There is a simple reason woodpeckers continually probe trees with such methodical tenacity – food. While I have never seen a woodpecker attempt to do so on a submerged tree, I have seen throngs of baitfish taking their place at the great wooden dining table, be it now underwater. Make no mistake about it – the sight of a sprawling weed bed elicits an adrenalin rush in me, as do the bold hooks on my locator, positioned adjacent to a suspended school of ciscoes, but there is another element that gets me just as interested – wood. For the esox angler unfamiliar with this musky magnet, it’s time to add submerged timber to your milk-run.
There are reasons beyond the “food factor” that muskies utilize this form of cover. Fallen trees and brush, especially fresh material still having its leaf cover, offer an excellent source of shade. Shade in and of itself can be a form of cover. The resulting shadows in addition to any remaining leaves, thickets, and the like provide excellent ambush points for muskies to capitalize on with unsuspecting prey. In lakes and reservoirs where surface temperatures skyrocket in the summer time, shade will also often mean cooler water.
I spend a great deal of time fishing the river systems here in North-Central Wisconsin; some like the Rib River are smaller. Others, like the mighty Wisconsin River itself are much larger. The one constant in all rivers, no matter their location, depth, or length is current. In fact, finding fish in flowing water situations more often than not means finding the current breaks. I firmly believe that another reason my clients and I catch so many muskies out of the numerous log-jams, blow-downs, and stump fields in my extended area is that they offer a current break as well as food and a hunting ground in which to pursue it.
Any given reservoir, river, or flowage most likely contains a fair if not good amount of the fibrous structure. Surprisingly, the “good wood” and “good weeds” share some common attributes. The first is their relation to deeper water. Generally speaking, the best of the “snags”, blow-downs, etc. in a section of river or flowage will be positioned near deeper water. This generally means adjacent or even directly in the river channel itself.
Learning the contour of the river channel is one of the first steps in locating the musky strongholds for a given area. While maps are a terrific starting point, rivers, flowages, and reservoirs are constantly changing due in large part to current. This means that the angler who hopes to be the most successful will also need to take the initiative to always be on the lookout for new deposits as Mother Nature lends them to us.
A second common attribute shared by good wood structure is size. Generally speaking, a larger or more developed weed bed will hold fish more consistently than a smaller or less developed one. The same holds true when deciding which aquatic thickets are most deserving of your time. Large trunks or stumps are going to be more productive than skinny ones; a fallen tree with a large canopy will be a more consistent fish producer than that of a tree with a small one As I mentioned earlier, begin your search within the branches still holding leaf cover of some kind. Often this will be a more recently felled tree or tree along an undercut bank that has tipped over into the water while maintaining its root structure to keep it alive; the latter option form some of my favorite pieces of timber to fish.
Finding and understanding worthwhile sections of woody cover is a moot point if one does not go into battle with the correct equipment and game plan. While your fishing rod is always an important tool, it becomes even more so when fishing muskies in timber. There are numerous advantages to using longer rods, those 7 ½’ and longer, when musky fishing: longer, more accurate casts, better casting accuracy, easier figure-eights, better hook-sets, and the ability to more effectively play a fish are a few. When fishing heavy cover such as timber, these qualities become even more important.
A long, stouter rod is a “must-have” as it more conducive to success than shorter or more limber ones for a couple of reasons. First of all, a long rod allows you to have more leverage when trying to “steer” a fish. Simply stated, upon hooking a powerful adversary such as a musky near or in heavy cover, you need to get some distance between the two, and do it as quickly as possible – this is no place for lighter lines, wimpy rods, or reels lacking in the gear department. Immediately after setting the hook, you need to begin ‘steering’ the fish out from the snag; once in the clear, its business as usual.
Another advantage to a long rod is the ability to maneuver your lure more accurately on the retrieve. With my 8’ and 8’ 6” St. Croix rods, I can effectively steer through the brambles just about any presentation from spinnerbaits like the Grinder to esox-sized jigs-and-plastic combos such as the Jig-A-Beast. More often than not, it’s the angle changes made by steering a lure that elicit strikes. Being able to manipulate the path of your lure will not only help prevent snags, but provoke strikes from these toothy critters as well.
I begin working a particular area of wood by positioning my boat on the outer edge and only casting the very edges. I do this for a couple of reasons: first, if there is a fish working the edge, by keeping my boat away from the snag, I have more room to figure-eight or fight a fish. Secondly, I want to have a better visual of the complexities of a snag before fishing it to help alleviate getting hung up and thus burning a spot while getting a lure out of a snag. After I have thoroughly worked the outside, I begin moving in closer, all the while looking to see the layout of the area. Quality Solar Bat polarized sunglasses are imperative for this type of fishing. You need to know where the stumps, branches, etc. are to avoid them not only for effectively working your baits, but when fighting a fish as well. Before firing a cast into the thick of things, take a moment and scan the entire section before fishing it. Not only will it help you avoid snags, but you will be better equipped to locate prime ambush points as well
Lure selection for fishing timber still encompasses all the ‘usual’ categories of baits; some styles just work a bit better in the heavy stuff. Surface baits continue to be one of my favorite presentations, and for good reason. They’re exciting to use, effective in certain places other lures can’t go, and they flat out produce big fish. When working a snag, I prefer a lure that will stay in the strike zone as long as possible. My hands-down favorite are walk-the-dog style lures, especially those with the ability to move sharply from side to side without moving very far forward such as Musky Mania Tackle’s Doc and Li’l Doc. I work my Doc’s with a slower, more erratic retrieve and make multiple casts to the same area. You’ll be surprised how many fish follow or strike only after repeated casts to the same section of a blow-down. It often appears they just need a little convincing to eat.
Bucktails and spinnerbaits work well for fishing wood if you remember two simple words – single hooks. Single hooks allow you to fish up over the wood, even make contact, and not hang up nearly as much as with the trebled variety. Spinnerbaits such as ERC’s Grinder and Bump & Grind, and bucktails like the Musky Mania Tackle Lilly Tail come equipped with large single hooks and work very well not just in heavy weeds, but heavy wood as well. While lures sporting single hooks are effective in timber, you can improve their effectiveness with a simple modification. For baits that do not already come as such, I take it a step further and rig each single hook texas-style with a large Mister Twister Curly Tail Grub or Sassy Shad. Not only does this add to the overall snag resistance of the bait, it also makes for a fine teaser to help provoke strikes. As with any musky fishing, complete each cast with a figure eight. As an angler, you need to stay vigilant with what is under the boat in terms of potential hazards. Ramming the tip of your rod into a stump is not only is tough on your gear, it pretty much diffuses the potency of your boat side presentation as well.
The aforementioned lure categories are ‘must haves’ for the angler fishing wood, but they’re not the only methods to the madness. I have done well with rubber bait styles, especially when following up on a fish that showed itself earlier. The Lamprey, manufactured by Musky Mania Tackle, can be made to dance its way through cover with only a bit of practice. The nice thing about this style bait is an angler is able to fish an area just a bit slower than with a bucktail or spinnerbait, and may produce fish when nothing else is working.
Crankbaits can work in timber, but the key is to having the right lure and working it correctly. This is again an area where longer fishing rods shine. It is just so much easier to steer and manipulate the action of your bait with longer lengths. Cranks for fishing in the wood should be buoyant and it helps if they back up some on the pause. The best crankbait I have found for working densely wooded cover is hands-down the Drifter Believer. Work your Believer, whether a jointed or straight model, with the rod tip held at roughly a 45 degree angle to the water’s surface. You’ll be surprised not only at how effectively one can work a Believer through the wood using a bump and rise technique, but how explosively the muskies will attack this presentation.
Lastly, a category of lures that cannot be ignored for the brush busting musky angler is the jig-and-plastic. The jig-and-plastic really shines in adverse conditions such as cold fronts or high fishing pressure situations. As for particulars, I have found the ERC Jig-A-Beast to be superior for this type of fishing. While I have caught muskies while actually flipping for them, I prefer to work my jigs more like swim baits. The advantage here is that you can allow the Jig-A-Beast to drop and make contact more readily, even swimming it through potential hazards as the guard wards off hang-ups much more so than baits with an exposed hook. This style fishing requires vigilance as the strike is often nothing more than a “tick” or jump in the line.
When packing the boat for the day, it’s also a good idea to bring along some sort of lure retriever. No matter how well you pay attention or work your lures, at some point you’re going to get hung up; accept that fact now and deal with it later. I prefer the extendable style such as the model manufactured by Frabill as not only does it work well and lay nicely on the floor of the boat, but doubles as a push-pole in close quarters when I’d rather not be running my trolling motor.
I spend a great deal of time on the Wisconsin River and its flowages, giving me ample opportunity to fish the likes of stumps, logs, and blow-downs on a regular basis. While we catch plenty of muskies from rocks, weed cover, and suspended over open water, becoming proficient at fishing wood has allowed me to add an additional dimension to my musky fishing and will do the same for you. If you’re willing to knock on wood, the muskies will answer. I’ll see you on the water…