While fishing timber for muskies is an ominipresent option in the South, the effectiveness of targeting timber across the entirety of the muskie's habit range can not be overstated. From Tennessee to Canada, if there is standing timber, logs, and laydowns, then there will be muskies. Timber and laydowns are a stationary type of cover that hungry muskies use as an ambush point regardless of season. These partially or fully submerged pieces of wood are something savy musky anglers know they can count on early in the season or during lean years when vegetation is lacking.
As a musky guide, I often see clients initially miss opportunities with poorly aimed shots while casting to timber and wood. Later the look of surprise on a their faces is always amazing when a musky crushes their lure after a few pointers and a varied version of "cast the lure right there". With just a little coaching on how to and where to make the right casts, fishing timber often ends with smiling faces and a trophy in the net.
So let's look at how to properly cast to muskies in timber and laydowns so you can make the right casts the next time you're on the water.
Partially Submerged Trees / Laydowns
At times trees will fall directly into the water with the branches submerged and the roots on or near the bank, the reverse can also happen. This is often caused by heavy winds or shoreline errosion thus leaving the root system of the tree in the water. Regardless of the orientation of the tree, the same approach can be used for branch or root laydowns. Attention should be paid to the manner of how the tree entered the water as branch submerged laydowns can often extend out far further than one would initally think. Side scan sonar has been a real eye opener on my boat, revealing the true extent and complexity of branch laydowns allowing me to target the true outer edges of each environment.
Identifying the outer edges of both branch and root systems and presenting to them properly is the key to targeting muskies beneath complex wood cover. Actively feeding muskies will typically lay-in-wait on these outer edges. Like a bouncer at a night club, they are positioned to monitor anyone entering or leaving. The graphic below from Joe Bucher's Crankbait Secrets shows the three main casting zones that should be covered when targeting root and branch systems. Multiple casts should be made to each side of the outer perimiter with variance in depth and speed. Also, attention can be shifted to the middle section of the cover.
Sharpen your skills by testing the edges of these laydowns with crankbaits and adjusting your retrieve as you contact branches or roots. When your lure makes contact with the wood, immediately stop reeling allowing your bait to float back and away from the wood. This "tuned in" and "under control" retrieval style will help you learn how to "feel" your lure in the water. It will also produce bone jarring strikes in timber.
At times muskies will use wood as cover during cold front conditions and will bury deep in the branches. These negative and neutral muskies can be coaxed out of the thick stuff with well controlled crank bait presentations. My number one presentation for this situation is the Baby Depth Raider with some slight modifications.
By removing the rear hook and binding the others to the body of the lure with rubber bands, the Baby Depth Raider becomes a fearless lure to work in tangled wood. For a little extra visual appeal on the lure, I will glue a grub tail to the rear hook hanger using Pro's Soft Bait Glue. By binding the hooks to the body with some small dental rubber bands, the lip of the lure is able to shield the hook points from a majority of snags.
These negative and neutral timber muskies can be triggered with sharp rips of the Baby Depth Raider, making it work in a near vertical fashion. Each rip is followed by a long pause allowing the lure to float back towards the surface. As the lure rises, it will at times ricochet off branches and roots making it an even more deadly presentation. Keep in mind: you will get snagged working lures in and around timber, but the vast majority of lures can be retrieved with the right tools and a little patience.
Logs and Tree Trunks
Muskies using a log or tree trunk tend to hold tight to the center of the cover. Effectively fishing these wood structures takes less casting accuracy compared to branches, but takes far more lure control to trigger strikes. While some branches may be present, this presentation is focused towards older laydowns that have lost branches or logs extended from the shoreline.
Presenting to these less snaggy wood structures is all about hitting the "sweet spot" as muskies will be primarily underneth and often tight to the main trunk. Hitting this sweet spot is all about lure control and casting angle. This target zone takes a well-placed cast that allows you to run your lure dangerously tight to the cover. In this graphic from Joe Bucher's Crankbait Secrects, you can see that the cast is placed slightly away from the main base of the tree. This small distance allows you some room to get your lure moving and some slack to adjust your rod's angle, drawing the lure next to and at times underneath the cover.
This less complex style of wood structure can be fished quickly for active fish with bucktails, cranks baits and rubber. But if you are facing less than perfect conditions on the water, glide bait presentations near this type of wood can be deadly. As noted in the graphic, lay downs provide shade. This shade is something elite anglers know they can exploit on bright sunny days. While some muskies seek refuge by burying into deeper weeds making them difficult to target, laydowns provide muskies with shade in warm shallow water. The combination of shallow shade and warmer water can make these laydowns the hottest and most over looked pattern on those tough blue bird days.
Sharpen Your Skills
Casting gliders effectively to wood takes a keen sense of timing and understanding of your glide baits sweep range and also rate of fall. To get your glider in the right place at the right time, you must be in complete control of the baits walk. If you need your lure be further to the left, it can be achieved by more aggressive pulls when the lure is walking left with small taps when facing right. This pull pattern will be just enough to set the lure up for another hard left sweep. If done correctly you can quickly get your glider sweeping into and away from all of the important holes under the laydown. Having a good sense of your gliders depth in the water and its rate of fall can be extremely useful to avoid snags. Finding the right place within the timber to allow for some hangtime is an unbeatable recipe for a trophy even on the toughest days. Capitalizing on hangtime is all about sweeping your lure into the timber and letting it slowly fall in the face of a muskie: a trick they often can't resist.
A prime example of this is can be seen demonstrated by Chas Martin in the video below.
Whether you are looking to add fishing wood to your musky game or you just need to brush up on your skills, it really boils down to two simple things: well-placed casts and proper prersentations. Yes, snagging-up can be frustrating, but snags are a far easier pill to swallow than getting skunked. So the next time you're on the water, spend some time stump bumping and wood knocking. The lure and casting control you will learn from fishing wood are skills that will improve every aspect of your musky game.
Steven Paul : Musky Guide