Muskies & Reefs: Find A
Place To Cast This Summer.
I grew up calling them 'shoals' but everyone's got their own name for this kind underwater structure: humps, bumps, bars and of course, reefs. They're classic muskie spots and they're as unique as the lakes they're found in. No two are built exactly the same, but good ones just seem to be good ones no matter where you fish. There are also reefs that just never produce, sometimes within a few cast lengths of ones that consistently do. Some are pure rock, others have softer sections and heavy weeds mixed in, and still others combine rock, weed and soft bottom all on the same spot. 'Reef' doesn't just mean a rocky piece of structure poking up in the middle of the lake, as you'll see. Learning the personality and subtleties from reef to reef, how to fish them and when to fish them will put muskies in the boat once the dog days of summer hit. On our Shield lakes, reefs are one of the most common types of structure there is.
Some reefs are deep, with twenty, forty or even sixty feet of water over top of them but the focus here are those less than fifteen or twenty feet from the surface. Some break the surface, some lie just barely under it, and others are nothing more than long, extended shelves off islands or points. To be sure, the best reefs are a mix of high spots, low spots, turns, fingers, and all with multiple depths, cover and bottom elements. These are the classic casting spots that in a lot of cases on Shield water, offer muskies some of the top feeding and resting stations on the lake. The ones linked directly to deeper water can be great, and there are other types of reefs you can cast to that have no connection with deeper main lake areas whatsoever. Suspended fish have no problem poking around reefs, even hanging around on or near them for days at a time, if the reef's large enough and the food's there. I think there's also a population of muskies that spends most of their time in mid-season simply wandering between reefs. They have access to fish living on and around the structure like smallmouths or walleyes, and also relate to open water prey that congregate just off reefs, like ciscos in some lakes or perch in others. Muskies that aren't actively eating can and will relate to certain reef features as resting areas. These fish are still catchable, especially once you've established a pattern of behaviour for them on a given spot or spots. Even though certain reefs can house wandering fish that might be here one day and gone the next, the better ones will hold fish year after year. Here's a basic run down for three typical sub-categories of Shield reefs: The Mixed Reef, the Hard Reef and The Soft Reef. They might seem drastically different at first, but you'll come to learn that good reefs all share the same core ingredients.
Even though lakes and rivers differ a lot locally, good Mixed Reefs usually share a similar makeup no matter where you find them. By mid to late summer, cabbage, coontail and pencil reeds are the three key weeds on classic Mixed Reefs. All three grow well bottoms ranging from soft silt to firm sand, and all three cover the meatiest range of depths, from the very shallowest part of the reef right down to the first or second drop-offs, closer to the lake basin.
We'll talk more about rock and bottom type as we go along, but no discussion of weeds on Mixed Reefs is complete without mentioning what the weeds grow on. Understanding the right type of reef bottom helps you understand which ones hold good weed and why, and the two are deeply linked. Smooth, flat rock doesn't create or trap as much sediment as rock that's jumbled, broken and irregular. Millions of years of wave action, ice, wind and other forces create sediment. Sediment is what weeds grow in, and sediment gathers and fills in anywhere and everywhere it can. The Shield is a glacial creation, and the best reefs have lots of rock mixed with eons worth of deposited sand, silt, mud, clay and other glacial till. It's the same along the shorelines. Those pines might look like they magically shot up out of bald, smooth rock, but they didn't. Cracks gathered organic material, and eventually a seed, and a mighty tree took shape, seemingly out of nothing.
Pencil reeds are a hardy weed that can grow in inches of water up through very firm mixes of sand and pebbles, and are usually found right on the highest spots on the reef. Even though they're a shallow weed compared to the other types, spots where reeds compliment deeper boulders, rocky fingers, sand patches or deepwater edges can make muskies comfortable in some amazingly shallow water. Any extra fingers or points jutting off the main body of the reef that show pencil reeds tailing off should be checked. Patches of reeds on otherwise bare, exposed rock are also good. Remember, they're tipping you off to a slight change in bottom content, and these are the types of little details that make can make a small, specific spot on a mixed reef magic. The larger the reed patch, the less extremely shallow depths seem to matter. Smaller patches almost always seem better when they're stretching out to wards their maximum depth or part of another rock/weed feature.
With a long rod, you can steer just about any shallow running or surface lure through pencil reeds. Single spin spinnerbaits and buzzbaits can be worked right through them, and bumping, waking and rumbling a path through the stalks. This really gets a muskie's attention when they're shallow and active. If you blow by the shallowest, reedy portions of the reef, it's going to cost you fish. The ones that are in there are usually the biters, but you need to time them. Low-light to no-light conditions or periods of sustained wind in any combination can produce big fish out of water so shallow you'll have to experience it to believe it. Muskies use these spots in clear and coloured water.
Below the surface, green, red (or 'tobacco') cabbage and coontail weeds really add to a Mixed Reef's potential, and even though reefs with no weeds can and will produce, it's been my experience that the right subsurface weed is really what separates the 'sometimes good' mid to late-summer Mixed Reefs from the 'always fish them' ones. Sparse or thin weeds are better than nothing, but give me a reef that has one or more large, thick, dense and healthy clumps and I'll check it until I get a fish off it. Maybe not on the first visit or the tenth visit or the hundredth, but on trout water especially, these spots take on extra importance. They're time well spent. Cabbage or coontail on reefs can take different forms, from lush, expansive beds where soft bottom makes up a good percentage of the reef , to the little nooks and crannies in the rock, like we talked about earlier. A thick patch of tobacco cabbage the size of your casting deck on the right spot can be all it takes to produce the biggest fish or your life. I got a fifty-one incher one August off a spotI'd fished for ten years without so much as seeing a muskie. The fish exploded out of a little cabbage and coontail finger in a deep ditch between two halves of the reef.
Speaking of depth as it relates to the actual ups and downs along a Mixed Reef's 'topograhpy,' muskies can and will hold just about anywhere. There are no hard and fast rules, no matter how much the internet, television, videos and magazines like to make us think there are. The weeds or boulders on a small, shallow, shoreline spot can be covered in as little as a few casts. But larger and more intricately laid-out spots like Mixed Reefs need more time and more effort. There might be a thick, outer wall of weed as deep as fourteen or fifteen feet, like a hedge around part or all of the reef. Where the rock takes over, you'll probably find smaller clumps or weed-free openings over rock piles or large boulders. Fish them all, from the deepest edge all the way up to the shallowest, most isolated clumps and rocks. I can almost guarantee you that within that mess of weeds and rocks, there are features that attract fish year after year, and muskies will keep right on liking them long after you and I are gone. Finding a places where a variety of weed types mix is a real killer on some of the Shield's big rivers, like the Magnetewan, Pickerel and French. Rock piles or big, individual boulders that break up weeds to form an open-water pocket are also dynamite at times. These are the types of spots to sniff out.
Fish all aspects of Mixed Reefs with an open mind, and pay attention to the way they're laid out to help you pick your tools. Versatile lures and having more than one way to present them is very important. After all, you're going to be encountering different depths and different types of cover, from the shallow reeds to the deeper, denser weed patches to large boulders that may transition out near the basin edge or into slower tapering clam beds over sand and mud. Spinnerbaits, jerkbaits and floating/diving crankbaits can be used to cover a range of features. Surface lures are also very effective, with the added advantage of working from the skinniest water all the way back to the boat with excellent speed control.
So are weedless reefs a waste of time this time of year? Not at all. The Hard Reef is just like the name suggests: mainly rock. Having the right open water nearby, excellent boulder cover and a food shelf of some kind are the keys. A smooth, sharp-dropping dome of rock that abuts deep, dead water usually means a dead spot. But add in a slow, tapering shelf or saddle covered with a good mix of rock, from boat-sized to pumpkin-sized and drop it in a strategic, open-water location and now you've got a spot! Not only for dog-day muskies, but some huge pike at times, too.
There are specific features that seem to make the pure rock reefs better, even if there are no weeds on it to speak of. Their location on the lake and adjoining structure is what makes them good or bad, most of the time. Areas where lakes change shape, average depth or direction are natural funnels or congregation areas for food and predators. Current, created by incoming or exiting rivers or by wind forcing water through a constricted area is definitely a factor. (To further confuse the matter and to further show the diversity found on Shield water, many current areas offer exceptional weed growth, where slowing and diverted water drops sediment). The presence of forage fish, like walleyes or cisco automatically adds potential. The best way to really focus and confidently fish these types of reefs is to forget weeds all together. Accept the fact that you don't have to be over top of vegetation to find fish and go to work.
On clear fisheries especially, Hard Reefs really require a lot of work, timing and attention. In their purest form, they're almost entirely a trout-type lake animal. Weed growth is minimal, there's a ton of deep water, and muskies live deep most of the year. Fast-water sections of big rivers also have excellent rock reef fishing mid-summer, and reefs that divert current can be excellent. In both cases, as with the Mixed Reef, variety in terms of rock sizes and layout is important.
Large boulders offer muskies every bit as much cover, comfort and feeding opportunity as any type of weed or wood does. Areas where big, mixed rocks meet the deepest sides of the reef or the heaviest current flow can be fished easily with a handful of durable, steep-diving crankbaits. Cranking is at it's best where structure tops out at less than about fifteen feet. But running depths required to reach muskies on rocks around current is much different than those for open water fish. Fish around current are normally bottom-oriented and less willing to hunt overhead. Those on lake reefs are just the opposite. They're vertical and lateral hunters, and are much more in tune with what's going on over top of them, as well around them. You might need to tick the boulders on a current reef to find and trigger muskies, but lake fish will move a lot further, and bottom contact isn't as critical. Rocky bars that rise up off the bottom and dissect main current flows act as natural wing dams, and they can be loaded with walleyes, suckers and bass.
Smallmouth bass are an overlooked food source, and they're right at home on pure rock reefs. Nearly all of the rock reefs I fish regularly produce huge bass, often on muskie lures, all season. In addition to the lighter, open-water baitfish colours, baits with heavy brown, copper, green or olive colouration can be excellent. For current fish on Georgian Bay Tributaries, walleyes are also mixed in with the bass on Hard Reefs. Yellow with gold is an excellent walleye colour. On clear lakes, fishing the open water surrounding or in between reefs is a tremendous technique for huge fish, in all conditions. Remember that these fish can see a long way and have excellent lateral line sense. I've caught fish near reefs so shallow they'd tear off your lower unit, but gotten the strike over water as deep as sixty or seventy feet. Weighted jerkbaits, slow-moving bucktails, suspending crankbaits or weighted rubber baits can take really nice fish near rock reefs when muskies aren't parked right on the boulders. Loud, slow surface baits also have a big-fish reputation. The ten-inch jointed Beleiver, crawled, clicked and clunked on top is probably my favorite. Of course, it works just as well cranked over specific rock fingers, points or edges. Just like on the Mixed Reef, versatility is what makes a good casting bait good.
The darker or stormier the conditions, the bigger the lures I like to throw. Remember that these spots contain forage fish from twelve inches to several pounds in size. Ten inch Jakes with their big wobble and loud rattles are probably my favorite, followed closely by straight and jointed model Believers in the same size. Bucktails or spinnerbaits with #7 or larger blades up to fifteen inches long that can be worked slowly are also good, and less tiresome to fish. Oversized jerkbaits like the 13" Bobbie Bait or Magnum Bull Dawgs also fit the bill. Don't rule out wild, 'shocker,' colours, either. Hot pink, orange or black and yellow striping can surprise you. They probably surprise muskies, that's for sure.
The clearer the water, the harder and smarter you'll have to work to pick big fish off the rocks. Fishing early, fishing late and/or fishing in heavy seas is often what it takes. Water that has some colour is definitely the place to try current rocks, and these fish can be easier to catch day in and day out. Always remember that each and every reef will have it's own personality. Those that have a deep water edge(s) and some form of saddle or shelf connecting them to shore or an island can be some of the best.
One final scenario on these types of spots is the evening cisco bite. As dusk fades to dark, reefs near open water can light up with these little guys. It isn't uncommon to catch them in August within twenty feet of the surface near dark, after they've risen vertically forty or even fifty feet. Reefs directly linked to cisco schools are not just late fall spots. Huge fish will appear on them, in the evenings, at this time of year. Just like during the day, long casts, experimenting with depth and speed, and splitting time between the reef itself and the open water is what it takes. Would you believe I've caught chinook salmon, ten pound walleyes and rainbow trout in the evenings on muskie spots, casting muskie lures, in August? If you fish water with ciscos, find rock reefs in the right spot and you could be in for the night of your life. Timing is the only thing that will bring it all together for you. Fish them under perfect conditions, and stick with it on these spots. They don't produce nearly as consistently as Mixed Reefs or Soft Reefs, but the fish can be freakishly big, very brave and you can catch them casting. Dick Pearson's findings in relation to these fish in his book Muskies On The Shield are fascinating, and worth reading.
Soft Reefs are a complete turnaround in terms of depth, cover and sometimes location on the lake. Again, 'reef,' doesn't automatically imply a rocky spot somewhere out off shore, surrounded by deep water. High spots in or near back bays, at the mouths of narrows or dotted within shallower portions of a lake or river can all supply muskies with what they like. These are generally the shallowest and flattest of the reefs we've looked at, and I love fishing them. If you're on them at the right times, you can usually at least see muskies. They can also be unbelievably frustrating. The weeds can be thick and tiresome to fish, and there's also scientific evidence that suggests these shallow spots appeal to muskies that are dozing in warmer water to digest food after an active feeding session has passed, either on the Soft Reef itself or elsewhere.
The same basic rule applies: a varied complexion helps a lot. Most Soft Reefs are made up of sand, muck or similar substrates. These materials were deposited by glacial rivers as well as through the settling of suspended particulates in the water over millions of years. Not surprisingly, weed growth is normally outstanding by mid to late-summer on these spots. Thick, heavy walls, isolated clumps and different weed types scattered along a fairly uniform depth range all need to be identified and fished. Soft reefs might not be as dramatic looking as the others, but the little details are still there, and still a big part of each and every unique spot. Lake Nipissing's West Arm, West Bay and Upper French River areas are home to some of the most classic and productive Soft Reefs I've ever fished. Flats between islands and weedy, shallow shelves in and near bays make excellent habitat. Active fish use them under good conditions, and having these spots for the tough, 'blue bird' or cold front trips really makes a big difference. If thick, messy shallow reefs over soft bottom are on the menu, I can leave the ramp under the worst of conditions with total confidence.
Most good Soft Reefs are linked to other structure, just as the other good types of reefs are. Depths normally change slowly, and are usually from a foot or less down to about eight or ten feet, but there is almost always a steeper drop somewhere to be found on the spot. Mid-lake ones are equally as good as those tucked back into less obvious areas. Again, cold front or flat, bright days can be some of the best times. Fishing spinnerbaits or jerkbaits through thick stands as well as lanes, pockets and points is a lot of work, but it can really turn a poor day around and get your confidence right back up for when conditions improve. You're going to spend time cleaning weeds off your bait, and you're going to be making lots of short casts, and this is what it normally takes to get muskies to bite when it's tough.
Periods of dark, humid or stormy weather are also good. That's actually one of the coolest things about these spots: they produce under a range of conditions, and you can almost always at least see muskies on them. Right at dark after one of those uncomfortably humid, windless days, you could do a lot worse than speed-fishing a few of your favorite shallow, weedy bars. Big buzzbaits like the Boogerman are becoming one of my favorites. Tandem, Colorado-blade spinnerbaits that can be waked or bulged just under the surface and loud, tail-prop lures like Teaser Tails or Top Raiders are great too. Any kind of increased wind activity before a thunder front arrives or during a daylight transition period is good, no matter what type of spot you've chosen. On the Soft Reef, it can be 'the' time.
A really interesting feature unique to several of the Shield's big rivers is wood on Soft Reefs. Glaciers may have taken care of rock and sediment, but man's hands also played a role. Logging was, and still is, a massive undertaking across Ontario, and evidence of man's hand versus huge timber can be found in many places. Winter ice jams huge logs into soft bottom areas, in some cases hundreds of years after they broke free of their booms. It's not uncommon to find huge, perfectly uniform saw logs poking up through mats of coontail or cabbage on some of our big rivers. Soft bottom sucks them in, and there they rest. Some lay right on the bottom, while others angle upward high enough to cause real trouble to a prop or lower unit if you're not careful. A well-placed log can be a tremendous Soft Reef feature. The logs themselves are usually free of limbs and basically mill-ready, without much in the way of cover appeal. Their real value is breaking up weedbeds, like a rock would.
Weed is normally diverse and plentiful. The shallowest, firmest sections can hold pencil reeds or rushes. There will sometimes be wide, open lanes between the reeds and the first weed edge, usually where there's a firm to soft bottom transition of some type. Spots don't get any more key than that, and they deserve your time and effort. Good, green cabbage is probably the most consistent weed, but you'll also find coontail, tobacco cabbage and a host of other stringy, spaghetti-type weeds. Anywhere weed cover breaks or stops, pay extra attention. There might be a log, boulder patch or deep drop there.
Spinnerbaits, floating, straight-running jerkbaits and surface lures all work on Soft Reefs. Obviously, choose them based on how the spot is laid out in terms of cover, and how muskies are reacting. One of the basic rules on these spots, even if the water is clear, is to make multiple casts to good areas! Under tough conditions especially, you might have to work a little more in all that cover to get a fish to make a mistake. This can get a little overwhelming on large spots, but work as a team if you have a partner, and pick your way along. Crankbaits are a Shield staple, and in the right type of weed cover, they can also be very effective. A crankbait is nice on Soft Reefs that are closer to deeper water, when you want to check adjacent open water. Muskies will hang off these spots too, maybe as they travel between them. Food sources are virtually unlimited. Bullheads, perch, sunfish, bass, walleyes and small pike love soft-bottomed reefs. Bullheads are one of the most inmportant trophy muskie food items there is. Ken O'Brien's 65 pounder from Blackstone Harbour (a classic, Soft Reef and Mixed Reef area) was loaded with them when it was prepped at the taxidermist's. Drop a gob of worms on a weedy, soft-bottomed bar at dusk some time, and you can catch all kinds of them almost anywhere in Ontario. They're slow swimmers and have very poor eyesight. Muskies love them.
Long casts may or may not be needed. It really depends on the spot's personality. You might want to work your way in, all the way up the slowest drop off, or you might need to get right in and start dunking away. Generally heavy cover will let you get closer to muskies, especially under low light or when the wind is blowing. Wind can really pull fish onto Soft Reefs, especially the shallow ones. Don't drive past them, stop and check them out. They might not look as impressive as the steep drop offs, boulders and weed clumps found on the Mixed Reefs, but they can be dynamite in their own right. If you spend the time, you'll eventually find an extended finger, open pocket or rock pile. Ragged, irregular Soft Reefs with lots of fingers can make finding fish easier. And remember, some of the best Soft Reefs are the ones that never break the surface. Near bays especially, when the water's calm, watch for the tips of cabbage weeds well away from the shore, and always check both sides of the boat for offshore ridges and high spots. We find new spots every year, sometimes out of dumb luck, by throwing casts into new areas and by paying close attention to what's going on around as well as the sonar.
To be sure, not every Soft Reef will have weeds. Featureless sandy bars or fingers between islands or in bays hold muskies, too. To this day, the largest, living fish I've ever seen was laying on a featureless sandy spine extending over two hundred yards off the mouth of a weedy bay, right around supper time. These fish seem to be at one extreme or the other: resting and disinterested, or waiting to attack. Ice and wave action can sometimes create pockets and dunes in sand, and they'll often fill with organic material like tree bark, leaves or other junk. Same old story, every spot has it's own secrets. I really like subtle surface baits over this kind of spot at last light and after dark, like Jackpots or soft plastic lures like the muskie-sized Fin-S-Fish.
I'm positive that every lake holds distinct populations of muskies that live different lives. These lives intersect, overlap and meet at various times all summer. Always keep an open mind and remember that structure is structure, no matter what form it takes. It all has its own personality and some will just produce better than others. No article or message board will be able to replace making the right decisions for yourself based on what you see on the water. By having a close understanding of a few different reef types, you can efficiently hunt down fish in a variety of places, and more importantly, understand why muskies are where they are and how to fool them. Habitat and fishing opportunities are so varied on the Shield, it only makes sense to have a working knowledge of what's available. It's all there to be learned, explored and enjoyed. Our lakes are full of a variety of reefs, and I hope you release a big muskie this summer on a newly discovered favorite or an old flame.