Reservoir Dog Days : Melton Hill Musky Under the Summer Sun
Updated: Dec 21, 2018
For what seemed like an eternity the sky above Melton Hill Lake stood bare, Pelham blue surrounding the relentlessly staring sun. The waters’ surface reflected a deep glassy gaze, tempting you to take that first step. Tennessee's weather patterns were stifled by a high pressure system that refused to open is grasp. And with no change coming in the forecast, most anglers lingered around the docks defeated and begging for a break, like dust bowl farmers praying for rain.
So each evening, as I made my way to the dock, I dutifully tidied my vessel, keeping the secrets our day’s adventures locked away. The chaos of the hot bite was well hidden: lures neatly hung in boxes with net folded and tucked aside. I casually slipped into a fresh shirt to avoid any contradiction when I muttered, “not much”, to the typical boat ramp inquisition. But the truth of the matter was the muskies hadn’t disappeared, or made some collective decision to starve for weeks as were the common dockside grumbles. I’d had three 50 inch fish in as many days to disprove their theories wrong. The facts were these: The muskies location and activity levels did not match the skill sets of the anglers. Each disgruntled angler’s refusal to break from “proven locations” and “comfortable presentations” had decreased their chances to nearly none. The recent photos on my phone were proof that breaking from the norm and trying new tactics could bring any dog day to heel.
Good Parts of a Bad Day
An obvious way to approach a high sun, stagnant weather pattern is to focus your efforts on the morning and the evening. It is common knowledge that muskies tend to be more active and easier to target during these hours. However, when weather patterns stall out, leaving extended periods of high pressure, the locations, cover and structure used by muskies can swing wildly from the norm. Typical shallow water haunts will continue to hold muskies during the morning and evening hours, but when high pressure systems move in, most muskies will pull away from shorelines to suspend over deeper water. Therefore, being confident in targeting these suspending muskies during the good hours of a bad day becomes a crucial factor for success.
At these preferred times of day, the potential for a top water bite may be present. It is important to be observant of any surface activity. On flat, calm days bait fish, bass or perch make moves on the surface that may indicate a top-water bite. Utilizing this move is a highly effective way to target suspending muskies. Suspended Muskies also utilize these dusk and dawn hours to target schools of bait fish and other prey that have also pulled off the shoreline due to excessive light penetration and warmer than optimal temperatures.
But as is often the case, “dog day” conditions leave muskies suspended slightly deeper offshore, so gliders, like the ERC Hell Puppy and Joe Bucher Glide Raider, become my go to presentations. Both of these lures utilize a wide, side to side, walk-the-dog retrieve and excel in both low and high water column applications. The Joe Bucher Glide Raider’s large profile moves a lot of water and brings muskies in from long distances. The smaller ERC Hell Puppy can be an equally invaluable tool as it moves similarly, but offers a smaller target for muskies in a less than ravenous mood.
Dialing in on the depth and speed of your presentation is the single most important factor in connecting with suspending muskies. Constant variance in cadence, speed, and depth is therefore crucial until their preference can be accessed. I rarely attribute success to color selection but with blue skies and light penetration in play it can be truly paramount. White and silver shad are always stand outs, but hot bellies like Tennessee shad and fire tiger can give you an edge in the early morning hours. While I typically focus on glide presentation for suspended muskies, mixing in crank baits like the Joe Bucher Shallow Raider and utilizing a slack line twitch or deeper running cranks, can be highly effective.
Many novice and weekend musky hunters are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with open water casting and approach the subject with unnecessary hesitation. Rest assured open water casting doesn’t necessarily include being far removed from your typical musky haunts or miles offshore. A simple and great way to get your feet wet in open water tactics is to parallel your boat with the shoreline and cast from there outward. This allows you to effectively work submerged weed edges, while putting your cast on or near important structural elements and break lines that muskies will likely be suspending over. When using this simple reversal of casting away from the shoreline, it is important to note how far from the boat and how deep your presentation is when contact is made. This will allow you to hone your casts to specific areas and depths. Always remember to place some casts in front and rear of the boat ensuring total coverage of the target area. I understand that reversing your casting approach isn’t rocket science, but it will help increase the comfort level of throwing to open areas of water.
Prime Musky Real Estate
During elongated periods of high sun and flat conditions, schools of shad and other forage fish will move offshore and relate to deeper structural elements, both vertically and laterally. While some musky can be contacted by casting in and around these roaming bait schools, the largest muskies will simply park and patiently wait on a key structural element. This allows them to convert calories and effectively ambush prey. Locating and properly presenting to these pieces of prime musky real estate can put you in contact with some of the most shockingly large muskies, even on the toughest days.
Begin the hunt for these locations by examining original river channels, creek channels or flowage points, looking for irregularities. Some of these are as obvious as a football field sized sand flats, while others are more conspicuous as a small rock hump on the Humminbird.
When fishing in bright sun and blue skies, I give little regard to the maximum dept of these elements. Even the most extremely deep irregularities can be markers for muskies to suspend over. Anything that jumps up off the bottom or stands out off the map or screen can be a holding location and should be noted. Also attentions should be paid to locating inside and outside turns in all reservoirs and flowages that present an accumulation of sediment or debris. This can create important slopes and sandbars.
Focus should be on locating structural elements that bring together deep and shallow water. This can be a river channel adjacent to a flat or a slowly sloping sand bar built up from years of river sediment. Locating these transitional structures that tie together multiple parts of the muskies’ underwater world is the key to locating the “dog day” muskies.
Once a target area is established, implement a three prong casting and trolling hybrid attack, using gliders, suspending crank baits, and jigs to probe all depths until the preferred location becomes clear. When it comes to open water structure casting, you can utilize Hell Puppy’s and Glide Raiders for depths from zero to about six feet, looking for suspended fish. Make sure to vary each retrieve, running some casts deep, and some casts shallow, while constantly adjusting the speed. Often muskies willing to follow glide baits can be enticed into a strike by bringing the lure to a subsurface position followed by a quick jerk downward. Southern muskies tend to be cautious or sluggish under clear skies, so a slow retrieve can be used to move them, but speed is definitely a trigger once engaged.
With the Hell Puppy and Glide Raider covering the first six feet of the water column, a Joe Bucher Suspending Depth Raider will do the heavy lifting. Again, use a “walk the dog” style of retrieve, but start each retrieve by cranking the lure down to the desired depth, focusing on the six through twelve foot range. As you retrieve the lure, you can easily raise its depth with an upward rip or lower it in the water column with some longer pulls. This precision depth control allows you to keep the lure exactly in the strike zone of muskies near structure. The side to side darting, coupled with its internal rattle can be used to target fish long who are long distances from the lure. Once dialed in on a specific depth range, the neutral buoyancy allows for some hybrid trolling. Simply work the Depth Raider to the target depth; each time the lure is paused during a retrieve, let some slack out while moving the boat forward with the trolling motor. Hybrid trolling allows you to quickly cover large distances and big breaks, while keeping the Suspending Depth Raider on target.
If muskies are holding very tight to structural elements or are exceptionally negative as they can be in certain conditions, you can rely on some off-beat style jigging. My “go to” jigging presentation is a modified Goldilocks Buchertail 500 Series inline spinner with the blade taped to the shaft. This gives it a spoon like quality while preserving its original functionality. The addition of a couple of Mister Twister soft plastics to the treble hook completes the conversion from phenomenal bucktail to killer jig. This Buchertail jig has a unique action as its skirt puffs and ungulates underwater, it’s now stationary blade adds an unpredictable spoon like darting flutter to each jump and fall. The rear treble ups the hooking percentage and eliminates the finesse needed to set a standard single hook jig.
To effectively jig a 500 Series Buchertail, cast toward the shallowest element of the structure and bounce the lure down the structure from shallow to deep. This shallow to deep retrieve develops increasingly longer hang times, which in turn gives a following musky more striking opportunities. Using a simple up and down motion with the rod tip creates a jump and fall of the lure, mirroring the sloping structural contours. A fast, medium action rod is great for this application as the strike is commonly lighter because the lure is snapped up as it falls.
Jigging spinner baits, like the 5” single blade Joe Bucher Slop Master, over structure and open water is another unique but deadly “dog day” tactic. The addition of large grub tails or lizard shaped soft plastics allows you to add a second hook and keep it snag-free, by hiding the point in the plastic. This also adds an additional attractant as the lure falls. To effectively jig spinner baits, simply use upward rod tugs to raise the lure and allow the lure to then fall freely with the slack line that was generated. The flutter of the single blade slows the fall of the lure, like a helicopter descending. The spinner bait jigging presentation works well on neutral muskies by emulating the fluttering of injured forage. Once you have a clear picture of the structure around you, jigging spinner baits allows you to make your lure tantalizingly lift and fall directly over and in front of muskies. This will generate plenty of territorial strikes which can sometimes be the only game in town in high bright sun. Using these three lure combinations can definitely keep you successfully fishing through the hardest conditions.
Go With the Flow
One of the biggest influences on fishing for musky in southern reservoirs like Melton Hill isn’t the weather; it’s the constant changes in environment caused by the hydroelectric dams. The release schedule of each dam can wreak havoc on patterns and can even leave the most astute musky angler scratching their heads. But these unannounced water level changes can be just the break you need to overcome the dog day blues. When high pressure is combined with dropping reservoir levels, small but intense feeding windows open up out of nowhere. It is likely that sudden water movement draws small aquatic creatures off the bottom, kick starting the food chain into action. It may just be merely conjecture but regardless, a definite pattern seems to emerge when this unnatural influence begins.
As water levels draw down, muskies that have been inhabiting transitional structure will make sudden moves to shallow back bays, while others can be found suspended over the deepest water available. Feeding windows under these falling water conditions seem to be more influenced by sudden movements of forage than the actual changing of levels. In open water, muskies can be found suspending near river channel bottle necks and near eddies. This unique reservoir pattern causes neutral muskies to congregate in feeding areas. Multiple muskies will lie in wait to ambush forage that has been forced down stream through the bottle necks.
During these falling water periods, presentation needs call for larger, more aggressive lures like a 9” Shallow Raider. I have also found large inline spinners like the Mepps H210 to be highly effective. In this scenario, well placed casts and depth control is crucial as the muskies using bottle neck areas are less willing to move great distances to intercept a target. Instead these fish prefer to move on prey that lies within a tail flicks distance.
The muskies that seem to suddenly appear in shallow cover and cut backs in falling water conditions are many times the most aggressive. When the water levels start falling, make a “bee line” for back coves in search of these fired-up, aggressive fish. Bucktails and shallow minnow baits are all effective, when this small window opens. Keeping a constant eye trained on the shoreline can help alert you to the sudden fluctuations in water level, and can help you get a leg up on a tough day.
Regardless of your location in the musky world, the next time you’re faced with blue bird skies or a relentless summer sun, be the boat that’s doing something a little different. Also, the next time you hear chatter from the ramp rats that the “conditions are the worst,” or “the muskies aren’t biting”, realize what they really mean is their skill set is no longer compatible with the current lake conditions. Developing confidence in a wide variety of tactics and presentations is the key to being a successful musky hunter. Dedicating the time on the water to develop and perfect new and unconventional tactics is a sure fire way to be the top dog on any dog day even on
tougher than normal bodies of water like Melton Hill.
Steven Paul Melton Hill Musky Guide
Melton Hill Musky Fishing Charter
Tennessee Musky Fishing and Melton Hill Musky Tactics
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