September 30, 2010
Under certain conditions, soft-plastic baits are the best option when you're targeting muskies and northerns. Here's when and where to use them.
By Noel Vick
Carnivores love a meal they can sink their teeth into - seize and grind with molars and eyeteeth, and shred with incisors. The choppers on muskies and northern pike - freshwater meat-eaters - can't be itemized so tidily, though. But trust that said teeth are hazardous nonetheless.
You would imagine no beast is spared given the rows of clamping and goring teeth that muskies and pike possess. Everything's edible. No fish is safe. It's true that they could, if they chose to, seek and destroy all that swims. But even Esox, as barbaric as they seem, have preferences.
Professional muskie guide Brian Brosdahl has an appreciation for these fierce predators, and understands their dietary habits - preferences - as well.
"Pike and muskies prefer soft-rayed prey, stuff they can hold, tear easily and digest quickly," Brosdahl says.
That list, according to Brosdahl, begins with the lowly bullhead.
"Nothing's softer and slower than a bullhead. Muskies love 'em," he says.
He consigns suckers to that menu, too. They are abundant and come in shapes and sizes to accommodate predators of all ages and moods. Whitefish, ciscoes and smelt also chew up and swallow easily, but they're not the most universally obtainable foodstuff. Perch fall somewhere in between. They are plentiful and walk the line between spongy and sharp, so they're never really out of harm's way.
Photo by Mike Bleech
Big baitfish - chubs, shiners and shad - are squishy and scrumptious as well. So, too, are frogs, which muskies and pike feast on during spring and fall migrations. Oh, and lastly, adolescent pike and muskies appear flavorsome in the eyes of their bigger brothers and sisters - cannibalism.
At the opposite end of the pond are panfish. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, green sunfish and even rock bass get guzzled, occasionally, but they're definitely not VIPs.
The irony of this lesson on dietary habits is that most of the baits we cast are hard. Spinnerbaits, bucktails, jerkbaits, crankbaits - you can bust a tooth on any of them. Muskies and pike munch them not because of their feel, but rather the appeal of sight and sound. With an aggressive fish, it doesn't matter if metal or wood is detected, either, because the damage is already is done by then - they're hooked.
Times and places occur, though, when the complement of softness causes a fish to hold on longer - more importantly yet, to hit the bait in the first place. Not only do soft-plastic lures feel real, but they also look and behave genuine.
"Plastics have an action that hard baits can't convey," says Brosdahl. "In the real world, baitfish don't shake and vibrate. Plastics are smoother. They glide and look just like the real thing as well."
Brosdahl goes on to say that "soft plastics aren't attractors, but more of a triggering device. When fish only nudge and nose at conventional baits, plastics turn into a qualifier, determining if that fish is catchable or not."
With that said, when and where Brosdahl employs plastics are as defined as the bait he ties on. Regardless of the time of year, plastics are his top pick, he says, for "navigating through obstructions, like weeds and wood."
In July and August, when the vegetation is in full bloom, Brosdahl gets synthetic.
"When the heat's on, pike and muskies dig into the coontail and cabbage for coolness, shade and oxygen. The body temperature of fish caught in shallow weeds is actually cooler than the surrounding water. You can actually feel it in your hands."
Brosdahl rummages for beds of lanky cabbage, the wide-leafed stuff, and bulky clumps of coontail.
"The best beds are nearly impassable," says Brosdahl, who's watched the average angler sidestep them all too often.
When conditions are clear, Brosdahl prefers beds that sprout in 8 to 15 feet of water. When the water is murkier, Brosdahl's choice is beds sprouting in 6 to 12 feet of water. During morning and evening hours, muskies and pike will elevate from the greens and willingly spank traditional hard baits, like jerkbaits and bucktails. But under a roasting sun, Brosdahl "enters their house," and delves into the greens.
His primary selections from the artificials department are "pre-rigged soft-plastic gliders," as he calls them. The Bull Dawg by Muskie Innovations is a prime example, and Brosdahl's first pick. He describes the 9-inch lure as "a tadpole from hell," which is fairly accurate if you've ever seen one. Castaic swim baits - available in a wide assortment of patterns - and the 6-inch Storm WildEye Shad are other pre-rigged plastics that swim divinely and look natural to suitors. Pre-rigged, by the way, simply means the lure comes out of the box with appropriately sized hooks already imbedded.
Brosdahl retrieves the aforementioned baits rather matter-of-factly, too - straight and slow pulls. Every now and then, though, he'll give it a mild side-to-side swing, like a jerkbait, but nothing too erratic.
Speaking of jerkbaits, Brosdahl's other go-to weed lure is a shad-shaped or "Slug-Go-style" plastic, which he Texas-rigs to make it weedless. Pre-rigged swim baits feature exposed hooks, making them susceptible to fouling in a serious grove. But soft-plastic jerkbaits, if rigged weedless, can slither through just about anything.
Brosdahl favors the larger paddle-tailed baits, too.
"I use either 6- or 9-inch baits and rig 'em with a 4/0 or 5/0 worm-type hook," he says.
And in the sweat of summer, he pilots those weedless jerkbaits through pastures of standing bulrushes. During peak algae blooms when the water goes green, adult muskies and pike will actually slide right into the bulrush beds. Brosdahl explains the behavior.
"Bulrushes produce oxygen and offer enough shade to cool the water, too," he says. "Plus, they're loaded with food."
The most prolific stands are near deep water, and border or sit close to healthy cabbage and/or coontail. Depth also matters.
"Three to 6 feet of water is a good range," Brosdahl says. "Fish will cruise shallower sometimes, but not with regularity."
Brosdahl looks for vast stretches of bulrushes as well, believing that the size of the bed is more important than whether it's part of an offshore hump or shoreline point. The best of the best feature deep inner pockets and varying rush thicknesses, too.
"They use the thick parts like structure and thinner sections for moving and feeding," Brosdahl says, clarifying in a fishing sense why variety is the spice of life.
In the rushes, he's most confident throwing natural tones if the water is clean.
"I like shades of white and brown. Brown is a killer if there are bullheads in the system," says Brosdahl. When it's stained, though, he threads on all black or something with red and white. Color, of course, is something to experiment with on a lake-to-lake and day-to-day basis.
Brosdahl casts into the rushes under control, not wanting excess line billowing about in the potential snags. He begins moving the lure as soon as it touches water, too, but not vigorously. With the rod positioned high, he carefully swims and guides the lure around obstructions and across openings. As the lure approaches, Brosdahl gradually lowers his rod tip accordingly.
An unweighted soft plastic will move back and forth between the surface and water slightly below the surface, which is the desired performance. Sometimes, though, if Brosdahl is operating exclusively in deeper rushes - upwards of 4 feet - he'll add a bullet-sinker to the nose to keep it down.
EPSN Outdoors' Matt Thompson - a noted expert on muskies and pike - has a fixation with plastics, too, but he breaks them out for different reasons.
"In the summer," says Thompson, "I throw lures with speed, flash and sound. The fish are most active this time of year, and they spend more time higher in the water column, especially in the mornings and evenings. But all that changes during a cold front."
Thompson is talking about the end of a good thing, that dreaded time when the barometer sings and it might look sunny and warm, but the thermometer tells another tale.
"You know those trips," Thompson says with glumness that only an angler could understand. "You catch three fish on the first day, and then overnight a front comes through. You'll be lucky to see a fish after that. But with plastics, you still might be able to get one a day."
When the fish are off, Thompson says, you need a lure that's subtle, stays in the strike zone longer and doesn't enter the water with a splash.
"Basically, it can't be loaded with bells and whistles," he says.
Like Brosdahl, Thompson likes pre-rigged plastics.
"Plastics like the Bull Dawg can be whatever you want them to be," says Thompson. "You can jig it, jerk it or run it straight. Rarely will a fish follow without eating it, too."
During a cold front, strikes aren't ferocious either, resembling more of a slurp than a smack.
"Yeah, there's no impact," Thompson says. "It sort of feels like you just picked up some extra weeds. Truthfully, that's why a lot of guys don't use plastics. Because before you have fish on, it's a pretty boring way to fish, but it works."
Cold fronts aren't the only circumstances that demand plastics, either. Thompson fires what he calls a "pitch-back bait" to fish that have risen to but not swallowed a standard muskie presentation. Without question, his No. 1 pitch-back bait is a jig-and-lizard. And Thompson is talking about big muskie-sized jigs with a big plastic lizard. In fact, Odyssey's Dragon - a 7-inch lizard - is specifically molded for the mincing teeth of muskies and pike. It is Thompson's first choice, too. He couples the Dragon with an Odyssey Porky Jig, which is another bait built with muskies in mind. It comes complete with a weed guard, oversized hook and steel leader.
Traditional skirted bass jigs work, too, but the hooks are often undersized and flimsy. Same goes for run-of-the-mill plastics. Muskies and pike will consume jumbo-sized shad, lizards and worms of all makes and models, but unless the lures you're using are designed to thwart slicing, be prepared to switch them out after every strike.
As stated, Thompson flips his jig-and-lizard at the site of a muskie misfire, but there are also times when it is his initial offering. Milfoil presents one of those situations.
"Quite often when I'm fishing around milfoil or other thick surface weeds, there'll be holes in the canopy," Thompson says. "And underneath those spots it's usually wide open. With the jig-and-lizard, I can pitch to that opening."
Throwing back or pitching back to an "exposed" fish is all about reading moods, Thompson believes. Did the fish ascend, peek and settle back into the oblivion? Or did it erupt like Mount Vesuvius, but without the smoky ash and carnage? If the fish blew up big time, Thompson goes right back after it with whatever he coaxed it with the first time. But in the former case when the incomer sinks like a sub - following but not chasing - Thompson drops his pole and reaches for the pre-rigged jig-and-lizard outfit, which he keeps at the ready.
"I cast it out there, but not more than 20 feet, and keep it low and slow," Thompson explains. "Guys tend to cast too far. If I can't get the fish to go inside 20 feet, it's not going to happen." With the jig-and-lizard in the drink, Thompson gingerly bobs and weaves it around, keeping his motions silky smooth.
"Giant tubes," he says, "have become quite a phenomenon, too, especially the Lindy Tiger Tube. They're great as pitch-back baits. One time I was fishing with muskie fishing legend Bob Mehsikomer and I watched this muskie follow his lure six different times but never strike. He was getting frustrated, so he decided to try this new Lindy Tiger Tube thing. Bob swam it around the fish for about a minute, a legitimate minute, and finally that fish ate it. To this day, I don't believe that muskie would have hit anything else."
Upsized tubes have been popular with West Coast bass anglers for years, recently gaining popularity in other regions for use on largemouth bass, muskies and pike.
Besides the whole throw-back scenario, Thompson utilizes plastics in the spring and fall, too, when the water's uncomfortably cold for the average muskie. And his opening line of offense is a jig-and-lizard.
"Nothing beats it in the fall," Thompson says with authority. "I've watched that lure beat out everything from bucktail spinners to live suckers. Yes, even live bait."
Lizards aren't everyone's gig, though, Thompson admits. Being in the muskie tackle business, he finds just as many purists with penchants for twin-tailed grubs and shad-imitators.
"Whatever type you buy," instructs Thompson, "pick something bulky, something that's g
ot body to it and looks like it has a lot of action. It should sway and thump in the water."
Thompson says that muskies are extremely tuned into sound. They're lateral-line feeders, so something with a big swirling tail or paddle should provide just enough throb to accompany an otherwise stealthy tactic.
Just how enormous are jigs and lizards in the quest for big fish?
"Bob Mehsikomer holds the top three spots for world-record pike in the catch-and-release division," says Thompson. "And all three were caught on a jig-and-lizard."
Each of the fish was hooked in shallow spawning bays. The largest, a 53 1/2-incher, was taken while Mehsikomer was sight-fishing in only a couple of feet of water, Thompson says.
"In water that shallow you can't use a lure that makes a disturbance," he says. "One crash and that fish is history. A jig-and-lizard slides in pretty quietly. That splashing thing is why flyfishermen do so well on giant pike in shallow water, too. Nothing enters quieter than a fly."
One potential downside of using plastics, though, no matter the style, is how easily the lure can be inhaled and the line severed. To neutralize the effect of teeth, Thompson integrates a 12-inch steel leader. Rarely, he says, are muskies and pike leader-shy, either. If the situation calls for greater covertness, Thompson goes with a one-foot-long hunk of 80-pound fluorocarbon line. Otherwise, his standard setup incorporates 12 inches of 60- to 90-pound seven-strand wire with a true ball-bearing swivel. Any longer than 12 inches, he says, is unnecessary.
Thompson tethers those leaders to superlines, too. He likes the "let me see what you got" chutzpa of Spectra-based lines, such as Tuff Line in 50-pound test. It's ideal for jigging. With pre-rigged plastics like the Bull Dawg, he upgrades to an 80-pound-test superline.
Rod selection isn't science, either. Thompson does fine with fundamental but high-quality sticks.
"Fishing with a jig-and-lizard is sort of a finesse tactic," he says. "You pitch it out there and work it short distances, so I use a 7-foot rod, one that's designed for light bucktail spinners."
But when the Dawgs are let loose, he's compelled to brandish a stouter 6-foot, 6-inch or 7-foot pole. The added backbone is for both maneuvering the larger lures and fending off attacks.
Effective fishing is about recognizing voids and filling niches. In the dominion of mongo pike and muskies, soft-plastic baits bridge gaps that were previously laid bare or otherwise plugged with live bait. The advent of monster plastics gives skill-type anglers and formerly non-muskie/pike enthusiasts a reason to challenge our lakes' wickedest inhabitants, too.
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