Muskies on the Fringe

On my annual July trip to Ontario’s Eagle Lake, the early word from the guides at Andy Myers Lodge was the best musky action was on the rocks. Low water, combined with air temperatures in the 90’s and water temperatures in the high 70’s had pretty much shut down the weed bite. On the second day of the trip I decided to check out a favorite shallow weedy bay. Conditions seemed less than perfect, slightly before noon that day. The weeds were a foot shallower than normal, a bright sun was pounding the 6-7-foot depths, and a slight northerly breeze was blowing into the weed edge that I usually found most productive. I didn’t expect to see any muskies, but rather was just looking at the condition of the weeds and noting if there were any potential for a return during lower light conditions

While I slowly moved the boat through the deeper clumps of the scattered weeds, trying to determine a depth level where they stopped growing, I started firing casts out into “open water,” while my partner Mike Zielonka cast towards shore, targeting thicker clumps, slots and pockets. About 50 yards down the edge I had a jarring strike on my Bucher Magnum Tinseltail after a couple of turns of the reel handle. I don’t know who was more surprised, the 44-incher that hit my big double 10 spinnerbait, or me who was more or less killing time during “the mid-day lull.”

The following day we returned to the same weed bed at the exact time of the day and was rewarded with a 41-incher. A return visit on day three netted a 51-incher. All three fish were caught between 11:50 am to 12:10 pm, all hit a black Magnum Tinseltail with shiny copper blades, and all were holding on deeper growing “fringe weeds” outside the main visible weed growth. I’m not sure why the muskies weren’t related to the clumps, slots and pockets within the bed like they usually were; this probably had something to do with the lower water levels and warmer than normal water temperatures. But the lower-growing fringe weeds held the muskies just like they have for me many times in the past.

The thought amongst many readers would be to go back to that weed bed under prime conditions. We returned a couple hours before dark on the second day. There was no wind, the skies were semi-dark, and we could see the tell tail tips of the cabbage that easily enabled us to weave our Top Raiders and bucktails through weed openings and over the fringe. Nothing, not even a swirl! Yet, the following day at noon the 51-incher hit in the same area. Go figure!

There were several lessons to be learned with this experience; patterning muskies to a time of the day on certain structural conditions, the importance of fishing midday, especially when the morning and evening bite is slow, and not neglecting the fringe. I did return to the same weed bed around noon on day four. For the first time the wind was not blowing into the productive edge. I fished other areas that had some wind, and where we caught fish in the past, but we drew a blank.

WHAT IS THE FRINGE?

Weeds are an aquatic plant that need sunlight to grow. If enough sunlight reaches bottom during the growing season, and the bottom is soft enough to grow weeds, let’s say major weed growth in a given lake will grow to 10-feet. But as the waters warm and the intense mid-summers sun pounds the water, lower growing weeds will often sprout deeper than 10-feet, IF a slower bottom taper exists outside the deep weed edge. The combination of enough sun and soft bottom creates mature weed growth to 10-feet in our hypothetical lake. Depths more than 10-feet/and or bottom conditions a little less than perfect will often have lower growing or scattered clumps of weeds later in summer.

Although “real weeds” such as cabbage, coontail, milfoil, etc. need sunlight to grow, low-growing sand grass, which often blankets slow tapering bottoms out to 25-foot depths or more, doesn’t need much light. This is because this crispy, dill-like looking “weed” that usually grows 1 to 4-feet high is actually an algae, yet it too can be a magnet for muskies when growing outside of an edge.

KEYS FOR FRINGE-FISHING SUCCESS

Fringe weeds often grow just outside a major weed bed. A slower tapering bottom is a big factor in establishing this lower growing growth. If a sharp drop-off exists at the weed edge, there is usually no secondary weed growth. But often the taper flattens out a bit in spots, and when this occurs you have often found that “spot on a spot” that will consistently hold a musky along a particular structure or edge.

Another important fringe situation may occure on a weedy or weed-lined hump, high spot, or island. Most musky anglers have encountered this structural condition many times. Around 90% of this structure the weedline drops pretty sharply. But often there is one or two slower tapering points coming off the structure, just enough to create a finger or two of fringe weeds. You can bet that nine times out of ten this is where a musky using this structure will show up. The same scenario can play out along a shoreline-connected weed edge. Sharp break, weeds end, slower taper=fringe weeds=musky.

Slop Fishing

Even when slop fishing shallower waters, fringe weeds are often the key to success. Many times a shallower bay loaded with pads, wild rice, or other emergent vegetation can hold a monster. In areas of a lake where there isn’t much deeper water, these slop bays can often hold the musky of your dreams! These bays can also be productive during warm afternoons after cool evenings or mornings; also on cloudy days when the fish are roaming and active.

If you position the boat close to the above water visible weed edge and cast into the slop, you will often hurt your chances for success. Many times there will be isolated lower growing or patchy hard to spot cabbage, coontail, or milfoil growing slightly deeper just outside the visible vegetation. And often this is where the fish position for attack, so generally you don’t want to get too close to the above water vegetation or you will spook the muskies with the boat.

There are several ways to attack this problem. If you do fish fairly tight to the visible vegetation, and run to close to the fringe weeds, just reposition next time the spot is fished. This often gives you a clue to the way the weed growth is in this particular lake and on the next spot hold further away. But if I choose this tighter approach because muskies have often been found in the visible cover on this spot, every few casts I’m fire a bomb cast ahead of the boat and out into the more open water as a check. Or you can start out laying back and work your way in. Sometime if the light is right you may be able to spot dark patches of these isolated weed beds, or see the tell-tale tips of cabbage weeds as they pop through the surface.

The Double Fringe

I’ve said many times that one major key that separates a top of the line musky angler from the rest, is knowing how and when to fish a specific structural element. Let’s say we have a lake where the muskies are generally weed orientated. If you fish the weeds like most everyone else, your results will be generally like everyone elses…average! On a lake where the bite is pretty much related to weeds, you have to ask yourself how you can be different. For starters, lakes of this type generally have a lot of fringe weed potential. And often, because of slow-tapering areas that often exist, you can run into a “double fringe” situation.

I’ve caught numerous muskies and some real big ones over secondary fringe weeds, which are usually sand grass growing several feet or more off bottom. One incident that really comes to mine is the first time I fished the upper Manitou in Ontario. An angler that was a local legend and had fished the lake for years was showing me around this clear trophy body of water. I was following him with my good friend noted outdoor writer Bob McNally. As we zipped across a wide slow-tapering bay, I could see a couple anglers a few hundred yards away who were fishing a shoreline connected weed bed. As usual I was paying attention to my sonar as we motored along and noted a lot of short weed clumps in the 10 to 12-foot depths. I tried to signal our lead boat to stop but the driver was looking forward and kept going. I told McNally to toss out a jerkbait because I wanted to troll around this low-weed studded flat for a few minutes. Within 5 minutes our lead boat had returned to see what happened to us, just as we were releasing our biggest musky of the trip, a beauty just shy of 50-inches.

In a lake that’s pretty much ringed with weeds, the hot action for most is when the wind is blowing into a weed edge. But where are these fish when the wind is not blowing into the weed edge? They can be suspended over open water, tucked up in thick patches of vegetation, or even more likely, using the fringe. The fringe just outside the major vegetation may be the key area, but the secondary fringe which may extend out 100-yards or more is often a sleeper area where pressured muskies have learned to avoid fishing pressure.

Combine Casting and Trolling for Maximum Results

If you are a die-hard caster and won’t troll, the percentage of fringe muskies you ‘ll catch will not be nearly as many as they would be if you combined casting and trolling. You’d be ok when fishing shallow bays, but when you experience extensive weed-studded flats and long high weed edges with lower-growing similar vegetation just outside, trolling gives you a big advantage.

I’ve said many times that my musky fishing usually combines both casting and trolling. Often after casting to a particular structure or edge, I’ll make a trolling pass along that edge before motoring to the next spot. Not only are we presenting lures deeper and possibly with more speed, the lures may also be getting to fish that may not have seen our casting presentations. Trolling also enables me to better understand the contour of an edge, and to more easily uncover small fish-holding fingers with fringe. Another tip is to pay attention to the wake behind your motor. When a slight swing out occurs when you are following a depth level, watch for low-growing weeds on your sonar.

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