Despite evidence that muskies frequently feed in deeper water, often entering shallow littoral zones primarily to digest meals, most anglers continue to feel comfortable only when casting to visible vegetation or other obvious cover. Put them in a boat in 20 feet of water, hand them a jigging rod, and many quickly become bored.
The first step toward remedying such a mindset is to book a trip with lure maker and Guide Jon Bondy, who's a master at deep jigging. Failing that, set aside an hour or so at the beginning of your muskie outings and experiment with deep jigging. Pick the deep end of a major point, a sharp irregular breakline that's tricky to effectively cast or troll, or a channel or current area that funnels fish movement. Identify the good stuff on sonar — hard-bottom transitions, schools of baitfish, or definitive muskie arches — and drop something big, heavy, and preferably flashy into the zone.
As a departure from classic jigging-style lures with a small blade or no blade at all, I suggest a lure with vibration as its dominant characteristic. The best way to keep your head in the game of deep jigging is to put something in the water that's interactive — a lure that offers resistance, pulls back, feels alive, and thumps your hands with vibration.
A true bladebait, such as Bill Shumway's original Fuzzy Duzzit or a Vibrations Tackle Echotail, plummets fast to the bottom, yet wobbles both on the fall and the upstroke. When you sweep a big blade, you feel it vibrate almost musically in your hands — like the sensation of a hitting the sweet spot with a baseball bat. Interestingly, a lot of the currently popular muskie jigging baits lack a blade or other vibration-producing adornment. Big tubes like the Red October or Titan Tube or Bull Dawg style swimmers likely appeal to muskies through profile and movement — although the subtle vibration of quaking soft plastic tentacles and twisting tails may play a role in triggering bites.
Deep Vibes in Perspective
One of the first deep jigging baits, which remains a successful lure today, generates intense vibrations — low-frequency sounds most closely associated with the known hearing range of muskies. The productivity of Shumway's Fuzzy Duzzit (shumwaysmusky.com) bladebait brings up a question many top vertical jiggers have had for some time: Given the success of giant-bladed, intensely vibrating bucktails in shallow, horizontal presentations, should we not also lean heavily on vibration in deep water?
Lake of the Woods Guide Darcy Cox thinks so. "Muskies are all about lateral-line stimulation. By amplifying vibration with lures, we're maximizing water displacement and vibration radius, and appealing to muskies' natural impulses," he says. What first prompted him to try jigging was passing the venerable Dick Pearson on the lake, seeing him fishing in places far removed from the usual shallow spots. "It got us thinking, and nosing around in deeper locations."
Stepping back for a broader perspective of deep-water fishing, Shumway, a legendary muskie guide working Northwest Wisconsin since 1985, invokes the tactical genius of the late Len Hartman. Although Hartman is best known for inflating weights of the giant muskies he caught, and in some cases purchased, from other anglers on the St. Lawrence River during the 1950s and 60s, he was a pioneer of deep-water methods.
"Around 1989," Shumway recalls, "there was a lot of talk about deep-water fishing for muskies, fish that weren't being tapped in any serious way. Hartman is a legend in this regard, for he was one of the only anglers at the time who was seriously pursuing muskies on deep structure." Hartman landed a legitimate, well-documented 47-pound 11-ounce fish in August 1992, trolling a 10-inch crankbait in 28 feet of water on Ontario's Eagle Lake. Despite a dubious reputation, Hartman undoubtedly caught a lot of big muskies, nearly all by trolling in 25 to 35 feet of water.
Recognizing truth in Hartman's deep-water muskie claims, Shumway developed the Fuzzy Duzzit, a large, heavy bladebait designed for deep jigging. "I'd always been a fan of the Heddon Sonar for walleyes on rock reefs," Shumway says. "Given the lure's strong vibration and effectiveness in deep water, I felt a muskie-sized blade could be exceptional on lakes I was guiding on like Big Round and Courte Oreilles.
"On some Wisconsin lakes, trolling isn't allowed," he says. "And on others, some of the best spots lie on irregular breaklines down to 35 feet. You can't get a trolled bait into many of the best spots. But the Duzzit is perfect for this deep precision work.
"The lure allows me to retrieve deep and tickle fish in tight spots. Cast it out, count it down, and crank it back. We also vertically jig with it. One day many years ago, my brother Bruce handed a client a rod rigged with a Duzzit and told him to drop it to the bottom and just pump it. He caught a nice muskie, and it's continued that way ever since."
Shumway says that the Duzzit also has become a complement to fall fishing with big suckers. "Bruce and I fish these lures alongside suckers from early fall through turnover all the way to the bitter end. It's a great call bait. Sometimes, you feel a fish come in and just nudge it. Soon, one of the suckers gets eaten. It happens that way a lot. Other times, fish are more active and clobber the bladebait."
In recent years, Shumway has been guiding on Minnesota's Lake Vermilion. "In summer, we catch a lot of big fish on reefs 9 to 22 feet deep with a lure called the Hang Ten," he says. "Fish get a ton of pressure on adjacent shallow reefs, and we simply slide off and work these bigger blades deeper."
A variation of the 3-ounce Magnum Fuzzy Duzzit, Shumway's Hang Ten employs a #10 Colorado blade for additional flash, vibration, and a decrease in drop-speed. "We cast it out, count it down and then burn it fast with three or four cranks of a high-speed Abu Garcia Revo Toro before pausing and burning again. I've raised some of my biggest fish on Vermilion from those deep reefs. Some days, fish follow the Hang Ten like it's a bucktail. So we use it to reveal the location of a single big fish, which we go back and catch later. Otherwise, fish whack it as it comes to a stop, or at the end of a few fast cranks."
Taking vertical vibe to extremes, Cox has been wielding a lure that's lately stirred awe and debate within the bass world. Originally adapted from striped bass anglers, the flash and vibration of an umbrella rig makes sense for muskies. If one big blade or plastic thumper tail is a powerful attractor, how about three, four, or five in a single lure.
"One day a few years ago," Cox recalls, "my buddy Aaron Wiebe came to me with a big umbrella rig he'd whipped up for muskies. He said to me, 'Figure out how to do a muskie show with this.'" Wiebe, whose YouTube based Uncut Angling vignettes have garnered massive online audiences, ultimately produced a muskie episode showcasing the homemade umbrellas.
"That summer, I pulled out the umbrella rig and cast it a few times and caught a few muskies" Cox says. "Later that summer when I started fishing deeper, I saw the rig laying on the deck of my boat and thought, 'that'll jig.'"
The homemade umbrella rigs Cox and Wiebe used to jig deep structure were formed with four pieces of .062 bucktail wire about 12 inches long. The four wires were twisted together and bonded with a hunk of lead, leaving a line tie at the top. To the ends of each wire arm, they clipped a 7-inch WaterWolf Lures Shadzilla Jr. swimbait, while a clevis and Colorado blade sliding on each shaft provided added attraction.
Commercially produced muskie-size umbrella rigs are scarce, other than Fudally's, 2.3-ounce 13-inch rigs that sport five heavy-wire arms. Make your own, or look to many heavy-duty versions made for the striper market, which run $15 to over $80.
To make the lure legal in Ontario, Cox clips off the single tines on each Shadzilla bait, leaving a total of four treble hooks, one in each lure. Almost every state and province has different laws regarding multi-lure rigs. In Minnesota, for example, umbrella rigs are illegal in the classic sense, when more than one of the trailing lures has a hook. To make it legal, the DNR regs state that "an angler could place a single bait/lure with a hook on one of the wires and attach hookless spinners or plastic baits to the other wires."
Where I've fished the rig in Minnesota waters, I've used Fudally's rig. The four outside arms trail Indiana or willowleaf blades without hooks, while the longer, center arm sports a snap swivel for connecting a large swimbait or other lure. You can also run four smaller, hookless swimbaits around the outside, and one larger, hook-bearing bait in the middle, which fish usually key on.
"Bait Ball" Retrieves
Umbrella rigs can present tangling issues. Cox says for vertical jigging, it's best to do a "tightline fall," controlling the descent of the rig as it sinks, rather than freespooling it to the bottom. Besides preventing tangles, this also keeps you in constant contact with the bait, allowing for instant bite detection. "From a standing position, once the bait has reached the desired depth, lift the rod tip to your waist, then drop it down toward the water on a tight line. Repeat.
Change your cadence at times and use sporadic pauses at the top and bottom of your strokes." For all jigging, Cox uses a Shimano Calcutta 400D, 9-foot 6-inch extra-heavy Shimano Compre rod, 80-pound PowerPro, and an 18-inch 130-pound fluorocarbon leader from Stealth Tackle.
It's not a rip, but rather a slow swim up, down, and pause. "Find bottom and don't touch it again," Cox says. "You don't want to snag bottom because these rigs are expensive and they don't come out of rocks easily. Muskies often swim up several feet and bite. Sometimes, I can watch them react to the bait on my Humminbird.
"You can observe the fish's reaction on sonar and entice them. If you notice fish moving fast across the screen when they're following your lure, that's a clue to jig more aggressively. You also can try a heavier, faster-sinking lure. But if they're barely budging off bottom, a more subtle approach is needed. Mostly, I like heavier lures for more control in deep water."
When jigging, it's important to focus on high-percentage spots — the tip of a point where you usually get a bite when trolling or a narrow necked-down area separating two basins. "Rather than trolling through a large area where baits only pass one or two key spots, we camp over specific spots and keep lures constantly in front of fish," he says. He also looks for bait balls or individual large arches. Wiebe says, "With an umbrella rig, we can key on bait balls and fish with a 'bait ball' of our own."
When asked about spread-hook rigs and the possibility of hooking fish in sensitive areas outside the jaw, Cox says: "The hook spread on an umbrella rig is the same distance as a 12- to 14-inch crankbait, so the risk is really no different than on the baits we already use. Take care of each fish, leaving them in the net during the entire unhooking process, and release them as quickly as possible."
Cox never targets water deeper than 30 feet. "I've never landed a fish that showed signs of barotrauma. I do, however, carry and recommend using an oversized saltwater-style fishing release weight, which allows for the safe return of muskies to the depth they came from."
Horizontal Vibes Gone Vertical
Recent developments have muskie tactics expanding beyond throwing big-bladed bucktails shallow, into a game of jigging adapted lures deep. Last year, Larry Dahlberg told me about a homemade jigging bucktail he designed to sink extra fast and trigger deep weedline fish. Minnesota Guide Clint Van Iseghem recently perfected a bait he calls the Wraith, a remarkable jigging bucktail for fishing deep weededges, pockets, and other spots missed by shallow presentations most anglers use. Which more or less sums it up. Hungry, undisturbed fish. Lures that ping lateral lines like sweet music. Excellent odds of multi-muskie days. s species.