By Spence Petros
There is no big secret to catching muskies. Unless you find an under-fished body of water loaded with big hungry muskies (very rare), success comes from doing a lot of little things correctly. I’m going to outline things that all great musky anglers I know do religiously. Some may not seem too important, but based on my nearly 45 years of experience chasing these top of the line predators, any of these rules can make or break you on any given day.
Everyone I know uses no-stretch braided super lines when casting, generally from 80 to 100-pound test. Some may use 50 to 6o pound test when fishing smaller lures in Spring or on hard-fished clearer lakes, but I don’t because I really don’t start musky fishing until the weather starts warming and the bigger fish begin to turn on. Lines such as Spider Wire Stealth and Power Pro are probably the two most popular, but I’m excited to try Bucher’s new braid “Beast Braid”. Based on the quality and fish-catching abilities of Joe’s other products, I’m sure it will also be a winner. The one exception to using braid is when trolling. A few anglers I know are using 50-test monofilament when short line trolling to absorb the close in strikes. I would still use braid, but with a softer rod. Quality leaders are a must. Lately I have been favoring 100 to 120 pound test fluorocarbon when casting, and braided wire when trolling. A quality ball-bearing swivel is always on one end and a good snap on the other. Twelve inch leaders are recommended when casting, but I go to 3-footers of 60-pound 7-strand braid when trolling for more protection against rocks and muskies rolling up the line.
Razor-sharp hooks are a must! Get a couple of flat-sided files such as Luhr Jensens or the ones Musky Hunter sells and hone the hooks to a scalpel-like edge. A good BIG net is also a must. One with a treated bag that allows easy removal of the hooks is highly recommended. Don’t use a net with a cheap mesh that has been sitting in the garage for years because a big musky might blow right through it.
I might use a rod slightly under 8-foot long for ripping crankbaits or jerkbaits, but most of the time 8 to 9-foot rods are preferred, especially when using bucktails. Good musky reels that I have used are available from Abu-Garcia, Shimano, and Daiwa.
I don’t think I have ever fished with a top of the line musky angler that talked most of the day. Concentration on what you are doing and what you’re going to do next, are a big part of putting together some musky-catching patterns, and precision boat control. I’m not against talking, but not when it interferes with my thought process. What I really like to hear is “get the net’, or they seem to be active on a particular color pattern.
Strive to be Mechanically Perfect
Casting angles can be very important. Often I see anglers cast at a 90-degree angle towards the shore from a moving boat. This is the usually very unproductive when using anything except a deep-diving crankbait, because during the last 1/3 of the cast or so the lure is coming in right behind the boat and near or at the surface. This angle also hinders you from making good figure 8’s with your lure. Cast at a 45 to 60-degree angle in front of the boat (based on boat speed and the type of lure used), so when the lure makes its swing, it’s still deep enough to trigger a strike.
Casts should be made as low to the water and as accurately as possible. I switch hands while the lure is in the air and put my thumb on the spool of my baitcaster just before the lure hits the water. This removes most of the slack and allows me to be ready for a fast strike or to keep the lure from fouling in near-surface weed growth. Low accurate casts, good retrieves, smooth automatic figure 8’s, hook sets to the side (if possible), and playing the fish based on how well it’s hooked are all part of being mechanically perfect. A good angler become almost robotic with his or her actions which are repeated over and over again.
Part of being a fine-tuned fishing machine is good boat control. One key is a good sonar, but more important is having enough power on your electric motor to be able to control the boat on a windy day. Muskies often relate to structural conditions being hit by wind or strong current, and many times I’ve seen anglers with high-sided boats and under-powered electric motors that didn’t allow them too correctly to fish these very productive conditions. It’s much better to have extra power than not enough!
Many of the muskies I have caught have been on wind or current related spots. One of my favorite conditions is on the up-wind edge of a complex structural condition. Points, ridges, or rises are great, as is the sides or corners of structures where the deep water cuts in. Also watch for moving water through slots. Some spots are very wind-orientated, as you might not ever see a fish on them unless it’s windy, and even then sometimes a wind has to be from a certain direction. That becomes a big part of patterning a lake as you get to know it better. When analyzing water movement, remember there may be a backwash to the sides of an above water structure. This area of secondary current may be the hot area on some structures, especially strong wind conditions. Clear and calm are usually not prime musky-catching conditions. Moving water and/or darker water are two big plusses to help you neutralize bright, clear and calm conditions.
Don’t get real tight to an edge your fishing unless you are positive the muskies are holding real shallow. Often the bigger fish are on the deep edge or laying a little bit off it. I generally like to position my boat off an edge, so about 25% of my cast comes out over the more open water. Sometimes the fish are up and cruising over a rock-studded flat or weed bed, but this is generally under good conditions with minimal light penetration caused by high winds, dawn, dusk or stronger winds. A good strategy might be one angler tossing a bucktail over the flat, while another fishes the edge and out with a crankbait. But don’t ever get into doing just one thing unless you are moving a lot of fish.
Another good strategy is to incorporate some trolling into your quest for catching muskies. You may not like to troll, but it can really give you a big advantage in fishing and finding spots. If I fish a big weed bed or rock flat, I often make a trolling run along the deep edge as I’m leaving. My lures are usually running deeper than when I was casting and often at faster strike-triggering speeds. Also, when making a trolling pass off a big point that was just fished, I can easily check off the point for suspended fish. Hard to find secondary spots such as small humps, ridges, or weed clumps are often found by trolling passes; spots that the average caster would almost never uncover.
Don’t Over Fish a Spot!
I’ve had several of my favorite spots fished so hard I don’t even fish them anymore. I see a boat on a big fish spot and come back an hour or two later and they are still fishing the spot. That is not the way to catch a big fish! It’s a big mistake to keep running back to a big musky that followed in your lure. Go back at last light, early in the morning, or if there is a change in weather conditions, but don’t beat the spot to death or the fish will move out or get “gun shy”. Go back for 10-15-minutes at a prime time and if nothing happens GET OUT!
If I see a big one I try to determine how hot it is. If a fish is charging fast with “fire in its eyes” then quickly turns off, I assume she might of seen the lure late and didn’t have time to strike. Under these conditions I quickly toss the same lure back. If the fish seems less than suicidal, I generally toss back a soft plastic such as a tube, Bulldog or Medusa. If the fish comes in very slow and deep, I might not even make another cast, opting to quietly leave and come back under better light conditions. I’ve caught a lot of big muskies through the years on top waters such as the Top Raider right at last light.
Think “Outside the Box”
Being a little different in your approach towards catching muskies can go a long way. I’ve always said, “if you fish like everyone else, your success will be like everyone elses…average”. In 1973 Al Lindner and I were fishing Deer Lake in northwestern Wisconsin and the muskies were active in the weeds that circled the whole lake. To cover as much water as possible we started trolling spinnerbaits right behind the boat, a tactic we had never heard about before. While we did this Ron Lindner and Gary Roach were trolling Suicks behind their boat. We boated 22 muskies that evening and the following day.
I’ve had excellent success running de-tuned crankbaits up against shallow wind-pounded rock edges, and along shallow weeds where I thought trolling over them would spook the fish. We have rooted many muskies out of weeds with jigs; fish that would have been nearly impossible to reach with conventional presentations. Ripping big L-armed spinnerbaits off deep edges allowed us to put this lure in a depth level where muskies normally didn’t see deadly flashing blades. The list goes on and on. The point is, try to be versatile and don’t be afraid to try something new. It’s extra rewarding when you put a new twist on a musky-fishing tactic.