My partner was a world class bass fisherman, but had never caught a musky. We had been fishing in the late 70’s, when one of my hottest presentations was cranking a big Hellbender crankbait along the deep weed edges in Wisconsin lakes. Besides fishing the best areas, two other keys to success with this deep-diving, over-size bass lure was to contact and tear through the deep fringe weeds and to rip the lure upward when it was about 10-15 feet from the boat. This final change of speed and direction was the key to triggering a following fish, and the majority of strikes came during this “rip”.
In a two day period we landed six muskies, five hit on the rip, and I caught them all. My partner fished the lure like he was bass fishing, and never got a strike. It wasn’t that he was being belligerent, but rather just following the mechanics he developed when working this same lure for bass. Muskies aren’t bass, and no fresh water fish I’ve ever caught reacts to changes in speed and direction like a musky. Unless I’ve briefly lost my concentration when fishing, I try to execute a speed and/or direction change with the lure on every cast. Turns, changes of speed and rips of the rod are even part of my basic trolling runs.
Flashing blades are the biggest musky attractors of all time, and if you just fire out a “bucktail” and just reel it in you’ll catch some muskies. But if you take advantage of this lures capabilities you’ll catch a lot more. For starters, I try to puff or flare out the lures skirt at least several times on every cast. This is a proven trigger for following fish if you see them or not. Another strike inducing tactic is to put a burst of speed on the lure if you see it’s being tracked by a musky. This is best accomplished by cranking the reel faster, not by swinging the rod to the side. That tactic puts you in a bad angle for a solid hook-set. The 8 to 9-foot rods that are now so popular are ideal for fishing bucktails. They allow you to change the lures path dramatically as it nears the boat, and to execute killer figure 8’s and ovals to trigger boat-side strikes.
Another strike-inducing tactic that works great in shallower waters is to bring the bucktail in “under power”. This means stopping the lure just before it hits the water by putting your thumb on the spool; then start the retrieve. You don’t want the lure to sink for a couple seconds before the blades start rotating. If the lure hits the water “under power”, the blade(s) will cup air and release a stream of bubbles for the first few feet of the retrieve. This creates a lot more underwater sound and turbulence during the first part of the retrieve, which is a musky attractant. To better understand this tactic, let the lure hang about 6-7-feet below the rod tip and swing it out into the water. Let it sink a second or two before you move it and note the sound and turbulence…virtually none. Now swing the lure out and start moving it through the air before it hits the water. You should create a stream of bubbles and hear a much louder sound.
L-armed blade baits are a great musky lure. Running these weed-resistant lures through vegetation has accounted for many muskies. But you can trigger strikes from muskies with this bladed lure that would be near impossible to do with in-line style spinnerbaits. The reason; you can fish these blade baits deeper than conventional in-line spinners and create a back-in-your face strike-inducing tactic that’s deadly on muskies.
When you stop an in-line spinner and allow it to sink, the blade usually flops around in a manner that’s not very attractive to the fish. When you stop an L-armed spinnerbait, especially one with a ball-bearing connection between the wire arm and blade, the blade(s) beat wildly as the lure is sinking. This allows me to easily fish 8 to 15-foot depths, which are beyond the range that most anglers fish in-line spinners. The fluttering blade is a great strike inducer, but what is even better is ripping the lure upwards several times during the retrieve, then tight-lining it back down. It doesn’t matter if you are fishing a flat, sharp edge, or slow-tapering bottom. If you can get the lure above a following musky, and then flutter it down to it, you’ll catch a lot more fish by triggering this in-your-face-reflex strike!
The wide variety of maneuvers that can be executed with a crankbait make it the most versatile strike-triggering lure of all. My standard retrieve may find me twitching, sweeping, jerking, ripping, or even pausing the lure on any given cast. It all depends on structure or cover being fished, what I perceive is the musky activity level, and lastly, what the fish are actually “showing me”.
Most of my twitching is when fishing heavier cover, or if trying to entice a non-aggressive fish into striking. Square-billed crankbaits such as Shallow Raiders and Shallow Invaders are my favorites when executing a twitching retrieve. Buoyant lures with square lips part weeds and flip over cover better than any other design. They are particularly effective bounced over the limbs of a downed tree, or through a surface-penetrating bed of cabbage. Twitching a lure around heavier cover with minimal forward movement is a great way to catch the attention of a cover-hugging musky and to tease it into striking.
During periods when the bite isn’t very hot, stopping a diving crankbait as it nears the boat so it rises to the surface is often a great tactic to pull a following musky up out of the depths. During our Lake of the Woods Musky School several years ago, this tactic was a key to catching a number of muskies during an off period. Gently twitching the lure on the surface for a while, then going into a figure 8, proved to be the winning combinations to trigger a strike.
Jerking a lure in during a retrieve is also a deadly tactic. Sometimes the “jerks” are just quick sweeps, while other times snappy pulls are in order. When retrieving a crankbait it usually best to break up the cadence of just using a steady straight retrieve. When jerking or ripping a lure hard, try to create a little slack in the line between pulls. This will allow the lure to have more side-to-side movement between jerks, which is sure to trigger more strikes.
Sometimes the “jerks” aren’t much more than sporadic twitches sprinkled throughout the retrieve. This teasing tactic is very effective in triggering strikes, especially when a sensitive-reacting Balsa wood crankbait such as Crane Bait is used.
Another great crankbait retrieve to use when conditions are tough is the “purr”, a deadly tactic I learned from my good friend and frequent fishing partner Joe Bucher. I’ve seen this retrieve produce a number of times during slow mid-day hours when the muskies were not in the mood to chase down fast-moving lures. Joe uses a 7-inch jointed Shallow Raider, makes a cast, then combines a moderate speed retrieve with gentle sweeps of the rod to the side. You can feel the lure purr through the water as the jointed lure shimmies side to side to entice neutral mood muskies. This smaller size lure is also a plus during these conditions.
A favorite retrieve to use during post-frontal conditions or when the bite seems a little tough, is “crashing” a crankbait off the rocks. Two factors that are a big key to success are rocks that can be reached with a crankbait, and wind (or water movement). Points and shallower-topping reefs are usually the targeted structures. Execution of the retrieve is pretty simple; cast over the structure, sweep or jerk the lure down so it comes in contact with the rocks, let the lure rise a bit, a couple more cranks, then sweep the lure down again. Vary the power of the sweeps and the amount of time the lure is allowed to rise until you find the best combination to provoke strikes. Favorite crankbaits for this tactic are straight-bodied Depth Raiders and Shallow Raiders, plus Grandmas.
These lures don’t give you a lot of triggering options, but there are tricks you can do to entice extra strikes. Much of my top water fishing is done with a plopper style lure, with my favorite being “froggie”, a frog-pattern Top Raider. With any plopper I’ll slow it up briefly, then flick the reel handle, play “keep away” with a following musky, and swing the lures path to the side when it nears the boat. Many top water strikes come at boat-side on the figure 8…if done correctly!
Last year at our Lake of the Woods musky school two anglers opted not to stick around and hear the morning dock side presentation on figure 8’s. They were excited to get back out to a couple of large fish they had spotted, and I couldn’t blame them. The following day they were scheduled to fish with me and one of them raised a nice musky that followed a Top Raider to the boat. Excitedly, I shouted “do a figure 8!” A figure 8 was done with the lure being swished around on the surface. After the fish swam away, I asked “why didn’t you pull the lure under the water and create a big stream of bubbles like we showed at the seminar? That’s what often triggers a strike on this type lure.” I got a sheepish look from one of them who then admitted they didn’t attend the seminar. Sometimes the best lessons are learned from mistakes, and I guarantee that mistake won’t be made again, especially since I playfully brought it up several more times that day.
Top waters with the side-to-side actions present the biggest challenge to get a close in strike from a musky. The best thing you can do with most of these lures if a musky is following is to slow them down about 10-15-feet from the boat and try to “dance them in place” with minimal forward movement. Some side to side top waters have plastic tails (Phantom Lures makes one) and they work better on figure 8’s because of the added tail action.
Jerkbaits are lures that generally aren’t at their best at close in quarters. But two real good tricks that were show to me have tilted the odds a lot more in my favor. When a musky is following a jerkbait that dives down such as a Suick, Bobbie or Burt and it gets about 15-20-feet from the boat, violently exploding the lure to the side often triggers a reaction from a musky. Rip your rod low and to one side about as hard as you can; quickly do it to the other side, then back again to the first side. The line is ripping up the water, the lure is exploding from one side to the other, and the musky is often triggered into a violent strike.
Most jerkbaits don’t work all that well when trying to do a figure 8 at the end of a cast. What works much better at the side of the boat is to form the outline of a “box” with this lure. This is simply a pull or two in one direction, then a 90-degree pull followed by another 90, then another. Keep going as long as the fish is interested. Moving a jerkbait in this manner pretty much duplicates the action of the retrieved lure. Doing a conventional figure 8 with this style lure generally alters the action that attracted the musky, plus this type lure tends to roll out on turns.
If you don’t do at least a half of a figure 8 on EVERY CAST you’ll be catching a lot less fish. In some lakes figure 8’s will consistently catch more fish than any other part of a cast. Lake of the Woods is a prime example. Through the years about 75 to 80% of the big muskies I caught out of this prime musky lake casting came on some form of 8 or circle. The darker the water the higher the percentage of boat-side strikes, but I’ve also had a number of big ones come out of nowhere in gin-clear lakes to track down a lure.
I highly doubt if there is an angler alive that is better at making a musky strike on the short line than Legendary Lake of the Woods guide Bill Sandy. Watching him work a musky is like watching a maestro conduct an orchestra. But since he started guiding at 9-years old and has over 10,000 muskies in his boat, he “cheats” because he can just about read their minds.
There are a number of tactics Sandy uses to trigger strikes. If a fish is coming in fairly hot he usually comes into the first part of the 8 pretty hard, sort of like the lure is trying to escape from the musky. But when he goes into the far turn the lure slows and the musky often strikes at that point. Sandy favors a stiff rod so when he explodes into the first turn, the speed of the lure isn’t slowed down by the flexing of a too soft rod.
Sandy also likes the fish to strike under his terms. He often pulls the lure away from a musky coming at him at boat-side, preferring to hook the fish when it’s going away. Then a fairly gentle sweep back into the musky almost always results in a solid hook-set. If it’s a lazy, deeper follow where the fish doesn’t seem too interested, Sandy plays with the fish to see its reactions to different tactics. He might slowly keep increasing the speed of the lure to get the musky moving more aggressively, or he often “jigs” it into striking by a series of teasing twitches. If there is any chance of a musky committing to a lure, this Legendary Guide usually figures it out!
There are no big secrets to catching muskies. All top musky anglers practice solid mechanics, pay attention to the smallest details, and utilize every strike-provoking trick in their play book.