June 30, 2015
When you think of muskie tackle, what do you think of? Twenty years ago, it was all about 9-inch Suicks, Mepps #5 Aglias, and Blue Fox Bucktails fished on 6-foot rods with big round reels. Today we see a plethora of huge wiggly softbaits as well as hubcap-style double bucktails. Standard gear consists of 9-foot heavy-power rods outfitted with techy low-profile reels.
Factors behind this shift are complex, but you can't argue with the effectiveness of modern systems. Use of bigger, heavier baits and more powerful gear is termed "power fishing." Over the last decade, power-fishing applications have rewritten the rules about how we fish for muskies.
With the invention of the Cowgirl by Musky Mayhem, we saw the muskie world change in a short season or two. This 10-inch bucktail with #10 blades rocked the fishing industry. As many anglers began using this heavy and extremely hard-pulling lure, experts began seeking gear that could handle such torque. At about the same time we also saw the era of softbaits arise and evolve.
When the Musky Innovations Bull Dawg appeared in 1993, it didn't meet the instant success of the Cowgirl. But this goofy-looking 3-ounce soft plastic swimbait did do one important thing. It caught big fish. Its success made it a household name and encouraged Musky Innovations to offer ever larger versions. In 2005, the company introduced a bait known simply as "The Pounder." This one-pound lure was met with mirth by some. But for the new generation of power fishermen, who were looking for something bigger, it was perfect. Since that day, no other lure has come close to matching the number of fall monsters caught by the Pounder Bull Dawg. Through the success of the Cowgirl and the Pounder, the power-fishing movement changed the muskie world forever.
The Need for Speed
When anglers began to master fishing with outsize spinners like the Cowgirl, they found that the follow-to-strike ratio rose markedly with retrieve speed. As a result, they sought reels with faster gear ratios. This lure category is most effective when the water is warm. As waters warm in summer, the metabolic rate of muskies rises. Fish are far more active and aggressive then. For this reason, running bucktails at high speeds is classified as a warm-water technique, increasing in effectiveness as water temperature exceeds 65°F.
Retrieving big lures at high speed seems to entice muskies to strike, whether they're actively feeding or not. We've found that retrieving a bucktail at medium speed, without stops, starts, or changes in direction, often causes fish to follow the lure to the boat instead of striking. At times these fish are then catchable on a well-performed figure-eight.
But that approach can be problematic. First, big fish, especially those that have been caught before, tend to be boat shy. Unless they're highly aggressive, they fade at the side of the boat. If you do succeed in getting the fish to eat on a figure-eight, there's a lot that can go wrong when you have 3 feet of line out with a big fish on the surface shaking its head. The boating rate on a figure-eight is far lower than for fish that eat on the cast. Plus, it's difficult to make wide enough turns with the lure to allow a tanker to easily follow. Increasing retrieve speed causes more fish to eat on the cast and avoids these potential pitfalls. A fast-moving bait appears to be trying to get away and their predatory instinct is to attack. It works not only on active fish but on neutral and negative fish as well, making it a key approach in warm-water situations.
As a result, high-speed reels that retrieve at least 30 inches for every turn of the handle become nearly essential. With models such as Shimano's Tranx or Diawa's Saltist, it's easy to get bucktails burning between 3.5 and 7 mph on the retrieve. These speeds produce a great deal of torque on the rod and on the angler that's mollified with a longer rod. I prefer to use rods at least a 8½ feet long, up 9 foot 3 inches. This length helps sling hefty baits a long way, makes it easier to impart changes in direction, and aids in making figure-eights at boatside.
Double-10 bucktails, such as the classic Cowgirl, typically have only 3/8 ounce of lead. This makes them ride high on a super-fast retrieve. Lift from the blades can even cause the bait to break the surface. For this reason I recommend heavier bucktails. My favorite is the Trolling Girl by Musky Mayhem. Although this spinner is designed for trolling, it doubles as a great heavyweight burning bucktail. Another option is to rewire standard lures to add weight, typically 1 to 2 ounces.
Although this technique was based on the use of big blades that move lots of water, patterns are changing. While #10 blades seem to produce the right vibrations to drive muskies crazy, their widespread use has yielded many muskies that have been caught by that range of vibrations. In recent years, we've seen increased success by anglers using bucktails with #6, #7, and #8 blades instead of #10s. As a bonus, smaller blades reduce the torque on anglers and allow them to keep up high-speed retrieves for longer periods of time without fatigue. Luremaker and Guide Jeff Andersen explains, "As many of my northern Minnesota and Canadian waters get fished harder and harder by double #10 bucktails, my success rate with smaller bucktails has increased. On slow days I've seen smaller fast-moving bucktails outproduce double #10s over the last few years."
We've also seen success using this high-speed application with lures of other types. High-speed gliders, such as the Hellhound, topwaters, such as Lowriders, or big rubber baits, such as the Pounder, have proven to be viable substitutes when fish have seen more than their share of bucktails. No matter the size of your lure, it's clear that in warm water muskies love to eat baits that are moving fast.
Hunt for Big Fish
The bottom line in muskie fishing today is that we're no longer trying to catch 36-inch fish. Granted, all muskies are fun to catch, but emphasis is on giants that seem to be more common. While a finesse approach can work at times, large fish typically are looking for a big meal. Big muskies commonly eat fish weighing 2 to 3 pounds, many times larger than the heftiest lures. So baits with a huge profile are a good start.
Big baits also move more water than small ones, producing strong underwater vibrations that can call fish like a dinner bell. Larger baits also demand heavy-duty hardware and terminal tackle. Big hooks and stronger wire boost your odds of boating monster fish.
Some muskie anglers consider big baits primarily for fall, but they work well earlier in the season, too . It's true that small muskies may be reluctant to eat a huge meal early in the season, but big fish eat big baits. By upsizing your lure selection you up your odds of catching big fish every day.
Outsize baits of any style can call in giants, from 10-inch Hellhounds and 11-inch Phantoms among gliders, to 12-inch Shadzillas and 11-inch Savage Gear 4Plays for swimbaits. But I've found the most productive big baits are soft plastics. The Husky Medussa by Chaos Tackle and Musky Innovations Pounder dominate big- bait discussions right now. They not only catch big fish but they do it consistently and in various situations. They win tournaments and are favorites of top guides everywhere.
During the 2014 season, my clients and I landed 612 muskies on Lake St. Clair. Of those, 501 were caught casting and 111 trolling. We took 448 on either Medussas or Bull Dawgs, particularly Pounders, with 42 fish over 50 inches caught casting those two lures. Green Bay Guide Brett Alexander also considers big rubber, particularly the Pounder Bulldawg, a staple in his boat. "When you're fishing areas where muskies have thousands of real baitfish to choose from, you need a lure that moves a lot of water and stands out," Alexander says. "Nothing's better than the big Bull Dawg in that situation."
Although big softbaits work in many locales, they particularly shine in deep water. With lead-weighted bodies, they sink rapidly, making them perfect for deep edges, breaklines, or in open water. When you're fishing over 8 to 10 feet, it's hard to beat a big rubber bait.
Whenever you find big schools of baitfish suspended in open water you know muskies are nearby. Find the food and you find muskies. I rely on my Humminbird side-imaging and 360 imaging to locate the huge schools of shad that roam open water. These advanced electronics allow you to find baitfish and pattern muskies much faster than was possible just a couple years ago.
The big bait aspect of power fishing is not only hard on gear but can be tough on anglers as well, especially if they aren't outfitted correctly. I prefer an 8½- to 9-foot rod with extra-heavy power such as Okuma's 8-foot 10-inch Custom X Elite XXXH or their 8-foot 6-inch EVX XXH rod and 9-foot Muskie Innovations Mark Lijewski Bulldawg XXXXH. These powerful rods help anglers cast big baits all day. Matched with a Shimano Tranx or Calcutta D, you've got a setup that can deliver lures to the giant muskies we dream about, hook fish, and deliver them boatside for a quick photo and safe release.
Muskie anglers are always looking for the next big thing to help us boat not only numbers of fish but big ones. The most avid guys seek to stay on the cutting edge. Over the last decade, the power-fishing trend has shifted our definition of "big baits" upward. But I see a leveling off of this trajectory, at least in lures intended for casting. That's not because muskies won't eat bigger baits. But we seem to have reached the maximum size lure that our gear and our bodies can fish comfortably.
So I don't envision even bigger lures hitting the water. The next trend seems to be big baits creating even larger profiles without increasing their true size and weight. By adding multiple tails and spinners, lures are able to move more water and create more vibration. Witness the double-tailed Double Dawg, Heli Dawg, and Under Dawg by Musky Innovations and the Medussa by Chaos Tackle. Moreover, the rubber and tinsel used in bucktails flare under water, adding to the illusion of size. Given the creativity of lure designers, I can't wait to see the next generation of power-fishing tools. –
*Capt. Spencer Berman, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, operates Spencer's Angling Adventures on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River and is a freelance writer. Contact him at 419/410-0498, spencersanglingadv.com.