May 28, 2020
Editor’s Note: This story is featured in the Midwest edition of the June-July issue of Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale. Get a great deal on an annual subscription here.
If there’s one lure that savvy anglers associate with musky fishing more than any other assemblage of wood, wire and metal, it’s the inline spinnerbait, also known as the bucktail. Indeed, it’s likely that more muskies—of all sizes and throughout their natural and stocked range—are caught on inline spinners than any other artificial presentation.
Built for power fishing, bucktails enable anglers to cover water aggressively and maximize the number of fish that see their lure on any given day. Moreover, inline spinners lend themselves to innovation and customization, and allow musky aficionados to create lures that are precisely honed to attract and trigger fish in their favorite lakes and rivers.
And there’s no better time to churn the water with bucktails than summer. Water temperatures are approaching their annual peaks, and muskies—now completely recovered from the rigors of spawning—are on the chew, ready to chase down fast-moving presentations. Your hunt for summer muskies will begin with weeds, and it’s likely you won’t need to look further than your lake’s dense beds of cabbage and coontail to find all the summer musky action you need.
FIND THE RIGHT WEEDS
Not every vegetated area in your lake will hold quality muskies. We need to consider weed type, water depth and the presence of secondary structural elements when selecting an area to pursue summer Esox.
Of all the possible weed types found in musky waters, cabbage weed and coontail will attract and hold the most fish. Cabbage grows with stout vertical stems, interrupted regularly by long, broad leaves. Coontail is somewhat less robust but grows in beds that are denser than those of cabbage, and the overall cylindrical shape of a coontail stalk provides many of the same musky-attracting characteristics as cabbage.
Indeed, both weeds cast shade within the water column, reducing local water temperature and providing respite from the bright midday sun. Dense stands of cabbage and coontail provide ample cover for baitfish and small panfish. This guarantees that resident muskies and pike have an abundant food supply. These weeds also afford excellent concealment for those same toothy predators. They allow muskies to lurk and loiter undetected until the next feeding opportunity arises.
Well-honed sonar interpretation skills help an angler identify the best weeds for summer musky fishing. Indeed, cabbage and coontail reveal themselves in excellent detail in Humminbird’s side imaging. Cabbage weeds frequently have bright returns in side imaging, as their large, waxy leaves are good reflectors of sonar energy. Moreover, mature cabbage and coontail can both be quite tall. As a result, they cast characteristically long sonar shadows in side imaging. If you’ve found a dense stand of weeds with bright side imaging sonar returns, as well as long, dark sonar shadows, chances are you’ve located a bed of cabbage or coontail that might hold summer muskies.
If you haven’t yet added side imaging to your bag of fish-finding tricks, consider using an underwater camera to confirm weed identifications and focus your musky fishing. The Aqua-Vu Micro Revolution 5.0 camera ($349.99) is a compact underwater camera system that should fit almost any hardcore musky angler’s budget. The camera’s optics provide a crisp underwater video feed in clear to moderately clear waters. It does an excellent job of identifying both structure and fish. The Aqua-Vu Micro Revolution features a long-lasting, rechargeable lithium-ion battery system that’ll last for many musky-hunting trips without needing a recharge, and includes an integrated cable management system that makes deploying and stowing the optics quick and easy. For an ultra-clear, HD-quality video feed, consider the larger Aqua-Vu HD10i camera system ($849.99), which will function better in deep water and musky haunts with more noticeable stain—places like Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods or the tannin-stained waters of Wisconsin’s famous Chippewa Flowage.
THE BUSINESS END
Inline spinners fall into one of two broad categories: lures with a single spinner blade and those with tandem blades. Both can be fished slow or fast. However, be ready for tandem-blade spinners—such as the well-known Double Cowgirl from Musky Mayhem Tackle—to pull back hard on the retrieve. Blade size and shape determine the retrieve speed at which the lure performs best, and the amount of thump and vibration the blade creates as it spins about the lure’s axis.
Long, slender willow-leaf blades function best at high speeds and displace the least amount of water, producing more flash but less thump. Colorado-style blades are typically associated with slightly slower presentations. Crank them too fast and the spinner might “blow out,” no longer rotating smoothly around the lure’s wire backbone. Big Colorado blades move a lot of water as they spin, and they distribute the most vibration into the water column. Look for the amount of thump from a spinner blade to increase as its size increases—as well as the amount of effort needed to retrieve the lure through the water.
With so many sizes, shapes and combinations possible, how does an angler choose a good musky bucktail? In my experience, sparse cover, shallow water and extreme retrieve speeds call for spinners with willow-leaf blades. Meanwhile, dense cover, slower retrieve speeds or fishing after dark call for big single or tandem Colorado-blade spinners.
When it comes to color, I prefer keeping things simple. Black tails with silver or gold blades are great for clear water. Brighter, more colorful combinations—like yellows, oranges or flashy mylar skirts—get the call in stained or turbid water.
Musky fishing requires stout lines and leaders. Most 21st century musky anglers with an eye to conservation select fluorocarbon leaders to prevent bite-offs when chasing Esox instead of the old-school wire leader. Strong yet supple fluorocarbon leaders, like Seaguar AbrazX Musky/Pike leader, feature the abrasion resistance needed to withstand a mouthful of sharp teeth while also protecting the musky’s body, eyes and slime coat as it rolls during the battle. Anglers typically pair a swivel at one end of the leader to a snap at the other. Couple a 3- to 4-foot AbrazX leader in 100-pound test to a stout braided main line, like Seaguar Smackdown in 65-pound test, for your summer bucktail fishing. A good trick for the line-leader junction is to thread a small plastic bead, perhaps a quarter-inch in diameter, onto your main line before you tie on the leader. The round bead will prevent weeds from hanging up on the leader’s swivel and will also keep the swivel from hitting the rod’s tip guide when you reel up and start your figure eight.
SEAL THE DEAL
When fishing with a partner, the angler in the front of the boat should always be fishing the fastest lure—an in-line spinner—while his buddy in the back of the boat picks apart cover with a slower, more methodical presentation, like a glide bait, Suick or even a safety-pin-style spinnerbait.
It’s critically important to keep an eye on your lure as it approaches the boat and to transition smoothly into a figure eight—on every cast—to trigger following fish. A longer rod, one in the 8- to 9-foot range, will facilitate this transition and allow you to make wider, sweeping turns in your boat-side presentation. A longer rod is also a powerful tool for setting the hook and keeping muskies pinned to the lure during the battle.
Finally, be sure to keep a musky-grade net handy. Always carry a good set of release tools to minimize fish damage and make healthy releases more likely.
SPOT MUSKIES WITH MEGA
One of the hottest trends in musky fishing right now is the use of ultra-high-frequency side imaging—not just to locate key fish-holding structure, but also to identify the species of fish holding there. Under the right conditions, this technology can both determine the presence of fish and also tell you if those fish are muskies (or pike). This is not magic. It’s science.
The linchpin for this trend is Humminbird’s MEGA Imaging, which makes use of the highest-available sonar frequency—1.2 megahertz (hence the name)—to provide the side imaging view. Because of its ultra-high sonar frequency, MEGA Imaging can paint the intricacies of both structure and fish with never-before-seen clarity. When it comes to identifying fish in a species-specific manner, the key is to focus on the fish’s dark sonar shadow.
For a large fish, like a pike or musky, that can include an incredible level of detail, including the pointy nose, long body, fins and forked tail. Saltwater anglers who chase big fish have employed this level of species-specific fish identification since the introduction of Humminbird MEGA Imaging, and freshwater anglers chasing the larger Esox species are starting to catch on as well. Look for MEGA Imaging exclusively on current Humminbird HELIX and SOLIX units.