By: Spence Petros
What family of lures catches more muskies than any other? I’m not talking about your favorite lure, or what any given person would consider the best lure–just the style that puts more muskies in the boat spring, summer or fall, for more people than any other lure.The answer–the “bucktail”. Straight-shaft spinners catch more fish each year for more people than any other lure– and it’s not even close! A flashing , pulsating blade is certainly a big attractor for muskies, alerting these large predators by their light reflective qualities and thumping, vibrating blade. Clear lakes, dingy rivers, tea-colored flowages–all prime targets for the fish-catching bucktail.
During many of the musky seminars I’ve given, I’ll ask the question “how many people in the audience have fished a bucktail for muskies?” Virtually every musky angler in attendance will raise their hand. Then I ask “how many people fish a bladed lure deeper than 7-8 feet?” A scattering of hands will come up, usually less than 5-percent of the crowd.
I then ask, “if flashing blades are deadly for muskies, and we know they are, why aren’t you fishing them deeper?” At this point I can see a lot of bewildered faces and
puzzled looks, but I made my point–blade baits catch an awful lot of muskies yet they are rarely fished deep.
The next part of my fish-catching equation using blade baits is triggering a musky into striking. Veteran musky anglers know a change in speed or direction often triggers a response. Ripping a crankbait upward when it’s 10-15 feet from the boat, swinging your longer bucktail rod sharply to side or another to change direction of a retrieved spinner, pulling your rod hard toward the bow of the boat while trolling, bouncing a lure off the rocks, ripping one through a weed bed–these are just a few of the time honored, strike-provoking tactics commonly used.
But do you know what works better than anything to trigger a musky strike? It’s having a lure come right into their face–something that will usually cause them to snap. Many years ago I realized how a lure coming into a musky (or pikes) face can trigger a strike. I was fishing for pike with a 14-year old boy and his dad, tossing good size spoons into relatively shallow bays and the kid was “beating us up”. His dad and I had the same size and color spoon, but it just wasn’t producing nearly as many fish. I began to intently watch the youngster’s every move. On nearly every cast he was breaking up his steady retrieve pattern by briefly stopping the lure as he talked, took a swig of soda, adjusted his clothing or otherwise just plain fidgeted around. Most strikes were occurring during these pauses. I began pausing and dripping my rod tip back toward the fish three or four times on each cast. The amount of strikes I got quadrupled.
I figured out most pike were just following the lure and turning off when they neared the boat. Pausing the retrieve and dropping the rod tip back allowed the spoon to flutter downward and BACKWARDS into the fish’s face. This would cause a reflex strike.
Next time you’re on the water, move into some shallow clean bottom area 3-4 feet deep and put on a large quality spoon such as a Lindy Gator Spoon or big Dardevle. Leave 4-5 feet of line out and pull the lure alongside the boat. Then stop, drop the rod tip back the opposite way you were moving it, and watch what happens. As the spoon is sinking it will “back up” at least a foot or so, and maybe as much as 3-4 feet depending on how it catches the water as it flutters down. This is the ultimate trigger for following muskies and pike.
Since that early lesson on pike, I’ve tried to use a back-up, in-your-face approach or something that closely resembles it, on muskies whenever possible. When seeing muskies in the shallows in spring and early summer that seemingly won’t hit anything, I don’t even try jigs or live bait in desperation anymore, but rather a bass-size crankbait on 8-10 pound test, no leader and retrieve it so it comes right at their face. Often they will snap at it just like the pike did to that spoon.
My ideal “figure 8” is to get the musky on the boat side of the lure, and make a short fast half circle and come back into its face. But I don’t want to get into a lot of ways to trigger a strike, because that’s not what this article is all about.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Do you know of any musky anglers that wouldn’t want to have an edge over other musky hunters? My theory is–if you fish like everyone else, your results will be like everyone else’s–pretty average. So part of my overall musky-fishing strategy is to fish different than the masses whenever possible.
Working bladed lures in deeper water is a way that triggers extra strikes and gives me a big edge over the average musky fisherman. We know a flashing blade is deadly, so why wouldn’t it catch fish in deeper water. Believe me it does, with most of the fish I’ve caught being over 40-inches long.
Most anglers don’t work blade baits deep because they try to do it with straight shaft type bucktails. These lures have to be retrieved fairly slow to keep them down, causing you to lose a certain amount of strike-provoking speed control. Also when you attempt to “flutter” these lures downward into deeper water, the blade sort of flops around instead of spinning.
Heavy, oversize spinnerbaits are the answer for getting a spinning blade down into the depth range of the bigger fish. Plus they can be fished in a way that causes them to backup into a muskies face to trigger extra strikes. I often fish these lures 8 to 20-feet down along deep weedlines, bluff banks, fallen trees on steep banks, along sharp-breaking points and flats, and around deep humps that are often below crankbait range.
Giant spinnerbaits range in size from 1 to 2 1/2 ounces. They usually have one or two blades with several blade styles used. I prefer those with a keel-shaped head because of the extra stability this gives the lure under faster retrieves or trolling speeds.
A must feature is a quality ball-bearing swivel connecting the blade to the wire arm. When I’m dropping the lure a lot in deeper water, back to back ball-bearing swivels are often used. If your spinnerbaits don’t have ball-bearing swivels, buy some and replace the old ones. A blade that spins as the lure is falling is very important in triggering following fish.
I generally concentrate my efforts around points and turns along the weedline and places where the edge is erratic. Areas being pounded by winds are also high on my list.
If I wanted to check a foot or two of open water over the weeds, I’d move in tighter to the weed edge and toss a straight-shaft bucktail, shallow-running crankbait such as a ShallowRaider, or gliding type jerkbait that’s retrieved with a higher held rod. But I usually don’t spend a lot of time over the weed tops, preferring to work the deep edges and out for larger fish.
My ideal cast would land just about where some open water starts to occur over the weed tops. This area can be noted by a water color change, “feel” from a previous cast or two, or by first motoring along the edge to interpret conditions. The retrieve would start just about when the lure hits the water to give me maximum control over its running depth. I’ll start to slow down my retrieve a bit and try to follow the contour of the weed bed. After the lure t ravels about 8 to 15 feet, I’ll lift the rod tip up sharply and let the lure flutter down again. As the lure heads out toward deeper water I’ll begin to slow down the retrieve. When the spinnerbait approaches where I believe the weeds end, I’ll rip it upwards again, then let it flutter downward for 2 to 8 seconds. If the edge isn’t severe, a 2 or 3 second pause is fine. If the weeds end near a sharp break, 6 or 8 seconds may be needed for the lure to flutter down along the faster-sloping bottom. The object is to fish a flashing blade deep, have it come along an edge or drop-off, and rip it upwards several times a cast so it flutters back down into a muskies face that may be just following the lure.
The severity of the drop-off between the boat and where the lure lands gives you a clue on how much time is allowed for the lure to sink after each upwards rip. Obviously, if the boat is sitting over 20-foot depths and you’re casting to a 10-foot weedline, you don’t allow as much “drop-time” between lifts as you would if you were positioned over 40-feet of water and casting to a 12-foot edge of some type. Try to follow the contour of the cover/structure being fished with the lure. You don’t have to be on the bottom, but you should follow the angle of the contour.
Remember, the upward rips are very important to the success of this method. A lure backing into a muskies (or pikes) face often triggers a strike. Actually, more strikes will occure on the “flutter back” after the rip than at any other time.
Now you can understand my game plan that has put a lot of large muskies into by boat. I am using a deadly spinning blade that’s a proven musky catcher, in depths where the fish usually don’t see flashing blade, and working it in a manner that triggers a lot of following fish.
Bucktails are generally thought of as a late spring to early fall lure that falls off in productivity when the water gets cold in mid fall. As lakes begin to get cold, muskies will start to favor sharper breaks into deeper water. Regular bucktails aren’t fished deep and can’t follow fast breaking edges–but big spinnerbaits can.
I particularly love to fish these lures in clearer lakes below the range of a cast crankbaits, and when working fast-breaking edges into deep water. Vary your angles of presentation. Sometimes it’s best to cast from deep to shallow or you may want to move in tighter to an edge and cast more parallel to it. I’ve had occasions where I held over a structure and made long casts into deeper water and worked the lure quickly up the drop-off to catch fish.
L-arm spinnerbaits also work great when checking an area for suspended fish. A deep slot, mouth of a bay, incoming flow, saddle between two structures, or around some suspended baitfish can easily be checked with the “countdown” method. This is simply letting the lure sink far 3, 5, 8, 10 seconds or more before starting your retrieve, which allows you to strain different depth levels. Remember the rip to trigger following fish!
Longer musky rods are more suited for working spinnerbaits because of the long hook-setting sweep they give you–something that’s needed when long casts are made and deeper waters are being probed. Longer rods also help really whip a lure out if a little extra distance is needed.
A 4.5 to 5 to 1 gear ratio reel is ideal. High-speed reels aren’t needed because they often cause you to work the lure too fast, are harder to crank and the gears often don’t hold up as well under abuse. I use a Abu Garcia’s Revo Toro reels for most of my musky fishing spooled with 80-pound test Spider Wire Stealth.
Spence has been an avid musky fisherman for almost 40 years. He teaches various fishing classes in the northwest Chicago suburb of Palatine that start in early March, and also guides for bass in local lakes in May and June. Check out his web site for more info. Spencepetros.com