Big Rubber Lures Mean More Muskies
April 01, 2017
Medussas, Pounders, Shadzillas, and other big rubber baits sound intimidating. And so they are when you consider how efficient they are at catching muskies. Given a proper game plan and a few tips, they can be fished in shallow, medium, and deep water, with a range of retrieve techniques. Whether you're into twitching, jigging, ripping, pulling and pausing, or straight retrieves, these big baits produce numbers of muskies and trophy fish.
Captain Spencer Berman is among the most successful guides on Lake St. Clair. His specialty is casting for muskies on a fishery dominated by trolling anglers. Last year, 872 muskies crossed the gunnel of his boat and nearly 90 percent of them were caught on big rubber baits. "I have a Bull Dawg tied on for the opener and finish with a Bull Dawg on December 15th, when the season closes," he says. "It's not that I never change lures; instead, it's a matter of having confidence with a style of lure and being able to trigger fish with them under most conditions."
One might guess that Berman runs smaller baits, like Spring Dawgs, Mini Medussas, or Biwaa Twin Pikes, early in the season and gradually moves up in size as the year progresses. On the contrary, he's witnessed enough 17-inch smallmouth bass get eaten off customers' lines prior to the muskie opener on St. Clair to recognize the eating capability of these fish. So he gladly casts Super Mag Pro Dawgs on opening day and switches to other baits as conditions dictate.
"Our muskies are open-water shad feeders," he says, "so I give them a big target they can easily find in the water column. For me, the fluid action of the Pro Dawg is perfect. It's double-hinged internal harness gives it a better swimming action and more hop on each pull of the rod. They're designed to work the 5- to 15-foot depths where St. Clair muskies spend most of their time."
No matter your choice of lures, Berman's golden rule is to never get locked into a static retrieve with the bait traveling on a single horizontal plane. Big rubber baits move lots of water. That's great for getting noticed, but getting noticed and getting bit are two different things. Paying attention to key elements of your retrieve can make all the difference between having follows and catching fish. For this reason, he works Bull Dawgs and Medussas with a deliberate pull-and-pause retrieve and uses a fast action, XXH-power, 9-foot Custom X Rod to impart the correct action. The limited flex of this rod means all the energy exerted by the angler on the rod is transmitted to the lure and not absorbed by the rod. Proper equipment leads to more efficient fishing. When lures weigh 6 to 32 ounces, efficiency is critical.
No matter the season, Berman pulls the rod 2 to 4 feet at a time. He increases or decreases the speed of the pull, not its length, based upon water temperature and the mood of fish. Fast-action Custom X rods cause the lure to rocket upward on each pull. Then, on a semi-slack line, the bait glides downward on the pause. If slack line isn't given on the pause, the bait fails to exhibit dramatic directional changes that cause muskies to bite. On a tight line, the bait does small bunny hops, covering less vertical and horizontal territory. By dropping the rod tip back to the bait after each pull, the lure glides down naturally and covers more water.
To get an even more dramatic rise-and-fall action from Bull Dawgs, he adds Musky Innovations' Heavy Heads to his baits. These add-on weights come in 1/2- and 1-ounce sizes for Mag Dawgs and 1 and 1½ ounces for Super Mag Dawgs. They fit snuggly under the chin of the bait with a wire harness. In midsummer when muskies become non-committal and increasingly follow baits without striking, Berman speeds his retrieve and works baits with a quicker rip-and-stop retrieve. This would normally mean sacrificing depth for speed, but Heavy Heads offset any loss of depth caused by the increased speed. They also give the lure a more nose-down action akin to a Suick.
Van Remortel's Advice
On inland waters of northern Wisconsin, Guide Jeff Van Remortel serves muskies a large dose of big rubber throughout the season. He feels it's a lure category that can't be fished wrong. "With them you can troll in the prop wash, long-line troll 40 to 60 feet behind the boat with in-line weights, cast and retrieve, or perform lift-drop or ripping retrieves," he says.
"My home waters contain diverse muskie habitats, from shallow, stained flowages and impoundments to deep, clear lakes with a cisco forage base. You must be flexible with techniques, but one pattern that consistently holds up is working rubber baits over structure and through cover. Most anglers are familiar with fishing them in deep water but few take advantage of the shallow water and thick cover bite."
When the bite is slow or when angling pressure is high, Van Remortel fishes these baits over shallow rockbars and along vegetation edges to lure fish that refuse to eat bucktails or topwaters. To avoid snagging, he suggests keeping baits high in the water column with a tight-line retrieve and securing the treble hooks against the baits with rubber bands. Smaller Medussas, Shadzillas, Double Dawgs, and Twin Pikes work well in this setting, as do jumbo tubes. When fishing tubes, he suggests adding a bass-style Zoom Fluke or Bass Assassin as a trailer to add action. Adding a trailer hook and blade combo like the Tail Gunner is another option to add flash, vibration, and a slower fall rate.
To fish above vegetation topping out a few feet beneath the surface, Van Remortel employs the biggest rubber baits, including Chaos Tackle Monster Medussas. "When muskies hold in dense vegetation, creating a commotion and occasionally tearing up stalks is the best way to get bites. Short casts and upward pops of the rod help keep lures above vegetation. The goal is to cover high-percentage spots from several angles if possible and to make contact with the plants at least once or twice every cast. For this application, I use a 12-foot custom rod that provides greater leverage and a better angle to keep the lure up.
"When working rubber through cover, bites frequently come as soon as the lure hits the water so be ready to set the hook immediately. Keep slack to a minimum to ensure the best hook-set." Since working rubber baits through heavy cover can be physically taxing, Van Remortel counsels customers to stay focused and maintain their confidence in the approach.
Since Van Remortel doesn't fish while guiding, he has plenty of time to evaluate his customers' techniques and offer advice. "For older or less experienced anglers, pivoting the body to one side is sufficient to impart a pull-pause action. With younger or more experienced anglers, we experiment with multiple retrieves. Young anglers tend to have more stamina and wrist agility to give double pops to the rod between pauses. This really gets the lure working erratically."
Tricks with Rubber Baits
"Since muskies get conditioned easily, we have to devise new ways to fool them," Van Remortel continues. "Sometimes it's a matter of being super-precise with lure placement, particularly when working a weededge or ledge. Other times, we play to their noise and vibration senses. When we're confident fish are holding on a spot but won't bite, we occasionally toss up a bomb cast with a Monster Medussa to send a shock wave through the water. These noisy casts frequently result in a bite before you get three cranks on the reel handle."
To get the bulk and water displacement of big rubber baits without the strain of casting and working baits weighing a pound or more, Captain Bret Alexander suggests using the ingeniously engineered Shadzilla lure series, which have become one of the hottest baits on the muskie scene. Because of their hollow-belly design, they're much more buoyant than solid molded swimbaits. This gives Shadzillas a more fluid action that muskies seem to crave.
"WaterWolf Lures' original 9.5-inch Shadzilla now comes in three modelsâ€”shallow (5.25 ounces), regular (6 ounces), and deep (7 ounces)," Alexander says, "to cover most conditions I encounter on Green Bay. Unlike other big baits that require muscle to impart action, my customers can get lifelike movement from the Shadzilla with a straight retrieve. This allows the bait's over-sized paddle-tail to do all the work, as it kicks and rolls with a hard vibrating action. When fall muskies get locked into larger lures, the 12-inch Magnum Shadzilla does the trick."
For anglers who prefer to impart action to baits, the Shadzilla X fits the bill. Its slender hollow body and forked tail allows it to be worked much like a suspending jerkbait. To get an even slower fall rate with this bait, the internal harness can be turned sideways in the lure by removing the hooks and repositioning the harness from the bottom to the side of the lure, then reattaching hooks. This approach has been widely touted by In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange to get a different action from a variety of soft-plastic swimbaits.
The slow-falling, gliding and quivering action of the split-tail Shadzilla X makes it great for post-frontal fish and those suspended in cold water. The key is to work the bait slowly. Shadzilla Xs are effective dead-sticking options when drifting over vegetated flats. An occasional twitch of the rod on a slow retrieve is enough to get the bait darting to the side and converting wary muskies into biters.
In cold water conditions, Berman tells customers to fish as if they're 80 years old. If you lack the discipline to slow retrieve speeds to a crawl, adjust your equipment to compensate. You might switch from a high-speed Shimano Tranx to a lower-geared Revo Winch, or else remove line from the spool to reduce the amount of line retrieved per crank.
On the other end of the big rubber spectrum are deep-water jigging baits like those designed by Captain Jon Bondy. The Bondy series of baits now includes the original Bondy Bait, Hot Orba, Royal Orba, Swim Jig, Wobbler, and St. Clair Grub. Bondy designed these lures to catch muskies in the St. Clair system that feed along the edge of the fast-moving Detroit River channel in or near deep water.
Bondy's success in catching these big fish gives credence to his approach. His system consists of following drop-offs, channel edges, and pinch points where concentrations of baitfish are found at the edge of fast current. Here he slip-drifts at the same rate as the current and vertically jigs with a 2-foot lifts of the rod. "I stay deeper than 14 feet," he says, "so I'm beyond the vegetation, and not much deeper than 32 feet, where the drop flattens into the shipping channel. When a bite occurs, I immediately check the graph for depth since most of the time more than one muskie has pulled into the same depth in that area."
Each Bondy lure performs differently, but one constant is the need to stay focused and confident in the approach. The guide notes that with confidence as a starting point, muskie anglers can perfect this technique as they slowly learn the idiosyncrasies of river jigging. With success has come imitationâ€”several other lure companies now make deep-water jigging baits, including the Rippin' Dawg, Shadzilla V, and Pegassus.
Through proper lure selection and equipment adjustments, the depth, speed, and action of big rubber baits can be tailored to catch muskies from spring through fall. Put some muscle into it and embrace big rubber.