October 20, 2021
If muskies are the question, livebait might just be the answer. In a game defined by uncertainty, unforeseen circumstances and I’ve-never-seen-that-before’s, livebait is perhaps the one sure way to put a fish in the net. Attach a live critter to a hook, dance it on the doorstep of their domain, and eventually, a muskie will eat. Even a greenhorn can make that happen. Right?
If we’re being honest, fishing with livebait—usually a 10- to 16-inch white sucker—ought to be treated a little like wielding a firearm. There’s a sort of responsibility to do it right. If you’ve faked your way through the process, you’ll inevitably find yourself in some trouble—missing numerous bites or worse, impaling fish deep into the gills, pharynx, or esophagus. Many of the rigs available at baitshops aren’t the kindest on muskie health, and they’re often the same ones that exhaust a big minnow quickly.
So, some rigging refinements are in order. The rig mods I suggest below can feel a little “out there” at first glance. But there’s also an undeniable logic to them, which you’ll recognize as we dive into the technical aspects. And as you already know, once you get it right, livebaiting can be the most potent, guilt-free way to tempt a bite, enabling you to release every fish you catch in tip-top shape.
Also, livebait is more than a go-to method for less-aggressive muskies pinned to small parcels of turf during coldwater periods. Livebait rigging can be a superb option in spring and portions of early summer to early fall, depending on your location and approach. Many anglers now keep live suckers on hand all season for tough bites, or as the solution to a muskie that follows a bucktail or other artificial without taking the big gulp.
It’s What’s for Dinner
Often, it’s no more complicated than feeding muskies something they’re accustomed to eating in the wild. Several studies in recent years have examined the dietary preferences of muskies and have confirmed the delectability of suckers. One study examined the stomachs of over 1,000 muskies from 34 Wisconsin lakes. Noteworthy was that 74 percent of stomachs contained just a single food item. In most cases and on average, muskies ate fish averaging approximately 20 percent of their total length. Thus, a 50-inch muskie would typically be expected to eat a 10-inch baitfish, although a muskie that size can easily engulf a prey fish three times that size. In this study, yellow perch were the most frequently consumed species (by number of fish in stomachs), spring, summer, and fall. Muskie stomachs contained walleyes less than 2 percent of the time.
Not surprisingly, while catostomids (white suckers, northern hogsuckers, and shorthead redhorse) were found in muskie stomachs far less frequently than perch, they represented over 50 percent of all muskie food by volume. While muskies ate more perch, they derived greater food value from fewer, larger suckers. High rates of muskie growth have been positively correlated with higher densities of catostomids in some northern Wisconsin lakes. As muskies grow larger, they eat more suckers. In another Minnesota study, larger stocked muskies were so fond of suckers that in several lakes they made a sizable dent in catostomid populations.
Alternative Sucker Seasons
While muskie anglers prefer to wield sucker rigs in fall, most studies reveal that muskies selectively target wild suckers least often in fall, and most frequently in spring. During the Wisconsin study, numerous muskies were observed near shallow sucker spawning areas, many of them with large catostomids in their stomachs at this time. In summer and fall, the preferences of suckers for deeper water likely means muskies don’t encounter them as often as in spring.
For targeting early-season muskies, anglers might be wise to freeline a live sucker near sucker spawning locations, especially in and around river and creek mouths. In most regions, sucker spawning has ended by the time muskie opener arrives in May and June. Yet these locations can remain productive given the presence of postspawn suckers there. Moreover, finding live 10-inch-and-larger suckers in baitshops in May and June can be problematic, although not because suckers aren’t available to bait trappers at this time. Some of the better bait dealers will special-order bait for you if you buy them in larger quantities.
Alternatively, in spring, catching sizable redhorse suckers from feeder creeks and small rivers on hook and line is possible and a sport all its own. Wielding a nightcrawler on a simple slipsinker rig, friends and I have often caught 20 or more sizable redhorse in a few hours of fishing. Other anglers use plain 1/16-ounce jigs with maggots, as well as clumps of bird suet molded on #8 or #6 doughbait treble hooks.
One dilemma is that you’ve got to fish baits within a day of catching them. Or, you’ve got to be set up with bait tanks at home. The latter is the more likely scenario, as most river sucker runs end in May. Another option is to use 8- to 12-inch creek chubs, a super active, overlooked muskie bait.
Another obstacle: local regulations restricting the transport or use of baitfish, ubiquitous in this era of invasive species. So much to say here about that, but so little space. Bottom line: Follow your local regs, but also remember, if there’s a will, there’s still a way to stay legal and get the job done.
One solution is to catch your bait from the waterbody you’re fishing (and some jurisdictions might require you to use them the same day, without taking them off the waterbody where you caught them), which isn’t frequently easy. In summer and early fall, I’ve occasionally been able to catch wild ciscoes and rig them for walleyes and muskies. If you can get your hands on live 6- to 12-inch ciscoes, do it. Ciscoes are the best, craziest, but also the most temperature-sensitive muskie bait in freshwater.
I’ve also used wild-caught redhorse suckers for big flathead catfish and muskies, and they work. Wild redhorse are a totally different animal. They kick and swim with 10 times the intensity and at least that much stamina, relative to baitshop suckers raised in captivity. Native redhorse respond like a rabid animal when approached by a muskie. It’s exactly the response you want, one that’s almost guaranteed to elicit a positive predatory response.
The Modified Bridle Rig
As our understanding of hooks and riggings evolve, our goal remains the same: To present a live critter in the most natural manner possible without stressing it, and to simultaneously minimize damage to the muskie. I often cringe when I see all the wire, component parts, and hooks impaled in various parts of baits. In some cases, we can do better than some commercially available rigs.
We ought to use only enough hooks and hardware as absolutely necessary. With suckers up to 12 or 14 inches, a single 4/0 treble hook is often all that’s needed to hook fish and assure they’re releasable. Any time you use a second hook, you’re inviting potential trouble, including the possibility of impaling gill filaments and arches.
In a perfect world, we’d follow the example of bluewater marlin anglers, who by law, follow strict bait-hook guidelines—minimizing rigging to just one or no more than two single-tine hooks. Google “bridle rig” and you find arrangements that connect a bait to a single J-style or circle hook via a length of floss, threaded through the fish’s dual nasal pores (nares). Because hooks don’t penetrate baitfish flesh, baits stay healthy and active, and hooks won’t set back into the bait when a fish bites.
While it’s not always feasible to use a single J-style or circle hook while fishing muskies in close confines or near cover, we can still borrow elements of the bridle to create perhaps the ultimate sucker rig. Near woodcover or vegetation, the rig must allow us to set hooks quickly, both to minimize deep hooking and to keep fish out of snags. Moreover, muskies that bite a livebait in proximity to cover often don’t move far or fast enough to positively activate something like a circle hook.
Jeremy Smith, an exceptional muskie angler and veteran bait rigger, has developed his own ideal muskie rig—a hybrid design with elements of both bridle and quick-strike riggings. The best part? No hooks impale the livebait. “I’ve messed around with a ton of different rigs over the years, including circle hooks and single J hooks,” says Smith, co-host of Lindner’s Angling Edge TV. “Single hooks can work in open-water situations, but they’re not ideal when you’re fishing around cover. I like to be able to reel up tight to the fish and power the hooks home, without waiting for the fish to swallow the bait. A single treble hook rigged on a modified bridle rig lets me do this with great success and rarely harms the fish. The rig also maximizes the energy of the sucker because no hooks penetrate the bait.
“It works for baits up to about 12 inches, which attract plenty of big muskies. For 14-inch-or-larger baits, you’ll need to add a second hook, though I nearly always prefer the one-hook setup. And I feel like bigger baits lead to more missed fish. With this rig, you miss some smaller fish, but hook nearly every bigger muskie that bites.”
Smith’s rig employs a single 4/0 VMC 9617 treble hook attached to a 5- to 10-inch length of 30- to 50-pound-test TyGer or other tieable wire, with shrink-tube over the wire attachment area and hook eye. A wire loop is formed at the opposite end of the wire, as an attachment point. He puts a rubber band around the body of the baitfish and runs the wire hook-rig beneath it, pinning the hook in place. Smith purchases bulk variety bags of rubber bands at the hardware store and experiments with different sizes based on circumference of the bait. The hook lies on the side of the minnow, between the tail and the dorsal fin, but doesn’t actually penetrate the skin.
The front half of the rig resembles a bridle rig, which connects the main wire leader to the hook-rig via a second rubber band run through the sucker’s nares, keeping the presentation naturally in-line. Smith uses a homemade bait needle—a length of rigid wire with an open loop (clip) on one end. He clips another smaller rubber band and his 30-inch titanium fishing leader to the needle, the rubber band double looped to the leader’s snap. The needle and rubber band pass through the nares of the bait, where Smith then removes the needle and clips his titanium leader to the wire loop on the hook rig. For a commercially-available option, similar to Smith’s rig, check Smity Bait’s Nose Quick Set Rig, available through muskyshop.com. Also check out the Ultimate Bait Bridle, which features an easy-to-use clip instead of the rubber band.
“When a muskie bites this setup, I can quickly set the hook and break the rig entirely free from the bait, so I’m fighting the fish directly, with the freed sucker swimming around in the water. This is the best thing I’ve found to keep bait fresh and healthy, while nearly always hooking the muskie near, or just inside the jaw. I feel like I get a lot more bites with this than when I’m rigging with multiple hooks jabbing into the sides of the sucker.”
Another key consideration when attempting to hook a biting muskie relates to fish position, Smith says. “One of the first times I fished this rig, we connected on 11 muskies in just over a half-day of fishing,” he says. “Part of that relates to angles. I want to determine which way a fish is facing. You want the fish moving away from you, facing in the opposite direction when you set the hook. If you’re on a river, it’s usually best to position yourself downstream from the fish before setting. Once I establish the right angle, I reel down until the rod just starts to load and sweep it firmly and slightly to the side until I feel solid weight.
“What’s cool is this rigging lets me use lighter rods and gear,” he says. “And I almost never use a bobber anymore.” He prefers instead to weight his sucker lines, often with 1- to 11/2-ounce tungsten bullet weights, pegged in place with broken-off toothpicks. He feels he achieves a more natural presentation (“lets the minnow swim around more freely”) by spreading weights 5 or more feet across his mainline.
Previously, he chose St. Croix’s Mojo Musky “Downsizer,” a 9-foot medium-light casting rod with a softer tip. But this rod has been discontinued, replaced by a redesigned 9-foot medium-heavy-power fast-action rod. For my money, linear S-glass trolling rods like a 9-foot St. Croix Mojo 9-foot Musky Trolling rod (MMT90HM2) shine for slow-trolling suckers, particularly in open-water scenarios.
Smith, like myself, remains a fan of line-counter reels, opting for Daiwa’s Lexa-LC400H. I’ve run Shimano Tekota 400 LCs for over a decade and consider both these and the Daiwas to be on equal footing, precision- and longevity-wise. “Because I’m drifting and slow trolling rather than soaking baits below bobbers, I like to be able to repeat what works with regard to length of line behind the boat,” Smith says. “A line-counter reel lets me dial in the exact depth and distance back, given a certain speed of say, .5 to 1.2 mph.”
To spread lines laterally, Smith often employs an Off Shore Tackle OR12, or uses the smaller OR38 mini planer to stagger baits closer to the boat. Most of the time when I’m pulling suckers, I set the Minn Kota iPilot to move forward at around .75 mph, hitting points and inside turns along cabbage edges. On high-percentage spots, you can stop, spot-lock and let a bait soak beneath the planer, which effectually becomes a strike indicator.
Beyond structure, the most compelling and potentially exciting opportunities in muskie fishing lie in the open abyss where ciscoes and other planktivores graze. Particularly early in summer and again in fall, muskies hover out in space where they’re highly susceptible to big livebaits. Angling adventurer Larry Dahlberg will blow your mind with stories of the muskie action that awaits anglers willing to try something different.
“If you’ve got muskies in open water and good bait, it’s the single most lethal method there is,” says Dahlberg, recalling days when he’s enticed dozens of bites from pelagic muskies. Dahlberg, a seasoned saltwater angler, has borrowed tackle and approaches such as kites, outriggers, and various “teaser” lures that create visual bubble trails. “To open-water predators, sight attraction is everything,” he says. “A long bubble trail behind a big lure or a teaser is a superior fish attractor. But you can also bring fish to the boat by casting big swimbaits. Once you’ve brought a fish into your trolling spread and closer to the boat, you’ve got a captive audience—a supercharged fish that’s ready to bite.”
We covered the practice and theory of Marlin Methods for Muskies in the May 2012 issue of In-Fisherman magazine. One of the main takeaways is that livebait certainly plays a role in unlocking the mysteries of open-water muskies, whether you’re trolling it or deploying it in bait-and-switch scenarios with artificials. Point two is that, as Dahlberg says, “muskies often operate way up high, within 3 feet of the surface, over much deeper water. A balloon and kite rigged baitfish will score you more bites than you ever imagined.”
The final point is that in open water, muskies have room to roam and take full advantage of all the open space. Coupled with a 7/0 to 9/0 circle hook, a bridle-rigged bait allows fish to run and chew, loading the rod, implanting the hook beautifully in the corner of the jaw. One quick pop of the pliers sets the fish free. It’s a magical rig that maximizes baitfish stamina, hook-set percentages, and the health and releasability of big mean muskies. Amen to that.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor and multispecies angler Cory Schmidt is a decades-long contributor to In-Fisherman publications.