It usually pays to be as cunning and crafty as possible when you’re fishing for walleye, bass, trout, and other species. Savvy anglers often drop a marker buoy over the side of the boat to pinpoint an active school and back off so they can make long, quiet casts to avoid spooking fish. But, as muskie guide Captain Jon Bondy will tell you, muskies aren’t ”most other fish.”
It was Bondy who competed full time on the Bassmaster Elite tournament trail, the only Canadian on the circuit, going nose to nose with the best in the bass business. Many times, especially on popular, highly pressured waters, he found himself prowling around like a cat, keeping his foot off the electric trolling motor for fear of alerting the fish, even turning off his sonar units to eliminate the pinging sound of the transducer.
So, what is Bondy doing today, lobbing a 7-ounce muskie bait as high into the air as possible, and letting it splash down like a space capsule crashing into the ocean?
“Muskies are a different breed,” he says, from his home in Windsor, Ontario, where he guides full time on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, when he is not pouring his signature series lures, trying to keep up with the demand. “They’re the top predator and don’t fear much. So when they hear a lure hit the surface, they think it’s a dying, struggling fish. Rather than spook them, it often raises their curiosity and calls them toward that lure.”
Houston, We Have Splashdown
“Dave Anderson is the guy who developed the technique and first showed me how to do it,” Sandig says. “Dave has won so many muskie tournaments with the splashdown technique that a lot of anglers have accused him of cheating. I mean, you can’t beat that many good muskie sticks that often and not have them think you haven’t somehow fixed the race.”
A long time member of Muskies Canada, Sandig, (who is really a great guy), spends most of his time fishing southern Ontario’s hot muskie waters, including the St. Lawrence and Niagara rivers, Georgian Bay, and Lake Nipissing, and especially the famous Kawartha Lakes, centered between Toronto and Ottawa. He says muskies are genetically tuned to investigating anything that sounds like a ringing dinner bell.
“There were five of us in the boat, one on each corner, the first time I threw Bondy’s bait in the splashdown manner,” he says. “We were all pitching it on a 45-degree angle, as far out and as high up into the air as possible. You can imagine the racket we were making when all those giant lures splashed down. But we soon had muskies circling the boat like sharks.”
“Then surely you can do the same with other big muskie baits?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “But there is something about the design of Bondy’s bait that makes it special. I think it’s the profile, shaped as it is like a giant soft plastic lipless crankbait that causes it to vibrate and shimmy on the fall after it crashes down. It pushes a some sort of muskie panic button. The thumping Colorado blade on the tail further enhances the effect. So it’s the combination of noise, flash, and vibration that triggers big fish to crush it.”
When & Where
According to Sandig and Bondy, structure, cover, and calendar periods have little influence on the success of the splashdown system. It can work anywhere and at any time, so long as the fish are shallow enough, or suspended high enough in the water column, to be within hearing distance of the boisterous entry.
When I fished with Bondy on Lake St. Clair, we routinely bombed our Bondy Baits into 20 feet of water. Over two days and 15 hours of fishing, we hooked 15 muskies, boated 11 of them, including four 50-inch-or-better fish that pushed or surpassed 40 pounds.
Sandig says in heavily structured Shield-type lakes like Georgian Bay and Lake Nipissing, the splashdown technique works best on, over and around typical hard-rock features, like underwater points, submerged reefs, and giant mid-lake sandbars. On the much shallower and more fertile Kawartha Lakes, on the other hand, he splashes Bondy Baits along the outside edges of deep weedlines.
Bondy and Sandig stress making as much noise as possible on the entry of the bait, to serve notice to any nearby predators. It’s the key to the attracting phase of the presentation.
“Having hopefully caught the attention of a big muskie with the noisy entry,” Bondy says, “I let the lure fall to the bottom or count it down to the depth I want to strain. When I am doing this, I always keep tension on the line, anticipating a strike.”
If a muskie doesn’t immediately pound the lure as it falls, he points his rod tip parallel to the surface and begins a rhythmic swimming retrieve, methodically sweeping his rod tip modestly up and down in an almost hypnotic motion. All through the retrieve, Bondy assumes a muskie is following his lure.
When he’s recovered most of his line, instead of reeling up quickly and making another cast, he often keeps it dangling near the bottom, lifting it up with his rod tip half a dozen or more times, from the 8 or 9 o’clock position to about 11 o’clock, before letting it shimmy back down. At the apex of each lift, as well as the bottom of each fall, he pauses for a second or two. Again, none of his maneuvers are quick or erratic. And he never lifts his rod tip beyond the 11 o’clock position.
“A strike is almost always going to happen during one of the pause periods,” he says. “Either when your bait falls back down to the bottom or at the top of the lift; so if you continue raising your rod tip to 12 o’clock, which is the tendency of most anglers, your out of position and won’t have room to sweep the rod tip to set the hook.”
“Ditto, when you throw the lure up on shore,” Sandig says. “You must be ready to set the hook as soon as a muskie pounces on your bait.”
“Yes, we often cast the lure onto dry land,” he says.”That’s how we catch the fish that are lounging in the lanes between the inside weedline and shore. We remove the bottom two trebles from a smaller, Bondy Bait Junior and add a 6/0 Owner frog hook under the line tie centered on the back of the lure.
“If you push down on the head of the lure, you see the copper wire running through for strength. Slide the frog hook through the wire loop so the split ring and hook are both free moving, facing toward the tail. Do it right and it swings about 270 degrees, making it mostly weedless, so you can throw it on shore. When you pull it into the water, it’s a more subtle sound than a splashdown, but the fish hear the entry and think something edible is jumping into the lake. They explode on it. It can be deadly. It’s the way we catch suntanning muskies in a foot or less of water.”
Bondy and Sandig use beefy tackle to work the splashdown system. Sandig prefers a 7- or 7.5-foot heavy-action St. Croix jerkbait rod, saying it fits his shorter stature. Bondy uses an 8-foot extra-heavy-action Fenwick muskie rod. Both anglers use 80-pound braid, Power Pro for Sandig, and Spiderwire for Bondy.
Sandig uses a 12-inch steel leader crafted with a Spro swivel on one end and a Stringease Fastach clip on the other. Bondy uses a 12- to 18-inch section of 200-pound stainless-steel downrigger cable and ties it directly to the split ring on his Bondy Bait, using a simple overhand knot that he pulls tight with a pair of pliers.
“Don’t knock it until you try it,” he says, adding, “I’ve never had a leader or knot fail.”
“It’s all just as simple as we’ve outlined here,” Sandig says. “Just position off the edge of a deep weedline or a structural drop off and throw it as far out, and as high up, into the air as you can. Yes, it’s a Hail Mary cast, so the lure slaps the water hard as it lands, calling muskies in. The more noise and commotion you can make with it when it splashes down, the more fish you catch.”
Like Bondy says, there are “all the other fish” and there are muskies.
*Field Editor Gord Pyzer has been writing for In-Fisherman for more than 20 years and lives in Kenora, Ontario. Jon Bondy guides on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, specializing in walleyes, bass, and muskies. Contact him to order lures or book a trip, 313/332-9813, lakestclairfishing.com.