Ice-off Fishing for Trophy Muskie: Indiana Style

As soon as the ice comes off your favorite Muskie Lake it’s time to put away the ice fishing equipment and break out the boat for some late winter/ early spring Muskie action. Right after ice off the water temperatures start to rise. Baitfish and muskies alike start to move up in the water column from the deepest holes in the lake. This allows you a shot at catching some of the season’s heaviest muskies. After being suspended in deep water for most of the ice season and being very lethargic, the females need to start feeding again in an effort to help the eggs finish developing and to get ready for spawning.

Muskies start spawning once water temperatures start to hit 49-59 degrees. That is why it is important to be on the water as soon as the ice is coming off the lake. Muskies like to make things easy for themselves. They don’t want to spend a lot of energy swimming around look for food. They continue to hang around big schools of baitfish like Gizzard Shad that have been balled up all winter. Gizzard Shad are tight schooling forage that spend a lot of time suspending over the lakes deep holes. Once the ice begins to break up and sun light starts to penetrate into the water, Zooplankton begin to grow. This is a natural food source for the hungry shad. As the plankton begin grow in the top of the water column Shad will move up and down to feed. With all this activity hungry Muskie will position themselves on the edges or right underneath these schools of shad.

So, now that you know the pattern, it’s time to fish these open water buffets. Start by using your electronics to mark schools of baitfish.  If you have GPS make sure to way point these spots. Then start casting around these schools of Gizzard Shad using lures that mimic the baitfish. Like all fish, shad school up by size. It’s very hard to tell on your finder what size they are, but normally the bigger schools of shad are of 8 to 12 inches in size. I have found in open water that bigger is better. A cold water female Muskie in not going to waste energy on chasing down a bunch of small bait when eating a 12 inch or larger shad will do.

My favorite lure in this situation is Drifter Tackle’s EXO-XL or EXO-L. They have great life like tails and are a size that copies the shad. Work with color choices depending on water clarity. Let them countdown to be of the depth where the baitfish are and start a jerk/pause retrieve, or try a fast to medium straight retrieve. Always remember to adjust your lure speed by how the fish are reacting. If casting isn’t getting fish in the net then it’s time to make a change.

Trolling at this time of the year can be very helpful. Since you have marked some shad schools already try running 6 inch jointed or 9 inch straight Ernie’s in and around these schools. Ernie’s are a great trolling lure with a nice solid wobble. This helps get any Muskie’s attention that is swimming up to the buffet line. Of course, the use of fluorocarbon leaders is very important this time of year when water clarity is at its highest. I have found that 18 inch leaders are best in open water.

 So, what you need to do if you’re looking at catching the year’s biggest Muskie’s is to head out during and right after ice out. Don’t waste time by running around the shallows for a few small fish. Work the lakes deepest holes that have balls of baitfish suspended. Trust me the big ones will be there. -Gary R. Enos

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