Crankbait Trolling for Early Season Muskies
April 11, 2018
Never be bored and catch more muskies with this efficient, effective and fun method.
All anglers have personal favorite fishing tactics; however, when it comes to early season muskies and especially for open-water, suspended fish, trolling cranks is the most efficient and effective overall.
It also doubles as the most efficient way to learn about and pattern water bodies while monitoring electronics — you learn the lake at trolling speed as you fish. It pays to have fishing partners, as multiple lines and spreading baits out to cover water via use of in-line or mast-system planer boards is key to efficiency. The larger the body of water, the more sense it makes.
Fish are really only concerned about two things: comfort and food. Whether it's shallows or open water, they prefer warmer temps (ideally 70s), which only exist in the upper portion of the water column.
Much of the food will be there as well, enjoying the warmth after a long winter. Muskies can be anywhere in open water, yet forage is really the key as to where the active muskies will be — when they are hungry that's where they show up. The best place to start is in or nearby spawning areas, which include any inlets. Especially earlier in the season, these are the higher percentage zones.
More About Muskies
Finding the forage can be very tricky with electronics, as most of the baitfish are up high in the water column, so traditional sonar or down-imaging may not pick up the forage fish, though Hummingbird side-imaging will.
The old-fashioned way — watching for birds feeding over an area of the water's surface — can work well, too. Groups of loons feeding — diving into the water and showing up quickly on the surface again, munching something — indicates the presence of forage suspended high high in the water column.
An important initial decision is the spread of the water column to cover with your lures, because for patterning purposes you will want to stagger lures throughout that range. One method is to run a bait or two run just below or on the surface (I have caught muskies on topwater lures in water 130 feet deep) and one at a determined lower level (say 15 feet), then staggering the rest between. If a lure at one depth gets hit, simply put more lures at that level.
Muskies see ahead and up; while sounds and vibration may make them aware of deeper lures below them, running lures above them is generally most effective.
Also, especially if you are learning the structure of the lake, it can pay to cheat up a bit. Running shallow lures makes it less likely that you will snag them in cover or structure you didn't know was there. For a little confidence, look at the length of your boat and ask yourself how long it would take for a muskie to swim up that far. It's not a long time.
While the main focus is the open water fish, many waters (generally clear water systems) have weed growth and other structure (i.e., fish cribs) that shallow-running cranks are easily run over. If you know structure well and initial efforts over open water in a zone have failed for several hours, raising baits up to effectively run over known structure in the area may pay off by either providing action or signaling it's time to move on to another open water zone.
Anyone who says trolling is boring either hasn't tried it or really given it much effort. Just deciding which lures and depth to choose should keep one's head spinning all day.
Regarding lure size, a good general rule is smaller baits for early season, though main forage bases can be larger in some fisheries and weather and other factors can dictate preferences. If I had to pick an effective size range, it would be 5 to 8 inches. With experience on a water general patterns will develop; on steady to (moderately) warming weather days larger lures are more likely to work, while cold fronts or extreme heat will generally mean smaller baits are better. Look for patterns in size, shape (deeper to thin profile), wobble (tight to wide), action (straight path or wandering), sound, color and speed.
Speed is a consideration in patterning fish preference, as well as matching lures trolled together. If I had to pick a general speed, it would be 3.2 mph, varying from there. Generally, in darker and/or cloudier water slower should be better while faster is better in clearer water. Wide-lipped lures have a bigger wobble and generally work well at lower speeds, where those with tight wobble generally don't. While most lures will work fairly well together, consider trying to match baits for effective speed ranges.
Wandering lures can be extremely effective and provide definitive patterns, though they are often speed-specific. In the right speed ranges, these baits will kick significantly off to the side — yet track right back in — then track to the opposite side, providing the crankbait with a "wounded look."
One of my most effective spring trolling baits last season, a 6-inch Livingston Lure's HeadHunter, has an exceptional wander and incorporates an internal fish distress soundmaker and battery. Running a batch of baits that wander is always a good pattern to try.
On the other hand, because we are trolling shallower ranges regardless of depth, an assumption would be that deep-diving cranks would have little use. Not so. The shape and action of a deep bait may be very effective on any lake — and on a short leash, many of these baits will wander more.
They can be run off in-line boards, mast lines or behind a motor. Being curious predators, muskies are often attracted to spinning props and noise. That means they will come up to look at your kicker or main outboard, and, when they do, they will definitely see a deep diver on a short leash as it darts around.
Spreading lines out for open-water trolling is important, as covering lots of water is part of the key to trolling's efficiency. In-line boards are very effective in spreading baits, but a mast system is very effective, too, and better allows for stacking lures efficiently.
On tough bites often a couple lures running side-by-side at the same depth can trigger a bite. Getting two lures to run side-by-side is much easier to achieve off a mast. Also, under some wind and wave conditions, the big boards will hang and then pull forward quickly. This results in a "pull and pause" retrieve. However, in a situation with lots of floating weeds or other debris, mast lines will get fouled much easier compared to in-line boards,
And speaking of leaders: I suggest long fluorocarbon leaders, approximately 8 feet in length, in 100-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX. It's tough as nails and essentially invisible to fish. The long lead means that debris will often catch at the top of the leader on the swivel (and you can purposely leave a long tag end at top to encourage this).
That means the debris will stop far enough away from the bait that you can still get hit. And for muskies that want to roll during battle, fluorocarbon is much more fish friendly — it will not remove slime or scales or cut the fish's jaw or gill flaps.
There's so much more, but consider all of these items as things to pattern by. You will catch more fish if you pay attention to these considerations and start matching up on the depths, lure types and speeds with those that were in effect the moment you got that first bite.
It may seem odd to think that muskies would bunch up in wide open water, but they often do. Any time a fish is scored, rather than just trolling on, do several laps in the same area again before moving on.