Wrapping up a decade of excess, the Dow Jones rocketed to more than 14,000, only to free fall to levels of 10 years earlier. Wall Street got rich(er) and played by rules with no basis in reality. Many people bought into the notion of super-sizing meals; living in 4,000+ square-foot McMansions; and driving SUV's more suited for combat than suburbia.
Out of this decade came the revolution in gargantuan, big muskie baits. Was the craze just a sign of the times? A trend set by the hyper-spending consumer economy? Was it a matter of keeping up with the Joneses — as in if he's throwing a 12 incher make mine 15 inches? How big can these baits get and when is the crash coming? Do they really work that well, and what about everything that we knew and threw before the onslaught of big lures?
Talking with a host of people in the industry, the resounding response is to grab a big stick and hold on, as most folks believe the mega-size lure revolution is just heating up. Jim Stewart, the owner of Rollie and Helen's Musky Shop in Minocqua, Wisconsin, stocks more muskie gear than any store in the country. He says that big baits are hotter than ever and notes that muskie guides working from his shop say that bigger lures are yielding bigger fish.
Keeping this super-sized revolution in perspective, even big-bait fanatics concede that trophy muskies do eat smaller lures. Many an old record was caught on lures like the Creek Chub Jointed Pikie Minnow, which is less than 6 inches long. And all muskie diehards know how common it is for the guy casting a 1/16-ounce marabou jig for crappies off his dock to catch one of the biggest muskies of the season.
Muskie fishing is, however, a matter of probability, not a game of extreme chance. The big bait philosophy relies on the tenet that a trophy muskie feeds sparingly. When it does, it has a preference for a large meal that sustains it for the longest possible time between feeding sessions. Therefore, by consistently throwing big baits to big-fish spots, the probability of catching a trophy muskie increases.
If Magnum Bull Dawgs and Double Cowgirls made you wince, pack some ice on your sciatic nerve right now. Lure manufacturers are upping the ante. Musky Innovations, maker of the Bull Dawg, recently introduced the Monster Magnum Bull Dawg. This one pushes envelope and may answer the question of how big lure manufacturers can go. The prior big dawg in the battle was the Super Magnum, weighing in at 16 ounces and rightly called the Pounder. The new Monster Magnum Bull Dawg is 28 ounces of raging mad rubber and lead. Termed the Two Pounder, the bait is 20 inches long and according to Brad Ruh, the owner of Musky Innovations, "it's at the top end of the size spectrum of what anglers can reasonably cast."
Ruh acknowledges the extra wear and tear such magnum lures place on anglers and gear. He's confident, however, within the constraints of existing rods and reels, there is no such thing as a lure too large for trophy muskies. So Ruh plans to upsize several other popular lures, making the Shallow Invader, originally 9 inches, in a 13-inch version for 2010. Ruh also recently introduced The Jimmy, a 14-inch tube-and-reaper-tail combo.
Ruh lends statistical evidence to show how dramatic the shift has been to larger lures in the last decade. "At the end of the 1990s, we had a 70/30 split in the sales of the 9-inch Bull Dawg versus the 12-inch Magnums. Those numbers are nearly reversed at this stage, and the Super and Monster Mags are now pushing the trend larger and larger."
Along with Magnum Bull Dawgs, the dual-bladed Double Cowgirl was a founding member of the big-bait muskie revolution. Equipped with two #10 blades, many muskie anglers praise the Double Cowgirl for its tremendous muskie catching ability just as they curse it for the extra work it took to burn the dual blades.
The largest of the dual blade spinners currently stocked by the Musky Shop is the 16-inch T-Rex spinner by Musky Safari. The T-Rex has two #20 blades — not so affectionately referred to as hubcaps. If most muskie anglers had to throw a T-Rex for a weekend, they'd soon also be extinct.
Meanwhile, manufacturers like Super Slayer Tackle Company have experimented with larger blades but have reverted to more modest blades to provide what they see as greater performance. Don Pestka of Super Slayer says, "We know the trend has shifted to larger blades but anglers are still catching the majority of their muskies on spinners within the size range of the original Double Cowgirl. In upsizing the blades on our Slippery Sam Tandem to #7 Worths, we get a perfect balance of blade size and lure weight, and a resulting high-end performance. This spinner has top-quality components that run true and get blades spinning immediately, even from a resting position."
Pestka adds, "Larger painted blades on spinners often stick to each other or fail to spin properly. We keep our blades at a manageable size but upsize the overall lure by adding a 6-inch twin-tail trailer. This increases the presence of the bait in the water, giving it an overall length of almost 12 inches without overdoing the weight or drag of the spinner."
There's a saying in the industry — that a lure must first catch fishermen before it can catch fish. Stewart at the Musky Shop attests that big baits score on both accounts — and are also responsible for producing giant fish, not only from the powerhouse lakes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, but also from small and mid-sized lakes across the country.
According to Stewart, some of hottest big lures this past season have been The Martin, by JM Craft, and Mr. Toothy's Jointed Swizz, weighing 16 ounces. The Martin is a well-balanced 15-inch wooden jerkbait with three adjustable weights, while the Swizz is a deep-diving jointed trolling plug that works 25-foot depths on its shallow setting and 40-foot depths on its deep setting. Jim Reynolds of Mr. Toothy custom crafts various styles of mega-sized wooden lures up to 21 inches with trophy hunters in mind.
These lures have in common that they are bigger than anything that was on the muskie scene just a few years ago. Stewart says that "more anglers are willing to devote the time and effort to fishing these big baits and are being rewarded with trophy fish."
Stewart also dispels the notion that this is just a seasonal shift to big lures in fall. "While most anglers start the season with smaller lures," he says, "if they fail to see positive results, they're much more inclined in recent years to make a quick shift and experiment with larger baits early in the season."
So, it seems that size does matter. Beyond the obvious visual aspects of the difference between a 6-inch lure and a 16-inch lure, vibration and water movement also play a role. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange recently wrote about the "fingerprint" left behind by a fish as it travels through the water. (See the Perspectives Column in this magazine.)
The science behind this idea comes from Stephen Spotte's book Bluegills — Biology and Behavior. Spotte says that fish use their lateral line to locate and identify objects based upon the hydrodynamic "fingerprint" produced in the water. Not only do fish feed using their lateral line to sense the movement of objects around them but the fingerprint created by each fish leaves a distinctive trail. The trail may remain detectable by predators like pike and muskies for several minutes — well after the obvious wake generated by a lure disappears.
With that bit of science to consider, the notion that size matters for big muskies takes on a new relevance. This additional insight lends credence to the theory that if a muskie is looking for a big meal and detects the fingerprint of a 6-inch lure, instead of a hydrodynamic fingerprint from a much larger lure, it may elect not to pursue the smaller bait.
Rod manufacturers have also embraced the big-bait movement and tailor gear for this shift in fishing philosophies. G. Loomis has redesigned and re-engineered their muskie series rods with bigger lures in mind. All five rods in their muskie series are 8 feet or longer. Gone are the 5-foot 6-inch jerkbait rods and the 7-foot bucktail sticks. The added length allows better leverage for precisely casting, instead of lobbing lures in the 3- to 16-ounce size range.
To ensure that their rods did not become too tip heavy, G. Loomis blanks have 100-percent graphite construction. Gary Schaefer at G. Loomis says, "This construction reduces the blank weight, increases overall sensitivity, and provides a responsive tip that loads properly and dampens quickly." With longer rods, most rod manufacturers have incorporated longer rear grip handles to extend past the angler's rib cage and avoid bruising in the side when working large baits all day. As with any task, it's all about finding the correct tool for the job.
In choosing reels, anglers have settled on options that accommodate the strain exerted on gears. Some angler give up convenience for sheer cranking power by using Shimano's Trinidad, a saltwater reel with no levelwind. Without a levelwind, multi-tasking skills are required by the angler to manually guide the line evenly on the spool with each retrieve.
For those not looking to give up the convenience of a levelwind, The Penn 975 International is another option, a levelwind with beefed-up saltwater gears and a slow 4.5:1 gear ratio. Meanwhile, the Abu Garcia Ambassador 7000 C3i offers a balance of reel weight, a smooth drag, and a 4.1:1 low gear ratio to provide maximum cranking power.
In recent years most muskie anglers have also switched from monofilament to braided lines like PowerPro, reducing the need for high-line capacity casting reels. So some anglers have settled on using the narrow spool versions of the Abu Garcia 7000iHSN for comfort and less fatigue.
California bass anglers also deserve credit for expanding the tackle arsenal of trophy anglers. Many of the large soft plastic and articulated fish-imitation lures originally meant for record-size bass now fill a tackle gap for muskie and pike anglers. Typically ranging in size from 5 to 8 inches, realistic lures like the Castaic Trout or the Tru-Tungsten Tru-Life Swimbait are especially well suited for trophy pike.
Companies like Lucky Craft, which made its reputation in the U.S. market with premium bass lures, now offers lures in its Exotic Predator Game (EPG) series designed for pike and muskie, including the 7.5-inch Flash Minnow 190SR, the 6.75-inch jointed LL Pointer 170, and the 7-inch Straight LL Pointer 200. These lures offer lifelike shapes, realistic finishes, and distinct actions for our toothy friends.
Those wanting to fool even the most discriminating fish might also consider the Lucky Real California 130 Premium. At 5.5 inches and 1.5 ounces, this trout imitation lure from Lucky Craft transitions well from trophy bass to pike and muskies.
Reaction Strike is yet another company offering crossover baits suited equally well for trophy bass, pike, and muskies. The company has long produced upsized lures for European pike that grow to dimensions far in excess of those present in North America. Reaction Strike's Rick Quade predicts the next step forward in the big-bait revolution will be in the use of multi-segmented swimbaits. These lures have an action that can't be achieved by a straight-bodied lure. Most of these swimbaits are produced in a range from 4 to 10 inches by companies ranging from Storm to Sebile.
So, the revolution is upon us. Bigger and bigger isn't retched excess so much as it is an enlightened response to what the fish are telling us they often prefer.
*Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, fishes for everything that swims and often contributes to In-Fisherman publications and fishes with editors on TV.