A Precision Swimbait System for Muskies and Pike
Weedlines—the mother of all edges. On one side, open water. On the other, uniformity of a different type. Where they meet exists a diversity of habitats, a greater variety and density of organisms than in either of the adjacent ecological zones. It’s called the edge effect, but for the sake of the here and now we might as well call it the Esox Effect.
Muskies and pike are weededge-inclined. Of course, there are exceptions where living might more efficient elsewhere in a waterbody. But my bets are on an edge in some form, most of the time. It might not be botanical, but it’s often still a place where two different habitats meet. Could be a nearshore drop-off or the slope off an openwater hump, or where boulder outcropping meets finer substrate, or a shadow line, or a thermocline, or a chemocline. But where the green goes kaput is a place to make a solid bet.
Working weededges is often a down-the-pipe affair. Too far left and you’re out in space. Too far right and it’s a salad snare. Dial it in and productivity peaks, falling like a bell curve on either side. Finding the right presentation to maximize efficiency is key. Working at the proper depth, speed, and with the right vibration patterns are all variables.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange developed a swimbait system for weedline walleyes. He’s found paddletail swimbaits mounted on jigheads to be one of the most effective tools for working weededges during spring and early summer, his proving grounds down the road from our office, at Mille Lacs Lake, but also taking the show on the road to places like Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan, and other top walleye factories, from the Columbia River to the Bay of Quinte. You can catch those weedline walleyes on spinner rigs and crankbaits, but my money’s on Stange and his swimbait for efficiency. Rarely do you see him stripping weeds off his hook or tiptoeing around for finicky fish. He works with tempo and precision, like setting a pace for a 5K, not too fast but certainly not meandering.
Surgeon and Scalpel
Marc Wisniewski, lure manufacturer and rod builder from Greenfield, Wisconsin, is another swimbait aficionado. He’s mastered his craft for inshore species in Florida waters as well as for trout and salmon in the Great Lakes. Inland, swimbaits are his go-to lures for muskies most of the year. And it’s a system that’s equally well suited to pike. Wisniewski mostly fishes for muskies in the hard-hit waters around the Milwaukee area in southeastern Wisconsin, as well as the lakes area in northern Wisconsin.
“My approach to muskie fishing with swimbaits is a lot different than what seems to be the norm right now—giant baits,” Wisniewski says. “In contrast, the biggest lure I use is a 6-inch Lunker City Salt Shaker, and most of my work is done with 5½-inch Big Hammers, and Doug’s favorite, the Berkley 5-inch PowerBait Saltwater Swim Shad or the new freshwater version, the Flatback Shad. These are small compared to most popular muskie baits, but I can dissect structure like a surgeon with these lures. Smaller size doesn’t matter because I’m putting the swimbait right in their faces.” Stange also likes Berkley PowerBait Hollow Belly Swimbaits in the 5- and 6-inch sizes. Berkley discontinued the 6-incher; but the 5-incher works for pike and light muskie applications. Other good options are the Northland Rock-R-Minnow, Yum Money Minnow, and Z-Man SwimmerZ.
Wisniewski starts fishing with swimbaits in spring and relies on them through summer and early fall. “I do well right through the turnover until the water temperature drops to about 45°F to 47°F,” he says. “After that, they lose their effectiveness and larger, slower-moving baits like Bulldawgs outproduce them.
“In spring, I fish flats with emerging weeds, particularly at the entrances to shallow bays or the leading edge to windblown flats. I like flats that have scattered clumps instead of widespread weeds. I fish every angle of a clump and then move on to the next. On a lake with a lot of hard bottom, a good spring spot can be the first break off of a gravel or rock flat.”
In summer and early fall, Wisniewski focuses on deep weededges, 8 feet down to 16 to 18 feet max, he says. “There’s no better lure than a swimbait for fishing weededges. Unfortunately, to do this right, it’s a one-fisherman system. I get my boat right on the weedline and follow it, making casts parallel to the edge. You should be flirting with weeds all the time. If your lures are coming in clean, you aren’t close enough to the edge.
“Don’t go to fast. I like to fish into the wind, transom first, with a transom-mount trolling motor pulling me slowly along the edge. My eyes are always glued to the locator, staying on that edge. If you find long, straight stretches of weedline, make long casts and work as much water as you can. If the weedline jogs in and out, keep the casts short and precise.
“I worked this same approach with deep-diving crankbaits for much of my career, but crankbaits run at a specific depth, which may or may not work with a particular weededge depth,” he says. “The jig-swimbait combo is much more versatile and is in the zone for nearly 100 percent of the cast. Also, with one hook, it can be ripped through weeds much better than most crankbaits.”
Some anglers prefer treble-hook lures for muskies and pike, but Wisniewski finds that the hooking percentage with swimbaits is outstanding. “If they eat it, you got them,” he says. “The entire power of the hook-set goes into one point, and I don’t know that I have had any fish throw them once hooked. I’ve experimented with stingers or ‘trap-rigging,’ but it isn’t necessary.
“Swimbaits are fairly weedless because you can snap weeds free during the retrieve. This can be a trigger for strikes.” Stange found that most of the time it isn’t necessary to remove weeds between casts. On the next cast make a snapcast and the weeds fly off the hook. Another level of efficiency in this system.
“People mistakenly put on a swimbait-jig combo and start jigging, but you shouldn’t fish the bait that way,” Wisniewski explains. “Cast it out and let it sink. I let it go to bottom. Point the rod at the bait at 2 o’clock and reel it 10 to 12 feet, pause a few seconds to let the bait descend, reel some more. I try to keep the bait within 18 inches of the bottom on a deep weedline. If you need to reestablish depth, pause and let it return to the bottom and continue.”
Stange agrees this is how swimbaits should be fished. It might seem like a fast presentation, and you might be inclined to pause and jig too much, he says, but keeping the bait moving creates a continuous vibration and visual trail that fish can track. Walleyes track a swimbait from behind before they strike. Muskies track baits from behind, too. Pike often side-swipe baits, but likely track from behind more than we think.
“The only time you should lift the rod tip is to snap the bait through a weed,” Wisniewski adds. “Weed contact is good. If you’re ticking weeds you’re where you want to be. If you haul in bushel baskets of weeds, you casted too far onto the flat. If you’re not feeling anything, you probably lost the edge.”
Down to Details
Wisniewski uses three swimbait setups depending on the situation:
• Shallow, 3 to 10 feet deep: 5-inch Berkley Saltwater Swimshad (or Flatback) on 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jighead.
• Mid-depths and most weedlines, 8 to 16 feet deep: 5½-inch Big Hammer or 6-inch Lunker City Salt Shaker on 1-, 1½-, and 2-ounce jighead.
•Deeper than 16 to 18 feet: 6-inch Lunker City Salt Shaker on 2- and 2½-ounce jighead.
He pours his own jigheads for each size and style of swimbait. “I use Do-It Molds Style 9 Shad Head molds,” he says. “The profile of the head finishes the shape of these baits perfectly. But here’s the twist. The mold is designed to have the eye of the hook come out the top of the head with a 90-degree bend (top-tie). You can modify the mold so that you can fit a 60-degree-bend hook in the head so that the hook eye comes out the nose of the jig (nose-tie). They are both good, but the difference is huge and you need some of each to perfect this swimbait system.” Stange likes the Owner Saltwater Bullet Head. For lighter applications, the 1/2-ounce Matzuo Boshi Jig Head is another good option.
Wisniewski explains that with the top-tie, the swimming action of the tail is restricted somewhat but the bait tracks deeper and can be fished faster. “The top tie also is less weedless, creating a crook for weeds to collect. You also can get baits to dart side to side better with this connection.
With the leader connected to the nose, the tail action and side-to-side roll is more pronounced. There’s no crook for weeds to collect, so the nose position is more weedless. And the nose-tie design fishes shallower and slower than the top-tie.”
With these two options and the varied weights, Wisniewski dials into a particular situation. “On a clean, 15-foot deep edge, I like a 1½-ounce top-tie. On a 15-foot deep erratic weedline with long coontail, I go with the nose-tie because I’d be encountering more weeds. To fish slower with more pauses, I use the nose-tie. When I want a faster retrieve deeper, I bump up an extra 1/2 ounce on a top-tie.”
Wisniewski uses saltwater hooks or heavy hooks designed for flippin’ jigs. For the 1/2- and 3/4-ouncers he uses the Eagle Claw #730 or Mustad 32786BLN in 5/0. For 1- to 2½-ouncers he likes the Mustad 32789BLN or Eagle Claw 413 in 7/0. “These hooks match the swimbaits I use well. A hook too short is no good, and a hook too far back in the tail kills lure action.” For leaders, he uses single-strand .016-gauge (diameter) coffee-colored wire. He ties one end to the jig with a haywire twist and the other end to a quality size #7 swivel.
“A swimbait mounted crooked on a hook doesn’t run straight or work properly,” he adds, “so take time to get it on straight and then use superglue to attach it to the jighead. I don’t use baitkeeper collars on the shafts of the jigs because they split the plastic. Superglue also helps mend baits that have been sliced by teeth.
“Stange introduced rigging swimbaits sideways for walleyes, probably 30 years ago now. That works for muskies, too. Rig them on the jighead sideways with the hook exiting the middle of the side of the bait. The bait glides and can be fished much slower. It’s a good option on days when the fish aren’t chasing faster-moving baits.”
Rods and Reels
For 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jigheads, Wisniewski uses spinning tackle. He likes an extra-fast medium-heavy 7-foot rod and a 4000-size spinning reel loaded with 14-pound FireLine. He attaches a 2-foot leader of 25-pound-test Vanish or Triple Fish fluorocarbon leader, which gets tied to a swivel.
For heavier jigheads, he prefers baitcasting tackle, a 7½-foot or longer flippin’ stick and 30-pound mono or braid. “Braid gives you more feel for what the bait’s doing,” he explains. “You can tell how a lure is swimming and decipher bottom and weedgrowth. I can tell when I hit a patch of cabbage in the middle of some coontail. With braid you have to be careful to hold back and not set too soon. You have to let fish come up and engulf the swimbait.”
Often, you feel a fish rushing up behind a swimbait right before it strikes, as if it’s pushing water behind the bait, making the retrieve feel loose with loss of lure action. “You lose the tail thump and it feels weightless for a second, then crunch,” Wisniewski says. “It’s not the same as a crankbait. The best way to describe the strike is that the bait just keeps getting heavier and heavier till it stops. That’s when you hit them.”
Wisniewski built a rod specifically for heavier swimbaits. “It’s an 8-foot moderate-action blank designed for back-bouncing for steelhead,” he says. “This contrasts with the extra-fast action on my spinning rods. I built the 8-footer to lob big jigs and to deaden the reaction time to the hook-set, much like bass fishermen use glass rods for crankbaits or spinnerbaits. I want the fish to fully engulf the bait and start to load up the rod before I set the hook.
“So, why two different actions? The spinning rod is specifically rigged with the 5-inch Berkley Flatback on a 1/2-ounce head. This is the smallest bait I use, and most anglers consider it a big bass lure. With this lure, I never had a problem with muskies short-striking, so delaying the hook-set isn’t an issue. The feel on this rod is incredible so I often use it as my underwater eyes and fingers to ‘feel’ bottom and identify weeds.
“I’ve been fishing for muskies on light tackle for 33 years,” Wisniewski says. “It started with Worral-Portincaso creature tactics, which are still great. But the swimbait covers water faster. It’s fatigue-free fishing. I don’t last two hours reeling double-10 Cowgirls. With this system I can go all day. It keeps you on your toes because between muskies, there are a lot of bass and walleyes that don’t know this bait wasn’t intended for them.”