Follow The Shad
With a dense human population around the “Windy City” along with being the second highest producer of corn in the country, Illinois does not sound like a traditional musky epicenter. In 1975, after Project Illini started, over 1,500 muskies from hatcheries in Wisconsin and Minnesota were stocked in several Illinois lakes.
In 1977, Project Illini was working in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and looking for a sustainable fish hatchery that could successfully raise musky fry. In 1979 the Jake Wolf Fish Hatchery was born. To this date, the Jake Wolf Fish Hatchery continues stocking muskies to many of the greater and lesser lakes of Illinois.
From 1988-2009, nearly 500,000 muskies were stocked in Illinois and today several lakes hold fish in excess of 30 pounds. With no closed musky season and strict creel limits, Illinois has become a musky angler’s Heaven, especially for Wisconsin and Minnesota anglers whose season is closed in the spring. It’s now a big draw for Wisconsin anglers to jump start their musky season on waters like the Fox Chain O’ Lakes just a few miles south of the border.
The Fox Chain waterway is located in northeast Illinois and consists of 15 lakes, which are connected by the Fox River and other manmade channels. Surpassing over 7,000 acres of water and 480 miles of shoreline, it is known to be the busiest inland recreational waterway in the country. Docks and lakeside bars don’t open until March/April, which means fewer patrons and recreational boaters.
Forage in the Fox Chain is shad-based and the extreme cold winters conjoined with drastic temperature change makes for one of the most exciting times of the year — the shad die-off! This happens in the spring and fall when water temperatures rise or fall quickly due to high winds associated with cold or warm fronts. This is an excellent time to take advantage of a bite that is not often utilized.
It is important to know that shad migrate in and around the Fox Chain waterways. The deep and clear, highly-enriched forage lakes on the northern end of the chain will no longer have algae and plankton upon which shad feed. So, the shad migrate toward areas where flush steams, creeks and rivers empty into the Fox Chain waterways. The turbid water and large amount of silt and organic matter will create the perfect food for schooling shad. Most muskies will migrate with the shad, keeping up their high fat diet, which will help them through the late winter and spring months in preparation for the coming spawn.
Once these areas where the shad are schooled up and thriving on the incoming organic matter are found, it is only a matter of time before the warm spring air and high winds create a drastic rise in water temperature. The shad will have a hard time acclimating and eventually the weak will begin to die. This die-off makes the muskies vulnerable and easy to catch.
Llungen Lures’ Rattlin’ Shad is the ideal presentation during this time because it not only “matches the hatch,” but it triggers reaction strikes from lethargic muskies. Working the boat very slowly and firing casts off extremely close to the last cast will do two things — it gives a higher probability of getting the lure in front of the fishes’ face and entices the muskies through aggravation. Vary the retrieve speed every few casts to decipher how the muskies will react.
The color of your lure should be determined by the clarity of the water. The clearer the water, use natural, shad-based colors. The darker the water, use brighter bait colors. If casting doesn’t prevail, trolling is the next option. Troll the outskirts of the remaining shad school at slower speeds, much slower than when trolling later in the year. Determining the shad’s depth and running lures right above and below them will not only keep your baits closer to the muskies, but will help keep from breaking up the schools of shad. For this type of trolling, two top producing lures are the Llungen .22 Short and the B&N Rippin’ Shad. — Jeremy Burris
It’s Musky Time
At the time of this writing, our lakes in northeast Indiana are free of ice so we are still hunting the big girls that are getting ready for winter. Ice will be here before we know it and it will be time to prepare for next spring. During a normal year, we would be looking forward to seeing all our friends and fellow musky hunters during the winter shows, bragging about our catches from the previous year and discussing how we will be improving our techniques for the coming season. I guess we’ll have to wait for this until next show season.
In northeast Indiana, the early spring season is late March, April and early May, when water temperatures usually range from 40 degrees up to around 65. Weed growth begins in the three- to eight-foot depth range, which is the area that will first begin to attract baitfish. Finding areas that are just one or two degrees warmer than the surrounding water can make all the difference. I plan my trips a little later in the day to give the water a chance to warm a bit.
I begin by searching shallow water in the northern end of the lake as that gets the most sun during this time of year. Darker water warms faster, so you will up your odds if you can find some on the north side.
I usually start my day by fishing the five-foot deep flats where you find the warmest water. This is where the muskies will be getting ready to spawn. Don’t worry, we have a year-round season as the fishery is dependent on stocking and natural recruitment doesn’t occur. You will be fishing for a few muskies in pre-spawn mode as well as some coming out of it, and they will mostly be males. Webster Lake’s “backwater” portion, the main channel, and the flat out from the main channel are perfect examples of where to start fishing in the early spring. Gizzard shad — the main forage base — spawn in the same areas in spring, so shallow flats are a great place to start.
There are many techniques and options to catch muskies in Indiana. One of the best options for baits are smaller gliders that mimic the forage base — anything six inches and under is best, and I wouldn’t go any larger than eight inches. Some of the lures I use are ERC’s Hellpuppy, Musky Kombat Sidewinder (you can find them on social media), Ashcrafted Musky Lures’ Baby Honey Badger (also social media), and if you can find one, an old wood Magic Maker/Tippy Darter. All look and swim like a shad.
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