October 14, 2020
The effectiveness of swimbaits and other soft plastics for muskies isn’t new. Storm Kickin’ Minnows have long been go-to baits for multiple fish days on Indiana’s Barbee Chain. Castaic swimbaits, originally designed for record-class California largemouth bass, have also long been ravaged by western tiger muskies. And a host of soft-plastic creature baits have been racking up big
numbers of muskies on southern reservoirs and rivers.
Productive swimbaits range in size from 4 to 14 inches and span every imaginable design. Typical paddletails with their hard-thumping action dominate the category, but subtler split-tail S-curve swimming baits and dart-spinners all have their place. Adding to this array of options are rigged and unrigged versions, hybrid styles with molded hard heads, and models with leaders worked into the baits, and still others with lift-off hook harnesses.
Having fished diverse muskie locations across North America, I’ve had the opportunity to share the water with many innovative anglers. Long hours on the water leads to stories of fishing successes and failures, unique observations, and theories behind successful presentations. Sometimes this sharing of muskie tactics takes place in unique settings.
During a recent steelhead outing, I shared a stretch of river with multispecies angler Austin Gates, who recounted how his muskie catch rate had gone up dramatically by incorporating swimbaits into his regular river routine. The concept was simple—present baits slower and more vertically to fish in high-percentage spots, while using lures that they don’t typically see.
While wading in waist-deep water and drifting spawn to trout along a current seam, we discussed the specifics of his techniques for river muskies. He fishes muskies all across the Midwest, predominantly from shore, on medium to large rivers. He focuses on key locations close to dams. These areas concentrate fish year-round. He looks for pockets below rapids and rock shelves, dramatic current breaks behind manmade structures such as retaining walls and bridge pilings, as well as slack-water eddies associated with wing dams and points. These areas have distinct edges between faster and slower water and are typically small. This makes precise placement and control of the chosen lure vital throughout the retrieve.
Gates noted that anglers traditionally worked these areas quickly with horizontal-running lures like Bull Dawgs and Cowgirls. Soon, catch rates for these lures dropped off. Smaller Spring Bull Dawgs and Twinkies soon became productive mainstays, until fish became conditioned to them as well.
“Guys were throwing the same baits day in and day out with fewer and fewer fish caught,” he said. “Muskies began to follow more and more often, instead of eating lures. Eventually, it seemed like walleye anglers were encountering more muskies than muskie anglers were. That’s when I started experimenting with 4- to 6-inch Keitech Swing Impact Swimbaits and Kalin’s Sizmic Shads rigged on 1/2- to 2-ounce bullet-head jigs. I can easily change jig sizes to match different current conditions. Pre-rigged swimbaits are another option once you have mapped out key muskie areas.”
Both Kalin’s and VMC make solid jigheads with heavy-gauge hooks. Kalin’s Ultimate Swimbait jigs are available in a range of sizes and have a somewhat stand-up design that pivots nicely when encountering rocks for less snags. They also offer an option of a 5/0 or 8/0 hook on the 1.5-ounce jighead and 8/0 hooks on their 2- to 3-ounce jigs. VMC offers their Spin Jigs in the 1/2- to 1-ounce size range with extra-strong hooks. The underspin blade adds flash to the thumping presentation of the paddletail. Match these jigs with any of your favorite paddletails, splittails, or curlytails for river muskies. The weight of the jig and bulk of the plastic affects both the fall rate and action. In slack-water spots, skip the jighead and rig these baits on an Owner Beast Hook with Twistlock for even more belly rolling and tail-wagging action, along with a slow fall rate.
Gates explains how swimbaits can increase your muskie catch rates when fishing fast-flowing rivers. “Much like trout, river muskies don’t want to fight current, and hold in predictable locations where they can both rest and ambush prey,” he says. “The advantage of working swimbaits in pools and pockets is that your bait is in their face longer. These pockets close to the dam hold fish most of the time. By feeling the bottom with a swimbait presentation, you have confidence where your bait is throughout the retrieve. This allows you to fish slower and more methodically.
“Retrieving traditional horizontal-running lures moves the lure too quickly over the fish. With the current pushing these baits downstream throughout the retrieve, muskies have little time to react. Even if the lure sparks their curiosity, they often simply follow to shore and at the first turn into a figure-8 they either commit or turn away. With swimbaits, most strikes are solid takes midway into the retrieve. There are few noncommittal follows.”
Swimbait selection depends on water conditions. In clear water, baits with more flash or an erratic action produce well. Consider lures such as the Hyperlastics Dartspin Pro 7. This 7-inch soft-plastic stickbait has a #4 willowleaf blade trailer that adds flash with every twitch, dart, and change in direction. Rigged Texposed on a beefy, belly-weighted 7/0 EWG hook, the Dartspin also runs snag-free through both weeds and wood, which is vital when drifting small rivers where muskies routinely hold tight to submerged wood. Hardbaits with swinging treble hooks don’t perform well in settings where you might only get one chance to make a perfect cast to work a bait around, over, or through cover.
North of the Border
North of the border, guide Danny Herbeck leans heavily on swimbaits to catch fish as soon as the muskie season opens, whether on Lake of the Woods or smaller surrounding lakes. “One of my early-season favorites is the Savage Gear 10-inch 3D Burbot Ribbontail,” he says. “The lure has enough bulk to make its presence known, but with a relatively modest weight of 3 ounces, it has a slower fall rate than other big rubber lures. I like to use it as a sight-fishing bait. Throw it on sandflats where muskies are sunning themselves and watch them get it. As a ribbontail bait, the 3D Burbot has incredible tail action even with the slightest movement of the bait.”
He fishes the 3D Burbot like a creature bait with plenty of bottom contact between pulls. The debris that it kicks up as it comes in contact with the bottom gets the attention of everything in the area. In open-water settings, he uses a reel-and-stop retrieve to allow greater glide time and watches his line for hits on the fall. He also uses this lure regularly as a throwback option when muskies turn away boatside from a bucktail or topwater. The lifelike action of soft plastics often scores when hardbaits fail.
During summer, Herbeck also favors realistic swimbaits that can be worked as wakebaits high over the tops of cabbage beds. In pressured waters, the lifelike finishes and actions of line-through baits can make a difference. Unlike most topwaters, line-through baits can be fished up and down in the water column throughout the retrieve, or made to fall back into the face of following fish on the pause. Prerigged leaders and pull-off hook harnesses on swimbaits such as the Savage Gear 4D Pro Line Thru Trout and Perch help to minimize damage to the lures and also eliminate leverage that fish gain when jumping or swinging their heads violently during the fight.
For those looking for this same advantage while fishing deep rockbars, ledges, and suspended schools of shad or ciscoes, the family of Spooltek baits are highly effective. These hybrid swimbaits have a hard-molded head with reflective finishes and an assortment of soft plastic tails. Tail selections include standard or slender paddletails, as well as wide curlytails.
Spooltek’s most unique feature is their built-in deployable stainless-steel leader that allows the hook to detach from the head of the lure after a fish is hooked. The hooks are designed to hold tarpon, so they’re plenty stout. Meanwhile, the soft-plastic tail portion is replaceable if damaged; however, since the hook pulls free from the lure during the battle, the tails generally survive multiple fish. This style of lure also works for reservoir muskies where they key on schools of shad, as well as in swift river and spillway settings where a compact and fast-sinking bait is desired to maintain depth control throughout the retrieve.
As turnover arrives, instead of heading for rock points and quick-breaking shorelines, Herbeck looks shallow for any remaining lush green weeds. Here he finds baitfish and muskies eager to devour small, nontraditional lures. Last fall he won the Nestor Falls Musky Cup tournament on Lake of the Woods with this pattern. Consider using baits like the 7-inch Savage Gear 3D Line Thru Shad for this approach. These lures have enough heft to make them easy to cast, but with no internal harness or hook shaft creating a rigid spine to them, they move in a natural fashion to fool fish in clear, shallow water. Their slow sink rate makes them a natural for any shallow-water setting.
“By shallow water, I mean stuff as skinny as 3 to 4 feet deep where pencil reeds start to grow,” he says. “The fish can be way up on the inside weededge. Twitch the lure and get it to roll on its side like a dying baitfish. The same lures work anywhere muskies are eating smaller prey such as shad, bluegills, and perch on heavily pressured waters.”
On Green Bay
On Green Bay, Captain Kevin Pischke’s job is to tempt a perpetually stubborn population of trophy-class muskies into biting. Pischke: “Swimbaits are tough to beat for pressured fish. Baits like Muskie Innovations Swimmin’ Dawgs and Westin ShadTeez have similar profiles but they have different actions and excel in different settings. Swimmin’ Dawgs have a slower action and work better on the Bay in calm conditions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often, and in rough conditions, the faster action of the ShadTeez is more appealing. Rigged on a 20- to 25-gram head, the 22-cm ShadTeez has one belly roll for each two rotations of the tail. This gives off two distinctive vibration patterns for muskies to key on.”
He suggests counting down these baits for several seconds prior to using a slow, steady retrieve to keep them several feet down. Adding a 2- or 3-ounce in-line weight above the leader delivers even more depth and action. When the bait gets within 25 feet of the boat, he drops his rod tip and gives the lure a sharp pop. This quick change in direction and speed helps trigger strikes from following fish, prior to them potentially getting spooked by the boat.
Swimbaits also produce well when trolled. “When shad start to school up in late summer and fall, one favorite technique is to troll a 35-cm HypoTeez Inline bait,” Pischke says. “For added attraction, I attach a #9 Indiana blade above the leader (much like a Muskie Innovations Bull Dozer Blade). This lure has a lift-off hook harness, which allows you to customize hook placement. By inserting the trailing treble hook far back toward the tail, you get a nice S-swimming action.” When trolling depths of 6 to 10 feet, switch to hybrid models such as the Ricky the Roach Hybrid, with hard molded diving lips built into the lures.
“Having fished with several of the European and Scandinavian designers of swimbaits, they work these baits much slower and more methodically than most North American muskie anglers,” he says. “Keep this in mind when you tie on a Percy the Perch or Tommy the Trout bait. If you reel it back quickly with a high-speed reel, it’s going to blow out. Count it down and slow down the pace.” They also move through the water with less resistance than other muskie lures. This means less physically capable anglers remain more engaged and can fish longer.
There are almost endless options for using swimbaits and alternative softbaits. Slow-sinking models with their wide swimming actions are good for post-cold-front conditions, while smaller lifelike models often reign supreme for heavily pressured fish. Swimbaits rigged on jigheads are versatile, too. The availability of interchangeable screw-in heads and lift-off hook harnesses makes customizing options easy.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is a world-traveled angler who also specializes in multispecies fishing across North America.