|Fred McClintock guides dale hollow lake for big muskie. Lure more muskies with professional fishing guide while fishing muskie on dale hollow lake and get muskie pictures, using fishing guides muskie tackle and muskie rods.|
from Highland Reservoirs
Muskie Fishing’s Untold Summer Story!
by Don Wirth* with Fred McClintock**
*Don Wirth of Nashville, Tennessee, is a frequent In-Fisherman contributor who combines with some of the nation’s best fishermen to tell important fishing stories.
**Fred McClintock is an avid muskie fisherman who offers insight into highland reservoir muskie fishing.
The tin boat bobbed in the middle of the lake. The air was thick and hazy and insufferably hot, and it hung in the hills like a wet beach towel on a clothesline. I’m a fishing nut, I thought to myself, but this guy has it bad. Real bad!
The phone call came last spring. Fred D. McClintock of Trout Run, Pennsylvania, wanted to take me muskie fishing. He’d met my friend, Doug Hannon, “the Bass Professor,” while vacationing in Florida. When Hannon found out that he was a muskie fanatic, he suggested that he get together with me at Dale Hollow Reservoir, Tennessee. I fish Dale Hollow for smallmouth bass, and heard that big muskies lurk there.
McClintock was persistent, and I could tell from the tone of his voice that he knew something. The plan intrigued me, so I agreed to meet him. He wanted a topo map of the lake ahead of time.
For me, it was a pleasant 2½-hour drive from my Nashville home. For McClintock, it was 20 hours. He drove straight through. The guy has it bad.
We met at a marina and drove to the launch site closest to the action, if you could call it that. Fred’s brusque, blue-collar manner was a refreshing change from that of the slick bass pros I’ve ridden with. He had a 17-foot aluminum boat with a 25-horse you-crank-it outboard, pulled by a battered ’72 Chevy with a bad muffler and a big engine, and he attacked the back roads surrounding Dale Hollow like he was auditioning for a Mad Max movie. He was friendly and enthusiastic and deeply smitten by the muskie bug. I immediately took a liking to the guy.
Fred shared some vital statistics with me: he was 43 years old, a foreman in the wire rope mill at Bethlehem Steel. He’d caught around 250 muskies in the 9 years he’d been fishing for them. Close to 225 had been released alive. His biggest was 35 pounds, and he once caught 6 in one day. He took out a baggie full of out-of-focus Polaroids of himself holding up muskies. Big muskies. Their eyes peered out from the pictures. It’s their eyes, somebody had once told me; that get you; wary and forlorn and hateful rolled into one.
I reminded Fred that July wasn’t supposed to be prime time for muskies at Dale Hollow. It didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
We stopped at a country store for gas, where the proprietor eyed his downriggers, surf rods and giant muskie plugs with obvious amusement. “Goin’ muskie fishin’?” he grinned.
“Thought we might,” Fred answered.
“You can’t catch muskies this time of year,” the store owner insisted. “We catch ‘em starting in December. Never seen one caught in July.”
The locals hanging around the store were eyeballing Fred’s Pennsylvania license plate and smirking. Dumb Yankee!
We hit the lake at 10:00 a.m. At 10:45, something incredible happened.
The exact moment is frozen in time. I can still hear the downrigger wire singing and see the houseboat passing by, its occupants wondering what we were doing fishing in the middle of the lake.
“How deep are we now?” I inquired, like a kid asking his old man how far it is to Grandma’s house.
“A hundred feet,” McClintock replied, gazing into the graph. A hundred feet1
Suddenly, one of the three rods buckled. I stared in disbelief while McClintock shouted, “There he is! Take him!” I wrestled the rod from its holder and felt something big and nasty on the other end. The muskie stick felt awkward compared to the feather-light bass rods I always use when fishing Dale Hollow for smallmouths. I began cranking the handle of the big Penn reel. Is this really happening? Over a hundred fee of water? In July?
The fish shook its head violently, probably 30 feet down. I could feel an electric sensation up the line, which McClintock later explained was the fish gnawing on the big wooden plug. About a minute passed before I could make out something long an reptilian thrashing down in the clear, green water. I worked the fish closer to the boat, and down she went.
“Keep your thumb off the spool!” McClintock commanded, and I raced to the bow and worked her back around. McClintock netted her. She was mine.
My excitement was mixed with disbelief. To me, the fish transcended being a trophy. It was a miracle! Fred measured her: 46½ inches. A heck of a fine muskie. “Nice goin’, chief!” he grinned, shaking my hand. I was right about one thing. McClintock new something.
Like so many other muskie fishermen, Fred McClintock is a muskie junkie, and he gets his “fix” fishing natural lakes, flatland reservoirs, and rivers. But to him, the greatest high in muskie fishing lies in highland reservoirs, where fishing pressure is often nonexistent, and the book remains to be written on how to catch them.
McClintock believes the chances of catching a huge muskie?a record-class fish?are greater today in highland reservoirs than anywhere else. While he’s easily one of the country’s best at highland reservoirs than anywhere else, he quickly admits that he’s still learning the ins and outs of this perplexing sport. “In many areas, muskie didn’t exist in highland reservoirs until they were stocked in the 60s or 70s,” he’ll tell you. “There hasn’t been a time for a muskie fishing tradition to take shape in these waters.”
Highland reservoirs mean deep, clear water and a meandering, snakelike, deep river channel with many tributaries, usually deep and narrow, running into the main channel. There are short points that drop off quickly into deep water, plus bluff banks, expansive flats, and humps. Manmade structure, such as old roadbeds or house foundations, are also present.
You usually associate a highland reservoir with bass, especially smallmouth bass and perhaps walleyes. But not muskies. After all, muskies are predators that roam shallow bays and weedbeds. But in a highland reservoir, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Fred is convinced that few anglers succeed at muskie fishing in highland reservoirs, because they carry a picture in their heads of what a muskie is about?a picture that may hold true for rivers or flatland reservoirs or natural lakes, but not highland reservoirs. This picture usually shows two guys in red plaid jackets in a rowboat, casting jerkbaits against a weedline in a northern Wisconsin flowage. They believe that to successfully catch a muskie, you must have a first name like Sven or Frenchy, and a big box of bucktail. That’s a picture that you’d better discard if you want to catch a muskie from a highland reservoir.
According to Fred, highland reservoir muskies seem to spend most of their lives suspended over the old river channel, perhaps making limited feeding movements to creek channels, deep-water food flats, humps, and points. It’s possible that many highland reservoir muskies spend their entire lines in the old river channel, or immediately adjacent to it, if the right ingredients are there. Some fish probably leave the area only during spawning season.
The best guess is that highland reservoir muskie spawn in the back of creek arms when the water temperature hits the mid- to upper-40ºF. Of course, muskies are notoriously poor spawners. Their fry swim near the surface, where they make easy meals for birds, bass, and other predators. Dale Hollow (Tennessee) is one of the few highland reservoirs where successful spawning has taken place. The most successful stocking programs for muskies involve introducing larger fish, rather than fry, into the lakes, because the fry are so easily targeted by predators.
The word isn’t out about the big-fish potential of highland reservoirs, because few successful patterns have been established for catching muskies from these deep, clear lakes. Often, the only muskies taken are by bass or walleye anglers. The truth is, muskie fishing is usually totally ignored in highland reservoirs. You have to wait in line to launch your boat at some muskie lakes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or Minnesota, but southern reservoirs such as Cave Run (Kentucky) or Dale Hollow receive little muskie-fishing pressure.
It’s not hard to see why. First, muskie are never common. They are the top-line predator are always few in numbers.
Second, few people understand how a muskie behaves in a highland reservoir. Most fishermen fish shallow, and this is where muskies mostly aren’t in these lakes.
Third, it’s easy to grow discouraged abut catching a muskie. Before I knew what I was doing, I once fished for two weeks before I got a strike. Most people want faster action than that. While they may get excited about hanging a 50-inch fish on their wall, they usually grow disillusioned when repeated attempts fail.
Fourth, fishing for muskies in highland reservoirs is a new sport. There are few experienced muskie guides to teach you; so you’re mostly left on your own, groping blindly in the dark. It’s no picnic being a pioneer at anything.
Muskie fishermen have a deservedly “different” reputation, but it takes a special kind of nut to get into fishing for these critters in highland reservoirs. Fred is a dreamer who is convinced that a world-record muskie or two is roaming in some highland reservoir. Dale Hollow is his number one choice. It has plenty of big, deep water, amazing amounts of structure, huge amounts of food, and virtually no muskie fishermen.
This last ingredient is an important one. The lake was stocked in the early ‘60s, and there’s no reason not to assume that a 70-pound fish doesn’t exist today.
Today’s angler has many shortcuts at his disposal. But you seldom read or hear anything about catching muskies in highland reservoirs. What usually happens is the highland reservoir fisherman draws on information and techniques that have proven successful when fishing for muskies in flatland reservoirs, rivers, or natural lakes. It’s the only information available.
Once you read this, perhaps you’ll become a pioneer like Fred. You can help to break new ground and perhaps write an additional chapter in the highland reservoir muskie manual.
Muskies are never easy to catch, because they are never common. Yet muskie fishing is like any other kind of fishing in one respect: once you find a “pattern,” that pattern should hold until conditions change.
The first thing Fred was told when he began fishing highland reservoirs like Dale Hollow was that muskies could only be caught in winter. Walleye fishermen were catching a few big muskies?fish approaching 40 pounds?from December through February. People were convinced that they didn’t bite during the rest of the year. Of course, any fish that feeds is catchable. And for a muskie to reach 40 pounds, he’d better be eating in July as well as December.
The most common problem highland reservoir muskie fishermen share is that they knew but one pattern. This pattern invariably involves trolling big wobbling bass baits, such as the Magnum Hellbender or 600-series Bomber, along steep bluff banks or over humps from 15 to 25 feet deep in winter.
When they try this pattern in July, they assume the fish aren’t biting, because they rarely get a strike. In reality, of course, conditions have changed, and the muskies are on a different pattern. Fishermen are hard-headed. Perhaps it’s this hard-headedness that has resulted in a good population of trophy-class muskies in many highland reservoirs.
Another common mistake that highland reservoir muskie fishermen make is to be overwhelmed by the water. Many highland reservoirs are vast. You feel like a speck of sand on the beach. There’s no way you’ll ever learn the lake, you figure. This gives you a tremendous lack of confidence, and you haven’t even started fishing.
Fred suggests getting a topo map of the lake before you fish it. Circle a few places that you feel offer the best potential. Concentrate on fishing one of these areas at a time. (More on this later.)
Many highland reservoir muskie fishermen get interested in the sport because they see someone land a big muskie while they are bass fishing, or perhaps they have a big muskie follow a crankbait up to the boat in the early spring. These same fishermen often make the same mistake that many smallmouth bass fishermen make: When they begin fishing for muskies, they fail to realize that these fish, like smallmouths, relate more to deep water and the old river channel than they do to shallow-water structure such as stumps, logs, and weeds?so they don’t know where to start fishing. If weedbeds or stumps are available, highland reservoir muskie fishermen may spend hours casting jerkbaits or bucktails in hopes of enticing a big one to sally forth.
It’s also a fact that most muskie fishermen prefer to cast, rather than troll, for muskies. Fred is one of them. But you’ll starve to death casting for muskies in a highland reservoir.
Doing Your Homework
Fred’s trip begins weeks before he sees the lake. If it’s a strange lake, he gets a topo map and studies it thoroughly to locate prime muskie habitat. On any reservoir, there are usually several small areas that ought to hold muskies.
Usually, it’s a place with a lot of structural elements close together. A big muskie doesn’t get big by swimming hundreds of miles around the lake to fulfill its needs. A muskie is an opportunist. It will choose an area that can supply these needs:
1. The right water temperature
Highland reservoirs invariably have plenty of places where one or two of these factors occur, but fewer places where they occur close together. Where they do is where you want to start fishing.
In the spring, which incidentally is Fred’s least favorite time to fish for muskies in highland reservoirs, he looks for muskies in creek arms with warmer water, and on points with large boulders.
In the summer, Fred gets more excited about catching muskies than at any other time of the year. They’ll usually be concentrated near the old river channel. Look for places where the channel intersects food shelves, humps, and points in 15 to 40 feet of water. Fred feels that the fish will be somewhere in the 65ºF to 75ºF temperature range, which might put them at 40 feet in a southern highland reservoir or shallower in a northern one.
In the fall and winter, the fish are more scattered, probably because the water temperature is often the same from the surface down to 30 feet or so. Fred fishes several different depths in water from 65ºF to 70ºF, concentrating again on the area around the old river channel. He also trolls places with fast drop-offs, such as bluff banks and fast-dropping points, especially where the old river channel intersects these structures.
Notice that Fred’s main seasonal patterns don’t include stumps, weedbeds, or other shallow-water structure. Most highland reservoirs are largely devoid of this sort of thing, especially when compared to flatland reservoirs, rivers, and natural lakes. Dale Hollow probably has more weeds in some sections than many highland reservoirs, but weeds aren’t a necessity for muskie survival.
When Fred reads a topo map, he starts at the dam and follows the old river channel to the headwaters. As he moves along, he circles each structural area that he feels could hold muskies. then he goes back over the map and eliminates spots until he feels he has the areas with the absolute highest chance of holding muskies, based on what he already knows about the seasonable structures they seek. He marks the best spot with a 1, the next best with a 2, and so on, until he has picked the 4 or so beset spots. These are the places he concentrates on when he arrives at the lake.
If possible, he fishes a highland reservoir for the first time in July or August, when the fish are in their summer pattern. During this period, he feels they will be concentrated in a narrow depth range in, or just above, the thermocline, and are more easily located.
When he gets to the lake, he immediately heads for the place marked #1 on his topo map. He’s already ahead of most fishermen, because he knows exactly where he’s going to fish. Then he spends time orienting himself, comparing what he finds to the topo map. There will be surprises: islands where none existed on the map, or vice-versa.
Once Fred is in the prime water he’s picked for fishing, he checks out the conditions. Since he believes that water temperature is one of the major factors determining where muskies will be and therefore how deep he’ll be fishing, he gathers a temperature profile of the water using a thermometer lowered on a cord. Again, he’s looking for water temperatures between 65ºF and 75ºF. When he can’t find water within this range, he looks for the warmest water below 75ºF.
In the summer, highland reservoirs usually form three distinct water layers. The upper layer is warmer, the lower is the coolest, and the narrow band that separates the upper from the lower is an area of rapid temperature change. Fred feels strongly that muskies will usually be found in, or just above, the middle, narrow band.
The fact that “prime muskie water” may be 40 feet down over a 100-foot channel is surprising to many muskie fishermen. Again, the picture of the muskie as a shallow predator comes to mind. Characterize the highland reservoir muskies as a suspending fish.
Fred thinks that muskies suspend in highland reservoirs for several reasons. One, they suspend because they prefer the general 65ºF to 75ºF temperature band. At any given time of the year, they use this temperature range if they can, and it is usually neither on the bottom or at the surface.
Two, they suspend to take advantage of forage that eventually passes
through their deep zone. Highland reservoir muskies wait for schools of
forage (especially shad) to rise up from the bottom and slowly head for
the surface. Fred has watched this forage movement time after time on
his chart recorder. In some highland reservoirs, you can set your watch
by it. Once it begins, it will often occur every 12 hours, often coinciding
with the major and minor solunar periods. The bait may be 80 feet deep
or more, then slowly rise up until they are schooled near the surface.
It’s easy to see how important it is to know the depth muskies suspend at. It’s also easy to understand why few people catch muskies from highland reservoirs. Suspended fish are not easy to catch, even when you know they are suspended.
Yet understanding that muskies in highland reservoirs suspend and wait for forage to pass through their zone helps to explain the places where they usually locate. In any reservoir, the flooded river channel is the focus for baitfish activity. Muskies seek the best possible chance for getting a meal by suspending (in the right temperature zone) in the place where the most bait is likely to pass by. In summer and fall, that place is invariably right over, or adjacent to, the old river channel.
Fred gets a handle on several other conditions before he starts fishing. Water clarity and weather conditions are important. Most highland reservoirs are clear and high oxygenated, except in the upper reaches and in the back ends of creek arms. Reservoirs with a cold-water fishery with rainbow and/or lake trout suggest that there will be sufficient oxygen for a muskie, no matter how deep the fish chooses to go. A hazy, muggy day in the summertime, with some good chop on the water, means good fishing; however, Fred has caught muskies in every weather condition imaginable. When they’re 30 or 40 feet deep, muskies aren’t as dependent on the weather as shallower fish.
The boat is wide and roomy and equipped with a 48” livewell?an important feature. He releases practically every muskie he catches, and sometimes he holds a fish for a few hours and lets it soak in Jungle Laboratories’ “Catch & Release” formula, which he adds to the livewell. This helps to heal any wounds that a fish might have, sedates it, and helps form a good slime coat that will prevent infections after it’s released.
His choice is a Lowrance 1510B chart recorder, although he will probably get an updated unit with a 45ºF to 50ºF cone transducer soon. An 18º core doesn’t let you see shallower fish well. He also uses a Lowrance 2330 flasher, carries plenty of graph paper, and generally keeps his graph running the entire time he’s fishing. His boat is equipped with clamp-on “Down East” rod holders, which he’s found to be totally dependable. They allow him to keep his rods at a low angle, so he can troll deeper without letting out a tremendous amount of line. Generally, he trolls with two rods in rod holders and uses a Penn downrigger on a third line.
One rod he prefers is an 11-foot-long Diawa surf rod equipped with a Penn model 209 trolling reel and 30-pound-test Berkley wire line. Long rods are ideal to keep your lines from tangling. He also uses a Cabelas’ Fish Eagle Graphite 5-foot 8-inch muskie rod with a Zebco Quantum QD1421 wide-spool baitcasting reel and 30-pound-test Trilene monofilament; and a Berkley Graphite GF-19, 5-foot 9-inch trolling rod matched with a Penn 210 reel and Cortland 30-pound-test wire line. For shallower trolling, he likes Fenwick muskie rods equipped with heavy-duty Diawa and Shimano casting reels and 15- to 30-pound-test mono. Occasionally, he also trolls a fourth line, using a second downrigger, often running a big plug 5 to 10 feet deep right in the propwash.
The Magnum Hellbender and 600-series Bomber are “old reliables” for many highland reservoir muskie fishermen, but they are “miniature” plugs. Bigger plugs will take bigger muskies throughout much of the year. Fred’s favorites include several homemade baits of his own design. I took my first muskie on one that he calls the “Giant Ant.” He also uses Cisco Kids, Swim Whizzes, Believers, Hog Wobblers, Harassers, Rapalas, A. C. Shiners, Creek Chub Pikies, and (infrequently) a Suick jerkbait.
he likes the big Bomber and Hellbenders in cold water, when the metabolism of the muskie is slowed. Some of your lures must dive to 40 feet on wire line, if you expect to catch muskies in the summer and fall. Shallower-running plugs must be used on a downrigger.
What do highland muskies eat? Shad make up their main forage, but they also eat walleyes, trout, bullheads, perch, bluegills, carp, and crappies. Suckers are favored if they are available; they are primarily a springtime food when the muskies move into creeks to spawn.
Many local bass fishermen disdain muskies, believing that they devour smallmouth and largemouth bass. Of course, this is possible; yet studies from Muskies Incorporated reflect the relative absence of bass from the diet of muskies in other environments.
Fred’s found that highland reservoir muskies are attracted to black lures, yet seem to favor black in some combination, such as black and white. Perhaps this is because he’s usually fishing deep, where the ability to distinguish colors diminishes. Fluorescent colors such as hot pink or red produce, but never so much as when the entire plug is broken up with black bars or spots. Traditional brown and black wooden muskie plugs continue to prove themselves season after season.
Muskies have a greater chance to eyeball your plug and make up their mind to hit when you’re trolling in a highland reservoir, compared to when you’re casting in a shallow, weedy lake. In the weeds, the muskie has a few seconds to decide whether or not to strike. He can follow a bit for a few feet, but then he’ll be in sight of your boat. There’s no telling how long a muskie will follow your lure in a highland reservoir.
Make sure your plugs have top-grade hooks and hardware. Some splint rings and hooks found on big plugs won’t hold big fish.
Fred uses a sensible hook system that lets him avoid netting or boating muskies. He runs a big cotter key through the body of his homemade plugs and connects the hooks. When he hooks a muskie, he brings it alongside the boat and, using a pair of sidecutters, cuts the hooks out of the fish. When she swims free, he removes the cotter key, and replaces the hooks. Netting or gaffing is rough on the fish, and he rarely does it to fish he turns back.
Say the main river channel is 100 feet deep; the ledge or food shelf might be 80 feet deep; and muskies might be suspended at 35 feet over the 80-foot drop-off. Naturally, you must rely on a graph or locator to locate both structure and forage. It’s easy to chart the rise and fall of forage schools during the fishing day. If you manage to “hook’ some muskies on the graph, naturally that’s a good indicator of the depth you should be fishing at.
If the forage are deep, Fred begins to troll the main river channel with his long rods and wire line, running between 75 to 150 feet of the line behind the boat to get his plugs down to 30 to 40 feet. He’ll also run one or two down-riggers, attempting to troll plugs at a different depth within what he believes is the preferred temperature zone. If he seeks muskies on his graph, he runs two plugs at or near that depth.
When the fish are shallower, during spring and winter, concentrate on humps, points, bluff banks in major tributaries, and shallow food shelves from about 10 to 25 feet deep. Bump bottom with plugs like Bombers and Hellbenders. Troll these lures slightly slower than mot of the larger plugs.
How slow is slow? As a rule, the deeper you fish, the slower you should troll. If Fred trolls below 25 feet, he runs approximately 3 mph. If he doesn’t catch fish, he begins to vary his trolling speed. Many plugs cannot stand a 5- to 7-mph speed. Always check the action of each plug alongside the boat before letting out line.
Along the old river channel, concentrate on running the sharp bends of the channel, the places where feeder creeks meet the channel, and the channel lip. Troll the tapering side of the channel in summer and the steeper, bluff side during cold-water periods. This is a general rule. If this doesn’t produce, move away from the channel and troll the first major food shelf or ledge, again, hopefully, near forage, and at the depth where the correct temperature is found.
When Fred trolls a point, he chooses one close to the main river channel or a major creek channel, where the slope is abrupt and the point drops into the channel from 15 to 20 feet deep. He runs his plugs at the drop-off level, bumping bottom along the point and finally running them right over and off the drop-off.
Sometimes, muskies lie suspended far off a point. Ye they often suspend at the same depth as the breakline drop-off, regardless of how far off the point they are. Mounds, humps, or sunken islands are attractive structures. If the hump is less than 30 feet deep, troll so your plug ticks the top. If the mound is deeper than 30 feet, troll primarily where you see suspended baitfish on your graph.
Obviously, you won’t always spot muskies on your graph or flasher, but you can often tell their presence by the attitude of suspended baitfish. If the school appears loose and poorly defined, there is probably no predator nearby. However, if the school is extremely and spherical, you can bet something’s nearby: bass, walleyes, or muskies.
Speaking of glass and walleyes, Fred has caught big ones while trolling for muskies, which tells you a lot about the way many fish species live in deep, clear lake. He’s caught 6½-pound smallmouth bass on big muskie plugs, suspended over the old river channel 40 feet deep, plus walleyes of 12 pounds in the same areas. Apparently, these species, like the muskie, suspend and let the forage rise up to them, at times.
Today, a 40-pound muskie is the equivalent of a 50-pounder several years ago, so diminished are their numbers. Yet fish in this size range, and far bigger, probably exist in highland reservoirs. And nobody’s fishing for them!
Fred also offers that most of his big muskies have been caught during a full-moon period. He prefers the new moon for numbers of fish, and the full moon for big fish.
Finally, muskies are a valuable resource. Those that you don’t intend to mount should be promptly and carefully released. Many highland reservoir muskie populations are in good shape?certainly better than most fishermen know. Let’s keep them that way!
call Fred McClintock to check on available dates.
You may email Fred at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you do not receive an email response within 24 hours please contact Fred by phone.
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