Muskellunge and Northern Pike:
Effective Handling and Release Practices
Every so often, a musky changes your angling life. My altering moment went unrecognized and unappreciated at the time, as is the case when delivered in the form of a 37-incher. The size of this particular fish was disproportionate to the magnitude the lesson it taught.
Nevertheless, I remember that calm June morning and the musky that hit one perfect cast, the fifth placed to a spot the size of a hula-hoop. Just as vivid are the lingering air bubbles on the glassy surface from the first four casts that returned with no action. But cast No. 5 – executed with the same lure in the same manner at the same approximate depth – was different for more reasons than the T-boned strike and subsequent headshakes.
It was my first taste of what I now know as saturation casting.
Saturation casting is the antithesis to the run-and-gun lifestyle that envelops today’s musky community. Its foundation is one of measure and labor, plainly evidenced in minimalist boat advancement and cast grouping. Each is straightforward and easy to conceptualize. The driver
Brett Eisenhower hoists his 50½-incher
inches the boat along a weed edge, breakline, and so on, maintaining position in the area. Anglers survey the water with incremental casts, placed neatly alongside the last and grouped with an archer’s precision, effectively saturating a small area.
On the surface, saturation casting and “camping” seem closely related. While the two share similar elements, they differ in cast selection and the angler’s duration in the area. The boat glides evenly in each scenario. It’s common for camping to span several hours, allotting time for multiple passes, but typically only one vigorous pass suffices for saturation casters. Fish activity typically warrants consecutive efforts.
Saturation casters will ease through historically productive areas, particularly when favorable conditions align. Campers, filling a deeper commitment, require more concrete evidence than past-experience alone. Recent follows, missed opportunities, or even boated muskies lead to extended stays.
Camping is a test of perseverance, not a tide of leisure. The goal is to wait out uncooperative fish, anticipating the overlap of positive fish activity and angler presence. Saturation casting, by contrast, practices efficiency in the moment.
COUNTERING STATUS QUO
Saturation casting should be seen as a complement and not a replacement of the camping and run-and-gun tactics. Each is effective when employed at the appropriate times. These stipulations are painfully critical, yet woefully abused. Many in the world of modern musky angling believe more casts equal more muskies seen, boated, or otherwise. Fast is inherently best.
Reels fuse power and blazing speeds, resulting in burner retrieves with little effort. Trolling motors permit forward progress in the strongest of headwinds. It’s easy to move fast; and it’s never been easier to move too fast. This is the run-and-gun mindset explained as “eliminating water” or “locating active fish.” I consider it carelessness when ill-timed. Anglers cover more water than necessary, leaving a trail of untouched muskies in their wake.
Likewise, anglers wrongly associate lure speed and boat speed as a single unit, although they are mutually exclusive events. The low-and-slow approach invites subtle lure styles, with jerkbaits and spinnerbaits standard fare. But high-speed retrieves continue to work with a crawled boat pace (slow retrieves and brisk boat speeds, not so much). Burn blades, rip plastics, and smoke gliders when the situation permits. Forget finesse.
The final myth to debunk is our spatial relationship to cover. Simply, it extends beyond tight quarters, and consequently short casts. I maintain the same distance from cover when saturation casting as I do when camping and on the run, even bomb casting at times.
FIRST ISN’T NECESSARILY BETTER
To the casual observer, saturation casting is a matter of reducing boat speed and rifling a few extra casts. But cast placement is deliberate, each nook and cranny carefully probed.
The successful clean-up angler in a multi-angler rig serves as a good example. His bait may be secord or third through the spot but can be just as effective as that of the first angler.
My father, Brett, was casting from the rear deck when the 50½-inch bruiser pictured above interrupted our saturation-casting pass.
The end caster has a world of casting angles at his fingertips and the opportunity to contrast his boatmates with lure type, size, color, and presentation. His position in the boat doesn’t hurt his odds, so long as he doesn’t allow it.
Saturation casting can be seen as an adaptation to lakes where motors are regulated. In many locales, boats are limited to electric motors on smaller lakes or to smaller horsepower outboards in populated areas.
The takeaway is the difficulty to pattern fish. Impoundments lack complexity. How many windblown points exist on a 100-acre lake? What if the spots on a lake are small, seldom larger than a football field? There is little to gain by covering water; small waters demand a thorough examination of spots.
Time management is the issue on the larger bodies governed by horsepower restrictions. Similar spots (e.g. windblown points) are common, though the waters are too big, the spots too spread out, and navigation times too long for pattern fishing to be effective. I find it impractical – too much driving, not enough fishing. Saturation casting is economical; it makes use of the water at the angler’s disposal, avoiding commutes that drain hourglasses and boat batteries.
Of course, saturation casting also works on waters that welcome large outboards.
I find saturation casting best on familiar waters. It seems reasonable to exercise efforts in areas that yield consistent success. These venues require thorough casting coverage during prime feeding times. Even an intermittent cloud on a bluebird day, which alters light penetration, can generate a small window. In these instances, saturation casting caters to the spot, not to the fish.
Similarly, we recognize that being the first boat through a spot will not guarantee fish contact. This holds especially true given today’s populous races through a spot, as if anxious to reach its end. Saturation-casters uncover overlooked muskies.
The 37-incher credited for the saturation casting approach
Conversely, tough times breed lethargic muskies and call for slow movement. Normally a front has passed, leaving high pressure, clear skies, and minimal wind. Our obligation is to the fish in these classically poor conditions, and incremental casts further occupy their diminished strike zones.
Saturation casting also serves well in dark water environments, where the fishes’ lateral line plays an even larger role than vision. This applies to naturally tannic waters, as well as those churned-up waters following heavy rain or wind. Minute progress and repetitive casts keep the lure in the same general area, further catering to the fish.
The application targets shallow dwellers and pelagic muskies alike. Each maintains a relationship with cover, structure, baitfish, or some combination.
Shallow water hides few secrets. Cover is at least partially visible, underwater structure a continuation of land. Sonar units fill remaining gaps. Standing timber or laydowns merit a few additional casts, and no one ignores a point, but vegetation is the primary focus. Whether free-flowing, barrier, clumpy, or summer slop, fish what is available.
A slow approach at depth may require more persistence, however. For those reserved, I cite the immense popularity and success of vertical jigging. While jigging is apart from the saturation-casting program, it's worth noting due to the lure's extended time in a narrow zone, combined with necessarily slow boat speeds. Most open-water casts probe isolated targets adjacent to structure – breaklines, sloughs and channels, and humps. Again, sonar units connect the dots.
The run-and-gun style seems best when working schools of baitfish because they’re rarely sedentary. When they’re mobile, so am I, but hula-hoop precision is ultimately lost. If at all, saturation casting is casually entertained during the daylight hours as baitfish hang together in open water, muskies never far away.
I’ll group casts on any spot-on-the-spot location, regardless of the conditions. Intricacies in these areas offer some chance at willing fish at almost any time. The space is also noticeably smaller, so even if running-and-gunning, a brief saturation casting stint won’t break the pattern. If a small section has been extra kind, it deserves closer inspection.
Musky fishing is not always a hammer-down race to the fish. More days than not, the quality of a cast outweighs the quantity. Reduce your boat speed, cast precisely, and watch your mind shift.
"Muskellunge and Northern Pike: Effective Handling and Release Practices" was featured in the September/October 2016 issue of Pennsylvania Angler & Boater magazine