Wicked Cold Southern Musky Trolling

Written on 01/25/2024
Steven Paul

Southern winters are for the most part a walk in the park compared to the mid-west. But shortly after the Holiday season nature sent a clear message that the winter of 2024 was not going to be to be trifled with. Admittedly the mere mention of ice and snow in the forecast shuts down the South instantaneously. Fearful mothers hoard eggs and milk with the fragile hope of sustaining their children so that they can repopulate the Earth once the snowpocalypse of two inches melts away. With these southern overreactions in mind, it’s not surprising that many offices, factories and job sites are shut down.

The screeching halt of education and industry is a welcome blessing to many southern musky anglers as they now have a bonus day or two to peruse toothy critters. But when genuine winter conditions are present for a sustained period many southern musky anglers struggle as patterns of more mild winter past are nonexistent.  With this in mind lets take a look at some interesting trolling concepts that will help you put a couple in the net while the masses huddle indoors dreaming about spring.

I would start out mentioning that muskies have no clue where they are geographically. However, they react to their environment and the contextual clues that it provides them with. Weather and the reactions of forage are the factors that dictate their biological reactions. Simply put they don’t know that the chances of a Southern Reservoir freezing are nearly zero. The primordial soup that fills a muskies brain was compiled and sharpened over eons and knows nothing is an absolute, but survival is imperative.

While it is conjecture, based on my angling experience truly shallow water and edges become instance “no go zones” for southern muskies when temperatures and weather is harsh for a sustained period. Keep in mind this runs counter to most winters but I believe that fish in an eco-system that is presenting them with some of the clues that it is on a “potential” trajectory of freezing pushes all bait fish and subsequently predators to the stability of open water.

While this shift from edges to open water for southern muskies is rare it is highly exploitable with just a few trolling adjustments. First and foremost, I immediately break out a set of The Blade Planer boards as creating width is a key to open water musky success. Open water muskies are somewhat predictable on where they will stage but the addition of extra trolling lines is highly welcome as muskies will be less willing to make major moves in pursuit of bait / lures.  

The depths at which muskies will stage in open water are highly dictated by weather, darker conditions muskies will generally be higher in the water column. High bright skies will push muskies somewhat deeper. Dialing in on trolling target depths and subsequently line lengths and speed is best addressed by dialing in on the average depth of open water forage. If for instance say shad are currently staged on average at seven feet down, I will opt to have my trolling lures running at six feet down and a couple at eight and maybe on at ten feet. This is where having multiple rods and planer boards out to hasten the dialing in on target depth. I would mention that I’m not your mother, check your local regulations before you troll multiple rods. But when dealing with open water southern winter muskies more is simply more and will help achieve your goal faster.

The utilization of your electronics is possibly the most important part of this equation. Properly identifying what species of forage you are seeing on your screen can be of major importance. Confusing a school of white bass on the bottom for shad and trolling over them will render nothing short of disappointing results. Having a firm grasp on forage depth and species is experience based but there is no better time start learning than now.


A concept that one must understand when it comes to open water trolling is that the entire subsurface world is in constant flux. While the returns on your down or side scan units might paint the mental picture that baitfish in a location are stationary this is rarely the case. Motion and advancement are survival mechanisms for schooling shad so what your down scan unit is showing you while one a brief moment ago is now the past. To truly stay on a school of open water bait fish while trolling one must use Live Imaging but keep in mind bait fish are not restricted by turning radius of a boat while trolling so this is still a hit or miss endeavor. The best recommendation I have is to stay slightly off the edges of open water baitfish schools if possible as this will help prevent scattering them and makes staying in the game just a smidge easier.


Considering the constant movements taking place by open water forage and argument could be made for simply trolling one area over and over again until a musky comes to you. While that might sound odd trolling concentric circles in front creek mouths and confluences has always been productive for me. It is truly the “chicken or the egg” paradox. Did that musky show up in anticipation or baitfish or did he show up with them. I would venture to guess that no one is qualified to answer that question however I would say that areas adjacent to structural elements seem to have a higher rate of return while open water trolling. Regardless I don’t care how they got to open water only if they eat a lure.


While I could pontificate endlessly about all the things that influence open water winter trolling, I would leave you with this. Trust your electronics first and foremost, allow them to dictate running depths. And as always trolling speed is a constant experiment that never ends.  The overarching question of what lures to use is dictated solely by their running depth. I don’t care if it’s a ham sandwich with hooks on it, if it will troll down at seven feet at 3.5 mph, I game.

Hopefully the cold will break and we can all get back to casting edges during for the remainder of the Southern musky winter period, but if you want to put one in the net get to open water trolling.


Steven Paul

Tennessee Musky Fishing