John Mich and Scott Kolpin smile over the giant musky they caught while fishing with the author.

Tactics For Livebait Fishing In Clear Water

By Ryan McMahon

Fishing with suckers as bait has been a popular and effective way to catch muskies since the beginning of the sport. In late fall, fish are looking for big easy meals and what’s better than giving them the real deal?

There seems to be a good sucker bite in most Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes that I fish, maybe with the exception of the larger lakes that have large tullibee populations. I like to focus on medium-sized lakes with clear water that have good weed growth in them. Clear lakes with big muskies can be challenging to fish most times of the year, but later in the fall you will find the lake’s biggest predators in relatively predictable spots.

I have been fishing muskies for over 20 years but have only really used livebait the last seven seasons. I’ve learned so much about how these fish stalk, hunt and eat their prey. There’s definitely more than one way to skin the livebait cat, but I’ll run down how I like to do things in clear water and hopefully it can help your boat find success.

In Minnesota, I usually wait until post-turnover, or water below 52 or 53 degrees, before I start using livebait. Muskies will certainly eat a sucker in warmer water but I like to be casting and covering water quicker when water temperatures are in the upper 50s/low 60s. The sucker bite only becomes stronger once the water falls below 50 degrees. Often your best fishing will occur right after or during a cold front during which you lose three or four degrees of water temperature. You can tell the bite is good when suckers are getting eaten without any foreplay. The bobber goes down and the muskies cruise to the outer part of the breakline to start eating them.

Rigging Up

I’ve experimented with a number of different rigs and found my best success with an inline rig made by Stealth Tackle. I will rig a sucker, usually 16 to 18 inches long, with the lead hook through the snout of the baitfish and then place the trebles on the sucker’s body according to the way fish have been grabbing suckers lately, or according to my past experience on that specific lake.

Usually I place a treble just below the lateral line and behind the pectoral fin on one side of the sucker, and then stretch the stranded wire over the sucker’s back and place the second hook just a little farther back and maybe a touch higher. On bigger suckers, I will sometimes place both hooks on one side of the sucker. This has been a very high percentage way to rig suckers for me and helps hook muskies that grab the sucker by the tail.

Next I start with a 3/4-ounce inline weight on my line right above the Stealth Tackle rig and add more clip-on weights if needed. Then I’ll run the biggest Thill slip bobber available. I’ll just tie on some extra line for a bobber stop so I can adjust it quickly and easily by just sliding it up and down the line. I like the Thill slip bobbers over a big round bobber because I believe there’s less resistance felt by the fish, and I am able to tell more about the direction the sucker or musky is swimming by watching the long skinny bobber.

I’ve got all this rigged on Thorne Bros. heavy fiberglass trolling rods with four to five inches taken off the tip to stiffen them up a bit. I like the Shimano Tekota linecounters with 100-pound test Cortland Masterbraid line. I’ve got the rods in holders with the spool open and the line-out clicker engaged. The Tekota has a strong, loud clicker that the sucker rarely pulls out on its own. If a musky starts messing with the sucker, I’ll usually flip the clicker off so there is no resistance at all. That way, predator and prey can hang out together very naturally before the munching begins.

I prefer to fish very clear lakes in Minnesota with livebait and have actually made a habit of fishing lakes with increasing water clarity — often those that have been newly-infested with zebra mussels. It seems that as these lakes clear up the fish can be a little tougher to trick with artificial baits, but they have no trouble finding suckers.

Get ’Em Out There

When dragging suckers in clear water, I like to place my bobbers well back from the boat, maybe 60 to 90 feet on the linecounter depending on conditions. This allows me to zig-zag around a bit and get them to places the boat hasn’t necessarily driven over. Some guys use small planer boards to get the suckers away from the boat. When a bobber goes down you’ll have to hustle to get back over the fish before you set the hook, but covering 80 feet with the trolling motor doesn’t take long.

In clear water I always want my suckers to be swimming past the best weeds in the lake. Weeds provide oxygen and cover, and the greenest, tallest-standing weeds will always hold fish late into the year, often until ice-up. I start by fishing the outside edge of the weeds and set the bobber so the bait is swimming just below the tops of the weeds, and drag it just outside the weedbed.

Many times I’ll move up on top of large flats where the weeds thin out. Here I’ll shorten the depth a bit and meander around where there is a mixture of sand and weeds, trying to stay near an inside edge if one is present — which can be frustrating because the baitfish will bury in the weeds a lot. As you learn the spots you’ll get better at snaking the bait through the cover and you’ll be surprised at the number of muskies still up in the five- to 10-foot range late in the season. I typically run the boat at 0.6 to 0.9 mph to keep the bait swimming without getting into too much trouble with weeds, or getting too worn out.

When the bite is on, the muskies will make life pretty easy for you by totally ambushing their prey and T-boning the suckers at first sight. When this isn’t happening, you’ll find that they will play with their food for quite some time before eating. This is usually due to the muskies’ mood, but can also be in large part due to a lazy sucker. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years by observing muskies playing with suckers. Sometimes you just need to do something to help accelerate the predator/prey situation. If I think something is happening when the suckers are way back behind the boat, I’ll do my best to be patient and let it happen naturally, but if several minutes go by and the sucker hasn’t been eaten, I’ll reel it in slowly until I can see the musky.

I’ll usually start by twitching the sucker to draw the musky close to the bait. They will usually get a little more excited from this action and move right up to the sucker. You’ll also see the tail and pectoral fins on the musky start to move a bit as they get more excited. If the twitches don’t coax a bite or ignite a chase, I’ll take the sucker out of the water and slap it back on the surface about six to 10 feet away from the musky. Many times when a sucker is slapped on the water it will swim frantically right away whether it sees the musky or not, and the noise and fast swimming can really spark the musky to bite.

I’ll also try to get another sucker in the same area and see if the musky can get interested in a different meal. I’ve seen instances during which they follow a sucker that just swims in a straight line for 10 minutes, with the musky simply matching every move. Sometimes, if you bring another sucker close to the situation, the same musky will take one look at the new offering and eat it.

Once the sucker is in the musky’s mouth you want to pull the boat over to it, make sure it’s facing away or slowly swimming away from you, and set the hook hard. A great tip when setting the hook is to point the rod at the fish, reel down so the line is tight, but then dip down and put a little bit of slack in the line before pulling the trigger. It’s amazing how much that will help in getting the rig to rip out of the sucker and into the musky’s mouth.

Livebait fishing has become one of the best big fish-producing patterns in my boat of the year. It’s a fun way to catch muskies and, in my opinion, even more fun in clear water because you end up getting to see cool things happen. If you haven’t tried it and the bite is slow for you this fall, keep it in mind!

For more about author Ryan McMahon, visit

Gregg Thomas

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