In the muskie fishing game, close calls can be exciting but don't count. So top anglers seek new ways to turn fish on. Muskie guru Pete Maina reflects, "When conditions are right, muskies might eat a shoe." But most of the time, conditions aren't so favorable. Muskies are known for their stubborn nature and finicky disposition. But gear modifications can make the difference in getting fish to bite.
Lures are the last link in the chain of gear between angler and fish and the first item anglers associate with triggering strikes. Making modifications to your selection can be a game changer. Sometimes that means being the first to try new lures. There's no denying the instant success of Bull Dawgs, Double Cowgirls, and Bondy Baits. The key becomes finding that next breakthrough bait ahead of the pack or modifying existing ones to show fish something they haven't seen.
For the last several seasons, Maina has been experimenting and refining lure designs to incorporate baitfish sounds into muskie lures. "Folks think of me as a muskie guy but I fish for many species and have long recognized the benefits of sound in triggering fish. Livingston Lures has developed a successful niche by incorporating smart chips and sound chambers in their lures. They made their name in the bass market, but their lures have proved outstanding for walleye and trout. My idea was to put this technology to work for muskies."
To that end, Maina worked with Livingston Lures to design the Predator series. The first goal was to develop lures with appealing size, shape, and action. The sound component is a bonus feature — a modification that separates them from other lures. When considering productive designs, Maina immediately thought of the B Viper 8 jointed swimbait. This swimbait has a large profile and can be modified to run at multiple depths and speeds with entirely different actions. "The advantage of the B Viper is its versatility," he says. "It has internal weights that can be added or removed to adjust its sink rate and the aggressiveness of its action. With most of the weights removed, it can be fished quickly on the surface like a wakebait. For a more typical swimbait action, remove half the internal weights and fish it at middepth with a steady retrieve. Under tough conditions, add all the weights and the B Viper can be presented vertically like a jig.
"Its large tail wags as it descends on slack line and with each pull of the rod. This presentation can be deadly during post-cold-front periods or other challenging conditions, including hot, calm weather when you need to put a slow-moving bait right in their face. In these situations, the B Viper can be presented precisely along rock ledges, tight to standing timber, or along weededges. It not only has the profile and action of a distressed panfish or shad but also emits fish-attracting sounds.
Maina also has become a fan of the Livingston Head Hunter, a three-piece articulated swimbait just over 6 inches long with a small diving lip that gives it a quick action on the retrieve or troll. The Head Hunter resembles the Storm Swimmin' Stick, one of Captain Bret Alexander's hottest change-up lures for muskies on Green Bay.
As much as fishing guides try to keep secret lures under wraps, word always leaks out. In this case, word got out last summer and sales of Swimmin' Sticks were brisk. For anglers who had them, it was like winning the lottery. Those who didn't were left to wonder what makes them so productive when muskies turn tail on traditional favorites.
Like other species, muskies can become conditioned to lures. Rapala Super Shad Raps, Musky Innovations Shallow Invaders, and Bucher Shallow Raiders have dominated muskie trolling spreads on Green Bay for years and continue to deliver muskies consistently. But sometimes too much of a good thing can work against you. These lures have similar wobbling and rolling actions, while the action of the Swimmin' Stick and Head Hunter is faster and tighter. These lures also make a clacking sound as their joints pivot, creating sound cues for predators.
For a novel look, consider mixing non-traditional muskie baits into your trolling spread. Some examples of smaller, more erratic salmon and trout lures that have been quietly producing big numbers of muskies recently include Luhr Jensen J-Plugs, Yakima Mag-Lips, and Jointed Flatfish. These lures can be run on short leaders in shallow water or on longer leads to reach greater depths. Don't neglect to upgrade hooks on them.
The European Market
Some treasures also can be found on tackle websites overseas. European manufacturers such as Westin make lures for European pike, which approach the size of big muskies. Lures in Westin's Platypus and Jatte series are applicable for muskie fishing. In addition, U.S. manufacturers have incorporated some productive European lures into their lineups. Bagley Baits, for example, now offers the classic Finnish slow-wobbling Ukko 20.
European manufacturers and anglers are ahead of the curve in using lift-off hook rigs on their large softbaits, which allow them to get better hooking and holding percentages with big toothy predators. Lift-off rigs also produce a more fluid action from soft plastics, since there's no internal harness or long-shank hook. They often slow-troll these baits with good success, a technique not commonly used by muskie anglers but worth a try.
Searching out such lures and learning new rigging techniques can put more muskies in the net this season. Also check overseas websites of familiar manufacturers such as Rapala and Savage Gear. Their European websites include many different lure colors and designs not offered in the U.S. The only problem is that you may need to pay steep shipping costs.
If you're not inclined to look overseas for lures, consider taking a cue from Captain Bret Alexander and modify some of your existing arsenal. Alexander works with a talented local custom lure painter, Greg Campbell (920/609-7253), to develop new color patterns for his favorite muskie lure, the Rapala Super Shad Rap. There's no one secret color but I've witnessed Alexander swap-out one stock-color lure from his nine-lure trolling spread for a custom color and quickly get a strike on the custom lure. Purple is a popular color on Green Bay, so Alexander's patterns tend to favor this hue, but custom colors can be adopted to each fishery and for varying conditions, such as wind and water clarity.
Subtle modifications can prove valuable. Captain Kyle Tokarski works with Alexander on Green Bay to determine what it takes to fire up muskies. "Sometimes just a splash of color, like adding red marks to the belly of a stock lure, does the trick," he says. "Other times, thick black vertical bars on a lure can make it stand out." UV colors and sprays also have advocates. Products like UV Blast can be applied to lures to give them a different appearance. The process involves experimenting and gaining confidence in tricks and to use them consistently.
When changes to lure colors aren't enough, try adding components like soft plastic trailers or blades. Muskie and pike anglers have been tipping bucktails and spoons with small curlytail grubs for ages. This tweak works with hardbaits as well. Impale a 2-inch grub on one of the back trebles of a lure for added color and action. Don't to use too large of a grub since it could interfere with the lure's action.
You can also craft small wire harnesses to secure soft-plastic bodies or blades to lures. An easy design is to bend heavy wire into a "V" shape with a closed loop at the point and each end of the "V." Attach the harness to the lure at the point of the "V" with a split ring. Add a hook to the lower arm and a screw-style connector to thread on a soft plastic. As an alternative to the soft-plastic trailer, add a snap swivel and a Hildebrandt blade for added flash and vibration.
Another slick lure modification is to add weight to swimbaits. Lures such as the LiveTarget Yellow Perch and Trout swimbaits have a loop to attach hardware to the belly of the lure. Most anglers add a treble hook, but adding a bell sinker with a snap increases the versatility of this lure. It runs deeper at faster speeds, whether casting or trolling. More weight also gives it greater side-to-side rolling action. You can then use it as a vertical jigging lure in both still and moving-water settings.
Braided line is unmatched for its strength, thin diameter, durability, and lack of stretch. But lack of stretch can work against some presentations, including when trolling big water where choppy conditions are common. Tokarski consistently outproduces other Green Bay anglers by using monofilament instead of braid in rough water. Mono's stretch provides more cushion to minimize abrupt surging of boards that leads to unnatural action by trolled lures. Big-water trollers should consider switching at least a couple of their setups.
Another Tokarski mod is running 4-foot wire trolling leaders instead of fluorocarbon. His theory is that wire creates a slight hum and vibration which serves as an attractant. He also uses in-line weights ahead of his leaders to run trolled lures a little deeper, and more importantly, to act as weed catchers. Weedstalks that slide down the line catch on the in-line weight and don't foul the lure. Clean-running lures catch a lot more fish. Alexander has also used this trick for years and has taken it a step further by adding a blade and beads to his leader between the in-line weight and the lure. The blade offers extra flash and vibration.
When fishing for finicky and highly pressured fish, look for every advantage. To that end, Tokarski also suggests getting out of the pack, even if the pack comes to you. "We routinely troll shallow flats in the early-morning hours and catch fish in 4 to 8 feet of water," he says. "With boards spread more than 100 feet on each side of the boat, we don't drive directly over our waypoints. But when we catch fish, other boats are drawn in like a magnet. This doesn't do anyone any good."
Instead of pounding the same piece of water with a fleet of boats in hot pursuit, he makes longer passes to get out of the crowds and concentrates successive passes on the next depth change. For example, he might shift out to 12 to 15 feet of water where muskies have moved to avoid traffic. "I upsize my trolling weights and lengthen my leads to run lures deeper. With fewer boats around, muskies are more inclined to keep feeding throughout the day. Anglers who refuse to modify their locations and presentations often limit their catches," he says. A word to the wise from this muskie savant.