Searching for Suspenders

It was a balmy mid-August afternoon about ten years ago, my old high school buddy Kirke Utecht and I were doing our usual weed line trolling on a Northern Wisconsin flowage. With the exception of a few small pike, we were having no success. As boredom and heat exhaustion began to set in, I decided to troll across the main basin of the flowage to get to the deep weed edge on the opposite shoreline. Just as we began crossing the deepest part of the flowage one of the prop wash rods began screaming! My initial reaction was it must have been a snag; then I realized I only had fifteen feet of line out on a Jointed DepthRaider and we were now over thirty feet of water! I reached for the rod just as the giant muskie rolled behind the boat. After the fish made several deep power dives, I slid the beast into the Frabill Big Kahuna net. That fish stretched the tape to fifty-one inches. This experience was just the beginning of my addiction to suspended muskies.

There are two reasons I fish suspenders; the first is they are usually bigger than structure- related fish. Although I have caught a few small fish in deep water, typically the suspended muskies are some of the largest fish in a particular body of water. The second reason I fish them is they are usually more apt to bite than their weed related brothers and sisters. These fish see very few baits thrown their way, compared to the constant pounding weed bed fish receive.

It has been my experience that nearly every fishery has suspended muskies at one time or another. The key to finding them is forage. Whether you are on a lake, flowage, river, or one of the Great Lakes, at some time there are bait fish suspended high in the water column over the main basin. The forage could be ciscoes on a deep, clear Northern Wisconsin lake, shad on the Great Lakes, or crappies on a flowage; the species of forage is relative to the body of water you are fishing.

Natural Inland Lakes

Natural inland lakes are by far the easiest bodies of water in which to find suspended muskies. When searching for a good suspender lake, do a little research and try to find a lake that contains cisco or whitefish. If you find one, you are most likely onto a gold mine!

Natural inland lakes are by far the easiest bodies of water in which to find suspended muskies. When searching for a good suspender lake, do a little research and try to find a lake that contains cisco or whitefish. If you find one, you are most likely onto a gold mine! Cisco prefer deep, cold, highly oxygenated water, so the best place to start looking for them is somewhere over the main lake basin. The best way to find ciscos and muskies is to just drive around and look. Often, I will drive around for an hour or two, staring at my locator just trying to find schools of bait high in the water column. It has been my experience that when schools of cisco are in the top twenty feet of water I will have my best chance of hooking up with a muskie. When I find a good school, I fish it as though it were a piece of structure, casting above, below and on the edges. If trolling is legal, I will troll around the edges and then through the school of bait from every direction with multiple baits set at various depths.

Recently this pattern led to my tournament partner Lucas Molepske and me winning our first major muskie tournament. The Wisconsin Musky Tour event was held on the Manitowish Chain of lakes in Northern Wisconsin. The chain contains several deep clear lakes with large populations of cisco. Throughout the two day event we searched for schools of suspended ciscos, concentrating on schools in the top fifteen feet. It was a very difficult bite with the majority of fish in a negative mood. The key to triggering the muskies to bite was working crankbaits with a slow, pause and twitch retrieve. The pattern was good enough to land us a check for nearly $14,000!

When it comes to lure selection for cisco related suspenders, I typically use either soft plastics or crankbaits. The Musky Innovations Bulldawg has been one of the best producers in my boat over the last several seasons; also the new Realfish Cisco boated a couple of giants this past season. Crankbaits can also be extremely productive, I use lures including the Musky Mania Ernie and Jake, Bucher Depthraider, Cisco Kid, and my personal favorite the Esox Research Company’s Triple D. As far as lure color goes, I prefer anything in a cisco pattern, baits containing shades of blue, purple, black, gray or white, and sometimes on tough days I’ll try something bright. In fact, I’ve caught fish on a blaze orange crankbait several times when nothing else works.

Flowages and Shallow Lakes

Suspended muskies on flowages and shallow lakes are an extremely underrated pattern that can really be hot under certain conditions! After I caught the fish I talked about at the beginning of this article, I wanted to know why that fish was out there. Over the next several evenings I noticed huge mayfly hatches over deep mud flats.

As I observed what was going on I also saw large numbers of crappies, bluegills and shiners gorging themselves on the tasty little bugs. The entire food chain was at work, as the panfish were eating the mayflies, the muskies, walleyes, and pike were devouring the panfish and my crankbaits! This has become one of my favorite patterns, and has accounted for numerous fish over the four foot mark. Anytime there is a mayfly hatch, you can bet I’ll be casting or trolling over a deep mud flat!

My favorite flowage baits are noisy, rattling crankbaits; I like something that will make some noise and vibration to help fish find the lures, especially in stained water. Jointed Bucher DepthRaiders and ShallowRaiders, Musky Mania 10” Jakes, and Drifter Believers are just a couple of examples. When it comes to lure color, I like natural panfish colors as well as bright patterns such as fire tiger and orange tiger.

Rivers

An even more overlooked pattern is suspended fish in rivers. Big slow moving rivers with forage such as shad, crappies, or white bass, can provide some of the best suspended fishing there is! I have had numerous multiple fish days trolling crankbaits upstream or casting as I drift downstream. Like any other body of water the key is locating schools of forage, and once they are found work them over from every angle.

When trolling for suspended muskies in rivers, I vary the depths of my baits anywhere from the top couple feet of water to about half way down to the bottom, depending on the depth of the baitfish. Once a productive depth is found, I like to place a few more baits at the same level, plus at least one about five feet higher and another about five feet lower.

I usually prefer to troll upstream in rivers as it gives the baits the best action. Trolling downstream can work also, but you will need to troll faster downstream to produce the correct action on your lures. Depending on current speed I usually troll anywhere from .5 mph to 1 mph faster when going downstream, the key is to watch your rod tips to verify that the crankbaits are wobbling.

Great Lakes

Big water means big fish; it also means a lot of water to cover. In the muskie world, there are few bodies of water that can compare to the size and complexity of waters such as Georgian Bay, Green Bay or Lake Erie. It has been my experience that the best way to tackle these huge waters is to focus on the seasonal migrations of baitfish such as alewives, whitefish, yellow perch, and especially gizzard shad.

In the fall, large schools of gizzard shad will suspend near river mouths. I have found giant schools anywhere from right inside of the mouth to a couple of miles out depending on wind currents and water temperatures. I have seen schools of shad gathered in small scattered pods or tightly balled schools that can be several hundred feet long.

The best tactic to finding and staying on top of these huge schools is trolling with multiple lines and planer boards. Check your local regulations on the number of lines allowed per angler, and use as many as legally possible! Use planer boards to spread your lines and cover water. I have found Offshore Tackle’s OR-12 Side-Planers to be the best, although they need a minor modification to handle muskie size lures. Remove the clips on the Offshore boards and replace them with a pair of the Offshore OR-16 snap weight clips.

When trolling around schools of shad, I have had the best luck by trying to keep the boat on the outside edges of the school. Staying on the edge accomplishes two very important things; first of all it helps to prevent spooking the school and scattering the shad. Secondly I believe the majority of the muskies will be prowling the edges waiting for a stray shad to pick off. I have boated very few fish directly inside of the schools, it seems the majority of the fish will come anywhere from five to fifty feet away from the baitfish.

As far as lure choice goes on the Great Lakes, I bring everything! I have found these fish to be extremely finicky and lure choice can change throughout the day. I have had some very good luck on huge baits such as Legend Plows, Legend Perch Baits, 13” Grandmas and 14” Jakes. However, my best action when fishing shad schools has come on smaller six to nine inch baits, which closely resemble the size and profile of the shad. Baits such as Jakes, Slammers, Super Shad Raps, and Shallow Raiders will all take fish. Color can be an even bigger question mark than lure choice; at times they may want bright gaudy colors or they may want natural shad imitations. The key is to use multiple baits until you establish a pattern.

Don’t let the old belief that muskies only relate to shallow structure dictate the way you fish. The biggest thing to remember from this article is that muskies can be found suspended nearly anywhere. Lakes, flowages, rivers, and the Great Lakes all have suspended fish at some time of the year. The key is to pay attention to every detail when you are on the water; watch your locator for baitfish, keep and eye out for bugs, diving birds, or anything else that could possibly indicate the location of bait and feeding muskies. Also be creative by trying different lures, retrieves, trolling speeds, etc. Give suspended muskies a try on your favorite body of water next season, and I guarantee you will put even more and bigger fish in your boat!

by Brett Jolly

Captain Jolly Charters

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