When a west coast area code popped up on my caller ID, I assumed that it was yet another marketing call, but this time I was definitely wrong. Upon answering, I was met with a booming voice that quickly cut to chase.
“Hey, I heard you know how to catch muskies and I want you to teach me how.”
The voice on the other end definitely wasn’t foreign, AND he wanted to talk about musky fishing, my favorite subject.
That voice belonged to Andy, a resident of the Pacific Northwest that had recently been bitten by the musky bug while on a holiday trip in Wisconsin. He informed me, to my amazement, that many waterways had been stocked in the Northwest with Tiger Muskies. But unfortunately for those locals who were interested, when it came to information, tactics and tackle, real intel was sparse to say the least.
Fishing for muskies in Tennessee at times has felt like I was the first man on the moon; flying a few thousand miles west to explore these new lakes, felt like a one way rocket trip to Pluto.
These were truly some unexplored realms of the muskie universe.
Heading to the Pacific Northwest for Tiger Muskie Fishing
After a few phone calls and some intense game planning, everything was set in motion. I would take my leave of Tennessee, make a pit stop in Green Bay, ending up Portland. Our tight schedule would leave us with no more than a solid week on the water. Prior to boarding my flight, I nervously packed nearly every musky lure I owned into a few giant shipping boxes; there wasn’t a tackle store for miles where I was going. Extra this, every color of that, I grabbed it all. Andy and I would be starting from scratch. The only info we could find were stories of accidental catches made by anglers trolling for Salmon and Trout, so finding the right lure combination would be tricky.
After a grueling travel day that was fraught with long TSA lines, screaming babies and one missed connection, I had finally arrived in Portland.
I grabbed my luggage and waited in front of the airport in a relentless downpour that left the locals unphased. For those of you that haven’t been to the Pacific Northwest, it’s wet, if it’s not raining I promise you won’t have to wait long.
My rainy wait didn’t last long as the voice on the phone now had a face. Andy pulled up to meet me with his massive ‘Deep V’ boat in tow. I jumped in and we were off on a tiger muskie fishing adventure I will not soon forget. Andy turned out to be the quintessential “West Coast Dude”, a laid back, Reggae loving, ‘all grown up’ hippie with no inhibitions or ego, but was harboring a growing passion for all things musky. We were definitely the odd couple, but our mutual love for tiger muskie fishing made us fast friends.
A Background on Tiger Muskie Fishing
The tiger muskie is the result of muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) and a northern pike (Esox lucius) cross breed. Tiger muskies have some of the characteristics of both fish. The caudal fins on the tail of a Tiger Muskie are more rounded than those of a true muskie. These “half breeds” do occur naturally in many places, but the Tigers of Oregon and Washington have been stocked by their respective wildlife agencies in an effort to control other invasive species.
A nice sized Washington state Tiger Muskie!
Lakes that have been stocked with Tiger Muskies in the Northwest generally have massive populations of Squawfish, an invasive species that feeds on the eggs and spawn of Salmon and other game fish. The presence of this invasive species in Washington and Oregon has had a measurable impact on native populations.
Squawfish, the primary food source of Northwest Tiger Muskies.
Washington and Oregon Tiger Muskie Fishing in Reservoirs
The waterways and reservoirs of Washington and Oregon are similar in shape and structural complexity to those found in Tennessee and Kentucky. However, when it comes to depth, there is no comparison. Many of these bodies of water plunge to 200-300 feet if not more, giving a cold water species endless staging options to choose from.
The staggering depths that points, break-lines, and drops-offs plunge to can be perplexing at first glance. On southern reservoirs, muskies may hold slightly off the bottom, near points and other structural elements, but with such great depths, holding near the bottom is seemingly out of the question for these Western Tigers.
With this interesting new detail, special attention must be paid to open water areas adjacent to these structural elements.
Some of the largest Tigers we encountered were in open water, just slightly removed from structural contours. Getting comfortable with open water tactics is highly recommended for encounters like those with the Washington and Oregon Tiger Muskies.
Merwin Lake located in Washington State.
Early on while dissecting these western bodies of water, one point of note is paying attention to waterfalls. Just like creek mouths in the MidWest and South, waterfalls attract bait-fish which in turn draw predators seeking out an easy meal.
Waterfalls often do not have the defined edges that a creek entering a body of water will, so saturation casting is recommended as muskie staging areas are not always obvious.
Clear Water Tiger Muskie Fishing & Mid Cast Triggers
The assumption that Tiger Muskies are easier to catch or less temperamental than true muskies does not seem to be the case in the West. The fish we encountered seemed as weary if not more so than Muskies anywhere in their habitat range.
Tiger Muskie Fishing in the Pacific Northwest is generally done on extremely clear bodies of water. This can lead to some frustrating moments. Muskies engaged in a “follow” can be easily spotted, but that is a two-way street; large Tiger Muskies could often be observed turning off baits long before they reached the boat. Here in Tennessee, I am always preaching about the importance of “The Short Game” , and with a high percentage of my Southern Muskiescoming in the “figure eight”. However, when targeting these western Tiger Muskies special attention should be paid to Mid-Cast Triggers.
Andy’s first Trophy Tiger Muskie was caught using a Jointed Depth Raider.
The first element of my clear water equation is distance casting. Regardless, if you are targeting shoreline cover or open water areas, longer casts will afford you the opportunity to not only cover more water, but also allows you to add multiple mid-cast triggers. These clear water conditions often mean that the fish you see are not the ones you catch.
These deep, clear waterways also demand deeper presentations. Even with overcast conditions being normal in this region, Tiger Muskies will hold slightly deeper than one might think.
Deeper running cranking baits like the Joe Bucher Jointed Depth raider allow for numerous float ups and restarts with each retrieve. When fishing hard break-lines, start by cranking the lure down to maximum depth then simply letting it rise to the surface; this can yield phenomenal results. Any presentation that has the potential of getting a muskie in a vertical posture is deadly.
The exaggerated depths of these western waters are tailor-made for these tactics.
Utilizing and augmenting a lures sink / rise rate is often critical for generating mid-cast strikes. Simple modifications like hook changes or the addition of weight to a lure is often the first step for getting dialed in.
Another trophy Tiger Muskie from Washington State.
Throw Free-Falling Spinner Baits when Tiger Muskie Fishing
These classic lures are versatile tools for dissecting the water column but their action on the fall is an excellent mid cast trigger. Casts can be extended and spooky fish can be kept away from the boat by letting spinnerbaits fall near edges, drop-offs and cover.
Once the lure is away from shallow cover let it fall freely, and play out slack over deeper water. The blade will spin erratically on the fall like a wounded bait fish. At the climax of the fall, aggressively ripping it towards the surface can trigger extremely violent strikes from once weary followers. Playing with different soft plastics as a trailer is a great way to adjust the rate of descent and add an extra triggering element to the free fall.
Suspended Animation for Tiger Muskie Fishing
Lures that suspend are deadly in clear water and allow many options for causing mid-cast triggers. The suspending version of the Depth Raider and the ERC Triple D allow for lengthy pauses and glider-like presentations. The neutral buoyancy of these lures means wherever you stop it, that’s where it’s gonna stay. In clear water adding multiple extended pauses to your retrieve is critical when presenting to negative or neutral muskies. These pauses are like a high noon showdown between the muskies and your lure, who’s gonna flinch first. During each pause, I like to wait between three and six seconds. This seems like an eternity, but when you go to make that next move it is often met by an intense reactionary strike.
For more info on suspending musky lures click here.
The Erc Triple D & Joe Bucher Suspending Depth Raider are both excellent clear water options.
Crawling the Bottom with Gliders While Tiger Muskie Fishing
During cold fronts and less than perfect weather conditions, you can’t deny the effectiveness of glide bait presentations. During my trip west, we did encounter a cold front that brought with it some bluebird skies. The effect of the cold front and added light penetration made the muskies a little more sluggish and less than cooperative.
Regardless of where I’m fishing, under conditions like these, I’m going to turn to a glide bait.
My lure of choice is the highly popular 6″ Phantom softail, and in these clearer waters, taking advantage of the screw in weight system is critical. A Phantom with a 3/4 ounce screw-in weight will sink far faster and allow for a slower, more methodical retrieve.
With each cast in clear water, I allow the lure to fall to the bottom before I begin. Once the lure has come to rest, slowly walk it a few feet forward then allow it to again come to a full stop. Strikes using this presentation are often more of a light tick, as the muskie simply picks the lure up off the bottom. If working into deeper water, as was the case out west, vertical jigging becomes an option.
As the lure nears the boat use vertical jigging to keep the muskies deeper and out of visual range.
I have been fortunate enough to pursue Muskies across their entire habitat from North to South and East to West. The Muskie waterways of North America do vary greatly in terms of structural composition, depths, cover and available forage bases, but one constant does exist.
Regardless of their geographical location, muskies are always looking for the same thing: forage and an advantageous strike.
If you find yourself in a new region, take what you already know about muskies and make slight alterations that fit the situation until you find the solution. For Andy and I, conquering the Pacific Northwest was a hard fought struggle. For my part, I was battling against unfamiliar waterways and a constant barrage of tough conditions. For Andy, it was an uphill climb from novice to proficient. Despite the challenges, we learned together and put some beautiful fish in the boat.