October 19, 2017
Within the cult of talented muskie trollers — veteran guides working Lake St. Clair, Green Bay, the St. Lawrence River, Lake of the Woods, and beyond — a generations-old secret has recently played a prominent role in lure design. The results have been nothing short of record-breaking.
The infamous Len Hartman figured it out back in the late 1950s. The magic of Hartman's Musky Bug — a deep-diving, metal-lipped plug noted for its legendary catches on the St. Lawrence — had a tendency to randomly roll out or "hunt" from side-to-side when trolled at certain speeds. Perhaps inadvertently, Hartman discovered that this shift in direction often proved the key to triggering following muskies, during the era when anglers tended to discard lures they couldn't tune.
Among anglers pulling plugs across rocks and boulders, the concept isn't a secret. When a diving bait collides with a solid object, it stops momentarily, backs up, and deflects dramatically to one side or the other before a tight line once again propels it forward. This change in speed and direction has triggered exponentially more muskie strikes than a straight swim. Everyone knows that — it's why veteran trollers like to live dangerously; to get in tight to shallow rocks, plowing lures across treacherous points and granite ridges. Scary things happen when you risk losing your favorite lure.
The recent breakthrough occurred when someone finally asked: If the magic move works so well in rocks, why shouldn't it also activate muskies in open water? About six years ago, Duff Thury, a Minneapolis artist, sculptor, and furniture maker with a penchant for muskie trolling, decided most of his favorite lures weren't durable enough. Neither was he satisfied with lures that ran straight. Thury appreciated 10-inch Jakes and Grandmas, but had a hunch bigger might be even better. Having built rods and bucktails, he set out to improve on classic trolling lures.
"My earliest bait was an 18-incher with a metal lip," Thury says. "I caught three fish on it that first day, including a 36-incher. It woke me up as to the size of stuff muskies eat. But at the Chicago Musky Expo that year, people laughed at the lures I brought. I managed to sell a few, but finally moved on to making 10- and 12-inch versions. I eventually named the lure Headlock, after the wrestling move."
Thury worked for close to five years before he perfected a lure that fished and moved the way he wanted. "For me, the idea for a wandering lure came from watching my dog on walks. He'd continuously meander from side to side, sniffing everything before walking back to the middle of the sidewalk and starting again. I thought, 'If I can make a lure do that I might be onto something.'"
Built with a thick metal lip placed at a certain angle, the Headlock eventually worked to Thury's expectations. Employing only certain types of local wood — ash, walnut, and cherry — with precise densities, Thury achieved his desired buoyancy. He added three different line placement positions on the lip, allowing anglers to fish different depths without switching baits. For fishing deep, you move an adjustable pin back toward the head; for trolling shallower, reposition the pin toward the front of the lip. The past two years at muskie shows in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, lines at Thury's booth (Supernatural Big Baits) have clogged aisles and created waiting lists for the hand-hewn lures, which retail for $85 each. After the big double-blade bucktail craze, the Headlock and similar baits represent the hottest trend in the sport.
Metal Lip Mechanics
On the heels of the Headlock, Thury created the Mattlock, a "fat perch" version of the original, with a wider, more aggressive head-to-tail wobble. In comparison to the Headlock, the Mattlock swims with a subtler belly-to-dorsal shimmy, similar to a Rapala minnow, says Supernatural Big Baits' Brett Erickson. Both lures have a 1/8-inch aluminum lip, Eagle Claw #774 treble hooks, and Wolverine Super Split Rings. Three depth settings provide a diving range of 12 to about 24 feet. The baits achieve maximum wandering action with the shallowest setting," he says. "With 10 feet of line out, expect 3 feet of running depth; 6 feet with 20 feet of line; and 9 feet with 30 feet of line out. On the deepest setting, they run about 23 feet deep with 45 feet of line out. The Mattlock runs slightly deeper and also starts to hunt at slightly slower speeds than the Headlock, down to about 2.1 mph. The Headlock begins to wander at 2.5 to 2.7 mph.
"At 4 to 5 mph, things get wild, especially when you start colliding into rock," Erickson says. "With 10 or more feet of line behind a planer board, or flatlined, these lures can cover a horizontal swath of at least 8 feet. Or you can limit the wandering action by setting the lure about 5 feet behind a planer board. You can also use a board and short line to keep it working over shallow rocks.
"Because these baits are hand-carved, each one hunts at slightly different speeds. When you first get one, run the bait alongside the boat and alter your speed until you find its sweet spot. That's the speed I'd run a majority of time, tweaking line length and lip setting to match your preferred depth."
He adds that they require specific tackle. "We use 8-foot heavy action Custom X trolling rods built with E-glass/graphite blanks. They have soft tips that show lure action or a lack of action, indicating you've picked up debris. Soft tips also help the bait bounce over rocks," he says. Like many top trollers, Erickson stresses the use of line-counter reels, such as the premium Shimano Tekota 500LC.
"Three or four years ago, we took these baits to Lac Seul and lit up some big fish," he says. "That's when I started to see their potential. Since then, some top guides have boated giants on Vermilion, Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, the Ottawa River, and other waters. Often, the best method is to run a Headlock 3 to 8 feet behind a planer board or in the prop wash."
Thury recounts the success of the legendary Mike Lazarus, a Canadian guide who has boated four fish over 56 inches on a Headlock. One 56.5-incher from the Ottawa River ate a Headlock after three other standard, non-wandering baits had already run through the same spot. Thury recently caught a 53-incher on Mille Lacs, while other guides, such as Paul Hartman, Kevin Cochran, and Jerry Sondag, have also become converts. Several muskies caught last fall might have broken the Minnesota state record had they not been released. Noteworthy was a 55 X 29.5 monster caught by Joe Wendolek. Many of these giants are caught during the fall cisco spawn, often at night. Fortunately, the anglers dedicated and skilled enough to catch these beasts subscribe to the notion that "you can't grow a world record without first releasing a state record."
Wander Bait Alternatives
As with most great ideas, by the time you conceive it, there's a good chance you're not alone in your efforts to push the envelope. Last year, we introduced the Wick OneZ KingPin, a productive lure produced by Georgian Bay angler Mike Blewett. Built with a thick metal lip, the KingPin features some of the most remarkable paint jobs in the game. These baits have caught lots of big fish and are as durable as they are beautiful.
Lee Tauchen, a top Wisconsin-based guide, recently unveiled a lure he calls the Pelagic, inspired by the Headlock, in his LeeLures brand. At $130 a pop, you'd think folks might hesitate to buy one. Yet Tauchen can barely meet demand. At this year's Chicago Musky Expo, anglers bought up to eight baits at a time. "People have seen the photos and heard the stories," Tauchen says. "They know how good they've been for big fish."
He caught his first muskie on the bait in 10 minutes of trolling. "As bass anglers know, anytime you deflect a bait off cover, it triggers strikes. The Pelagic is built with a wide back and deep flat sides that act like a planer; the bait's always fighting against the pull of the line, always wandering away from center. When you counteract the buoyancy of a big piece of wood with a thick metal lip, you also have a bait that wants to fight itself, like it's always out of tune. This is a good thing — a random action that triggers big fish, especially the ones that follow a straight-running lure."
Hitting its sweet spot between 3¼ and 4¼ mph, he says the Pelagic starts to wander at around 3 mph. Like the Headlock, its lip has three depth settings, altered by changing the location of a metal pin in one of three holes. "You can run as shallow as you want by running it right behind a board, or as deep as 27 feet. On some waters like the St. Lawrence, you might run 100 feet of braid and deflect the lure off bottom. On Green Bay, I often run 8 feet of line off boards in 5 feet of water. We also run baits in the prop wash. It's cool to watch how these baits wander several feet to each side, then see what happens when a big 'lunge bites." Two falls ago on Green Bay, Tauchen put client Bruce Weber on a 57-inch goliath with a 25-inch girth.
The beauty, durability, and versatility of these baits are compelling. But when you consider their "magic move," price doesn't matter. If you hope to get your hands on one in time for opening day, you might want to order now, as Tauchen only has time to carve and paint about 300 each year.
At the opposite end of the price range is another newcomer. The Bondy Prophet ($27) is intriguing because it's the Lake St. Clair, Michigan, Guide's first crankbait, and one whose body is a near replica of the original Bondy Bait. To test the Prophet's toughness, Bondy says he's driven his Ford F-150 over it, with no adverse effects. "I wanted to build a crankbait that wouldn't break or fall apart, no matter what. It's made of solid plastic, through-wire construction, and has 5/0 VMC round-bend hooks. My dad works in a metal fabrication shop, where I got the idea to use an 1/8-inch thick aluminum lip. It's cemented into the body and secured with a heavy screw. You aren't going to break this thing."
Weighing 4.4 ounces and measuring 7½ inches, the Bondy Prophet swims with an extra-wide wobble and runs 2 to 3 feet deep on a cast. Bondy notes that a deep-diving version is in the works and may be unveiled in time for opening day. Cranked or trolled at high speeds, Bondy says the Prophet occasionally kicks off to the sides before returning to center.
"It has a big rounded head, flat underside, and a prominent hump-back. That shape gives it a wicked wobbling action, as well as that random wander that can trigger a following fish. I don't know what it is about a hump-back that fish like, but it's an interesting shape and I've caught a lot of fish with it."
Perspectives on "Out of Tune"
When I ask Bondy about other popular crankbaits on Lake St. Clair, a trolling Mecca, he says that most of the best ones, particularly the old-school selections, swim with a slow thumping, wide wobble, and work well at speeds up to at least 5 or 6 mph. If you've ever trolled St. Clair with a local guide, you know about the Wiley Lure, a wooden, tubular lure that catches hundreds of muskies each year. They're well-made baits that track true up to at least 6 mph. Finding one that's out of tune, or getting one to roll out isn't easy.
"The same can be said for Drifter's Musky Stalker or the Tuff Shad, which trolls beautifully at up to 9 mph," Bondy says. "At times, with baits like these, it's speed that triggers a bite, particularly major changes in speed, such as abruptly amping up from 3 to 9 mph, before immediately throttling back down."
These developments make me think of all the time I've spent speed-trolling with Magnum Rapalas and metal-lipped Cisco Kids. Beyond the fact that today's trolling lures are generally much larger than the 7- and 8-inch ones we used years ago, most of the good older plugs had metal lips screwed into the chin of the plug. (The newer Suick Cisco Kid is made with a plastic lip.) The metal-lipped Cisco Kid was, at times, spectacular. Funny to realize now that quite a few of the Ciscos wandered and occasionally jumped through the surface when trolled fast. Yet we often culled the erratic-running ones in favor of those that tracked true. If only we'd known.
As it turns out, Pete Maina did know. "It's not always best to use only lures that track 100 percent true at high speeds," Maina told me several years ago. "Trolling one year at Eagle Lake, Ontario, we had one particular Slammer crankbait that kept trying to roll out. I wanted to get rid of it, as it kept blowing out at the surface and driving us crazy. But we noticed that when it did this, the lure gave off a lot of extra flash. You could see it sparkle. Then fish started blasting it. All of a sudden, everyone was digging into their boxes, looking for lures that didn't run right."
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid muskie chaser and also a student of trends in lures.