The (Un)Usual Suspects
September 24, 2010
Like it or not, your favorite muskie bait isn't always going to produce. For those unusual situations, we have a few unusual solutions. Read on for our nontraditional summertime muskie presentations.
When muskies aren't responding to the standard fare, try nontraditional approaches, such as emphasizing pauses during the retrieve or initiating violent contact with weeds, rocks and other structure.
Photo by Pete Maina.
Muskies are cold-blooded critters. Their metabolisms are at their highest points during the warm-water period of summer, meaning these predator fish have to eat more during these months. As a result, they're generally more aggressive -- more willing to move farther, faster -- to grab a bellyful during the summer months.
Spinners (in-line and overhead) are classics for this summertime muskie approach. They're very efficient, allowing for fast, straight-in retrieves that cover water and trigger fish. Trolling or rapidly retrieving crankbaits can accomplish the same. And, it's an exceptional time of year for topwater presentations, as the commotion can attract fish from some distance, and efficient predators have learned through experience that they can use the water surface as an effective trap for baitfish that can't go beyond it.
Unfortunately, muskies aren't always happy, nor are they always ravenously hungry, regardless of water temperature or expected attitude. The guidelines above for fishing in the summer period are usually effective, but like anything, they don't work all the time. We've all heard of and discussed the dreaded cold front. And, though rarely talked about, periods of abnormal heat have the same effects on fish as do cold fronts. Fish simply don't like extremes, and they tend to go dormant until things return to normal for that time of year. Likewise, sometimes activity is just flat, without explanation. Indeed, the fish do make the rules.
When muskies aren't eagerly responding to the summertime standard of larger and more aggressive presentations at faster speeds, there are quite a few non-traditional methods that have produced for me with some regularity. Before we go any further, consider a good game plan for prioritizing the different tactics. If weather is steady or normal -- and especially if conditions are steady with an incoming pressure system and dropping barometer -- expect the standard approaches to be best. Opt for non-traditional presentations only if the standard fare elicits no reaction. If you know you are dealing with extremes of heat or cold, it's likely better to start the day with non-traditional tactics.
I'll never forget a distinct lesson I learned just a few summers ago regarding patterning. It was August, with normal mid-70s surface temperatures and steady, humid weather. It just felt perfect for spinners and topwater lures. I was so confident and excited, in fact, that I never even considered other presentations, laying out a variety of these baits for my boat partners and myself as "the" choices. An hour later, I peered back into the tackle boxes in search of a solution to our virtual shutout.
Finally, a very aggressive strike caught me by surprise. Even though I managed a good hookset, this muskie jumped and got off -- an early release, but also a clue. Years of persistence in chasing muskies -- and plenty of experience banging my head against the side of the boat -- have taught me to analyze everything that occurs on the water.
I was using a buoyant jerkbait and trying different retrieves, and I'd taken an exceptionally long pause while blathering on about something. It was as the lure neared the surface, after rising significantly on the pause, that the muskie hit it. Patterns are seldom this profound, but that was it in spades. Buoyant jerkbaits and crankbaits were the deal. Every strike came on a pause and a rise. Spinners and topwater lures did not account for a single follow that day.
Strategic pauses are seldom used or even considered during the warm-water period, but when times are tough, they're worth a try. Generally, the rising or neutral presentations are the most effective, but jigs and other sinking baits are worth a try too. If you don't emphasize the pauses, you're not giving it a fair chance.
Generally, this isn't a tactic that works in the extremes of heat or cold, but it's always worth a try anytime the "catching" is tough. Essentially, this tactic calls for intentionally banging your lure into rocks, vegetation and other structure, and following the collision with a pause. Choose lures depending on the depth of weed or rock with which you want to make contact, flex your muscles and get after it.
I've had my best success with this tactic in fairly steady, warmer weather and sun. The good news is it sometimes works when nothing else does. The bad news is it's hard work. In summer, I've had more success around weeds, but rock structure can be productive as well. The tactic can work with jerkbaits, and I've had some success with single-hook spinnerbaits, but I've had the most success, by far, with neutrally buoyant crankbaits.
When I started fishing for muskies, this tactic was seemingly impossible in and around weeds, as superlines weren't yet available. Even today, it's impossible to be effective without high-strength lines. These new lines -- such as Spiderwire Ultra Cast -- have near-zero stretch, yet the technology allows for great "castability" and handling.
Essentially, you want the crankbait to go into the weeds and the hooks to grab onto something. Then, with violent snaps, pull the lure out of the weeds, breaking them off as you go. Pause occasionally, and then continue crashing through the weeds. It truly is hard work, as the action has to be violent, it seems, to really trigger muskies when they're in an "off" mood. The same approach can be productive around rocky structure or on the bottom.
The world of large soft plastics is expanding so quickly it's crazy. It's definitely the area of the most growth in large lures for northern pike and muskies. These new options are exceptional non-traditional choices.
Soft plastics come in whole or in part. By "in part," I refer to the hard and soft bait combinations, where essentially a soft tail or body is added to a hard-plastic or wooden body of crank- and jerkbaits. There are many great options out there now, in all different sizes. For information on the wide array of baits, check specialty muskie providers like Musky Tales at www.muskytales.com.
Many of the crankbaits are almost entirely soft, with just the head and lip of the bait being hard plastic. To the angler's eye anyway, these baits do seem more lifelike. Other cranks have a hard body with a soft tail. One of my favorite tough-times glider baits is a Phantom So
fttail, and sometimes that extra continued wiggle on a pause is just too much to resist.
The area of all-soft jerkbaits and swimbaits in larger sizes has really expanded, and if there is a go-to presentation when fish attitudes are lousy, a slower, more in-their-face presentation with one of these offerings, often right on and in the structure, is it. Though the options here are numerous and expanding, many anglers have the perception that these lures are solely cold-water presentations -- stuff to use in spring and late fall. As mentioned, they come in all shapes and sizes now, and when rigged properly with a single hook -- or single hook systems -- they become the ultimate weedless presentations. A big tube by Red October Baits has saved many a day. If you start poking around in the saltwater realm, you'll find some other interesting options, like Berkley's Big Gulp! Squid Soft Baits.
There are many weights and rigging options, and it's generally best to run them very close to and in structure. But these baits also produce well in open-water situations, such as when searching for suspending muskies. There are many styles of pre-rigged jerk and jig baits in huge sizes, and these can work extremely well with a variety of retrieves. Possibly the ultimate teaser to try when nothing else is working is a tube, squid or swim body with a single hook fished right into structure.
Fin-Tech Tackle has a great new system for those who want to fish weedless with large bodies. Their Title Shot jig and swimbait (16/0) hooks have enough gap and length for good hookups. You'll be amazed how well these bodies go through structure when rigged with single hooks. You can literally go right into the muskie's living area, no matter how tight he's holding. To keep things versatile with regard to depth control (remember, you want to get into the structure) when using a big swimbait hook, I recommend carrying lead wire. It's very versatile stuff that can be wrapped tightly on a hook shank, doesn't come off and can be moved and removed at any time.
Nothing in fishing is a rule, and there are certainly no guarantees. But when things seem really tough, try some of these tactics on summertime muskies before you give up for the day.