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7 Retrieve Tips For Minnowbaits

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Musky Hunter. To see more classic articles like this, subscribe to the Musky Hunter Digital Collection:

By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor

We knew the musky was there; after all, it had showed itself for three consecutive days. A thick patch of green cabbage along the shoreline was its haunt, and four times it had deeply followed a bucktail before turning away at boatside. Now a cold mist was falling, and the wind had switched around to the north — not the conditions you would expect a big musky to bite, especially a fish whose interest had previously been no better than lukewarm.

But you can’t catch a musky if you don’t try for it, and since we were in the neighborhood we swung the boat over to the shoreline she called home. Rather than snap on a bucktail, I reached into my lure storage and grabbed a Magnum ShallowRaider, figuring its big profile and wobble were sure to get noticed. And, the lure would run four or five feet deeper than the bucktails the musky had followed previously, making it something she could eat without coming up to the surface. I kept my rod tip high and finesse-twitched the big minnowbait over the tops of the cabbage, then lowered the rod and cranked the bait down as it cleared the weed edge.

After four casts without seeing the fish I figured she wasn’t going to show. Still, I kept casting, and launched the bait toward a nearby large, flat-topped rock that started in the shallows alongside the cabbage and angled toward deeper water. The minnowbait skidded and clunked along the rock’s top and then seemed to come free, and I paused for a moment before giving it a subtle, slack-line twitch. That maneuver was met by a not-so-subtle thunk, and I snapped the rod tip upward to set the hook.

The rod bounced as the fish shook its head, and then I saw my line begin to slice the surface as the musky headed deep past the bow of the boat. I swung my rod tip around the trolling motor head and began fighting the musky on the starboard side. Soon, I saw a long gray flash as the fish rose to the surface, and then my stomach fluttered as I realized the minnowbait was completely out of the musky’s mouth. But the tail hook held firm, and soon the musky was in the net. After photos, it was returned to the depths.

I use the terms “minnowbait” and “twitchbait” interchangeably to describe what is actually a flat-sided crankbait. Like the latter lure type, minnowbaits have a diving lip which gives them a wobbling action, and you can simply reel them in and catch fish. But because of the flash given off by their flat sides, minnowbaits are better with an erratic retrieve, such as if they’re twitched or allowed to collide with cover or structure. Twitching them is usually done with short pulls of your rod tip, but can also be achieved with a sudden start-stop cranking of the reel. Such a retrieve produces a lot of flash and motion, with little forward movement, giving a sluggish musky time to make up its mind.

Lures like the Slammer Minnow, ShallowRaider, Shallow Invader, Salmo Skinner, Grandma, Jake, Big Game Twitchbait and Crane Bait fit this category. Because these lures are offered in sizes from big to small, have varying buoyancies, and can be fished fast to slow, they are among the most versatile of musky baits and can be effective from season’s start to end. I have seven different retrieve tricks I use with minnowbaits, three of which were employed when I caught the musky discussed in this article’s opening anecdote.

1. Upward/Downward Twitch

When fishing a minnowbait over shallow cover or structure, you need to counteract the effect of the diving lip which tries to pull the bait deeper. Twitching your rod upward will lift the lure toward the surface and keep it higher in the water column. Inches matter. This maneuver is especially effective with smaller, buoyant minnowbaits whenever muskies are buried in thick weeds. An upward twitch also helps steer the lure around individual weed stalks that reach to the surface. The downward twitch will be needed during the same retrieve. Somewhere around the middle of the retrieve, you’ll need to start twitching the bait downward simply to keep it from blowing out of the water. The downward twitch can also be used when your lure reaches a pocket in the weeds and you want to achieve some depth, or when the bait reaches the weed edge and there is no need to keep it just under the surface.

2. Slack-Line Twitch

This is similar to the action given to a glider or a walk-the-dog topwater when you want to maximize the action of the lure while minimizing its forward movement. It’s very effective when you want to give a fish one last chance to eat the bait in a weed pocket, or when your lure has reached the edge of the weeds or has just cleared the last rocks of a point. This action must be performed with the rod tip and, as the name implies, you must have slack in your line to do it. To do the slack-line twitch, hold your rod parallel to the water’s surface with the tip at about a 90-degree angle to your lure. Quickly turn your rod tip back slightly toward the lure to create slack in the line, and then give a hard-but-short snap using only your wrist. This quick snap of slack line will transmit to the lure and make it wiggle. Reel up slack as necessary. With practice, you can “hover” a lure in place for a considerable period of time.

3. Straight-Crank Collisions

When muskies are holding in shallow, rocky areas, and are not interested in bucktail or topwater presentations, there is almost nothing better for triggering these fish than the erratic action of a minnowbait bounced through the rocks. Simply cast the minnowbait into the shallows and slowly reel it back, allowing the structure to provide the “action” to the bait. Fight the urge to set the hook when you’re surprised by a sudden stoppage — with time, you’ll learn to differentiate between a rock and the “live weight” of a musky’s strike. For the sake of lure durability, this retrieve is best with larger minnowbaits that have more sturdy diving lips. Magnum ShallowRaiders, Shallow Invaders, and the larger Grandmas and Jakes are perfect for this, though you will still break off diving lips if you set the hook on rock collisions.

4. Hard Rips

When casting over deep water, anglers are often competing with high numbers of baitfish for the muskies’ attention. To make your lure stand out from the competition, you need to rely on your lure’s color, size, or action. Color is a simple matter — choose something that doesn’t look like the predominate baitfish; i.e. use a perch-colored lure around schools of ciscoes. Likewise, when fishing in high wind, there typically is a lot of current generated, which creates a turbulent, confusing world for the fish. In both scenarios, larger minnowbaits fill the needs of size and/or action. Hard, sharp rips produce maximum flash and vibration. Follow each ripping sequence with a couple-second pause to give a musky a chance to hit your bait. A retrieve that works particularly well with the Salmo Skinner is a single, exaggerated pull followed by a pause, which causes the lure to flop on its side momentarily before righting itself.

5. Deadstick

Occasionally while fishing with minnowbaits you will run into a musky that is somewhat interested, but only to the point that it will rise up somewhat and make the water seem to glow behind your lure while you pause it between twitches or rips. The only way you’ll catch these fish is with a deadstick maneuver. If you spot the telltale “glow” behind your bait, give it another pull and then allow it to float to the surface on a slack line. Watch beneath your bait, because occasionally the formerly-disinterested musky will rise under it, often with its head angled toward the surface. If the musky begins to sink in the water column, give your minnowbait a soft twitch and let it float back to the surface to renew its interest. If the musky slowly rises and begins to flex its jaws, don’t move the bait and prepare for a strike which may be as subtle as a trout taking a dry fly. Once the musky grabs your bait, it’s important to set the hooks downward and to the side. If you set upward you will usually pull the lure from its mouth. There is a tremendous, nerve-wracking entertainment factor to watching a musky grab a minnowbait in this manner. Once it happens to you, you’ll never forget it.

6. Figure-8 Deadstick

This idea popped in my head as I was swinging a fish around in the fourth lap of a figure-8. As I reached outward for the high point of the three-dimensional 8, I stopped my rod’s forward movement and let the minnowbait float to the surface. The musky paused for a moment as if it didn’t expect that move, and then crushed the lure and vaulted out of the water. To date, this tactic has worked for me twice. But I’ll never forget either strike.

7. Pull It Away

This is possibly the best figure-8 maneuver I’ve seen with a minnowbait. Once a fish has entered the 8, pull the minnowbait away from the musky quickly and then turn the rod tip slightly and pause. This will cause the lure to scoot forward before turning sideways to the fish. The fast movement seems to excite the musky while the turn and pause offers it an easy opportunity to T-bone its meal. If it doesn’t grab the lure, repeat until it does; with a lethargic fish, you may have to repeat this trick several times. My regular fishing partner, Kevin Schmidt, caught several big muskies in this manner during 2015. None of these fish appeared to have any inclination to grab his bait when they first showed up behind it, but you could see their aggressiveness increase every time he pulled it away from them until they finally ate.

Rigging Up

Since longer rods make for easier lure manipulation, your minnowbait rod should measure at least eight feet in length. Though these lures vary considerably in size and weight, you need only two set-ups to fish them all. For smaller baits (up to seven inches in length), a medium-heavy rod is perfect. However, since small baits can be rigging sensitive, I prefer using 65-pound test braided line and a 6-inch, 124-pound-test, single-wire leader. Choose a leader that has a loop for a line tie, rather than a swivel, to further reduce weight. For larger minnowbaits of eight inches or greater, I prefer a heavy action rod with 80- or 100-pound test braided line and a 14-inch long, 130-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Pair these set-ups with your favorite reel in a 4.6:1 to 5.3:1 retrieve ratio — since slack line is important while twitching minnowbaits, reels with a higher retrieve ratio may pick up too much slack and kill some of your bait’s action.

Minnowbaits are effective for muskies throughout the season. The tips offered here cover you from shallow water to deep, from the beginning of your cast to the end.

Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine. For more about Steve, visit

Gregg Thomas

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