January 25, 2020
You might regard muskie fishing, as I do, as a minor act of rebellion. Or, depending on how you look at things, a desperate measure. After all, you’re choosing to fling a potential chomp of food out into an abyss that on the optimistic side might harbor a single muskie for every five acres of water. The odds go sideways when 10 boats chop up a cabbage bed, 20 baits all vying for the same handful of muskies. Either way, the dilemma never changes: Is it better to fish a proven lure or something different, perhaps something that hasn’t left your box since 1982?
Or, sometimes, you find yourself on the front edge of an emerging trend and experience one of those rare miniature versions of a muskie rampage. For a friend and I, it happened somewhere around the early 1990s, having recently acquired a couple of new, highly touted surface baits. I don’t recall the year when Poe’s unleashed its Giant Jackpot on the muskie world, but the bait created a stir among topwater enthusiasts, who quickly discovered the allure of walk-the-dog retrieves for big green fish. On a particular evening, with a rising blood moon as a backdrop and a palpable midsummer buzz in the air, we encountered a muskie population that angrily gashed and attacked our baits for almost two hours—culminating in back-to-back 48- and 51-inchers.
New and Old Testament Topwaters
Within a year, it seemed, the early magic of the Jackpot had already faded, countless anglers having caught on to the magic of the maddening surface dance. Then, a few seasons back, Grant Olguin of Black Dog Baits sent me a few Lunker Punkers—a wooden, trout-shaped walk-the-dog lure that carved the water with some of the sweetest surface music I’d ever seen. The allure of walking-the-dog magic seemed to start all over again. The first time I fished the Punker, I knew it would get eaten by muskies, the lure having already become a hot commodity for giant largemouths and striped bass in the western U.S.
Although the hooks needed to be beefed up to 5/0 VMC 9650s, Olguin’s Punker had a seemingly overlooked accoutrement that’s become a new standard strike inducement on surface lures and jerkbaits. The Lunker Punker includes a tail treble hook garnished with yellow hackle feathers. I’m not aware of any commercially produced feathered treble hooks in 3/0 to 6/0 sizes sold as accessories, but they’re easy to make. Simply wrap three or four 3-inch-long hackle feathers onto the shank of a hook with heavy fly-tying thread and finish with a dab of durable head cement. I use 400-denier Big Fly Thread or 6/0 Predator Thread and Loon Outdoors Head Cement, all available through JS Fly Fishing.
It’s a stretch to call the Punker a forgotten muskie lure when it’s never really been discovered by muskie anglers to begin with. But that first evening, the lure produced a 49-incher on pressured water, and has been gashed by many good fish since. The Punker might be the smoothest, easiest-to-walk surface lure ever created. Fish it with slow, deliberate swoosh-swoosh motions or slightly faster pop-pop-pop moves. Its propensity to sit low in the water, slightly on its side, shows muskies the body profile of a dying fish, which also increases its chances of being eaten rather than blown out of the water.
The only other surface lures I can think of that move with such organic realism certainly qualify for classic but often forgotten status. In 1978, Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, created the Hawg Wobbler. Whether or not Moulton of Mouldy’s Tackle patterned the Hawg Wobbler after earlier creeper-style baits, including the Heddon Crazy Crawler, LeBoeuf Creeper, and HiFin Creeper, the Wobbler moved and sounded slightly different. While vintage 1940s creepers waddled across the surface with opposing metal flanges or flappers, the Hawg Wobbler has a single metal lip and a single body segment to swim in a rhythmic serpentine fashion, like something alive that might risk its life crossing the river. The joint creates a clacking and knocking sound while a small tail propeller coughs up a subtle bubble trail, which muskies use as a visual aid in tracking prey.
Part of the reason the lures have faded from popular muskie culture, I suspect, relates to the speeds at which creepers need to be retrieved. While it’s comfortable to quickly retrieve a tail-spinning bait such as a Top Raider, you’ve got to crank a Hawg Wobbler painfully slow so it won’t roll over. On a steady retrieve, the Wobbler slowly pitches from side-to-side, joints clicking and tailspinner sputtering. Other than a particular jerkbait I’ll touch on shortly, I can’t think of a better lure for inciting a response from a muskie on a spot. When I’ve located a fish holding on a fallen tree, for example, a Hawg Wobbler has been the right answer, time and time again. Thanks to several special muskies it produced for me during early outings on the Upper Mississippi River, I suspect it will always be my favorite surface bait for rivers.
“Every time I throw a Hawg Wobbler, I wonder again why it took me so long to pick one up between casts,” Dick Pearson told me several years ago. “The bait has a hypnotic live critter action that nearly breaks your heart. It’s wonderful for throwbacks on followers, too. Legendary muskie researcher Bob Strand showed me years ago how he carefully bends the lip down just slightly to give the lure an even more pronounced rocking action and a little extra noise.”
Jeremy Smith, an outstanding muskie stick and star of Lindner’s Angling Edge TV, is another Hawg Wobbler fan. “It produced my very first topwater muskie so it’s got a special place in my heart,” Smith says. “It’s the one I often tie on when it’s time to go back at low light to catch a fish I’ve seen earlier. When muskies bite the Wobbler, they don’t usually blow it out of the water, making it better-hooking bait. As you’re retrieving it, it sort of disappears as a muskie sips it down. It’s got a mystical power to call muskies to the surface.”
Dearly Beloved Jerks
When pressed to call out his favorite under-the-radar muskie baits, Smith quickly pulls the trigger on jerkbaits. Actually, the past few years, a lot of great muskie men have turned to a favorite old jerk when it matters most. The little secret is these baits have never left the starting lineups of the best anglers in the biz. Don Schwartz rattles cages with Bobbie Baits. Dick Pearson, Josh Borovsky, and Jeremy Smith cherish their Suicks. Borovsky reveres his Wade’s Wobblers, too. Smith makes special note of another “Pearson bait,” the Drifter Tackle Triple D, which he calls a jerkbait disguised as a minnowbait.
“The Triple D is like an X-Rap,” Smith says, referring to the wildly erratic, exceptional bass jerkbait. “You work it so it shoots side to side, up and down. Put a feathered treble hook on the back of the lure and watch what happens. It gives the illusion of a bigger meal and provides a visual reference both for muskies and me. With nipping fish on the figure-8, I can see the feather go into their mouth, and it’s like . . . ‘gotcha.’
“Last October on Eagle Lake, Ontario, we were going through Bull Dawgs, Jakes, and other baits—nothing happening. I tied on a Triple D and it started producing fish, working some kind of magic. Another trip to the Indian Chain in Ontario, we caught a dozen fish on the lure. Even with live suckers in the boat, the Triple D caught more muskies. It’s become my favorite lure to catch fish during coldwater periods.”
Smith says two key tackle details deliver mega jerkbait rewards. “A few years ago, Guide Luke Ronnestrand caught me using a fluorocarbon leader and said I was crazy to not be clipping jerkbaits to a stiff single-strand leader,” he says. “He was right. The lure just snaps and comes alive with wire, where the fluoro leader tends to deaden everything. So, now I tie 6-inch jerkbait leaders with 124-pound-test American Fishing Wire stainless-steel single-strand wire and a #3 snap.”
He says the second tweak is replacing the jerkbait’s standard treble hook with a 3/0 to 5/0 feathered treble, tied with red, yellow, or white hackle feathers. Several extra strands of tinsel or Krystal Flash add razzle-dazzle. “Definitely something they like about that feathered treble hook,” Smith says. “It triggers so many extra bites for me that I now feel like throwing certain lures without it is a waste of time.”
Josh Borovsky, a talented muskie guide who pulls shifts on Minneapolis metro lakes and Lake Vermilion, Minnesota, to Clear Lake, Iowa, makes a case for another oldie-but-goodie. “It feels like most anglers are sleeping on a bait I’ve been throwing for about 20 years—Wade’s Wobbler,” he says. “Early in the season, I lean on these baits while casting on heavily-fished metro lakes. The bait shines for getting bites from suspended muskies or those on edges of vegetation in deeper water. The weighted models are especially good because they get down there and work if you use some hard, fast snaps of the rod. The lure doesn’t look very sexy, but it is one of my best fish catchers.”
Produced by Wade Witt of Walker, Minnesota, Wade’s Wobbler is built with select kiln-dried wood for added buoyancy and consistent density. Witt runs brass wire through each bait to resist fatigue bending and finishes them with six coats of paint for durability. To lay your hands on one of these bad boys, you’ll need to go through Reeds Sports (reedssports.com).
“The buoyancy of the wood gives Wade’s Wobbler a very slow rise on a long pause,” Borovsky says. “If you feed the bait some slack it backs up and rises backward. On bright days when fish are deeper, there’s something cool about that maneuver that produces lots of these unique vertical follows from muskies. When they do that, if you can make the bait back up behind a vertical, up-looking fish, they nearly always take a crack at it.”
Another classic jerk that’s always bypassed, it seems, in favor of a Suick, is the old Bobbie Bait, which still tricks tough fish, over 80 years after Bob Vander Velden carved the first one. While the Suick and Wade’s Wobbler feature a straight-on dive and subtle rising action, Bob dives head down but walks or slashes side-to-side. My friend Don Schwartz wields a hybrid homemade version he calls Bobbie Sue, giving it long, evenly spaced downward pulls of the rod to get it diving quickly. Constructed of pine, Bobbie Sue swims slightly deeper than the original Bobbie and offers a more pronounced kick-back action between jerks.
Once the bait reaches the desired depth of 8 feet or so, he pauses it briefly to let it rise, tail up. I’ve also watched Schwartz trigger shallow fish by letting the tail pop through the surface before giving it one or two rapid pumps. Muskies occasionally chomp the bait right on the surface.
“The Sue is actually another Bob Vander Velden design,” Schwartz says. “But Bob never produced it because he was afraid it would water down sales of the original Bobbie Bait.” Years ago, a friend of the late Vander Veldon shared the Bobbie Sue bait with Schwartz, who carved just enough for his own fishing. Today, Rollie and Helen’s Musky Shop (muskyshop.com) offers Bobbie Sues in limited quantities.
“The bait has an adjustable tail that makes it go deeper than the original Bobbie,” Schwartz says. “That was the original intent with the bait, and I suspect Vander Velden caught a lot of big fish with it while keeping it under wraps. As fish start tearing the bait up, the wood becomes porous, takes on water, and runs even deeper—and you catch even more fish with it.”
As I propose the next lure—a crankbait—a lot of you might scold me for assigning the term “overlooked” to a Rapala bait. Guilty as charged, I suppose, for calling the Super Shad Rap a forgotten muskie lure. On Green Bay, for example, Rapala’s bite sized 51/2-inch crankbait remains a prototypical trolling lure. Captain Bret Alexander claims the Super Shad Rap trend may have started the day he shared the boat with In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, and caught six fish on Green Bay for an episode of In-Fisherman TV.
“Before that, anglers were mostly using bigger, more aggressive trolling baits,” Alexander says. “Perch and shad on Green Bay run close to the same size as a Super Shad Rap, and its rolling action approximates that of these important prey species.”
On Green Bay, Alexander pulls Super Shad Raps in 4 to 12 feet of water over sand- and mudflats. When water temps are 65°F to 70°F, he trolls around 3.8 mph, but slows to 3.5 mph when temps reach the low 60s and slows another tenth of a mile per hour for every 5-degree drop in water temperature after that. He runs baits on a combination of planer boards and downlines, with various lengths of 100-pound-test Sufix Performance Braid and a 4-foot leader of 80-pound fluorocarbon to get baits running from 5 to 10 feet down. To deflect floating vegetation, he sometimes runs a 1-ounce in-line weight ahead of the Super Shad Rap. Bait colors such as Perch and Firetiger produce most of Alexander’s muskies.
For most muskie anglers, however, the Super Shad Rap remains largely off the radar because they view it as too small to garner attention from big fish. I know this because I’ve heard it from several famous muskie men over the years. Some anglers refer to it as a “sissy bait.” Alexander, who regularly boats 50-inchers, might dispute this. Likewise, the past few seasons trolling Eagle, Lac Seul, and Lake of the Woods, Ontario, several top anglers, including Schwartz and Smith, have caught impressive fish with the Super Shad Rap. These fish are biting Super Shad Raps while running classic, much larger 10-inch Jakes and Believers, side by side. Once again, Smith suggests replacing the rear treble hook with a feathered 3/0 (VMC 9650), which conveys the illusion of a larger critter.
While the Super Shad Rap excels while trolling, I also love casting one, twitching it, for early-season muskies. You can fish it fast, slow, or stop-and-start. The newer HD Live Smallmouth Bass color has been hot the past few seasons, as has the bright orange Goldfish pattern, particularly on highly pressured water, which more or less describes every muskie lake in America.
In the end, one angler’s forgotten, overlooked, underutilized musky lure is another fisherman’s all-time favorite. It’s muskie fishing. Which means every cast is a small act of rebellion, perhaps even a desperate measure. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an outstanding multispecies angler and decades-long contributor to In-Fisherman publications.