Big baits are a staple of the muskie trade, and for good reason. After all, the mantra "big lure, big fish" holds true enough most of the time. But not always. There are times when just the opposite is true. We're talking about small lures for muskies. Times when trading foot-long jerkbaits for more modest tackle can mean the difference between a great trip and an epic fail.
Veteran North Woods guide Billy Rosner knows the drill. A lifetime of hooking up his clients with toothsome trophies from hallowed waters across northern Wisconsin and Minnesota has taught him a thing or two about keeping an open mind about lure size for monstrous muskies and trophy pike. Specifically, he's learned top times and tricks for tapping the small-bait bite.
"Seasonally, there are times when big fish prefer smaller baits as a matter of biology," he begins. "There also are times when, due to heavy fishing pressure, trophy muskies become more vulnerable to downsized lures. If you can recognize and react to these situations, you'll score when other anglers struggle."
One of Rosner's favorite seasonal small-bait bites occurs during the Postspawn Period shortly after ice-out. On his home waters of Minnesota's Lake Vermilion, the pattern heats up just as muskie season gets rolling in early June.
It's definitely a postspawn affair — which begs a quick review of muskie reproduction. Muskies spawn at water temperatures in the 48°F to 60°F-range, often in tributaries or in shallow, muck-bottomed bays — especially those with stumps, logs, or other woody cover. Males and females idle amorously along, side by side, depositing fertilized eggs that sink to bottom. The fish generally spawn twice — with the second round occurring 14 days after the first.
"After the spawn, as water temperatures warm into the 60s, you can still find fish cruising shallow bays," Rosner says. His best bays range in size from 4 to 100 acres, sport soft or sandy bottoms, and may or may not include spawning areas. The key, he says, is finding fast-warming shallows, where the food chain kicks into high gear faster than the main lake. Warm inflows from tributaries are a plus, and areas where a creek enters at the head of a lake can be dynamite.
He cautions that even though it's tempting to rate bays based on their southern exposure or protection from northerly winds, such profiling can be misleading. "On Vermilion, the Department of Natural Resources has found some of the most productive bays for its muskie collection efforts on the south side of the lake," he says. Likewise, textbook access to adjacent deep water can be a plus — but isn't a necessity. "On systems like Vermilion, with long arms and connecting channels, some of the best bays are miles from the main lake."
Rosner notes that the best bay bites occur in the afternoon, once the sun has a chance to warm the shallows a few degrees. "You can fish a bay in the morning and not find any muskies, then come back later in the day and hit the mother lode."
The fish are hardly on a feeding rampage. "The spawn is over and they're looking for food," he says. "But they're not tearing up the place chasing large baitfish. It's almost as if they're looking for small meals to slowly rebuild their reserves."
The trick to triggering these fish, he says, is a "herky-jerky" presentation spotlighting the stop, wiggle, and glide theatrics of a slender minnowbait. Indeed, while savvy pike fans dabble in small spoons during the early season, and more than a few muskie hunters tone down the size of their softbaits and bucktails, Rosner leans largely on minnow-imitating hardbaits for his early Esox adventures.
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"Every year, there's a 2- to 3-week window when stickbaits from 3½ to 7 inches long are deadly on fish pushing 50 inches," he says. Bomber's Long A ranks among his favorites, with both the 3½- and 4½-inch versions seeing heavy duty. Other top options include Rapala's 4-inch BX Minnow, 4-inch X-Rap, and 3½- to 7-inch Original Floating models, Koppers LiveTarget 45„8-inch shallow-diving Rainbow Smelt, and Smithwick's 41„8-inch Floating Super Rogue, Jr. While Rosner's shallow-water, small-bait hit list headlines straight sticks, he believes jointed versions also hold promise. "I haven't experimented much with the Jointed Long A and similar broke-back baits, but I'm sure they'd work, too," he says.
"You're generally fishing depths of 2 to 5 feet, so divers are pretty much out," he says. "But small, shad-style diving cranks like Lindy's #5 Shadling shine for probing the deep edges of emerging weedbeds, rock shelves, and other muskie-attracting cover and structure."
Rosner's color wheel turns toward the high-vis-yet-natural side of the spectrum, which isn't a surprise given the relatively clear but slightly tannin-stained water conditions. His top pattern is Bomber's perchy-looking Bengal Fire Tiger. "It's a killer," he says. "I'm not sure why muskies like it so much, perhaps the way it reflects light, but they do."
In rods, steer clear of pool cues. "I use St. Croix's 7-foot 3-inch Downsizer, in the Legend Tournament Musky Series," he says. "This fast-action, medium-heavy power rod is ideal for 3/4- to 2½-ounce baits." A high-capacity, low-profile baitcaster such as Daiwa's Lexa, loaded with 20- to 40-pound braid, rounds out the rig. To ban bite-offs and limit line slicing at boatside, he adds a foot-long leader of 30-pound fluorocarbon or light wire.
Presentation-wise, Rosner says, "there's no wrong way to fish a stickbait. You're imitating a wounded baitfish, so it pays to try a combination of actions until the fish let you know what's working. Cast it out, let it sit. Twitch it with downward snaps of the rod tip. Pause. Pull the bait forward a foot or two with a firm and moderately fast sweep, then pause again. Throw in a steady retrieve for 10 feet and spice it up with a sweep-pause-twitch. You get the idea."
Often, Rosner's quarry is in plain sight — a shadowy, seemingly spent torpedo sulking in the shallows a long cast off the bow. Even when visual recognition is sketchy, a telltale swirl often betrays the presence of a monster. "Cast beyond, then work the bait toward the fish," he says. "And keep in mind, muskies often travel in pairs. If one flares away, another is likely nearby."
Strikes are sometimes significant slams but more often just a half-hearted grab. Likewise, once a fish hits, the ensuing battle can start out as a mere skirmish. "in this cool water, muskies typically don't go crazy right away unless you horse them," Rosner says. "Apply gentle pressure and you'll think have a 28-inch pike until the fish sees the boat. Then it's on. Keep your rod tip low to limit jumps and hang on. A 50-inch muskie can put on quite a show in 2 feet of water."
Spring into early summer isn't the only time small lures shine. Once the water temperature tops 70°F and weedgrowth begins to mature, Rosner reaches for another bantamweight champ, the downsized spinnerbait. But this time, it's a redline rather than finesse presentation.
"Burning a small spinnerbait is deadly on heavily-fished waters because it triggers fish conditioned to ignore the steady parade of bigger baits," he says. "And it works in weedbeds both offshore and by the bank."
Bulletproof yet light and tantalizing baits lie at the heart of the program. Rosner favors a 1/2-ounce Booyah Pikee, which features a strong but flexible wire frame, twin willowleaf blades — one size 3½, the other 4½ — and an 84-strand skirt. "Trailers aren't always a necessity, but sometimes having one makes a big difference," he adds. When that's the case, he threads on a 5-inch Yum F2 Houdini Shad or 3½- to 5-inch Money Minnow.
Concerning color, he says, "Sunfish, shad, and perch patterns work best in clear water on sunny days. Shades of red craw, dark blue and black work well under overcast skies."
Using the same rod, reel and line setup as he does with stickbaits, he casts spinnerbaits over mature beds of broad-leaf pondweeds (commonly called cabbage), coontail, and other vegetation. A brisk retrieve that burns the bait at the surface in waking mode or just beneath it is best. "But sometimes, I let it drop into the weeds, then rip it back to the boat," he adds. "Muskies have a hard time resisting when you jerk a bait off a weed stalk."
Small in-line spinners also excel for high-speed applications. "A 5-inch, 3/4-ounce Mini Buchertail or 1/2-ounce #5 Mepps Aglia burned over cabbage or rock shelves is underrated, and has produced giant muskies the last two seasons on Vermilion," he says. "There's no ifs, ands, or buts. Muskies charge up and crush it."
Rosner likes in-line spinners with perch patterns, gold or brass blades, and prefers his Mepps dressed. "Most times that's all you need with either spinner, but sometimes a soft-plastic trailer seals the deal," he says. When it does, a 3-inch curlytail such as Yum's Walleye grub gets the nod. "Hook it on one treble tine," he advises. "Don't go crazy trying to rig it on all three. Single-tine rigging lasts longer and performs just as well." Just one more tip for tapping the small-bait bite this season.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Billy Rosner, vermilionguide.com.