The Finer Points of Muskie Lures

Muskie anglers are constantly changing baits. But do you really know when to use what lure?

by Pete Maina

It's funny how people are these days. Everybody seems to be just a little busier, and everyone is looking for shortcuts. Folks who choose to fish for muskies are even more apt to look for shortcuts than are anglers seeking other species, and they are usually quicker to try another method or "angle" to fool their quarry.

It's interesting to note really, but many folks are content to fish for crappies all day with a hook, sinker, bobber and minnow. Many will also use a simple jig-and-minnow or a favorite crankbait for walleyes all day. Muskie fishers, however, seem to be completely incapable of going all day with one presentation, or even for an hour for that matter. Some of the severely addicted have trouble adhering to the challenge of 15-minute usage periods - anything longer can trigger convulsions.

Technically, we muskie anglers should be more patient, more willing to wait it out with a favorite lure. We are fully aware that we are fishing for the lowest-density critter in the system. There simply aren't many around. So we should be content, really, with using the same bait all day, since by muskie standards one fish a day is pretty good.

This reality has the opposite effect, though. Because muskies are so tough to catch, folks tend to be even more frantic about finding that "magic" bait or method. Show me one regular muskie angler who has not accumulated more paraphernalia than he or she could possibly use on any given day - bought with the honest intention of giving the angler the ultimate edge in triggering responses from toothy fish.

We all tend to look for "magic" to aid us in our fishing. Applying the basics, though, is what equates to being a more consistent angler who can boast (truthfully) of more consistent catches. Boring stuff like knowing structure, seasonal location preferences, boat control, and "when and how" to use your "tools" is what really makes the difference. "Tools" are your lures - those shiny, hook-laden wallet-lighteners that your significant other regularly reminds you that you have too many of.

The author with one of the more than 200 legal muskies he and his guiding clients boat each year in total. Photo courtesy of Pete Maina

There are four basic lure types for muskie anglers. They are surface baits, jerkbaits, crankbaits and spinnerbaits, which include in-line spinners and overhead spinners. There are different styles of the four main types, which we'll get into later. One additional type worth mentioning is big jigs. Even though these could technically fall into the jerkbait category, they deserve separate mention.

Let's start with the most exciting lure type of all and the most confusing to describe. A common question I get from my clients about surface baits is "What do muskies think that thing is?" Folks like to say the fish thinks it's a duck or a squirrel or something. I think it looks like something they can see, something that moves, something they can catch - and eat. They are triggered by something that is very easy to catch. Overhead is easy to see.

There are three basic styles of surface lures, and they are a little hard to describe. One category I'll just call "slow movers." These are the ultimate in-your-face presentation. They move slow, wiggle and wobble, and generally look like they are really struggling to get where they're going. Two of the more popular types of this style are the Hawg Wobbler and the Creeper. A Hawg Wobbler is a jointed lure with a lip in front that creates an exaggerated wiggle at low speeds, while the Creeper types have side wings that cause a drastic back-and-forth wobble (a good visual would be a first-time swimmer trying the freestyle stroke).

Of course, there are more variations, but the key is drastic, struggling movement at slow speeds. It triggers a response from muskies because it's right above the fish, looking so helpless and making such a fuss, and it seems like it's just not getting anywhere. These baits are generally best in calmer water and when the general activity level seems to be low. They can trigger fish when faster stuff doesn't.

Another style we'll call the "blade" baits. Generally, these include a body of wood with a wire shaft running through. Some popular lures include the Globe and the Cisco Kid. Either fore or aft (or both) on the body are a variety of blades that rotate on the wire shaft. Offshoots of this have no solid body, but rather hair or rubber; more popularly they are known as buzzbaits (they aren't just for bass!).

The buzzbait style, lacking a buoyant body, is basically restricted to medium- or high-speed retrieve. The others, as long as the blades easily spin, can be used at any speed. These are really the most versatile of the surface lures, since speed can vary, as well as the retrieve type. They can be jerked, twitched, or ripped and stopped, too. Everyone seems to have a preference, but both erratic and straight retrieves will work.

Generally, these baits are used with a medium retrieve rate, but what's neat is that they speed up so well. It's great for triggering "follows." Those who have used surface lures know of muskies' propensity to follow or show themselves before striking. Often, just speeding up one of these lures as a muskie closes in will be enough to trigger a strike. There are so many types and variables here, but generally these baits are best in calm to medium wave action.

We also have the prop-style lures, the two most popular being the Mud Puppy and the Tallywacker. I don't think any style is more commonly copied, and for good reason. They work well, and each seems to have its own sound, which can make all the difference. With these baits, we again have a wood/plastic body and a shaft. But rather than just a blade rotating on the shaft, there is a separate section of body with a prop attached. This whole piece (or section) rotates, creating a lot of splash and extra vibration, too.

Most have a single section behind the main body, but some have them in front, too. Some have both fore and aft, and some have a double-aft. As mentioned, these (and especially the double ones) really create a disturbance: water flying, the blade sound, and the vibration from the rotation of the whole body section. These baits seem to work best at a medium to medium-fast clip, and they generally work well in medium to high wave action.

Finally, we have "walk-the-dog" types. Basically, these are oversized versions of a Zara Spook. They have a side-to-side action on top when twitched and will trigger fish when nothing else will. Problem is, the overall hooking percentage is the poorest of all types, but they are something that will produce and at the very least "locate" fish when nothing else is working.

This brings me to my first point on surface lure use. These are not just for calm water, folks. Many people will tell you that, but I've seen muskies crush surface baits in 5-foot rollers. The prop style is most effective, but I've seen the slow movers work in big waves, too. Generally, surface lures are more effective in warmer water temperatures and shallower water ranges. They are great over weeds and shallower wood areas. They are, however, pretty poor in the slop (where weeds stick out on the surface). Most surface baits are easily fouled by even a tiny piece of weed, so they aren't suggested for emergent vegetation. The exception here is single-hook buzzbaits.

Jerkbaits are a little less complicated. There are just two basic types of these. They are the one lure type that requires the angler to "get involved," because without jerks or twitches, these baits do nothing. With jerks and twitches, they have an erratic, wounded look to them.

First, we have the glider-style baits. These lures travel mainly in a horizontal plane. Most are neutrally buoyant, but some sink to varying degrees. When twitched, they travel from side to side in wide sweeps. They are best used over some type of structure where there is "room" for them to operate at their running depth. It's nearly impossible to control or alter the depth range with these baits.

The other type is the "up/down" style. Some popular names include the Suick and Bobbie Bait. These are almost always buoyant baits, with a nose design that drives them down on a jerk or pull, and then they rise on the pause (generally backing up). This creates that very erratic look with the addition of the ability to control depth. Of course, the bait can only achieve a limited depth, but when desired - like when a shallow patch of weeds is encountered - the lure can be allowed to rise up and over obstructions.

Most gliders run best with shorter jerks or twitches, while the up/down types work better with a pull/stop action. Of course, there are some baits that are a little in between, like the Burt Bait, which goes down and to the side on a jerk and backs up on the rise and seems to work best with twitches. And this brings up the point of "learning" with each lure, which is especially important with jerkbaits. To really master using them, and to get the most from them, it takes time and attention to what you can make them do.

Jigs are technically sinking jerkbaits. They do nothing on a straight retrieve and offer the same type of depth control as the buoyant baits - but in reverse. They are the ultimate for precise control when working breaks and edges in the deeper ranges. They can be worked by feel, making contact and then popping them up. Single-hook jigs hook well, hold well and are generally very efficient for structure contact. They are often the top producers during coldwater temperature periods and tough conditions like cold fronts.

Crankbaits are pretty simple, too. They are "body" baits with a lip that gives them a side-to-side wobble on a straight retrieve. They can also be trolled very effectively. They basically just imitate a fish doing its thing, swimming along. They are likely the most versatile of all, though, considering that they can be cast with a straight retrieve and with an erratic retrieve to achieve a "wounded" action, as well as trolled at a variety of levels and speeds.

In reality, there is only one type of crankbait: a lure with a lip. Most folks would say there are deep divers and shallow runners, and basically that's true, but cranks run in a huge variety of ranges simply due to lip design. So I'm apt these days to just say crankbaits, being uncertain where the line is crossed from deep to shallow. Different lips produce differing actions. Some cause wider wobbles and some cause tighter wobbles.

The basics, though, are that the sharper the angle of the lip, the deeper the bait will go; more length to the lip adds to the running depth. So the shallow runners have a lip that appears nearly perpendicular to the belly of the lure, and as that angle increases, the baits go deeper.

Choose crankbaits based on the structure you are working. If you're serious, you'll need a selection of cranks to cover the different levels. Know where they run and keep the bait close to structure. I mentioned earlier that muskies like it when something is easy to catch. So if your weeds come to within six feet of the surface on average, pick a crank that runs at five feet. If you want to work the edge of a weed break that happens at 13 feet, find a crank that gets to or near that level. Also learn how you can control the depth of different baits with twitches and pauses.

Spinners are pretty simple, too. We have the in-line variety, which have been affectionately called "bucktails" by muskie hunters for years since most were made of deer hair. These days, it's not just deer hair used anymore. We now have squirrel hair, skunk hair, marabou feathers and "living rubber," just to name a few. This style is a simple straight shaft with a spinner or two in the front and a body and hook in the rear. Then we have the "overhead" spinner style popularized by bass anglers, in which the spinner is above and a little in front of the body.

The basics remain the same, though. There's a very flashy, high-vibration blade that draws fish in - often triggering them to attack - and a body behind or below it that offers the target when they close in. Spinners are, in essence, the most efficient lure type. They can be cast out and retrieved straight back to the boat, covering water quickly. They are generally very good hooking lures that muskies find hard to shake. Also, spinners can be trolled effectively, where legal. This is an underrated method and works best with the overhead variety, but it works quite well over large expanses of weeds, simply being more efficient than casting.

There are no set rules in muskie fishing, or any type of fishing for that matter. These are nothing more than general guidelines to follow. Don't be guilty of getting caught in a rut. Be willing to go against common knowledge when nothing else is working.

I'd say that the most effective presentation overall is smaller crankbaits. Lures that most accurately imitate smaller forage will produce action most consistently. Also, smaller spinners with medium retrieves can produce well. Larger crankbaits and jerkbaits seem to do well on "warming" days earlier in the year. Conversely, during cold-front (water cooling) periods, a slow in-their-face presentation like that produced by a jig or a neutrally buoyant glider-style jerkbait (accentuate on the pauses) may be best. The early-season sleeper bait would easily be the surface lure - most folks figure summer only. On those warming days, don't forget to try topwaters.

During the warmwater period, spinners really come into their own. With higher metabolisms due to higher body temperatures, muskies seem to be readily willing to chase and are really turned on by the flash, vibration and speed of spinners. Overall, they are the most consistent producers in temps of 65 degrees and above. Likely, they should be the first on the list of things to try. In a partner scenario, one angler should be using spinners the majority of the tim


Surface lures can also be very effective in the summer. Their effectiveness is just one of those "quirky" day-to-day question marks. I've seen plenty of times when topwater baits are just deadly and at times the only thing working. But days that look great for topwaters offer zero reaction to them at times, too. Generally, give me steady, muggy weather and it'll be a great day to use surface lures.

Crankbaits and jerkbaits work well in summer, too, and they have their moments all season. Usually the more erratic baits - used with faster retrieves - are most effective during the warmwater period. Again, it's a simple matter of trying different things to try to gauge the mood of the fish. Jigs are generally a "last choice" for me in warm water, because they cover water slowly. Take some along, though, and try them on the days when nothing else works, like during severe cold fronts.

In fall, the jerks, cranks and jigs really start to take over. Again, anything can work, and if I get a strong warming trend in the fall I'll get out the spinners and topwaters (I've caught muskies on both styles as late as early November). But crankbaits and jerkbaits chosen to run at the proper level (more on that later) for the situation will be the most productive. Jigs can be very good at this time, too, and as the water cools below the 40-degree range, they may be the most effective overall. In fall, add sonar-type jigs - to be used with a vertical presentation near the bottom - to the top of the list for tactics. A Fuzzy Duzzit is great in the fall.

In general, slower retrieves with accentuated pauses and precise placement become very important. That's why when things are really tough, the ultimate in precise control works well (vertical jigging).

When I said earlier to choose the baits to run at the proper level, I really said a lot. This is what separates the exceptional anglers from those who catch muskies once in awhile.

All lure types (with the obvious exception of topwaters) offer variances in the depth levels they run at. When working structure, whether it be over the top or probing edges, it's important for triggering strikes to get close. There are way too many individual lures to possibly cover here, but serious fishers will get a very good grip on the depth range of the lures they intend to use.

Even spinners can vary quite dramatically in the depth ranges they run well at. Heavier blades, weight systems and simple blade style can make a big difference. Taking things a step further, learning the little nuances of each lure will pay dividends, too. Good examples are the jerkbaits and crankbaits. A suggestion to all muskie anglers is to get to clear, calm water (a great off-season project by a pool) and learn exactly how the baits react to variety of rod movements and different speeds. I'll guarantee you will learn things about each lure that will give you more control and more confidence (huge in this game) and result in more release photos.

* * *
Best of luck, and remember to let 'em go alive.

(Editor's Note: Author Pete Maina is a professional guide specializing in muskies. He is a five-time national muskie release champion. He and his clients boat more than 200 legal muskies in the aggregate each year.)

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