October 16, 2015
By Dan Johnson
Timely, Tested Muskie Buzzbait Strategies
Talk top tactics with 20 rabid muskie hunters or raise the topic on Esox forums and chances are good that buzzbaits won't spring to the surface as the majority's all-around favorite. Be that as it may, when conditions are right, buzzing prime lies is a potent ploy — not to mention one of the most exciting ways to connect with a monster. "It's an amazing rush," says Leech Lake Guide Jeff Andersen, who employs peak-period buzzing to regularly link clients with giants stretching the tape past the 50-inch mark. The key is tapping locations when squadrons of sabre-tooth dragons lie in wait for intruders that dare to roil the surface of their underwater realm. "It boils down to the first two factors of the In-Fisherman formula for success: Fish + Location," he says. "Being in the right place at the right time trumps everything." After that, a handful of slick tricks further tip the odds in your favor.
Of all the scenarios in which buzzbaits shine, shallow sugar sand is one of Andersen's favorites. "Usually by mid-August, expansive stretches of shallow sand attract muskies in large northern lakes," he says.
The best areas sport pure sand, without weeds, rocks, or woodcover. "Think classic swimming beaches," he says. "That's the kind of sand you want." Dunes are another key feature. Not along the bank, but just offshore. He likes a slow-tapering bottom that rises from deeper water to a high spot 1½ to 2 feet deep, drops back into a wave-washed trough offering around 4 feet of depth, then rises sharply back to the 2-foot mark before continuing its upward slope to shore. "Muskies love edges," he says, explaining that rather than scattering across a sandflat, the fish are more apt to position themselves along the edges of high spots, and sometimes inside the trough.
Before fishing promising sand, Andersen often scouts the structure ahead of time. "The afternoon before my trip, I get on the bowmount and cruise over it, wearing polarized sunglasses," he says. "I use my chartplotter to mark the location of dunes, troughs, and any fish I see, then return the next morning to work the spot."
By morning he doesn't mean the crack of 10:30 because sandbagging muskies lavish the richest rewards upon early risers. He says the hour prior to sunrise and the first two after it produce the day's best action. "Night-fishing can be awesome, too, but early morning is the best time to buzz the sand," he says.
To storm a beach, he keeps his boat a cast-length from the hot zone to avoid spooking skittish fish. "Big muskies in particular are sensitive to pressure from the boat," he says. Moving parallel to the dunes, he fires long casts over the first high point, at a quartering angle ahead of the boat. "Work the bait back over the dune, giving fish an opportunity to ambush it as it goes over the edge on its way out to deeper water," he says. "Work the outside dune on your first pass. If you feel you haven't moved enough fish, turn around and come back along it, casting beyond the inside edge, and working the bait farther out on the end of the retrieve."
When choosing a buzzbait, Andersen factors in sound ahead of other concerns such as color. "Sound is my most important consideration in lure selection," he says. In buzzbaits, he favors lures that clack and squeal. "Ideally, you have a combination of clacking from the blade hitting the body, and metallic squealing as the blade rotates on the shaft," he explains, noting that the best squeals often come toward the end of a buzzbait's lifespan, as calcification on the shaft and blade add volume to the performance. "You can speed the process by removing the hooks, getting the bait wet, and letting it calcify a bit," he adds.
Other lure-choice considerations include enough heft to allow long casts, and keeping tail-induced wind drag to a minimum. "I like a 2-ounce bait with a living rubber skirt, which catches less air than bucktail and comes to life at slower retrieve speeds," he says. His top picks include Bigtooth Tackle's Klack, which fits the sound and casting criteria, but also eases hook-setting with a pair of sticky treble hooks that run just below the waterline.
On the retrieve, he cranks the bait to the surface immediately after splashdown. "Raising your rod tip helps bring it up, too," he adds. "As soon as the bait's on the surface, lower the rod parallel to the water and point it at the lure, so you're ready to set the hook with a sweeping, sideways hook-set."
Andersen favors a steady retrieve just fast enough to spin the blade and keep it on the surface. "If a fish follows the lure for a long time, I may swing the rod tip to the right or left, to change the lure's speed and direction," he says.
Strikes come in three categories, each of which dictates a different hook-setting response. "Fish in the 40- to 43-inch range often explode on the bait," he says. "I set right away on these fish. But the classic topwater bite for a bigger fish is a silent bite. The fish stalks the bait like a shark, pushing a big wake, then slurps it in and keeps moving forward without turning. If you wait for the fish to turn, it often lets go of the bait, so your best option is the sweeping side set."
The third strike is a mix of stalk and charge. "You see a wake, then the fish's tail breaks the surface and the muskie rushes the bait," he says. "It's easy to get excited and set too soon. But if you wait, these strikes often end with the fish turning sideways, offering a great shot at putting the hooks in the corner of its mouth." He says the sand bite typically lasts from mid-August until turnover.
"Another great shallow buzzbait bite kicks in around the first frost, in bulrush beds," he says. Keeping his boat outside the rushes, he lobs casts into the bed and zigzags the buzzbait around the stalks. The presentation is similar to the sugar sand pattern, except he favors a thinner, more flexible wire leader for weaving between rushes and, when a large fish is making violent headshakes, slicing through the stems.
For both sand and rushes, a heavy-power, 9½-foot Thorne Brothers Predator blank fuels long casts while offering enough forgiveness not to tear hooks free on the set. He matches it with an Abu Garcia Revo Toro NaCl, spooled with 80-pound braid.
Buzz the Rocks
Sand and rushes make for fine buzzbaiting, but veteran Lake Vermilion guide Bill Rosner offers a hard-structure option that's equally deadly in late summer and early fall. "Toward the end of July into August, as surface temperatures push through the upper 70s into the 80s, muskies seem to be everywhere," he says. "One of my most consistent places to put clients on fish is on main-lake rock reefs."
Prime reefs rise from depths of 30 feet or more, top out within 3 to 5 feet of the surface, and are spiced with structural character such as gnarly outcroppings, fingers, a sprinkling of boulders, and patches of sand. "The fish relate to the edges and irregularities," he explains. "And they love the sand. It's not uncommon for fish to hollow out divots in the bottom over the course of a summer."
Like Andersen, Rosner prefers the morning bite, especially in calm conditions. "Big fish move surprisingly shallow, sliding onto the upper reaches of the reefs," he says. "First light is my favorite time to fish them there."
Given the shallow water, stealth is key. "I kill the main engine 100 yards out and ease in with the trolling motor, keeping noise to a minimum," he says. "Then I make long casts past the crown of the reef and bring the lure back over the fish." Rosner often starts with a relatively slow and steady retrieve, but speeds up if tweaks are needed. He also mixes other surface baits into the equation, included bladed topwater hardbaits, propbaits, and beefy spinnerbaits. The latter are bulged fast, so the upper blade churns halfway out of the water for maximum commotion.
Rosner's pet baits include downsized buzzbaits like Terminator's 1/2-ounce Tandem Buzz and Super Stainless models, along with hefty spinnerbaits like the 2-ounce Blue Fox Super Bou. As for hardbaits, he often slings a Bucher TopRaider and Rapala X-Rap Prop. Of course, options abound in all categories, including Northland Tackle's Boobie Trap spinner and Booty Call spinnerbait, Lindy's M/G Muskie Tandem, and a score of other fine choices. "Sometimes sweetening a spinnerbait with a 4-inch curlytail like the 4-inch Trigger X Swimming Grub makes all the difference," he says.
He typically throws larger baits on an 8-foot medium-heavy St. Croix Legend Top-N-Tail rod paired with a Daiwa Lexa 400 casting reel with 80-pound Sufix 832 braid. Lighter baits call for a 7-foot 3-inch St. Croix Downsizer, a 300 series Lexa, and 40- to 60-pound braid.
Besides rocks, Rosner routinely buzzes weedbeds. "The outside edges of cabbage beds, typically in 8 to 10 feet of water on Vermilion, are prime places to fish a buzzbait or other surface lure," he says. "One of my top spots is the weed-rimmed end of a sand point that curves toward a small bay. Pockets are good, too, and inside weededges are largely overlooked in summer."
On both rocks and weeds, Rosner's a fan of pinning the boat in place with a shallow-water anchor to thoroughly work areas where fish have surfaced in the past. "Anytime I have a follow or spot a cruising fish, I mark a waypoint on my GPS," he says. "These fish are set up in their territories at this time of year, so I know I can sneak back within range during a prime feeding window such as moonrise, sunrise, or a change in light conditions, drop my 12-foot Minn Kota Talon in a bit deeper water, and have a good shot at raising that fish again."