June 12, 2016
A strange sort of irony has defined the sport of muskie hunting — a dichotomy of behaviors in the realm of lure choice. But perhaps it's not so curious when you consider the quirky crowd we're dealing with. We muskie fishers are mostly fine folk, even if we sometimes tend toward the obsessive.
"I've done surveys at muskie banquets where many of the hardcore anglers admitted owning a thousand lures or more," Larry Dahlberg told me recently. "Most guys I fish with clutter the boat by bringing several dozen lures. Yet when we start fishing, they often spend the entire day with the same bait. If I told them they could bring just one lure, they'd have a conniption!"
So as I began asking a group of gifted anglers to pick just one — the singular lure they'd select if faced with such an unlikely choice, the answers weren't always easy. Some couldn't do it. Giving up so many other lures — even hypothetically — proved too painful. One Hall of Famer called me a bad word for daring to pose such a question. No problem because the result of this exercise was far too interesting. To add to the irony, the upshot will be to add not just one, but a batch of great baits to your already bulging lure box.
Host of TV's "The Hunt for Big Fish," world traveler, and avid muskie hunter for more than four decades, Larry Dahlberg's choice was simple. "For me, the lure should be effective at the widest possible range of speeds, from stop to warp 10; it should work at the widest range of depths; and it should be mid-sized — large enough to attract fish during all periods, but not so big as to disqualify it when smaller stuff works better. It also should be capable of random non-mechanical action, stop and go, plus a straight retrieve.
"My homemade Mr. Whiggley softbait is the only lure in my box that does all those things. I'm still looking for a color they won't bite, but muskies really like the redhorse pattern. To make it near-neutral buoyancy, sinking in a balanced, horizontal posture, I distribute either fine lead shot or tungsten powder along the lure's ventral side. If I want to fish it deeper, I either set it behind a Carolina rig or behind a 3-foot section of .062 diameter lead wire spliced into hollow braid, which allows the lure to sink horizontally, rather than the up-down yo-yo effect of a larger centrally positioned weight.
"I've got a ton of good muskie stories connected to Whiggley. All involve showing up second (or third or fourth) on a community spot, waiting for the pack to clear out, then going in and catching a fish or two. On a particular flat calm midday on Mille Lacs, a buddy spotted a giant fish hanging off a midlake rockpile. He tossed everything he had at the fish, then called me excitedly from the lake. I reminded him of the Whiggley I'd put in his boat earlier that year. He hung up and tied it on. Twenty minutes later he called to report his new personal best, a mammoth 56-incher."
Among the most innovative and tactically sound muskie anglers, Guide Captain Jon Bondy has virtually rewritten the book on how and where to catch big fish. Beginning with Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, Bondy's deepwater jigging methods have spread across the entire muskie map.
"If I had to pick just one lure to fish the rest of my life, it would be a pearl colored Original Bondy Bait," he says. "I'd fish it deeper than 20 feet with complete confidence because I know most muskie anglers are beating the banks.
"During my seminars, I always suggest that shallow-water anglers try at least one weekend per season fishing nothing but water 20 feet or deeper. You'd be surprised by how many converts I've created with this suggestion.
"The 7-ounce Bondy Bait falls nose-down, and not only mimics a shad or cisco, but also imitates suckers or whitefish feeding on bottom. It gets to the deepest parts of a river or lake and shows itself to big predators that are not used to seeing big baits that deep. Moreover it's relatively snag-free. It's a simple bait and method that anglers all over North America have used to win close to two dozen tournaments."
This man is a muskie pioneer, who, alongside Dick Pearson, helped decipher Lake of the Woods' muskie fishery over 50 years ago. So you understand when we let Doug Johnson stretch the boundaries of the one lure framework.
"My first 50-incher and many others fell for a trusty black and silver Mepps Giant Killer. It was and remains today a great muskie lure. Then for quite a while Suicks and Bobbies (jerkbaits) were my favorites. These lures caught many, many fish and lots of big ones. Eventually, Mark Windels and I became fishing buddies, and he showed me his Musky Harasser, which accounted for a ton of good fish. At times, various topwater lures were my favorite (still my favorite way to catch a muskie). A 10-inch Believer pulled slowly through weedbeds was deadly and it became my go-to-lure for a number of years. After many years of fall trolling I found that a 10-inch Jake was about as good as it gets, and it's still my go-to lure for trolling; not bad for casting either.
"So after all that it's hard to pick one favorite lure or method. But I do find that almost every year a lure or lure type comes along that outperforms all the others. Not surprisingly, the past 8 or 9 years it's been a double-bladed bucktail with flashabou skirt. Last year I had a double-10 with an oddball green blade and a green skirt that was absolutely deadly in one particular spot on Lake of the Woods. I could almost bet I'd catch a fish at this spot if I used this lure. What happens next year remains to be seen."
Like most great anglers, it's nearly impossible to pigeonhole the fishing predilections of the venerable Dick Pearson. Countless fish on topwaters, jerkbaits, cranks and bulldawgs aside, Pearson's response to my query was quick and painless. "No hesitation here," Pearson affirms, "For me the choice is a Drifter Tackle Grinder — a smooth, versatile spinnerbait that works any structure efficiently. We started selling the bait around 2000, although other safety-pin style lures have been great muskie lures for much longer."
Pearson calls the Grinder a "lethal tool, a crescent wrench, if you will. I can fish the bait anywhere. Weeds, rocks, wood. Slow, fast or any speed between.
"One of my favorite retrieves is to gurgle the blade on the surface, awesome over shallow cabbage. I've also caught tons of fish with it slow-rolling (grinding) over deep rocks. Great for trolling too.
"Hard to pick out a single giant Grinder fish, but there have been lots of biggies — many, many muskies over 50-inches." Pearson particularly prefers a black-skirted Grinder with a silver or flame willowleaf blade, with sizes from 1 to 5 ounces and about a dozen color combinations.
The late Jack Burns left behind a legacy of big muskies as well as a mantra for the sport's conservation ethic. Doug Johnson, longtime fishing buddy of Burns, offered perspectives from the years the two anglers shared a boat.
"Jack and I caught a lot of fish together. He was a great fisherman and person, and not a bad cribbage player, either. As you might guess, Jack was a versatile and thorough fisherman, using many lures with great skill. He was fond of Believers and Suicks and I was with him when he caught his biggest muskie — a monster 54-incher that ate a firetiger Suick. Like most of us, Jack also used the big double-bladed bcktails the last few years of his life. But when he was targeting a particular big fish or when he merely wanted to put a fish in the boat, he'd generally use a gold-bladed Rad Dog spinnerbait. When he caught a fish, Jack was fond of saying, "Catch a nice one and let it go. Let them all go."
Jim Saric of Chicago is Editor of Musky Hunter magazine and host of "The Musky Hunter" television show. "I carry more than 350 muskie lures in my boat, but if I could have just one, it would be a Cowgirl," he says. "Fishing and filming across the muskie range from April through November, I don't claim a particular home water. Although select lures shine at particular times, waters, seasons, or spots, the Cowgirl has produced everywhere.
"It's tricky to define that lure's success, other than to say, the two #10 blades put out unique sound/vibration patterns that compel muskies to think it's real. Further, flashabou breathes and pulses during the retrieve, making it look even more alive. When executing a boatside figure-eight, the bait gives off some sort of sound change that works because the Cowgirl converts more followers than any other in-line spinner I've thrown.
"It might not be the best tool for deep fish, or for early spring or late fall fishing, but I still like my chances of triggering one strike per day — even on tough days. And when muskies are active, a Cowgirl acts like a vacuum cleaner; it pulls them away from other lures. No matter who's casting it or where — bow, middle or rear casting deck. Muskies almost always eat the Cowgirl."
Former Ontario fishery manager and In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer offers a unique perspective on muskie trends. "It's easy to fall in love with a muskie bait when you fish for 15 hours, hook 15 fish, land 11, and four of them are over 40 pounds. That is precisely what I did the first time I fished with Jon Bondy and his Bondy Bait. But get this: buddy Brandon Broderick hooked one of the four fish we lost and it might have been the biggest muskie I've ever seen.
"The Bondy Bait is ideal anytime you're fishing vertically in heavy current. It weighs seven ounces, gets down quickly, and stays vertical. At the same time, it's got the weight for long casts, makes a big splash, sinks quickly, and works great in a lift-fall cadence. And while it's heavy, when you fish it with the right gear, it doesn't wear you out.
"I use an 8-foot, extra-heavy-power rod and a reel spooled with 80-pound-test braid. When I fished with Bondy we used 200-pound-test stainless-steel leaders fashioned from downrigger cable and tightened the star drags on our levelwind reels as much as possible. "The best strategy is to stop along a specific breakline or bottom contour, turn the nose of the boat into the wind, and then hold with your foot on the bowmount trolling motor to keep the boat drifting over the depth you want to strain. I like black baits, but I've done well with white ones, too, especially when muskies are feeding on ciscoes and whitefish in fall."
Guide Lee Tauchen has quietly tallied an amazing number of big muskies, including record-class fish from Mille Lacs and Vermilion in Minnesota to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Although he's well known for his handmade wooden baits (leelures.com), he opts for an interesting choice when pressed to pick just one.
"If I get to pick just one lure for fun fishing, I'd take a jointed, crawling-style surface bait, like my Top H20. I caught 24 fish over 50 inches on that first bait. It shines for fishing slightly slower than most other surface lures, and it's awesome in rough water.
"But if we're looking at this in terms of picking one lure to catch loads of muskies, I'd take a single #8 Colorado-bladed bucktail. Esox Assault makes an awesome single-bladed in-line. I have a ton of confidence in black flashabou and a black blade — subtle and stealthy. I can fish it slower and shallower, or burn it fast. It's more versatile than the big double-bladed baits. We catch a lot of fish on this bait, and last July I had a 71-year-old client bag a monster 57" x 25" muskie on one.
When someone who's caught as many big muskies as Steve Heiting — managing editor of Musky Hunter magazine — unapologetically casts a vote for the double-10 in-line bucktail, you can't help but listen.
"In my office hang six double-10 spinners, worn out and retired — all with black-nickel blades and black holoform tails. Most are Mepps H210s, with a few Double Cowgirls in the mix. All have caught between 21 and 27 muskies each. I regularly rebuild bucktails in my boat with new shafts, hooks, clevises, and tails. But when the blades wear out, it's time for retirement. I like the H210 for its jointed construction, which allows me to cast it farther and more accurately. I also think the jointed body fits a muskie's mouth, making it a better-hooking bait.
"The all-black bait is a bit better, I think, than the silver/black pattern most guys throw. It gives fish a slightly different look than they're accustomed to seeing. I also like the reduced flash of the black-nickel blades. The black holoform tail has just enough flash to appear alive without looking like a black mass moving through the water. Such minutia shouldn't matter, but at times it means everything.
"I like to use a 'pulse' retrieve. Reel the lure at a normal speed for five or six cranks before giving the bait a burst for a crank or two. The burst makes the bait shoot forward and can trigger a following fish. Alternate between a steady retrieve and bursts all the way back to the boat before ending every retrieve with a large figure-eight. An L-turn isn't good enough because you can miss unseen following fish with that move."
When you prefer to fish less crowded spots off the beaten path, lure choice gets interesting. Given what we're learning about deep muskies today — whether suspended or glued to structure, I love to jig. I like the control, versatility, and hands-on aspect of jigging, but don't like to scrimp on flash and vibration. For this reason, I choose a giant bladebait. Give me a Shumway Fuzzy Duzzit. Or maybe a Vibrations Tackle Echotail, which adds a big plastic twister. Or a Bondy Bait. Or Shumway Hang 10.
To catch a muskie, all you need is one great lure and one spectacular cast.