Muskie fishing continues to evolve.
Through the years a split has developed among many anglers regarding the preferred technique to fish for these epic sportfish. There are the Homer LeBlanc-inspired power trollers running multiple baits both from big catamaran planers and down rods close to the boat, often catching fish in the prop wash, versus the other group of anglers inspired by casting icons like Pete Maina that cast a single bait all day looking for that single bone-rattling hookup. There is one thing both groups have in common: They want to be productive and get big fish to the boat.
A new technique is coming into its own over the past few years combining trolling and casting. It involves trolling to cover large areas of water, then, once a fish is hooked up, lines are pulled, and the casting rods come out. Here are the tools anglers are utilizing to make this hybrid muskie presentation work.
FINDING THE FORAGE
Muskies can be predictable just like any other predator. They have preferred forage and conditions in which they like to feed. One of the challenges anglers face is finding the right spots where these conditions match up. Add a large body of water to this equation, and it can be overwhelming if not impossible to uncover the best point or break that produces results.
Anglers began to look at ways to eliminate areas that look promising but still don’t produce; after all, there are only so many hours in a fishing trip. But techniques also needed to be adjusted. A run-and-gun method of trolling in-line planers to find active feeders with the eventual goal of casting to get that bone-rattling strike was born..
When we break down how most fish relate to their forage, we often see that when we find the bait, we find the accompanying predators that feed on them. It is reasonable to think if we find the muskie’s preferred forage on that body of water, we will have a great opportunity to find more than one muskie in the area. But some points might hold a better concentration of preferred forage than others. Wind can change this equation every hour.
While muskies are not necessarily known to work together to push bait, they are extremely opportunistic. A good example of this is a walleye tournament we fished back in 2002 on a big river system in the Midwest. Our team had found a flat off the main river channel that held a nice school of 16- to 18-inch walleyes. While these fish wouldn’t win the event, they sure would help the overall weight if better spots dried up. As we kept an eye on this school throughout the pre-fish, we saw something spectacular happen.
Muskies moved in. Two days before the event, two boats hooked eight muskies on this spot fishing crawler harnesses. The muskies had moved in to forage on the school of walleyes.
STREAMLINING THE SYSTEM
As more and more muskie anglers refined a way to quickly search promising areas to find feeding fish, then try to land them on a casting setup, it was evident that the big catamaran planers had to go. Many hardcore muskie trollers utilized the catamaran trolling system to get a good spread out on the water. That involved a mast fixed toward the front of the boat with a very large double-board “catamaran” planer board for stability, which was able to keep 4 or 5 lures running out to the side of the boat.
The rod’s lines are clipped on sliders and slid down the line hooked to those catamarans and moved out to positions in the trolling pattern. This trolling method doesn’t work well for anglers that connect with fish then want to quickly switch over to casting. Therefore, slightly larger in-line planer boards were brought to the market.
These boards are basically the same style as their smaller cousins used by walleye anglers but are approximately 4 inches longer and slightly higher than standard in-line planers and have a much better ability to pull bigger baits. Because in-line planers can be cleared very quickly, they work well for this type of fishing. Anglers can easily pull these planers with medium-sized body baits like Super Shads or tandem blade spinners.
Anglers can troll baits right up to weed beds or key breaks and can even run in the most productive water by placing all boards on one side of the boat or create a spread on both sides and run high when multiple weed beds are scattered throughout the area. These bigger in-lines can still tolerate a moderate chop but really shine when it comes time to clear lines when a hookup occurs. The angler simply quickly reels the board in, unsnaps it and reels the bait up. There is no large catamaran planer still sitting out in the casting zone.
MATCHING THE HATCH
When choosing baits to pull in the trolling pattern, knowing how to identify fish species on the sonar can be a tremendous advantage. It pays to know the difference between a school of walleyes, white bass or ciscoes. Even though this takes some time to master, it is worth the time to develop this skill.
Hooking up with a muskie close to a large school of white bass points to throwing a chrome and black Super Shad during the casting phase. Identifying lots of walleyes on the screen tells us to start out with a Grandma jointed lure in firetiger pattern. Obviously, it makes sense that color patterns during the trolling phase mix colors to represent several baitfish patterns present in the body of water as well as consideration for bright sun or cloudy skies.
While there will always be pure trollers and pure casters, this new method of trolling to cast for muskies is inexpensive, and it provides the best of both worlds of the sport, especially for anglers just getting started in muskie fishing.
Muskie baits have evolved a great deal over the years, but the basics remain the same. Shallow-diving crankbaits like the Rapala Super Shads, Believers, Classic Grandmas and Suick Super Husky lures are big enough to trigger monster muskies but still small enough to troll and cast effectively. Spinners like Double Cowgirls, Mepp’s Muskie Killers and Blue Fox Vibrax Super Bou also troll and cast extremely well in this system. Spoons have taken an enormous number of muskies over the years. The Eppinger Red Eye, Mepps Syclops and Williams Wabler are important to have in the boat.
Muskies are sight-feeders and feed up in the water column, so make sure the bait runs in the upper third. This also brings topwater baits into play when anglers break into casting mode.
Baits like a Top Raider, the Whopper Plopper or a Cisco Kid propeller bait all will get the attention of active fish.When anglers see muskies follow while casting, but they refuse to engage after several circles and figure eight maneuvers boat-side, it’s time to use jigging. By far, more muskies come on jigs than topwaters, and fewer fish are lost on the hookset. Jigging is really coming into its own in the sport. Big 8-inch Mister Twister tails, Bondy baits or Jig-A-Beast swim jigs can trigger fish that keep following other baits to the boat but don’t bite. Keep one rod ready for a vertical presentation and fish those followers while giving them a different bait.
Finally, live bait presentations have been used for generations and will still work in this system. Suckers are a preferred food source of muskies, and anglers using 12- to 14-inch suckers on quick-strike rigs catch very nice fish. It is important to keep a close eye on any live bait presentation so these big trophies don’t swallow treble hooks and can be released unharmed.