By Nick Simonson
While the true muskie hunters are already fishing the handful of muskie lakes in North Dakota, the eyes of many die-hards will shift eastward in the coming days for the Minnesota Muskie Opener on Sat. June 3. With that date circled on their calendar, many are wondering what baits they’ll offer up on opening day and where to go to find fish. In speaking with one of North Dakota’s premier muskie anglers and Field Editor for Musky Informer, Ben Simonson of Valley City, N.D., the early season offers up some challenges, but a chance to shake off the rust and hook up with a big fish.
According to Simonson, opening morning of muskie season is unlike any other fishing opener. Where many anglers rush out at the crack of dawn (or earlier) for walleyes, pike and bass on their respective openers, Simonson advises waiting until waters warm up, as muskies, simply due to their size, take longer to acclimate to the cooler environs of spring.
“These fish are big and they need to warm up and get their metabolism going, I’ve never found going out on opener and getting up at 6 a.m. is going to get me a fish,” he remarked, “it’s usually about 10 a.m. or mid-day when the sun is peaking, to get those fish hungry,” he concluded.
Simonson suggests targeting shallower bays which warm up quickly, and looking along emerging cabbage and other weedlines that the fish relate to. A hot tip in the coming days is to identify where forage is schooling, and muskies won’t be far behind. Baitfish like shiners or suckers, or panfish such as crappies provide a cue as to where muskies may be located and should be added to the GPS for subsequent muskie fishing trips.
“Fish for the fish they’re eating, if you’re looking for those predator fish, they’re going to be somewhere around that [forage],” said Simonson, expressing that before opener, “the best way is to get out there, find some fish with the small rods, mark them with your GPS and go back and use baits with the same profile,” he concluded.
If there are two or three anglers in a boat, Simonson recommends they all throw baits of various speeds, with faster offerings like bucktails and crankbaits from the bow, and slower baits like slow-rolled spinnerbaits and plastics and leisurely-worked twitchbaits toward the stern. The more unstable the weather is leading into opener, or in any part of the early season, the slower baits should be worked through the water to adjust to the mood of the fish. Working with the conditions provided and targeting key times of the day, based on moon position will also help up the early-season odds.
“The moon affects all fish, if you get the moon coming up or setting [that helps],” said Simonson, further explaining that moon underfoot is an often-overlooked moon time, “when the moon is right under your feet, that’s a key time, it’s about as good as a moon rise; so when I mark a fish but can’t move it, I come back in that 30-minute window,” he concluded.
While traditional options in the Detroit Lakes, Minn. area are available for North Dakota anglers crossing the border, excitement is growing for the establishment of muskie fisheries in the Peace Garden State.
“I’m really excited with Ashtabula being stocked, it has a very aggressive stocking program, and they’re dumping muskies into Lake Audubon,” said Simonson, “of course New John’s is the premier lake in the state – lower density – but there’s always a chance of pulling out a state record,” he concluded.
For those new to pursuing the fish of 10,000 casts, Simonson recommends getting a set of tools necessary to help preserve the resource and facilitate quick releases. A bent-nose, long-shaft needlenose pliers helps keep fingers away from the sharp teeth and gills during lure removal, and prevents large, sharp hooks from ending a trip with a jaunt to the emergency room. For deeply-embedded hooks, a heavy-duty side snip can cut hook shanks to minimize time out of the water and the treble can be quickly replaced with a set of spares stored in the boat. Additional tools like mouth spreaders or a Boga-Grip can also be used to help control fish next to the boat.
To seal the deal, Simonson always recommends, no matter what the time of day or time of year or water conditions are, execute a figure-eight motion at boatside.
“Figure-eight is key, I pretty much regret every time I don’t, because then there’s that 50-pounder I’ve been waiting for,” Simonson remarked, experience weighing heavy in his words as he implores new anglers to continuously add the tactic to the end of each retrieve, “because you never know where the lurkers are or what they’ll do,” he concluded.