A Time For Topwaters
By Luke Ronnestrand
If you would have asked me 10 years ago what my five favorite lures were for catching big muskies, it’s likely all five lures would have been topwaters. A lot has changed since then, but topwater lures still catch muskies and big ones!
The lakes where I guide musky fishermen are no secret receive plenty of pressure. Patterns are short-lived. If we are lucky, we may have a “hot” lure for a couple years before it becomes less effective. It seems like the fish figure us out eventually and we have to search for another hot lure. In the search for the next best lure it seems like what’s new is old and what’s old is new.The topwater bite has never slowed and seems to be working as well as ever.
Topwater lures and summer go together so well they are almost cliché. In this article, I will reveal my favorite topwater patterns and lures, and the situations when they shine for me. I will also be provide a few tuning tips.
What is called by many as the “summer peak” is when the surface temperatures climb toward and into the 70-degree range, and is arguably the best topwater bite of the season. Usually the climbing surface temperatures coincide with large females muskies returning to their summer patterns after recovering from the spawn. Throw in the first major moon phase in July and big things happen. My topwater selection changes quite a bit during this period.
As the water temperatures climb, the muskies’ activity level follows. The front side of summer peak can produce topwater action 24 hours a day. This is the time when the biggest and loudest lures produce the best. Big tail-rotators generally get the nod at this time with the large Pacemaker, Big Mama’s Psycho Sis’tr, and Magnum LowRiders all being productive. These lures work well in both calmer and windier conditions, when the fish are very aggressive, and are very loud. That’s where the similarities end. The Pacemaker’s middle hook hits against a brass tail which produces a loud clack. It is the loudest of the three, which makes it best in windy conditions. The Pacemaker also works well at a wide range of speeds — fished slowly with its loud noise, and it’s deadly at night. The Psycho Sis’tr is the loudest pure-popper of the bunch, works well under all of the same conditions as the Pacemaker, and seems to be best on the days fish want a new and different noise, making it effective on pressured fish. The Magnum LowRider is different for two reasons — it has front and rear rotating props and is made with aluminum rivets, which make a squealing sound that is very unique. Retrieved at a slow to medium rate under calmer conditions, is hard to beat. With a rotating head and tail this lure looks like it moving faster than it is, which I believe is the trigger.
When the surface is flat calm, I choose a little different line up. Hawg Wobblers have consistently put fish in the boat around the clock near summer peak. There is something to be said about the vulnerable crawl and metallic noises it creates. The 10-inch Weagle is my second favorite because its deep cutting action produces a very loud “swoosh” sound. The noise and action along with a large profile make this lure nearly impossible to ignore.
Post Summer Peak
The topwaters that I choose post summer peak and into August are quite different. As muskies settle into their summer patterns they become more predictable. With predictability comes increased fishing pressure and angling success. With more angling success comes more challenging fishing. While topwater lures will produce heavily-pressured fish, smaller sizes and lures with quicker noises become more productive. Also, the more unique the lure the better in most scenarios.
When it comes to covering water, nothing beats the tail-rotators. The major difference between the lures I choose pre- vs. post-summer peak is the quickness of sounds the lures make. Post summer peak I want a quick, crisp pop instead of a louder, slower plop. Lures like the Dirdy B and Musky Buster’s small LowRider both have these exact qualities. The small Pacemaker gets a lot of playing time when the surface is a little rougher. Once fish have been located or it’s time to slow down, Creepers start to see action. In my opinion, the faster the wingbeat the better. I believe it is the illusion of the lure moving faster than it really is that triggers the bite. Creepers work well under various conditions — day and night, calm and, surprisingly, in the wind. Every year I challenge myself to catch a musky on a new topwater in the wind and it is surprising how they can find a quiet lure in eve the roughest conditions. Sennett Tackle’s Creeptonite and Monster Lures’ Lil’ Creeper are my favorites along with a few made by a couple custom manufacturers. I like the larger lures in the rougher conditions and the smaller ones when it’s calmer.
The walk-the-dog topwaters I choose for post-summer peak are also smaller and slightly subtle, and I use them as throw-back lures or when going back to a previously-located fish. I like Monster Lures’ small One-Eyed Willy and Musky Buster’s Phat Boy. Both of these lures are smaller and cut on a dime. The One-Eyed Willy has a deeper cut, making it even louder, whereas the Phat Boy has a nice pop and hop. No other lure style will draw a reaction strike like this style of bait.
First Massive Cold Front
One very unique quality of the Leech Lake strain of musky is its aggressive nature under cold front conditions. The first major cold front during the end of July or the beginning of August can produce some of the most explosive fishing of the season. The perfect scenario is having the warm water temperatures of midsummer drop to the low 70s to high 60s in the shallows. Muskies prefer to be in water in that temperature range, and this scenario will send a fresh new group of muskies invading the shallows.
Usually, these muskies are big and mad, so I will select the big, loud lures that I used during the pre-summer peak. My favorite lure under these conditions is the large Pacemaker, whose metallic clack along and buoyancy make it the perfect choice. Buoyancy is very important because to hit this pattern right you must fish in the weather that comes with this front. The day the front hits is always the best, though the days after the front are still very good. The week this pattern develops will be my best of the summer for numbers and size, with amazing topwater action.
The great thing about most of the tail-rotating topwaters available today is they are tunable. Most manufactures have their lures tuned to run properly right out of the package, but they can be tuned to have a louder pop or a quicker, quieter pop.
Tuning tail-rotators is fairly simple. Hold the lure vertically in front of you with the nose up and the top of the tail fin facing you. You will see where the fin of the lure is attached to the tail of lure — remember that vertical line. Then look at the part of the fin at the bottom of the lure that is not fixed to the lure, which will be bent to the right or left. Remember that horizontal line. Where the two lines meet should be roughly a 90-degree angle. To tune a tail rotator you simply put your index finger on the front side of the fin and your thumb on the backside. By opening up the angle of the tail you decrease the volume of the pop and increase the tail’s spin speed. If you bend the tail forward, decreasing the angle, you will make the lure louder but slow the spin rate. The loudest pop will usually come from a tail bend of slightly less then 90 degrees.
You can over-cup the fin to the point where the tail will not spin, but if you bend the tail back to the 90-degree angle the tail will spin again.
Learning the art of topwater tuning is important because you can get the most out of a lure under many different conditions. You can tune your topwaters to be loud when necessary and quieter under the proper conditions. Also, this gives you the opportunity to fix a lure whose tail is bent. You can also tune the double-tailed varieties. Tuning one tail for volume and one to spin faster to get multiple sounds is my favorite way to run this style of lure.
The advances in the equipment that is available to us now is nothing short of awesome. We have a number of manufactures producing 9-foot rods and high-quality, high-speed reels.
Long casts are very important to me when fishing topwaters. During some years, boatside conversions happen regularly with topwaters, but most seasons I find it a bit more challenging. Long casts give the muskies more time to make the right choice and bite your lure. Also, casting to key spots well away from the boat to minimize your presence can make the difference between fish in the net and follows.
A long rod will help produce slight directional changes that will trigger strikes away from the boat. Just be careful to not get too out of position if a fish unexpectedly bites. High-speed reels come into play with the long cast because I rarely retrieve my topwaters faster then what I would call medium speed. When a fish bites on the end of a long cast it’s nice to have a reel that picks up nearly 40 inches of line per turn of the handle.
The rods I use are Thorne Bros. Custom Predators in a 9-foot or 9-foot-6 length in extra-heavy action. The Predator series rod blanks are manufactured by St. Croix to Thorne Bros.’ specifications.
I prefer custom rods for options such as larger foregrips and handle lengths. The longer the handle the more leverage you have, and the easier casting will be. The reason I prefer extra-heavy action is because I prefer to not set the hook during a topwater strike. Instead, when a fish strikes and I feel the weight, I simply sweep the rod to my right side and reel down until I load the rod with the weight of the fish. The extra-heavy action gets me locked up with the fish right away, even at the end of a long cast. I prefer the Daiwa Lexa HS-P for topwater fishing, which is a high-speed version and picks up 38 inches of line per turn with plenty of power. These reels are robustly built and take the abuse of big, heavy lures. Line recovery and power are very important for hooking and boating fish that strike on the end of long cast.
Topwater lures and muskies are arguably the most exciting combination in freshwater fishing. Topwaters are also incredibly effective at tricking the largest and most pressured of muskies to your net.
Luke Ronnestrand is a full-time guide on Lake Vermilion, working out of Vermilion Dam Lodge. During the off-season he works at Thorne Bros. Luke can be reached at (952) 807-2947.
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