Finesse baits have their place in other corners of the fishing world, but hard-core Esox fans routinely send supersized lures into battle. Effectively fishing such behemoths without beating yourself up during marathon casting sessions requires the right gear and approaches.
Thankfully, improvements in rod, reel, and line technology have made big baits easier than ever. Years ago, medieval casting combos such as 6-foot pool cue rods paired with Dacron line made casting monster-sized lures for hours on end a torturous, if not a downright impossible proposition.
Today's advanced casting gear changes that. Still, it pays to choose your tackle with care. Guide, lure designer, and In-Fisherman Contributor Jeff Andersen matches rod, reel, line, and fishing method to the lures and conditions at hand. "Giant rubber baits weighing upwards of a pound are about as big as it gets for casting," he says. "I've been experimenting with a couple Giant McRubber models from Svartzonker Lures that are 17 inches long. With optional weight systems, they weigh over a pound."
Andersen favors a 9-foot 1-inch, XXH-power Abu Garcia Fantasista Beast for heaving such prodigious plastics. The graphite blank has a dozen guides and a lengthy cork handle to adjust hand position for making a variety of casts. For beefy softbaits, he opts for a wind-milling sling motion that begins by swinging the bait backward by his side on a four-foot tether. "Swing it past your side and continue the motion up and around, so you're launching it in an overhead manner like a wind mill," he explains.
"An energy-efficient casting method is critical when you're on the water 12 to 14 hours and need to keep casting because you never know when that window of opportunity will open and fish will start feeding. This method of casting also reduces the chance of the bait fouling in midair. It tends to sail the bait out without twisting and hanging up on the leader." He pairs that rod with a high-speed Abu Garcia casting reel that winds more than 30 inches of line per turn of the reel handle. "This helps cover water without wearing yourself out, but a fast reel is also important in getting a solid hook-set with large plastics.
"Muskies often strike on the pause, so you don't immediately feel the bite and don't realize the fish has it is there until the line jumps. You need to lower the rod tip and tighten the line fast because it's imperative — especially with large rubber baits — that you have the line as tight as possible when you begin the hook-set, to move the lure to get hooks into position to set in the fish's mouth. A fast reel helps you wind slack line and get it done." He adds that a high-speed reel also helps set hooks when jigging, as muskies often hit on the upstroke and continue toward the surface.
Big is relative to lure type. A 2-ounce buzzbait dwarfs those thrown by bass anglers, yet is none too big for tempting muskies to strike at the surface. "A 2-ounce buzzbait fuels long casts, which can be key to targeting big fish in shallow water," Andersen says. "The extra heft also helps keeps wind drag to a minimum." When tossing a beefy buzzer like Bigtooth Tackle's Klack, he opts for a heavy-power, 9- to 9½-foot rod, which has enough backbone for good hook-sets, yet isn't so stiff it rips hooks out of the fish's mouth. He pairs it with a workhorse like Abu's Revo Toro S, with 80-pound braid.
Such a setup allows him to fish a number of topwater patterns. One of his favorite buzzbait scenarios centers on the late-summer sand bite, which sees monstrous muskies move onto expansive stretches of shallow sand by about mid-August in northern fisheries. Andersen looks for areas that resemble swimming beaches, especially where a slow-tapering bottom offers wave-washed dunes for added structure. He moves the boat parallel to the target dune while firing long casts that work both its outer and inner edges.
During early season, Andersen often leans on a small, double-bladed bucktail like Bigtooth Tackle's 9-inch, 1½-ounce Mini 8 Juice for both muskies and big pike. He also throws 6- to 7½-inch suspending twitchbaits, in walleye, perch, and cisco patterns. He says an 8½-foot casting rod works well with such lures, though 9-footers are fine.
"Most of my bucktail rods are 9-foot 7-inch Abu Fantasista Beasts, which have a little lighter action that's great for smaller blades like the Juice Mini 8," he says. "For magnum bucktails with #10 blades, I upsize to a 10- foot 1-inch version of the same rod, which has a little more backbone." Similar advice on tailoring length and power to lure weight and blade proportions holds when slinging stout, dual-bladed spinnerbaits such as Northland Tackle's 1-ounce Bionic Bucktail or Lindy Fishing Tackle's 1-ounce M/G Muskie Tandem.
For hard-pulling, diving crankbaits, Andersen uses a 9-foot 1-inch rod, "for better crankbait control, coupled with just the right power to retrieve big-lipped baits through the depths. A pool cue isn't ideal for much, but choosing too long of a rod for the presentation isn't good, either, as it can tire you out quickly." He tests various bait and rod pairings to find an ideal combination for each lure and situation. "I know it's not practical for everyone to have a forest of sticks in the boat," he says. "If I were limited to one casting rod for everything, it would be a 9-foot 1-inch extra-heavy."
When considering the length of rods for fishing baits of all sizes, also consider their ability to perform triggering maneuvers such as the figure-eight at the end of the retrieve. Legendary muskie hunter and bucktail designer Mark Windels says, "I favor 9½-foot Thorne Brothers extra-heavy custom rods. Being able to move the bait at least 15 feet on the outside turn is a huge bonus at boatside, because a 50-inch muskie can't turn on a dime."
Andersen is another figure-eight fan, but adds that when fishing supersized softbaits, the ability to arc the bait in a wide oval at boatside can trump the traditional figure-eight. "I've changed my figure-eight technique with big rubber baits into more of a huge swimming circle," he says. "It's still a game of keep-away in the corners, but a large oval path milks more action from the bait, ultimately triggering more last-ditch strikes."
While Andersen prefers to cast, he adds trolling to the mix when it makes sense, such as when working with clients who prefer pursuing teeth on the troll, or when it's so cold the line freezes in the guides and casting is out of the question. He singles out Supernatural Big Baits foot-long Headlock as one of the hottest big hardbaits to hit the market lately. "It's a big wooden trolling lure that kicks out to the side erratically with an action similar to that of a Rapala Scatter Rap," he says.
For pulling a heavy hitter like the Headlock, he opts for a sturdy line-counter reel like the Abu Garcia Alphamar 20LC. The company's 7000LC and slightly smaller 6500LC are other top trolling options, as are several others including Okuma's Convector, Penn Squall, and Daiwa Sealist. He favors a 10-foot 1-inch Abu Garcia Fantasista Beast, explaining the extra length shines for getting the bait away from the boat. "You could use a 9-footer, but the extra distance from the hull can mean more muskies over the long haul," he says.
While the Fantasista Beast is graphite, Andersen says that fiberglass has its fans and advantages. "Many serious trollers use glass rods because they're a little softer and absorb the shock of vicious strikes close to the boat and violent headshakes, not to mention the abuse of banging baits on bottom or bouncing off rocks," he says. Northern Minnesota Guide and lifelong Esox stalker Jonny Petrowske is a glass fan. He prefers trolling when searching for 40-inch-plus gator pike on Minnesota's vast Upper Red Lake because it allows him to put baits in front of as many fish as possible. And although he often pulls 23â'„8- to 31â'„8-inch banana-shaped baits like the #3 and #5 Lindy River Rocker, which pale size-wise in comparison to Headlocks or giant plastics, glass rods absorb the abuse dished out in his style of high-speed, skinny-water, all-terrain planer-board trolling.
In early spring, Petrowske targets shallow reedbeds where pike pursue schools of spottail shiners. "Shiners gang up in 3 to 6 feet when the water temperatures rises from about 52°F to 65°F," he says. To target them, he relies on sturdy yet flexible 6½-foot medium-heavy-power Shakespeare Ugly Stik Bigwater rods. He says the E-glass blanks help the rods stand up to the rigors of surging boards and snagging bulrushes, as well as violent strikes, runs, and head-shakes of big belligerent pike.
Unlike Andersen, Petrowske runs a 20-pound mono mainline, to which he adds a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader tipped with a snap, which he says speeds color changes and enhances lure action. Lures run 20 feet or less from the boards, which are set at 25- to 50-foot intervals out to 150 feet along the inshore side of the boat, moving at speeds up to 5 mph. Andersen rarely relies on short rods, even when prop-wash trolling. "Eight and a half feet is generally my minimum, for maintaining control of the fish during the fight and at boatside," he says.
The different approaches of these experts demonstrate that experimenting with different rod, reel, and line combinations is important. Don't settle on some standard set-up, but match it to your fishing style and the class of baits you are working with each day.