October 19, 2022
At first glance, it appears to be an endless, repetitive process. Further examination reveals an art form of constant variations in the lengths of pulls and pauses, and changes in speeds. It’s about establishing a cadence, modifying the shape and appearance of baits, and breaking from a prescribed rhythm. To be successful, anglers must manipulate the manner in which baits move through the water and behave throughout the figure-eight, imparting rips, pops, stalls, and accelerations on lures the size of small rodents—all to trigger some of the biggest bites of the year.
The cold-water season is primetime for working “pull-pause” baits, and if you’re not in the game, you’re missing out on one of the year’s most consistent big-fish bites. Captain Luke Swanson operates Livin’ the Dream Guide Service in northern Minnesota and has gained a mastery of pull-pause baits. “Once turnover occurs, we’re feeding muskies a steady diet of big rubber and hair baits,” he says. “That includes Red October tubes, Baby Beavers, Bull Dawgs, Medussas, and swimbaits. “We’re generally looking for the coldest water we can find that holds bait. I have each angler in the boat throw a different style of bait until we find the right presentation for the day.
“With water temperatures still in the 50°F range during late September and early October, lures can generally be worked more quickly. It’s more of a rip-n-reel than a pull-pause technique then. Since we’re primarily targeting weedbeds in 10 to 18 feet of water, I position the boat 20 to 30 feet off the deep edge, where baits can be worked both over the tops of the flats and down the break. Hits can come anywhere throughout the retrieve.”
During early fall, Swanson favors mid-weighted Red October Baits 7.5-inch Ninja Tubes and 10-inch Monster Tubes. With cabbage beds still lush and green, these sleek tube baits create less drag in the water and can be worked erratically near the surface and through the vegetation. Upward rips with a long rod keep Red October Tubes dancing in a frenzied manner. The tentacles expand straight with each rip of the rod and pulsate with each pause of the reel. A high-speed-retrieve reel helps to manipulate the action of these baits as they’re worked quickly through the water column. Swanson favors the Abu Garcia Beast 7.3:1 for this reason. As the water cools, he works baits slightly slower and deeper and upsizes to 12-inch Big Sexy Tubes and Beaver’s Baits Baby Beavers.
Moderately sized tubes and swimbaits are especially effective in lakes and rivers where the predominant prey species are bluegills, crappies, perch, and suckers. Color preferences include natural brown, black, and green hues in clear-water settings. Swanson suggests, however, occasionally throwing a brightly colored bait that might otherwise seem out of place. This is especially true when the water cools into the lower-40°F range and ciscoes move shallow to spawn.
“When ciscoes and whitefish get into spawning mode, there are literally thousands of them holding on rocky points, breaks, and gravel humps. You have to make your lure stand out from the baitfish pods. Lures with bright color accents such as orange, yellow, chartreuse, and even white show up well in the water,” Swanson says. To make quick color modifications to baits, pack a jar of Spike-It dye in the boat and dip a portion of the tube’s tentacles in the dye to give them a custom appearance.
“Pay attention to the size of prey available to the muskies you’re targeting and choose lure sizes accordingly,” he says. “We have some inland lakes where ciscoes are only 7 to 9 inches long. It doesn’t make much sense to throw a giant 18-inch rubber bait in those lakes, whereas a 10-inch tube is ideal. I also believe muskies get conditioned if they keep seeing a bait over and over again. Or if they were recently caught on a certain bait, they’re less likely to bite it again in the short term. Experiment with lures that don’t get as much play on your home waters. New ones always catch more fish the first several years after they come out.
“For me, Beaver’s Baits have been standouts in recent years. The synthetic body-construction material moves through the water differently than rubber does. I believe this plays into how muskies sense this bait with their lateral line. Based on their multi-jointed bodies, Baby Beavers have a different action with each pull and pause. They also have a unique hover and slow fall to them, almost like a glidebait. The goal is to create a swimming and dying action. By changing the insert weights among 3/4, 1, and 1.5 ounces, you can also get different actions from a single bait. Plus, as proof of their incredible durability, last year we caught 29 fish on a single bait.”
Swanson is a firm believer that every fish has its own “tick”—something that triggers its interest. Perhaps that merely results in a follow on an especially tough day, or a flare of gills at boatside. But more often than not, you get fish to bite once you know their tick. During the Coldwater Period, pull-pause baits result in a fair percentage of fish presenting themselves at the boat. That means having patience and perseverance throughout the figure-eight process. Swanson suggests giving several “up rips” with the rod when the bait gets within 15 to 20 feet of the boat. This brings the bait up in the water column and triggers following fish before the bait is on a short line.
Experiment with pace and action throughout the figure-eight. That may mean keeping a slow steady pace into the first turn, accelerating into the corner, speeding up in the middle, and then giving the bait several twitches in the next turn. Watch how fish react to each change in bait action, and repeat those elements to build on the fish’s excitement level. Swanson recalls working a fish last fall in mid-30°F water temperatures for nearly two minutes before the fish was triggered to strike.
“In late fall, there may only be a short bite window available each day,” Swanson says. “Fish are lethargic and feeding less as ice-up nears. That means grinding it out for only few opportunities and slowing down presentations. With water temps in the 30s, we go to bigger and heavier Lake Edition Baby Beavers and work them on more sweeping pulls and long pauses. We may start by counting the bait down 8 to 10 seconds over 18 to 30 feet of water. Pop the rod once and then do a long pull, followed by a five-second pause, another pull, and a three-second pause, followed by a shorter pull and a six-second pause. Always something different to get the bait rising in the water column, gliding, falling, and rising again in a slightly erratic fashion. You just need to figure out what that big queen of the lake wants as her final meal of the open-water season.”
Swanson favors pull-pause baits in most every setting come late fall. He does well with them on a mix of both large and mid-size lakes, as well as rivers. “We fish the same lures nearly identically in rivers,” he says. “For locations, look for ‘deep’ wintering holes. In shallow rivers, that may be 6 to 8 feet of water. In big rivers, deep could mean 15 to 20 feet. Water should be flowing at a walking pace.” Muskies don’t want to struggle in heavy current during the winter, as they would expend to much energy and fat reserves in the process. As a final consideration, the best holes are those in close proximity to spring spawning grounds. Work pull-pause baits in the same fashion as you would in lakes. Retrieve speeds should be accelerated and made more erratic during warming trends and slowed during cold fronts.
Big Water Dawgs
On big-water fisheries, larger pull-pause baits dominate for much of the season. That trend holds for Captain Bret Alexander on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, where a healthy population of 50-inch-plus muskies exists. “Bull Dawgs are a staple for us starting as early as the opener in May,” he says. “They excel during the summer months whenever cold fronts roll in, and they really shine when water temps approach 50°F. The key is knowing the properties of each lure and tailoring them to your situation.
“Most guys think that big rubber baits are interchangeable. In fact, the various models fish quite differently. The other key is to keep varying your retrieve. Compare it to working small jerkbaits for walleyes or bass. Changing the cadences of the lure is usually more productive than a constant, steady presentation. What holds true for bass and walleyes also holds true for muskies. It’s just that muskies make us work a lot harder for them.”
When it comes to knowing your dawgs, the Westminster Kennel Club has nothing on Musky Innovations, the maker of Bull Dawgs. There are now more than 20 different models in the kennel to choose from for your pull-pause needs. As a rough overview, the standard Bull Dawg first hit the scene in 1993 at a hefty 9 inches and 3 ounces, but it would be considered a small breed model by today’s standards. For Alexander, it’s a great staple lure under cold-front conditions and in river settings when a smaller-profile bait is necessary to match prey size or appeal to tentative fish. Scaling back an ounce in weight, the 9-inch, 2-ounce Shallow Bull Dawg excels over the tops of weedflats and is easier to work erratically. By bending up the nose of the Shallow Dawg, a walk-the-dog action can be achieved—a deadly presentation during low-light periods.
The Magnum Bull Dawg, at 12-inches and 8.9 ounces, is now the standard Dawg thrown by most anglers across the country. It is also available in a Heli Dawg model with a Colorado blade affixed to the top of the bait on a wire arm. The flash of the blade is an added trigger in both clear and stained-water settings. This relatively subtle accent to the bait can pay big dividends. Many anglers modify their other Bull Dawg models to include this feature.
Since everyone likes the larger breeds, the 16-ounce Super Magnum Bull Dawg (aka, Pounder) has become a favorite for those chasing giant muskies. Pounders move a ton of water and present a large profile at 15 inches long. Pounders, as well as Magnum and Standard models, are also available in a Pro model. Pro models have an internal jointed wire harness, unlike the original models, which feature a solid single-wire internal frame. The jointed wire harness gives Pro models more flex, pop, and belly flash when worked with a rip-and-retrieve technique. The versatility of these baits makes them hard to resist.
If you need even more thump in stained water or when fishing after dark, the Alpha Dawg has all the heft of a Pounder but with an extra-wide tail. This feature creates more drag, resulting in a slower fall rate and more turbulence behind the bait. When less depth is desired, the Shallow Super Mag is available, and for more twisting and pulsing tail action, the Double Dawg offers two tails on one Dawg. For those looking to dress up their Dawgs, the options are seemingly endless and growing every year to include holographic, glow, and UV finishes, along with a plethora of standard and custom color combinations.
With so many Dawgs in the pound, Alexander recommends starting the cold-water season with Shallow Mag Dawgs over the tops and along the edges of remaining green cabbage beds. “Muskies absolutely T-bone big rubber baits ripped through the weeds,” he says. “At the beginning of the day, I tell my customers to try and break the rod on the hook-set if they feel anything different with the bait. When the first bite happens, I know who has been paying attention and who has their head in the game. If you fail to set hard, muskies lock down on the bait with their teeth and simply have it pinned in their jaws. You need to break their grip on the rubber body with your hook-set. I carry a small torch with me in the boat and quickly repair any damage to a bait after a fish catch. That way hot baits don’t miss any time in the water. I’m partial to black and orange, shad, and walleye patterns, with the Ball Licker, UV Reflex Silver Cisco, Ice Walleye, and Golden Bear being consistent producers.
“When shallow weed patches get pounded by anglers, slide off the deep edge in 15 to 25 feet of water and work the open water with bigger baits. Count down the bait 8 to 10 seconds prior to starting a pull-pause retrieve. Sweep the rod back 3 to 4 feet with each pull, and reel up the slack as the bait glides down in small arches. Impart an occasional quick rip on the bait to trigger any following fish. During cold-front conditions, use longer, lazier pulls and have a few Double Dawgs in the mix for more hang time from the bait. With its single-wire harness, you can bend the nose of this lure down to get more depth and digging action. Always be watching for following fish and be ready to impart slightly more action on the bait as it nears the boat. My favorite move is to keep popping the bait with 1-foot pulls of the rod as I go into the figure-eight.”
As fall progresses and the water cools into the 30s, Alexander searches for warmer water and the shad it attracts. Pounder and Pro Super Magnums are then his pull-pause baits of choice, and they are fished much slower. Pulls are long, and pauses are even longer. Spend extra time working your figure-eights to allow fish to catch up with the bait and commit to it.
Alexander suggests not to overlook swimbaits such as Swimmin’ Dawgs during this time period. “Throwing Pounders can be physically demanding. If I notice a customer getting fatigued or their technique suffering with an oversized bait, I’ll switch them over to a Swimmin’ Dawg. These swimbaits cast well, come through the water with minimal resistance, and have tremendous belly-rolling and tail-kicking action to them. They are natural fish catchers on a straight retrieve or can have more action imparted on them with changes in retrieve speeds.” The main thing is to stay committed to these baits and know that big results will follow.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an accomplished and well-traveled multispecies angler. He is a longtime contributor to all In-Fisherman publications.