Trolling for Musky; Seeing and Reacting to Fish on the Sonar
Fishing Techniques
A MuskyChasers Exclusive
by Pat Tryon
In the realm of musky fishing, there is a longstanding and ongoing debate on the effectiveness of casting versus trolling. Both presentations have their merits, and both are widely considered essential to an effective plan for finding and catching musky.
One argument that routinely comes up when supporting the case for casting is that the angler often sees the musky visually, and can then gauge the attitude or activity level of the fish. A keen angler can then alter their presentation to better suit the current mood of the fish as the day progresses. While this is incredibly effective in putting together day to day patterns, anglers should not overlook this same theory when trolling for musky. This becomes especially true as late summer turns to fall, and trolling begins to see more priority in most of our boats.

Prefer to read on your own terms?

If you don't have time to read the whole article now, get the PDF version and take it with you.

The idea of spotting musky while trolling is certainly not a new technique. Long before the high definition and colored displays which are now the standard in most boats, anglers were “marking” musky on grey scale graphs. With the technology of today, dialing in the settings of our electronics might make “seeing” fish while trolling for musky easier than before, but it remains the responsibility of each angler to interpret what is going on in order to fine tune their presentation and trigger more fish into biting. I have used several brands over the years, and I personally find Lowrance to have the most complete package in sonar options to pick out those musky and baitfish.
“…it remains the responsibility of each angler to interpret what is going on…”
Can your rod holders do this?
Go from down-rod to tipped up with a quick one-handed motion. See 'em in action!
While fine tuning your sonar will certainly improve the quality of the fish returns on your screen, even the “default” settings of your sonar will return at least some indication of a musky. The best way to begin the process of refining the settings is to establish a baseline for fish. Make sure you can identify the size of a forage species like walleye, perch, or shad. You can spend hundreds of hours tinkering with settings. Just remember to start out with small changes and do your best to always compare new setting changes to your baseline marks of fish type and size.

Assuming you are able to identify a musky (or sometimes large northern pike), you can begin to analyze each musky you mark on your electronics, and better understand the mood of each fish. I take screenshots constantly on the water and I jot down notes so that I can compare them later. With the technology of my Lowrance sonar, I can see a musky in virtually any situation, and then quickly grab a screenshot for comparing and analyzing. Regardless of your brand, make sure you spend time adjusting your settings to ensure you are seeing everything going on below the boat.

In my experience, the single most important piece of information that suggests the “attitude” of a musky on your sonar is the position of the fish in relation to the structure and bait surrounding her. Since we can’t physically see the fish as we can when casting, we need to make some general assumptions based on where that fish is choosing to position herself.

Sometimes we can immediately go back over a spot where we have seen a musky and see it again, which helps refine the activity level of an individual fish. While this is incredibly valuable for triggering a strike on that particular musky, I find that utilizing the information from seeing a single musky is often the take-away for patterning the population as a whole. Obviously marking a single fish is a great indicator of an area to revisit during what might be a more productive time of the day (i.e. majors, minors, or approaching low pressure storms). The aim of this article however is to break down the picture we are seeing on our sonar to influence our own decisions and tactics on the water in the present, in order to trigger bites from other fish that are likely acting in a similar fashion.

“Utilizing the information from seeing a single musky is often the take-away for patterning the population as a whole.”
I will first discuss the least ideal circumstances you are likely to run into. This is simply a musky sitting very close to a featureless bottom, or suspended off structure. This is made even worse if the marked fish happens to be in an area generally devoid of bait. When I see these variables, I typically assume this fish is digesting after a meal and is not interested in biting. The big indicator for me in this scenario is the lack of bait. It is not a stretch to assume the fish may have eaten in this location when there was more food in the area, but as she sits there for a period of time, the baitfish have moved on and only she remains.

Under normal circumstances, I will almost always make a second pass on any musky I mark on the sonar. If I go back over the spot and she remains in the same depth at the same location, I make note of the location to revisit during a more “productive time”, but I assume this fish is not a biter and continue covering water. Spending a great amount of time on this particular fish may actually do more harm than good, as you can condition her to your boat noise and baits which may ultimately spook the musky. I find it’s best to move on.

A classic example of a suspended musky off structure with no apparent bait nearby. After three passes this fish had not moved an inch. Time to move on looking for more active fish!
Screenshot by Pat Tryon
Continuing through the progression of fish activity level, spotting a musky immediately on, or suspending directly above, a piece of structure is a great indicator that fish may be feeding. As soon as I see this on my sonar, I will quickly drop or raise my lines to the level of the fish, and cover the area well, knowing that a fish is likely feeding in the area. It can also be assumed that there may be other musky in the vicinity, so long as there is enough food to supply multiple musky. It is not uncommon to hear of anglers having double hook ups as musky may be very close to each other as they hunt their prey.

If you mark a fish on your sonar this close to structure, it is critical to make sure at least one lure is hitting the depth within a foot or two above that fish, and never below the fish! In the event you are fishing in a relatively featureless body of water, the baitfish becomes “the structure”, and canvassing the area with your bait at the same depth or slightly above can result in success.

Here we see musky poised over the highest point on a piece of structure, with baitfish in the immediate vicinity and depth. Make sure you have a bait running at or just above the depth of this fish.
Screenshot by Pat Tryon
In this screenshot we see a musky suspended off structure, but completely surrounded by bait of all sizes. This is likely to be a feeding fish, and even if it has already filled up on food, there is likely to be more musky in this vicinity with so much bait in the area. Get lures in the depth zone of this fish and cover the surrounding area thoroughly.
Screenshot by Pat Tryon
The holy grail of marking active musky happens when we see a fish sitting on the most prime spot of a piece of structure, with ample bait nearby. These ambush spots are where a fish will most commonly position itself while waiting for food to come near. Often referred to as the “spot on the spot”, these areas are more difficult to discern while trolling for musky.

I look for the sharpest break near the deepest water as a prime spot. Alternatively, the highest point on a piece of structure can commonly be “the spot”, as a musky will use this position to see everything going on around her. When we mark a fish in these areas, the rod often goes off as we make our first pass so long as we have a lure close to this fish. I have seen fish rise up 20 feet or more to eat a lure above, but my goal is to have an offering within five feet of these fish.

If you notice a fish sitting on one of these prime areas, ensure you have a bait as close as possible to that fish, again, making sure the bait is not below the musky. Even if the fish does not bite on the first trolling pass, you can often go back over the fish and encourage a strike by changing up your baits and/or spread. For instance, if you see a fish sitting on a ledge 20 feet down near deep water, but your deepest bait is only down 10 feet, you may want to try dropping a bait down 20 feet, with a second bait further behind the boat in 15 feet. Understanding and fine-tuning your lure spread will help trigger strikes in these scenarios.

In this screenshot we have a musky perched on the edge of a drop-off near deep water. There is a large school of walleye on the far left of the photo as well as a school of shiners above the reef. A musky like this has everything it is looking for in the area, and is likely in an active mood. This particular musky was 45” and ate a Drifter Believer down 18 feet.
Screenshot by Pat Tryon
The 45” musky from the screenshot above. This fish was in the prime ambush spot of the reef and she only needed one trolling pass to decide she was eating.
Photograph by Pat Tryon
While having notes on previous fish you have marked is extremely valuable, many times it will be up to you to look at each fish on a case by case basis and try to best decide how to proceed. Sometimes a fish may be holding low between two high spots where trolling effectively is not an option. In this scenario you may be better served going back on top of that fish and vertically jigging right in front of her. Other times you may see a musky positioned in a great spot, but it just won’t bite.

Often, following your gut instinct may be the only way to trigger a strike. Pushing your own comfort level and trying tactics you may have never tried before may be exactly what it takes to progress as an angler and find success in tough bites. This was the case on one my personal favorite fish. It was certainly not the biggest musky, but the details surrounding the catch made this a great memory.

In this exciting shot, we can see what appears to be a musky stalking a small walleye. Making decisions based on what your sonar is showing can be the difference in success on any given day.
Screenshot by Pat Tryon
Increase your odds and expand your knowledge… hire a guide!
Find a musky guide in your area with our Trip Planner.
Know a guide that should be on our map? Make a suggestion.
In the screenshot above, I had just come off a reef with my deepest bait down 15 feet. I noticed the musky immediately, but with its location on bottom and the lack of baitfish in the area, I had not put a lot of thought into how I could change my presentation to trigger a strike. I had already gone over her once with my baits 10 feet above her, and she had not risen up to bite.

Upon first glance, this was not an “active fish”. I was also at the end of a trolling run where I had seen no walleye or perch, and no baitfish other than very small clouds of shiners sparsely spread around the area. I was ready to pull the lines and go look for more bait when I realized that the best bait I had seen in the entire area was directly in front of that musky!

Something just clicked and told me I needed to get a lure that looked like a walleye down to her level. I snapped on a 12” Blue Water Herring Bait in a Hot Walleye pattern, as I knew this bait could easily reach 25 feet deep. I followed this up with two other offerings getting down 20 and 12 feet deep, in the event that she had pulled off bottom after our first pass. Then, I followed my boat trail on the Lowrance back toward the fish, and about 100 feet before we got to the icon that I used to mark her location, the reel screamed and we had her.

To this day I often think about how close I had been to pulling all the lines and getting out of there. Taking that extra second to think about what I was actually looking at put the only fish of the day in the boat, and made for an extremely happy client!

This beauty bit our walleye-colored offering as soon as we matched the bait depth and color to the scenario presented to us on the sonar.
Photograph by Pat Tryon
Danny Colomby of Nipissing Muskies
Pat Tryon is the head guide at Chaudière Lodge.
Photographs and screenshots by Pat Tryon
Any time you have a lure in the water when either casting or trolling, the possibility of catching a musky exists. While casting, it is common practice after physically seeing fish to make subtle changes to trigger bites. You should not overlook the fine details displayed on your sonar to practice this very same technique while trolling.

Making small adjustments to your presentation while trolling for musky will often pay off big to those who are paying attention. Keep detailed notes of the changes you make for each given scenario and over time you will see your catch rates increase dramatically. In the pursuit of the biggest fish, it is often the smallest details that matter most.

What small details do you pay attention to when trolling for musky? Chime in with your comments below.

– Pat Tryon

Danny Colomby of Nipissing Muskies
Pat Tryon is the head guide at Chaudière Lodge.
Photographs and screenshots by Pat Tryon

Enjoy the read?

Get your next MuskyMastery fix delivered straight to your inbox!

Are Musky Chasers Really Crazy? | - Featured Image


Muskies are Fast Learners

Cold Weather Fishing Tips - Feature Image -


Trophy Musky Time

The Challenge of Musky Fishing - Feature Image -


The Challenge of Musky Fishing

Share This