Are Dirty Little
Muskies Really That Different?
I've got a lot less experience on dirty water for muskies than I do clear water, but for the small amount of time I put in on dirty lakes compared to clear, my success rate is pretty good. If I dedicated equal time to each, I think I'd have just as many fish in the net from both by the end of the season. Maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere. All the magazine rhetoric and worn-out clichés aside, is there really that huge of a difference finding and catching fish in dirty water versus clear? If you break it down piece by piece, I really don't think there is. A few fundamental changes aside for each piece, muskies are muskies no matter where you fish them.
If you've read Dick Pearson's book, 'Muskies On The Shield,' you already have a good grasp on the fundamental differences between clear and dark water and how they need to be fished in terms of ideal weather, spots to check and the real clincher: fishing pace. On some types of water, good spots are long boat rides apart. The deep, sterile water outnumbers the shallow stuff by a huge margin, and the prime feeding stations are a lot less prevalent. Shallow, dirty lakes have a different geography. There's tons of spots to fish! There are usually hundreds of weed-rimmed islands, all kinds of bays, coves and cuts. And there's normally shallow weeds and rocks dotted between all of it. Average depths are normally well under twenty feet, and more like less than twelve.
I guess my question then turns to what's worth fishing and what isn't? Say it's the end of the summer, early September. If you give me an island with 8 feet of heavy cabbage around it and lots of mixed rock facing an open patch of water or a deeper main channel, this will be a spot I'll want to check. I don't care if the water is dirty, crystal clear or made of windshield washer fluid. That's a key spot. Clear water and dirty water each have their own special types of spots, for sure. But in trying to crack a new dirty piece of water, wouldn't it be smart to check spots that are good no matter what type the lake type? Island chains that dwindle out into the deepest water in the area are another good example of spots that are universally good.
Shallow, heavy cabbage and rock combinations really shine in dirty water. By 'shallow,' I mean often less than eight feet deep. Late in the summer, having rock mixed in is almost always what makes a good spot great. By the time the trees are turning and the weeds are long choked out, it's the rock that makes the spot, in my opinion. Dirty sections of Lake Nipissing and Georgian Bay are famous for this. Those big, minefield-type areas with heavy weeds and rocks that eat props can be awesome if you find a handful of good rock-weed combos. If the weeds stay in good shape, so much the better, too. Same old story though: just like on the clear lakes, the prime spots will be on or near the strategic zones, closer to the deepest water and so on. I'm certain guys get way back into the real shallow stuff tight to shore and catch fish, but I like being on or near the most prominent structure that's close to the deepest water available. Coontail seems more and more common where I fish every year, but if I had to bet my life on six weedbeds, I'd want at least five to be good, old-fashioned green or red cabbage.
Dirty-water fishing normally adds up to a messy boat at the end of the day! So many weeds, and you're normally never too far away from them, not only horizontally but vertically too. They get all over the boat carpet, the prop, everywhere. With all that cover and so many spots to check, you wouldn't think that this type of water is real efficient to work. I think that it is.
For one, shallower, more fertile and darker water will hold, on average, more fish than oligotrophic or 'trout water' will on a per-acre basis. I don't think many would dispute that. Secondly, there are fewer days on dirty water where conditions are less than ideal. What I mean by that is quite simply, fish in dirty water bite during the classic, dark and windy days, and you can also catch 'em at high noon in the baking sun. This is a huge advantage, in my mind! You can have success over a much broader range of sky and wind conditions. On those brutal, 'blue bird' days on clear water, you've normally got two choices: pull off the lake and wait for conditions to improve, or run to a dirty section if one's available. The majority of muskies I've caught, netted for somebody else or seen caught have come under hot sun and around or past mid-day. You can simply put in more time on dirty water. Your level of personal confidence is your best muskie lure. I'm normally looking for shade and a nap when it's boiling and bright on clear water, but I stay really confident when it's like that on dirty water. More spots to work, more muskies in the water and more fishable hours, regardless of conditions. Sounds pretty darn efficient to me! So you can't see the shoals until the last minute and you're picking up weeds. Does it really matter? Look at lodge distribution on Lake Of The Woods. It's not a fluke. In many ways, the odds are just better all around, in my opinion.
I don't think the importance of spot recognition, reading water and selecting good general areas to work can be over stated. The characteristics of a good point, weedbed or wall are pretty much universal. Sure, their collective parts might vary a little, but in the 'big picture' sense, good ones are usually good ones no matter where you dump the boat off the trailer. Drop a set of boulders or a prop-killer reef way back in a shallow swamp in August on any type of lake and I'll think twice about fishing it most days. But put it out near a deep travel route, current area or other major structure, and I will pound it until it either tells me to stop or until it tells me to keep going. Bottom line, it will get top consideration. The best fishermen I know can catch fish on any type of water. They just know what to look for and are constantly evaluating the 'big picture.'
With all those potential spots now dancing in your head to visit and learn, you've got to set out a logical way to fish them. Everything you read about dirty water says 'big, bright and loud.' Rattles, extra colour, extra flash, heavy vibration, even scent always come up. Hit the cover, hit the structure and in general, do as much as you can to tip a fish off to your bait's whereabouts. I guess my question is, how is this so different than fishing any other type of water? Fish in dirty lakes take wooden Bobbie Baits with no rattles in natural colours. Fish in ultra clear water bite ten inch firetiger Jakes or Sledges. I've caught muskies in the West Bay section of Lake Nipissing under it's famous 'coffee conditions' on small, natural perch Super Shad Raps, and used foot-long bootails in blaze orange to catch them in Georgian Bay where visibility is over twenty feet. White is an awesome, totally underrated colour for dark water, and it's deadly in clear water as well.
I think the lures used have a lot less impact on your final result compared to where you use them on dirty water (remember, 'big picture' spots) and the pace with which you use them. By pace, I'm not referring at all to how fast you reel or how fast you troll. I mean the thoroughness that you dedicate to not only fishing an area with trolling passes or casts, but with learning it's layout. You can't see as far into the water on dirty lakes. In some cases, shorelines are much less dramatic than on the oligotrophic lakes, and thus don't give away the bottom's make-up as easily. The clarity of the water itself and the sheer number of potential areas are what really tests your patience and willingness to work. If you put your bait down main street at the right time and a muskie wants it, she'll grab it.
So far, it probably seems like there are more questions than answers with dirty water muskies. If the same lures and similar spots can work, why not just fish the same way on every lake, no matter what the water-type or prevailing conditions? I truly believe that the more things change from lake to lake, the more they stay the same. It all comes back to evaluating water, and your willingness to objectively look at how spots are laid out compared to what's around them and where they are on the lake. Sure, you might use a big, thumper spinnerbait to work cabbage in six feet of water a quarter mile off shore on Lake Mud. But how is that so different than walking a crankbait down a rock shoal in sixteen feet of water twenty paces from a steep rock face on Lake Tap Water? A few tweaks in your approach aside, you're still castin' for muskies. Doing a complete 180 and reinventing the wheel never seems to be the answer. Core fundamentals, applied and tailored to the lake you're on that minute usually is. On the surface, you might seem to be doing things vastly different on a dirty lake than on a clear one. But are you really? Remember one of dirty water's really unique features is fishabilty during a range of sun conditions. That said, the same types of weather and daylight triggers apply across the board. You can bank on peak activity windows early and late, on weather changes, frontal activity on any lake. If you look at the big picture, it's all just muskie fishin'.