The Big Bait Revolution
By Jim Saric, Editor
What is going on with musky fishing? It is getting extremely physical. I am not sure how this has happened, but there is no question, right now, big baits rule. Double-ten-bladed bucktails such as Cowgirls, Pounder BullDawgs and 9-inch ShallowRaiders are just a few of the examples of some of the larger lures that have become the mainstay of today’s musky hunters. The reason for this big bait revolution is simple; these mega-sized lures catch giant muskies. In fact, this year I personally caught 55-, 53 1/4- and 52-inch muskies on each of the above-mentioned lures during 2012.
Traditionally, the eastern musky anglers from New York and Pennsylvania were the ones to be trolling with giant lures in the 9- to 15-inch category. I remember years ago trolling with a few of my friends from New York who called a DepthRaider a “tiny” lure. Then the explosion of the Minnesota musky fishery happened and it just seems like it was the bigger the better for “Viking state” muskies. This success of the larger lures being cast for trophy muskies has rubbed off on anglers across the musky range and before long these large lures have been catching giant muskies from Kentucky to Canada and from Minnesota to New York.
These beastly lures require beefed-up equipment and stamina on your behalf. I use my 9-fot St. Croix Big Nasty to handle almost all of these large lures. Also, when it comes to handling the double-10 bucktails there is nothing that compares to the Shimano Tranx. I prefer the lower-speed version, which just happens to crank Cowgirls at high speeds very easily. Line is very important and 100-pound test braids such as that made by Vicious are the only options. Big bulky knots and 150-pound test fluorocarbon leaders are also a must. Overall, this equipment is certainly on the heavy side, yet the rod and reel combinations of today are nothing like the equipment our fathers used. This is high-tech stuff.
The ideal rods are lightweight yet super strong with not a lot of flex in the rod tip. These rods are designed to throw lures weighing up to 16 ounces and work them with rips, jerks and pauses. There’s lots of stress on the equipment and it’s amazing how the success of these larger lures spawned the development of specialized musky rods, reels and terminal tackle. This equipment is a must for anyone who spends any time seriously fishing larger lures because they make life much easier. However, I would not characterize fishing any of these lures as easy, because they can be hard on the body.
Your body is also something that has to be ready for this style of fishing. Not that you have to be in incredible shape to cast for muskies, or that it’s anything like playing basketball, football or other sports, but believe me, a day of casting big lures is work. You need to be prepared and exercise before you go the big-bait route. It’s winter time and there are most likely several months before most of us are seriously going to be musky fishing. There is plenty of time to get yourself in shape for the coming season.
If you don’t, and your partner decides to spend the majority of the season casting giant lures, be prepared for your new nickname of “net boy” for the majority of the season.
In reality, no matter how much you train, there is going to be a point throughout the day when fatigue is going to set in and you have to switch lures, or just power through it. You’ll have to judge your own body and its recovery. So, if you need to take a break throughout the day and either rest or switch lures, go ahead. Just make sure you are physically ready to work the big dogs when the sun sets or the muskies get active.
Musky Hunter has covered lots of different topics surrounding fishing the large, double-ten-bladed bucktails, and I don’t want to repeat that here. Let’s assume two things. First, you must have the right equipment as mentioned above. Second, when retrieving your bucktail, synchronize your cast as the lure enters the water so the blade is spinning as it enters the water. You also need to make the bucktail flare by changing the cadence with your reel handle, and you must finish with a perfectly executed figure-8 at boatside. If you are doing these things already, you are ahead of the game and are going to catch a lot of muskies with big blades.
The real deal-breaker, or decision you have to make, with big blades is retrieve speed. How fast should you crank these bucktails? I have to say that during the last couple years across the musky range, during summer it has not been necessary to burn the blades at high speeds to trigger a strike, but you have had to fish the retrieve fast. A few years previous, burning the blades was essential. I fished with lots of anglers who, physically, just couldn’t do it. So, on any given year, trip or day on the water, you must experiment with bucktail speed. As a general rule when fishing in stained water, tight to cover or when fishing around rocks, the speeds to select are either burning or fast. Burning speed is achieved by pointing your rod tip toward the bucktail, lowering the tip to the waterline and cranking about as fast as you can. You need to keep the lure from creating a wake or breaking the surface, but you can see the lure during the entire retrieve because it is running six inches to a foot below the surface. The other speed option for summer is fast. This is cranking the lure fast enough where you can see the lure the entire retrieve, but it may be one to two feet below the surface.
When do you fish these big blades slower? I would say I rarely fish them at a speed I would consider slow. I would characterize my other option for fishing these blades as a medium-speed. I use a medium-speed retrieve when fishing clear water, around deeper weed cover, when fishing open-water for suspended muskies, and after dark. A medium-speed retrieve is one in which you cannot see the lure during the majority of the retrieve. The lure is running just above the weed cover and at a pace where it’s running several feet below the surface. Focus on executing the various elements of the bucktail retrieve, and the speed options, and you’ll be successful with big blades in most situations.
Finally, I just can’t stress the importance of the figure-8 with big blades. There is some change in sound, vibration and appearance with them that makes the figure-8 extremely appealing to big muskies, so don’t slack off!
Unlike big blades, erratic rules the water when fishing big minnowbaits. When the water is warm, on a warming trend, or it’s overcast and a front is approaching, rip hard and fast. When the water is cold, longer pulls with longer pauses seem to work better.
Take advantage of the large profile and vibration of monster minnowbaits. When the muskies are active they will attack these baits and the strikes are ferocious. When dealing with post-frontal conditions your retrieve needs to change. I’ll try two approaches in these more difficult situations. If it’s windy, I’ll still use a hard rip-and-pause approach when fishing over shallow rocks, as I am trying to get the cover collision to trigger the strike. In all other situations, I have done better in post-frontal conditions with a straight-crank retrieve, but every third or fourth crank of your reel handle accent the crank to make the minnowbait create a little extra flash and slightly change vibration and motion. It’s a much more subtle retrieve than the smash-and-bounce during more favorable conditions, but that’s often what the muskies want on the days when they have seemingly disappeared.
Spring, summer or fall, I’ll use this basic approach to catch fish on oversized minnow-imitators.
Pounds Of Plastic
I laughed when I saw a Pounder BullDawg for the first time. Of course, I was recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery at the time, and all I could think about was the pain that bait would cause when casting. Well, now there are some who cast Two-Pounders. Today, the Pounder has moved from being a big-fish-only bait, to being a standard. My boat is always full of Pounders and Magnums. In fact, I don’t think I have had a standard-size BullDawg in my boat during the last two years.
Don’t be intimidated by the size of these giant soft plastics, and don’t think that Pounders are going to prevent you from catching smaller muskies. In fact, less than 10 minutes before I caught a 53 1/4-inch musky on a Pounder BullDawg last year, I boated a 32-incher on the same bait! It’s crazy but true. My point is that you can catch numbers as well as big muskies on big lures. Large plastics are not just a fall option, because they are essentially a heavier jig. Spring and summer don’t be afraid to go large. These baits get noticed as they are the preferred-size forage for big muskies; most importantly, they displace a lot of water and feel natural to a big musky. They may look crazy to us, but since they feel natural to a musky, they eat them, and that’s all that matters.
Like the big minnowbaits, erratic is the way to go with these big baits. You really can’t work them wrong, as long as you are using a rip-pause or a longer pull-pause retrieve. I just think it’s important to experiment with hard rips or jerks, and long and short pauses. Depending upon the conditions, like any lure the muskies are going to respond to a particular retrieve. If your partner is catching fish, and you aren’t, start mimicking their retrieve.
Quietly, jerkbaits have been getting larger. There was a time when an 8-inch jerkbait would get a strange look, but those days are long gone. Ten- and 12-inch jerkbaits are popping up everywhere, such as those made by Phantom. With the development of plastic jerkbaits, it’s now possible to get perfectly-balanced and reproducible super-sized jerkbaits.
It’s amazing when you first fish one of these big glider jerkbaits. You can see it work its side-to-side magic from a long distance and on a sunny day the flash often makes it appear as if a musky has come from nowhere and hit the bait. I have to admit to many ghost hooksets on musky mirages. So, I have learned to try not to watch the bait as closely. Larger jerkbaits require more effort to get them to dive or swing to the side. You really have to use longer pulls and create a little controlled slack. However, it seems like the lures move forever in the water. They represent a big offering, perfect for a big musky.
What’s interesting is that although these jerkbaits were designed with casters in mind, many anglers have been trolling them. They tend to have a natural, but subtle, side-side shimmy or shuffle. There is no problem trolling them at 2 to 3 mph. Again, it’s a totally different look and feel to muskies that are routinely seeing crankbaits. It’s just another example of how the casting and trolling boundaries have been broken between the eastern and midwestern musky hunter. We are all finding the same baits but are using them for our own applications, often beyond what they may have been originally designed to accomplish.
Given the trend toward casting other large lures, what about giant crankbaits? Honestly, I haven’t spent any time casting big crankbaits. DepthRaiders are my crankbait mainstay, and I have caught lots of big muskies on them, but what about casting larger crankbaits like Legend Perchbaits? We troll larger crankbaits, and it just makes sense that big muskies would eat big deep divers. With today’s specialty equipment, casting 10- to 12-inch crankbaits is not a problem. Plus, imagine the vibration given off when you are ripping and jerking them … you know muskies can feel them. It’s a whole other avenue and group of presentations that many muskies have not encountered. The muskies may have felt and seen several of the above-mentioned bucktails, minnowbaits, soft plastics and jerkbaits, but more than likely an erratically-moving, monster deep-diver is something they have never seen. That’s some food for thought.
Do big muskies eat smaller offerings? Absolutely. Further, you should always carry an assortment of smaller or more traditional musky baits. Yet, you just can’t argue with some of the big muskies that are consistently being caught on big baits. It really is a game changer across the entire musky range.
If your mission is a 50-incher this season, these big lures are an absolute must. When at the sport shows this winter or browsing through catalogs (while doing arm curls), consider purchasing some super-sized lures and a rod/reel combination to handle them. These lures may look big on the shelf or when you hold them, but it’s amazing how small they look when they are in the mouth of a monster musky!
Jim Saric is Editor of Musky Hunter magazine and the host of The Musky Hunter TV show. To buy his book, Muskies My Way, click here: http://www.muskyhuntercatalog.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=38&product_id=95
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