The first time I heard the term “pattern fishing” was in the late 70’s. Both Roland Martin and Babe Winkelman commonly used the term in articles they wrote for Fishing Facts magazine when talking about how to find and catch more fish in the shortest amount of time possible. The basic concept of pattern fishing is recognizing a certain set of conditions that has produced some fish, then duplicating the conditions in other spots on the lake. A simple example is catching some bass on specific crankbait in 5 to 8-feet of water on a wind-blown chunk-rock point. The logical thing a good pattern angler would do under those conditions is to search out similar structural situations and fish them in the same manner. If success continues keep doing it until the action stops. Even if the pattern is strong, not every similar spot may hold fish. If you fish a few more similar spots and don’t catch fish, then start doing other things.
Patterns may change several times during the day because of wind direction and speed, light conditions, time of day and water temperature. And while catching several bass or walleyes can put you on the road to putting together a productive pattern, a single musky follow may help you solve the puzzle to finding more fish.
Most musky anglers really don’t understand pattern fishing. Too many times I’ve seen anglers go from one unrelated spot to another. They may go from a weed bed to a rock hump, to a chunk rock bank, which is followed to a visit to a wind-blown point. If you are not seeing fish that’s ok, because you are trying to put together a game plan, but if you encounter muskies on one of those types of spots, jump on the pattern and fish as many similar spots as possible. Don’t start jumping around and fishing different types of areas.
Last summer we fished a small isolated bed of cabbage in an otherwise rocky area. A big musky came roaring out of the cabbage and was caught. We knew of a similar small bed a few hundred yards away. The first cast into that bed produced another big fish. Back to back casts actually produced 98 inches of muskies because we recognized a hot pattern and jumped on it.
My first 30-pound musky came out of Conneaut Lake in Pennsylvania in the late 70’s. The first time I fished the lake in mid-October we trolled the weed edge with deep-diving crankbaits. The four of us in two boats caught 22 muskies over a long weekend, but all the fish were 12 to 18-pounds. I went back two weeks later and the same pattern held; 12 to 18-pound fish along the deep weed edge. After catching a few fish I started to think about why we weren’t catching any of the bigger fish that were noted to be in the lake. Maybe the pattern for bigger fish was different. Since trolling was great along the straight edges and points, maybe the bigger muskies were holding in spots where trolling wasn’t reaching them. I had an excellent contour map that even showed bottom composition. We started to jig fish inside turns in the weedline that had hard bottom (rock/shale). In short order we got a 49-incher, another nice one and a quality follow. An early lesson I learned many years ago was that bigger fish are often on a different pattern than smaller muskies.
During August of 2010 Joe Bucher and I were filming and fishing on Lake of the Woods. We were having a pretty good day with 4 muskies landed by late afternoon. The conditions began to change as the skies darkened and the wind subsided. If there was ever a time that spelled top water, this was it. I quickly tied on “froggy”, my favorite pattern Top Raider, while Joe went with a black “Raider”. A nice musky was boated within a cast or two off an extended shallow rock flat. A quick meeting of the minds and we decided to run and gun from one rock flat to another. We fished seven similar types of structures before dark; saw six muskies and boated five. After going “two for two” right off the start, we were like two sharks smelling blood! While Joe was wrapping each catch on tape for his TV show, I was frantically waving in the background for him to hurry up so we can run to the next spot. I knew we had a hot pattern and wanted to cash in on it as much as possible! We never considered trying other type spots.
Clues for Changing Patterns
If weather and water conditions remain pretty consistent, patterns tend to hold for longer periods of time. But changes in wind direction and speed, light penetration, current and time of day can alter a fish-catching pattern. If light penetration lessons, look for fish to move shallower or hold higher in the water column. If light penetration intensifies, muskies usually tend to drop down or hole up in cover. A big exception to this is a warm up after some coolness. After a cool evening or cold front, it’s not uncommon to find muskies sliding into some sheltered afternoon spots where solar heat warms them up. But with surface water temperature in the low 80’s, which was the case last year on some lakes I fished, these “killer” afternoon spots didn’t hold muskies. After a period of cooler weather that lowered the water temperatures, the pattern again became strong. For years I expected an afternoon bite to supply the best action of the day after a cold front. But if the nighttime lows don’t get lower than the existing water temperature, the morning bite can also be pretty good.
Wind almost always plays a big part in putting together a productive pattern. Most of the time I’ll fish the wind, but if it’s a real good spot all of it gets fished. If the winds are light to medium, most fish seen will tend to use the up-wind parts of structure or edges. The stronger the wind the better the odds of some muskies moving into areas of secondary winds or backwashes. So pay attention to degrees of wind during the day, because wind direction and velocity can alter patterns.
Current can also create patterns. An increase in wind velocity many turn on necked-down areas. In a large body of water, a strong south wind for a day or more may move water northward. After the wind lessons or changes direction, water flow often hits spots from a new direction, which can affect musky usage and/or positioning. In reservoirs that open the locks on the dams, current is created. I know of instances where locks were opened at a specific time each afternoon, and shortly afterwards main lake points, particularly those in necked down areas, experienced hot musky action. Current may or may not be affected by wind. A good clue to spotting increases in current is to note how far marker buoys are bending over, and watch the ripples where slack water borders current influenced runs.
Patterning Weed Muskies
To catch the most weed-related muskies as possible, you have to pay attention to details. Anyone can catch a fish by tossing a bucktail over the top of a weed bed, but understanding pattern fishing is a big step in helping you consistently catch numbers of muskies. Anytime you encounter a musky, pay strong attention to the details surrounding the sighting.
Picking a high percentage weed bed to fish is a good starting point. Unless light penetration is minimal, I generally motor to the weeds being hit by wind or current. I also prefer weed beds that have more “character”. By that I mean more irregularity to their edges. If you see a fish ask yourself, “did it come off a point or inside turn in the weed bed, or was there a thick clump of weeds in an otherwise sparse bed or an opening in a thick bed?” I’ve had a number of multi-fish days because I noted muskies were only holding on areas along the weed bed where the edge next to deep water wasn’t as abrupt. These smaller areas of slower tapers had deep fringe weeds that the muskies favored.
Several times in fall on lakes ringed with weeds, the hot pattern was fishing just outside sparser weeds. I first discovered this pattern after a slow day of fishing weed areas that had been productive in the past. On this first trip I noted the few follows we had come outside areas with a little less weed growth. After going into the weed bed and looking around, we saw the reduced weed growth was caused by scattered gravel within the bed. Many of these small hard bottom openings had panfish hovering over them. Now things made sense. Dying weeds use up oxygen in the fall, so holding in sparse weeds were the panfishes best option, rather than dropping down into deeper water outside the weeds where they were more exposed to waiting hungry fall muskies. We had our best couple days of the year after fine-tuning this fall weed pattern, and only fishing about 10 to 15-percent of the lake that had sparser weed growth.
As you develop more fish-catching patterns through the years, they’ll give you a good starting point when fishing a new body of water. On a shallower weedy lake a big part of a productive pattern is fishing weeds that the wind is blowing in. While this may be great for catching a musky or two, the larger fish will generally be holding up-wind from major weed beds. Since this type of lake has a slower-tapering bottom, fringe weeds and deeper clumps of sand grass often exist in slighter deeper water than the main weed bed. These areas along with possible deeper scattered rocks and slight hard bottom rises would generally be the holding areas for the bigger fish. Past success with this pattern would have me trolling crankbaits or deeper-running jerkbaits across this area in sort of a lazy s pattern.
Patterning Rock Muskies
The wind was perfect last August; just strong enough to position muskies on the up-wind sides of rock structures, yet not so strong it would make boat control a challenge. Dan Kuesis, Dave Flores and I began working windy points, and started to think about putting together a pattern. Were the muskies holding on the ends of points? Were they tight on corners or inside turns closer to the shore? Maybe they were high on the structures or laying further back on the edges? Possibly suspended off the points? While several of these factors came into play, the real key to our success was the type of point we fished. In short order, a certain type of point seemed to be the preferred structure. Short points or narrow points, even if they extended out quite a bit, were fishless. Virtually every point that had width harbored a fish. Also very productive were double points on the up-wind edges of islands that had a rocky flat that connected the two points. The action was consistent throughout the day, as we saw about 25 muskies and landed a few, topped by a super thick 50 plus incher that grabbed a Bucher Mag. Tinsel Tail on the first turn of a figure 8.
While fishing on the last evening of the Musky Hunter School on Lake of the Wood’s last July with friends Mike Persson and Tom Kersten, we hit on a hot pattern and quickly rode it to success. After fishing a variety of spots, a thought passed my mind. I knew that wind-pounded large rocks and boulders in shallow water often attracted muskies. While these three-four foot deep spots might not hold active fish during brighter calmer conditions, they often become magnets for hungry muskies when the wind pounds into them. With the day nearing its end, we control drifted along a rock-studded shallow bay. Bang! A 50-incher smashed the cisco-patterned Mag Tinsel Tail halfway to the boat. A few quick photos and we were off to another shallow wind-blasted rocky spot. A big one followed a Shallow Invader to the boat, then hit on the first turn of a figure 8. Unfortunately, the hook must have hit bone and the encounter only lasted seconds. Disappointing… but we at least had one big one and were on a hot pattern. Our third spot was another shallow boulder-studded bay pounded by wind. After a few casts a 49-incher came charging after the Mag Tinsel Tail, hit on a figure 8 and was landed after a short line battle. Three big fish on three similar spots; or remember the two big ones on back to back casts I talked about earlier. If you’re not thinking about pattern fishing for muskies, you should be!
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