Direction Detection

By Dennis Radloff

It was 11:16 a.m. on October 31 of the 2005 season and I knew we were cutting it close. I would be meeting my second party of half-day guide clients at noon and needed a good 30 minutes to get off that water and reach the meeting place. I had planned to head in at 11 a.m. but we had been getting follows all morning long and we just raised a nice fish …

I really wanted these guys to get a fish!

Longtime client Mike Altschaefl and his father, Joe, had been throwing magnum BullDawgs all morning. Even though we had livebait lines in the water, none of our follows grabbed the sucker. I had just entered a GPS waypoint on a follow and told the guys to keep casting straight out the same side of the boat. “We’re going to coral this one,” I explained.

We had been fishing a traditional parallel-to-structure presentation all morning, which is the same presentation I had been using on this particular lake for about the 11th consecutive day with a good degree of success. “Corralling” is a presentation change I try when the occasion calls for something different to try triggering a strike.

Watching my GPS, I began to run a 360-degree circle around the mark I made on the last known location of this fish. Mike and Joe continued throwing the same presentation; however as I turned the boat the direction of their retrieves continued to change with each cast. As we reached the halfway point of our coral effort the musky made an aggressive swipe at Mike’s BullDawg. It was a clean “swing and miss” on the fish’s part and I began to think we were about to come up minutes short of a getting one in the net. Without hesitation our rear sucker rod began to sing a sweet song as the line ran out gently against the line clicker. A superb double hookset and one of the heaviest 43-inchers I have ever seen was now ready for hook removal in the Big Kahuna. A few quick pictures, some slimy high-5s and we were on our way at 11:30 a.m.!

Corralling is one of the techniques I have used successfully over the years in “crunch time” situations such as tournaments, the last minutes of a guide trip, and especially on pressured metro systems. Here are the applications and methods of some proven direction changes that have worked over the years with great consistency.

When and Why
The two main factors I consider when targeting active fish are location and presentation. Most of the time it seems we can find where they are, but getting them to strike is the challenge ” now we are dealing completely with presentation. Usually when we look at presentation we are considering lure style, color, size, depth and speed. Many times when we feel the need to change our presentation we go for a change on one or all of the above mentioned factors which translates into removing the lure a fish just chased all the way to the boat and replacing it with something different. This works sometimes; however, I have found that if they looked at it once, often they will strike it when the direction is changed. Changing the direction of your retrieve enables you to keep a good lure in the water while adding a new element to your presentation.

I believe direction change can help convert more strikes than switching to an entirely different lure. We’re still keyed in on presentation, but it’s one of the elements of presentation that most anglers don’t consider. The next time you’re out pay attention to one of the known hot spots on your home water ” everyone sets up their boat on the same spot, throwing the same lure, figure-8 hard when the fish follow, and then move on. I have noticed this in tournaments and just about any time on any lake for that matter.

What you seldom see is someone taking a different approach to show the fish a completely different angle.

After many discussions with many talented musky anglers over the years, there seems to be a common belief that while muskies are not rational thinking creatures who base their decisions on calculated information, they do seem to get conditioned to certain presentations. They see the same color, same style lure, and the same direction day in and day out. Out of the three elements of color, style, and direction, which of the three often goes overlooked?

The Reversal
The reversal is probably the most common and often-used direction change used by most, including myself. The reversal is one I use to go back through an area where fish had followed lures to the boat. Usually I set up deep and cast toward shallower structure or to the deep weed edge. To conduct the “reversal” I simply turn the boat around to head right back into the direction we came from, still casting off the same side of the boat, but pull right up on top of the structure, casting at or right on top of the weed edge. Now we are going to fish back through the same area ” we know it’s holding fish and we have changed our presentation by 180 degrees. This is generally done without changing lures.

Another variation of the reversal I like to use is simply starting out by fishing a piece of structure or weedbed in the opposite direction I usually would. For example, one of our local lakes gets a great weed bite every year, and everyone including myself fishes it the same way every day. We keep the boat on the deep weed edge and cast right up to shore. This presentation is offered day after day, so sometimes I like to start out with the boat right on shore and cast out to the deep weed edge. This has been a very effective direction change and produced some decent results on days when everyone else is struggling.

The Right Angle
I have a few variations of the “right angle,” which is not the correct angle but a 90-degree right angle. Usually we run the boat parallel to what we want to cast at, bringing our retrieve back to the boat at a “right angle” to the structure. I like to make a periodic “cast back” after moving through an area, or “cast ahead” before working through. When we do this we are now running our presentation parallel to the structure and the periodic “cast back” or “cast ahead” is now the “right angle” cast and different to the angle of the majority of what we have been conducting for presentation.

The other variation and one of my personal favorites is casting structure in situations where the majority of presentation is conducted by trollers who are running lures parallel to structure.

Now we are getting back to running a traditional presentation where we are running the boat parallel to structure (the same as the boats that are trolling), but our presentation is the only one running in a different direction making it the “right angle.” I have a few musky destinations that are mainly trolled and seldom if ever targeted by casters. By simply casting you are changing the presentation 90 degrees and showing the fish something they seldom see. Many times on these systems mine will be the only boat to catch fish while the trollers come up empty-handed.

The Vertical Attack
Going vertical is another great way to change direction and really pick apart a piece of structure. One of the greatest applications I have seen with this direction change was during a full-day musky hunt with longtime regular Bill Shulte. Bill brought his brother-in-law, Mike Johnson, along on this trip, which just so happened to be during one of the hottest early season weed bites I had ever seen ” we had released muskies every day of the five days leading up to this trip.

On this day with Bill and Mike, we spent the entire morning covering every square inch of the weedbeds that had been producing so well but without a single follow. I was stumped. We went in for a midday break and while the guys enjoyed their lunch I was wracking my brain trying to figure out where the fish had gone. I was sure they were still there but we couldn’t get them to move.

Unfortunately, Mike had to go back to work, so Bill and I returned to take a new approach. We clipped on large Tiger Tubes and started picking away with a vertical presentation right at the base of the weeds, figuring the fish were holding tight to the deep weed edge.

Within five minutes on the first spot Bill released a 39-incher and scored again on the second spot. Then I missed one, then Bill missed another, and we continued enjoying action the rest of the day working this pattern. Going vertical has saved many days and has become a go-to presentation when the going gets tough.

The Corral
Last but not least is the “corral.” This is the “Hail Mary” of direction changes and generally not the standard “go-to.” When push comes to shove I will resort to corralling since it is often a “win-win” situation. I have had success doing this while competing in the Professional Musky Tournament Trail, during the last minutes of a guide trip, and on pressured waters. The worst-case scenario is turning the fish off. In a tournament setting or during a busy day on the water it gives me a peace of mind to know that the chances of someone else catching that fish have just been decreased significantly and we still might have a chance at it later. The best-case scenario is converting the strike! With a little discretion and a quick judgment call you can sometimes make the decision to try this a little easier when you are certain that the fish you just had follow was a “hot fish” and ready to go.

What defines “hot fish”? I would say when the fish is following fast or tight to the lure, if you can see the mouth cracking open with some gill flair, if there’s some “S-curving” in the body, or if you turn the fish even once on a figure-8, these are all signs of what I would consider “hot fish.” In this situation, instead of losing any window of opportunity trying to change lures or grabbing the throw-back rod, simply keep casting what the fish just followed and begin running a big 360-degree circle around the fish with your boat. If you had an overhead view of what your boat course and casting pattern looked like it would resemble that of a sliced pie ready for serving. I have had more success converting hot follows with this direction change than I have with throwing a different lure back.

Then next time you are having a long day of follows without any takers try some of these direction changes before going through all the lures in your box. Changing direction on your presentation can add a new twist to your approach and will surely help you increase the number of fish in the boat for your time on the water.

Full-time guide and tournament pro Dennis Radloff operates the Sterling Guide Service in southeastern Wisconsin. Contact him at (262) 560-1309, www.sterlingmusky.com.

Jim Saric

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