothermia because you filled your waders and no one knew where to look for you.
Wherever you are in musky country, as the excitement of the spring thaw and rising mercury levels get you off the couch, away from the vise, and onto the water, make sure you’ve got the right gear, tactics, strategies, and plans to maximize your chance of getting on the board early with a spring musky on the fly.