Muskie fishing could be described as dull routine, interrupted by chaos, as a thousand things can go wrong as teeth clash with metal. Minutes seem like years, and any weak link can turn a long-awaited bite into a broken heart. The pursuit of trophy pike is a similar — fish in seemingly rare supply on most waters.
Expert anglers doctor gear and upgrade equipment to decrease any margin of error once a bite occurs. We sharpen hooks, examine leaders, line, and rod guides, and test drags. We check out new equipment, reading reviews, looking for that next breakthrough to increase our odds.
One of the latest trends in muskie and pike fishing gear is toward faster-geared baitcasting reels. Given the muskie's reputation as "the fish of 10,000 casts" the thought is that more casts equals more fish. Faster-geared reels offer additional benefits like quicker line pick-up and increased lure control.
Pure Fishing's Director of Global Brands, Andrew Wheeler, is an experienced angler whose encounters with big, toothy fish around the world have informed many of Abu Garcia's baitcaster designs. Is there a need for speed? "Absolutely," says Wheeler, "it's all about efficiency. It allows you to make more presentations in a day, speed up over dead water, and burn baits when that's the key to getting strikes.
"But a higher gear ratio doesn't always equate to fast retrieves. Spool diameter also is important. Inches per turn (IPT) is a good indicator of speed, as it means the inches of line retrieved with one full crank of the handle."
To those ends, he suggests anglers look at reels with 35 IPT or greater. "If you're trying to get a reaction bite with smaller lures with #6 or #8 blades, a high gear ratio shines, as well as when you're fishing plastics with a drop-lift cadence. Maximum IPT helps keep you in contact with the lure at all times."
Wheeler admits that designing fast reels is a challenge. "It gets more complicated; fast reels amplify any gear issues. You want smooth operation, but higher ratios put more pressure on the reel and the gearing. There haven't been many because technology wasn't there to get build a strong enough gear set. But we've figured that out. For example, in our Toro family we use a gear module with a larger gear and more teeth, which results in higher gear ratios and increased gear strength. That's accomplished through DuraGear, a specialized brass material much harder than standard brass, which makes a better gear set and adds to gear module strength."
This is a design focus across all Abu's reels, not just the fastest models. "Although fast is king right now, we offer gear ratios to meet all anglers' needs," he says. "Lower ratios typically mean easier cranking. Many anglers use lower gear ratios with bigger baits, and even in those ratios the main gear is larger, which makes the reel more efficient and easier to retrieve."
In addition to the Revo Toro Beast, which is popular with muskie anglers, Wheeler recommends the Revo Winch, Revo Inshore, and lower-cost Revo STX and SX. "The line capacity on the Revo Winch and Revo Inshore is considerable, so they do double duty for freshwater predators and inshore species like redfish." He adds that the new Max Toro models offer a lower price-point alternative, similar to the Revo Toro line internally, but starting at $149.99.
Illinois-based Shimano pro staffer John Stone has 40 years of muskie fishing under his belt, the last 15 years of which he's offered feedback to Shimano R&D from his extensive experience guiding for muskies in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. "There's been a trend in recent years toward smaller low-profile baitcasters with larger spools. With reels like the Shimano Tranx 300 and 400 you get great casting and lure control. These reels are smaller than a Curado 300, very palmable, even for female anglers. We're learning that bigger isn't always better.
"The Tranx 300 and 400 are a new design that took the place of the Trinidad, which was popular with muskie fishermen. The problem with the Trinidad was it was built for saltwater so it didn't have a line guide. The Tranx 500 came out with 4.6:1 and 6.6:1 ratios, offering power, speed, and rock-solid performance. The 6.6:1 Tranx 500 retrieves 46 IPT. The goal was to bring that level of reliability, speed, and performance to muskie anglers in a lighter and more compact package, while adding features in both left- and right-handed models. For me, speed is important, but so is comfort — easy to palm and light.
The Tranx 300 and 400 low-profiles offer 5.8:1 and 7.6:1 gear ratios, the latter with 40 IPT. We've had high-efficiency gearing for years but the new Hagane and X-Ship technology — cold-forging of gears — is incredible for smooth and reliable performance."
Stone is especially proud of Shimano for bringing down the price while offering these high-performing, reliable technologies: "These aren't $500 reels, they're $300 reels. That helps average fishermen get into the sport, using a pro-level reel."
Top Picks for Pike & Muskie
ABU GARCIA Revo Toro HS Beast — Introduced in 2016, these freshwater/saltwater reels (50 and 60 size) have Abu's active-response Power Stack Carbon Matrix Drag System for on-the-fly drag adjustments even under heavy loads. They feature an X-Craftic alloy frame and sideplate, Duragear Heavy Duty system for increased fighting power and extended gear life, InfiniMax braking system to handle heavy lures, aircraft-grade aluminum spool, extended handle for increased cranking power, large EVA knobs for improved grip (also Includes Power Handle and Casting Power Handle), and 7 stainless-steel HPCR bearings + 1 roller bearing. Drag has 25-pound max. Available in 4.9:1 and 6.2:1 with up to 34 IPT, $399.99 — abugarcia.com
Revo Toro Rocket 60 — Features X-Craftic alloy frame and sideplate, Duragear Heavy Duty system for increased fighting power and extended gear life, and the InfiniMax braking system for maximum adjustability and handling large lures. An aircraft-grade aluminum spool is strong and light for greater casting performance, while a titanium-coated line guide reduces friction and improves durability. It has an extended bent handle for increased cranking power, and large EVA knobs (also Includes Power Handle and Casting Power Handle). Max drag is 25 pounds. High-speed 7.6:1 gear ratio brings in 42 IPT, $399.99 — abugarcia.com
DAIWA LEXA 300 & 400 HD — Popular low-profile LEXA 300 and 400 reels are now available in Type-HD — for heavy-duty freshwater predators and inshore action. They feature stainless-steel drive and pinion gears and six corrosion-resistant ball bearings (CRBB), in 7.1:1 and new Xtra Hyper Speed 8.1:1 gear ratios. They have EVA power handle knobs, stainless-steel Drive Gear and Pinion Gear EVA Custom Handle Knob Ultimate Tournament carbon drag (UTD) with max drag of 13.2 pounds, Swept Handle with weight-reducing cutouts, Magforce Cast Control, and Infinite Anti-Reverse. Hyper-speed 8:1 LEXA HD400XS-P brings in 43 IPT, $249.99 to $299.99 — daiwa.com
SHIMANO Tranx 300/400 — Introduced in early 2017, the Tranx 300/400 was designed as a freshwater and saltwater baitcaster. X-Ship and HEG technologies combine to provide great cranking power with a smooth retrieve, ideal for casting big baits to large predators. They feature Shimano's new CoreProtect water-resistant technology for durability in extreme environments. 400 models have a single rubber-padded power handle with ball bearings. Max drag 22 pounds, IPT range 30 to 40, $279.99 to $299.99 — shimano.com
SHIMANO TRANX 500 — Revolutionary design and shape provide the comfort of low profile with the capacity of a conventional reel in 4.6:1 and 6.6:1 gear ratios. X-Ship and HEG technologies provide cranking power with a smooth, effortless retrieve. Offered in high-gear (HG) and power-gear (PG) models to cover a range of applications. Max drag 25 pounds, IPT range 30 and 43, depending on line, $499.99 — shimano.com
Former Leech Lake muskie guide turned "Lindner's Angling Edge" TV host Jeremy Smith jumped on the fast baitcaster train early. "I fish baitcasters in the 7:1 range nearly 90 percent of the time, and even 8:1 and higher models. I know I work harder than I would with a 5:1 or 6:1, but if I have to burn over cover or weeds, I have that acceleration at my command."
High-geared baitcasters require more work to get a lure in motion. Smith equates it to riding a 10-speed-bicycle and pedaling up a sharp incline in high gear. "That first kick is hard but once you get it started, you're rolling. Getting a high-geared reel started under load can be a challenge, but the benefits far outweigh the negative. But to fish #10, #12, or #13 blades, a reel in the 5:1 to 6:1 range is a better choice. When I get above #10s, I reach for a 6:1 gear ratio. But I don't step down to a 5:1 or lower-geared reel; I can't get the speed I need."
Fast Reel Applications
As reel manufacturers raise the limits of IPT, anglers are experiencing other benefits besides more casts and faster retrieves. "With a slack-line presentation, whether with jerkbaits or plastics, I want to pick up line and get it tight quickly, so I fish 7:1 or higher reels," Smith says. "Seconds can mean the difference between a hook-set and a miss. It's the same concept that's swept the bass world with faster reels for quick hook-sets on long casts with slack line, not to mention more flips, pitches, and casts, and the ability to move fish out of cover faster. Reels in the 8:1 and over category are phenomenal for casting and burning single bucktails or #6 and #8 blades. I use a Daiwa Lexa 300 for that and always have two combos in the boat; one to make a little Gliding Rap dart super fast, and one for single bucks. With glidebaits, you throw so much slack line that it's easy to get out-of-whack with a slower reel."
Smith also prefers a 7:1 for topwaters, jump baits, and prop baits. In situations when he needs to slow down, he reels slower. "I even use a 7:1 for big plastics: Bull Dawgs, Bondy Baits, and others. It's a gear ratio that does it all for me. Sometimes I have to reel more slowly, but that's not a big deal once you get used to it. The only situation a fast reel isn't ideal is casting garbage-can-lid blades, but that can be tough no matter what tackle you use."
These comments illustrate the smaller-lure trend sweeping the muskie scene, including single bucktails and compact hardbaits, which are ideal for low-profile, high-ratio reels. "Jim Saric, Joe Bucher, and I are all going back to smaller lures," Stone says. "Although I still throw a Pounder and Mag Dawg, two of my favorite baits are a 5-inch Yo-Zuri minnowbait and a Bomber 'A'. I always keep a rod rigged with 'em."
Stone has moved away from throwing double #10s, #12s, and #13s, lures that take a toll on any angler. "You fish those all day and you get that clam-grip hand and you're ready for the trauma center. In 2016, I boated 107 fish, six over 50 inches, mostly on #8s, #9s, and smaller hardbaits on fast reels, which allow you to scorch the water. When I have to fish giant blades, I step down to the 5.8:1 range. But my go-to is the 7.6:1 range for #9s, #8s, and #5 Mepps."
At 40 IPT, Stone also turns to the 7.6:1 Tranx 400 for deep-water jigging, topwaters, and for fishing Bull Dawgs, Bondy Baits, and Red October Tubes in fall. "On the Detroit River, we fish 12- to 30-foot breaks, counting them down and ripping 'em up. You need a reel that's capable of handling heavy lures."
Another situation ideal for faster reels is when water temperatures climb and predators hunt aggressively, their bodies in metabolic overdrive. "When the water gets hot you can hardly reel fast enough," Smith says. "But with a higher-geared reel, I can manage. When the water's cooler, I reel slower."
A trend that coincides with faster baitcasters is the inclusion of a single, large-knobbed "power handle" like those on saltwater level-wind reels. Muskie and pike anglers have turned to this handle type for a combination of control and ergonomics.
Smith is a fan of the Daiwa's Lexa 300 and 400 HD, and uses the single power-cranking handle for almost all applications. "The Lexa HD has the right gears, is nicely balanced, and has an excellent handle. The single power-cranking handle is easy to find, that's a big deal for immediate response and execution. The only application I like the classic double paddle handle is when 'walking the dog,' so my hand always finds the right spot when I'm locked into that cadence."
When it comes to handles, Stone is a traditionalist. "The 7.6:1 Tranx 400 has a single rubber-padded handle," he says. "The lower-geared model has a double rubber-padded handle. Both have ball bearings, so they're comfortable. But I prefer a double paddle unless I'm fishing in late fall and wearing gloves. I've always felt that the reel balances better. Still, a lot of guys are going the power crank route and love it."
The Abu Garcia Revo Toro Beast comes with three handle options, which Wheeler says allow anglers to customize the reel to the presentation. "For big blades, you might want the single-knob counter-weighted power handle. And the regular single-knob power handle is good for fishing slower or jigging. The double paddle is what we're all familiar with, and that's included as well."
So, is there a speed limit for muskie reels? "We're pushing the technology envelope," Wheeler says. "It's a finite game because you have to manage gear strength and durability. Anglers are asking for faster reels so we're trying to go beyond where we're at today."
That said, expect to see reels push closer to double-digit gear ratios. But also consider spool diameter and depth, and IPT, as well as drag. As low-profile reels continue to supplant round reels in the marketplace, they'll get smaller, lighter, and more comfortable. Similarly, more feathery yet strong rods are sure to follow.