Putting the Spin on Pike & Muskies

The Esox clan has been a sucker for spinners for decades. But there are things you can do with these lures other than just cast them out and crank them back to the boat.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Noel Vick

It wouldn't be right to simply cast and retrieve a lure that was built to, well, be cast and retrieved. Nah. Notwithstanding the fact that inline bucktail spinners are arguably the simplest lures to manage in all of freshwater fishing, should we, as angling innovators, push the envelope and turn this uncomplicated weapon into something it isn't? You betcha!

That is precisely what guide Brian Brosdahl does when he uses a bucktail. Sure, he'll throw it and retrieve it in amateur fashion when conditions warrant, but more often than not, that bucktail is asked to do something it wasn't meant to do. Before delving deeper, though, distinctions must be made. Brosdahl doesn't file all spinning-blade lures into a single directory. In the pursuit of pike and muskies, the field is divided into inline spinners and hairpin spinners.

The inline bucktails are the most versatile and biggest-producing muskie lures of all time; I suspect spoons are responsible for more pike catches, though. Bucktails earn their stripes through flash, color and vibration, and they come in unlimited weights, sizes and patterns. Inline spinners can be fished both shallow and deep, and can be retrieved at the pace of a turtle or a hare.

Hairpins, the spinnerbait-looking versions, are far more snagless and weedless, making them superior in the tangles. He also likes their bigger profile in dark water and when the area has huge fish. When dropping down to predators, which we'll discuss in a moment, the helicoptering motion can incite riot, too.

So let's get beyond the straight retrieve. Brosdahl's first wrinkle involves redirection. "Normally, you hold the rod with the tip just below the waist and crank," he says, describing fundamentals. "That's the everyday retrieve, but it doesn't always trip their fancy. So I make the bucktail look more like prey - a baitfish - by moving the rod tip around. I change the rod's position, shifting left or right, secure it, and start cranking in a new direction. To the predator, it looks like a fish turning away. That turns 'em on."

Inlayed into his redirects are purposeful changes in velocity. Sometimes he speeds things up to invoke strikes. Other times, slowing down gets them ornery. "I've watched more than one 20-pound pike follow and finally commit because I throttled back," says Brosdahl. "The slowing down thing is really key in the spring and fall, when the water's cooler."

A technique known as "bulging" is better suited for midsummer, when the water is hot and gators hunt amidst the foliage, slop, rocks and timber. Brosdahl throws and retrieves, reaching and maintaining a rate at which the lure bends, but doesn't break the surface. From above, it looks like a torpedo raging beneath the surface.

"Bulging is super effective on lakes where pike and muskies slither in the hardstem bulrushes," he says. "I've seen it where they won't touch a true surface lure, one that splashes or buzzes, but they'll sneak up behind a bucktail bulging through the rushes and destroy it."

To bolster buoyancy, he fishes a bait with bigger blades but lighter weight, maybe only a 1/2-ounce total. Extra hair and soft-plastic condiments further promote flotation, so don't be bashful about additives.

Bulging is also effective over submerged weeds, such as pastures of cabbage and coontail. The heavier the vegetation the wilder Brosdahl gets in choosing a lure, too. "When it's really thick, I go for the noisiest and flashiest baits in the box. A fish's range of detection is limited in the forest, so I give 'em a little extra to go on."

Both inline bucktails and hairpin spinners work in the greens. Normally, though, Brosdahl opens with an inline, pulling it across the tips of the weeds, tickling the tops. Occasionally, he spices things up with a redirect, maybe a jig or jerk. But if anything follows and/or misses, he switches to a bulky hairpin spinner and puts on the brakes.

"The clumsier hairpin bounces off weed stalks, stopping and starting, possibly plunging into a pocket. The change in appearance and presentation can change the fish's disposition," he contends.

Peculiar as it seems, bucktails and hairpins can also take on the action of a jig, a giant jig. Brosdahl goes to the jig-card when challenging pike and muskies on precipitous and deep weedlines, the sort found on clear northern lakes.

He positions the boat 10 to 15 yards beyond the weed edge and casts back atop the greens. Before the bucktail can burrow in the vegetation, he locks down and starts reeling, brushing the weedtops and continuing until the bait reaches the edge, at which point he permits it to descend on a taut line to the bottom. In clear water, abrupt weedlines are often visible, especially early and late in the season. You'll see a mound of weeds suddenly vanish into blackness - that's where the jigging begins and battles occur.

Brosdahl jigs in a sequence of long pulls and drawn-out freefalls. "You want the spinner to really spin," he says. "Short snaps and rips are effective with conventional jigs, but not with an inline spinner. The blade never gets a chance to oscillate."

Small to midsized bucktails perform best for jigging, too. Large 1-ounce-plus models put up too much resistance. Besides, hooking percentages are significantly greater with smaller lures. The illusion of size - pike- and muskie-sized food - is created through motion rather than through mass, so don't get caught up in thinking a modest bucktail is too small for the job.

Now, right in the middle of the action, is prime time to talk about leaders. Brosdahl uses leaders religiously, but contrary to popular theory, he uses fluorocarbon more often than steel. "Saltwater fishermen trust fluorocarbon in the face of butchers like billfish and barracudas, so I think it'll suffice for our coldwater creatures," he contends. Brosdahl custom-ties 18- to 24-inch leaders made of 60- to 80-pound-test fluorocarbon line. To one end, the main line connector, he factors in a true ball-bearing swivel, while the other is fitted with a cross-lock snap.

In addition to its strength and ability to thwart teeth, fluorocarbon affords "boing" (recoil), which is essential during fight sequences. However, if you're still insecure about synthetic protection, Brosdahl suggests using a 40-pound-test titanium leader.

What else can a bucktail do? It'll jerk. Modern jerkbaits come in all shapes and sizes, everything from wooden to hard plastic to soft plastic. Brosdahl fishe

s myriad varieties, too, but his favorite jerkbait isn't really a jerkbait at all. He jerks with a bucktail, and predominantly when fishing around wood or over rocks.

The retrieve succession goes something like this: jerk, jerk, pause, jerk, pause, jerk, jerk, jerk, jerk, pause. Notice the inconsistency? That's the trigger that imparts the injured-fish dance. Between jerks, Brosdahl redirects, causing the bucktail to move from side to side. It's quite a show, combining the spark of a spinner with the lifelike motion of a jerkbait.

Bucktails yield enhanced hooking as well. "When a big pike or muskie clamps down on a wood or plastic jerkbait, their teeth usually stick in place, whether that's over hooks or not," says Brosdahl. "That's not the case with a bucktail. The bait will usually slide down until a hook plants."

So you're jerking and jigging and thinking it can't get any better. Well, Brosdahl doesn't confine his use of spinners to casting only, and neither should you. "Inline bucktails and hairpin spinners might be the best trolling baits of all time," he says (where legal, of course). In the summer, Brosdahl lowers the hammer to about 3 or 3.5 mph and runs like a madman. In the spring and fall, when waters are appreciably cooler, he scales back to 2 to 2.5 mph.

Trolling spinners is practical in various circumstances, too. Brosdahl likes nothing better than lining up a defined weedline, sending back 40 to 60 feet of line, planting the pole in a holder and tracing the topography. There's simply no better method for searching unfamiliar water or establishing a pattern and the presence of fish. Depth is a virtual non-factor, too. Brosdahl drags bucktails and hairpins as effortlessly in 10 feet of water has he does in 30 feet. Added weight, such as a Snap-Weight, can be added as necessary to achieve a desired depth.

Brosdahl selects the lumber with a critical eye, too. He contends that the average muskie chaser uses rods that are excessively stiff, with no end action whatsoever. For jigging, jerking and just plain old casting, Brosdahl uses a medium- to medium-heavy-action baitcasting rod in a 6-foot, 6-inch length. Trolling, however, stipulates greater length, somewhere between 7 and 8 1/2 feet. On his main line, he runs with either 40-pound to 80-pound fluorocarbon, such as Seaguar or P-Line, or a superbraid, like Berkley Whiplash, in the same poundage.

So instead of just casting and retrieving this season, try giving pike and muskies a little different spin.



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