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Expert tips for landing muskie

Sunday, February 23, 2003

By Deborah Weisberg

Jim Saric grew up muskie fishing in northern Wisconsin, casting bucktail spinners to weed beds. "Then I'd see my buddies in Ohio and Pennsylvania troll 'til they ran out of gas. Both have their time and place. If your goal is to catch muskie, you should be comfortable with both," he said. "A muskie is a muskie anywhere."

The editor of "Musky Hunter" magazine and a seven-time tournament champion, Saric travels the country fishing and speaking at sportsmen's shows and expos, such as the muskie fishing expo March 7-9 at The Chadwick on Route 19 in Wexford.

Saric will focus on advanced techniques for catching trophy muskellunge, which is usually about 5 percent of the muskie population on any lake, during his presentation at the muskie fishing expo.

He said it takes dedication to catch fish 50 inches or more, but weekend fishermen will find that 40-inch muskies are not the fish of 10,000 casts. The catch and release ethic has made muskie more abundant, and techniques that work with other species can be applied.

"Muskies are big bass with attitude," Saric said. "Remember the basics and figure out a pattern."

Here are some tips from Saric.

He usually starts out with a hydrographic map. He likes those by Fishing Hot Spots. He decides what looks good on paper, based on structural features. "Pick the five best spots, circle them, rank them one to five, and fish them in that order."

If you're unfamiliar with the water, choose larger, flatter areas, such as sandy points or bars that drop off and create food shelves, or structured areas such as the saddle area between islands, sunken islands, or weed beds, that provide cover -- whether it's vegetation, timber or boulders -- for the shad, suckers, small walleye, and even bullheads that muskie love to eat. "Pay attention to what's around you," Saric said. "Are you seeing bait fish? What type cover are they relating to? How are the fish reacting to their environment?"

If you haven't triggered a strike within the first couple of casts, especially if you've seen a fish follow, you've probably spooked him and he's gone, said Saric. You should think about moving, too, though you might first try switching from whatever lure you're fishing to a topwater lure, which is slower moving and tends to stay in the strike zone.

If there is still no action, then go on to your next spot, but plan on returning later, when there is some environmental change, such as the rising or setting of the moon or increased cloudiness, Saric added. Note where you were by a landmark -- such as a house or a certain tree -- so you can find the same spot.

Concentrating on a few areas is a good approach whether you're fishing big or small water, he advised. Even if you're on the Kinzua or Pymatuning and you can fish 30 spots a day, you're better off choosing a half dozen and going back to them five or six times throughout the day.

Saric has at least 200 lures in his boat when he fishes. That's way too many for the weekend angler, he said. A couple of different colors in topwater baits, bucktail spinners, minnow baits, jerkbaits, deep running crank baits and soft plastics should be adequate for most trips. Black is a go-to for muskie.

"But too much is made of color," Saric said. "Be more concerned with depth."

For trolling, he recommends a Wiley or a jointed crank bait, such as a Depth Raider. Keep it 10 to 25 feet behind the boat.

If vertical jigging, which is a good fall technique, choose high-visibility blade baits in orange or chartreuse for murky water and a black body with a silver blade for clear water.

If casting, big bucktail spinners are easy to throw and hook fish well, especially if they are active. Jerkbaits can be more effective but are also more work.

Though natural lakes are the best muskie water, said Saric, reservoirs are a close second and rivers are often over-looked. Howard Wagner, of Fombell, piqued interest last January when he landed a 54-inch muskie on an Allegheny River tributary.

"Smaller rivers are especially overlooked," Saric said. "But you can find big fish in those rivers. Fish the bends or the confluence with another river. If you've always fished lakes, you have to get used to that third environmental factor for locating baitfish -- the current."

Always pay attention to fundamentals and figure out a pattern.

"That's the one thing I see where ever I go ... how people try to short-circuit this muskie game. There is no real shortcut," Saric said. "Use good quality equipment and keep it in good shape. Make sure hooks are sharp. Strikes are so few and far between, you don't want to lose a fish to a dull hook."

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