Minutia Matters: A Review Of Things That Can Mean Everything
By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
We … check that … Kevin Schmidt had already determined the color the muskies wanted. Casting a Double Cowgirl with silver and black Livewire blades and a black holoform skirt, Kevin had so far outfished me three muskies to none for the day. We had already ruled out speed of retrieve as the reason for Kevin’s edge over me, and through lack of action I established without a doubt the muskies didn’t want spinners with plain silver and black metal blades.
Desperate to make something happen, I dug through my spinners and found a Livewire spinner with matching blades, but with a flat-black skirt rather than black holoform. Soon Kevin caught a fourth and then a fifth musky, before finally I dropped my spinner on top of a fish and broke out of my slump. My musky belted my spinner shortly after splash-down and the headshakes were clearly those of a big fish. Keeping my rod tip low to (at least try) to force the fish to stay deep, I slowly worked it to the boat where Kevin scooped it into the big net. After photos, the big musky was released.
An hour later when we took a break for dinner, I dug further into my spinners until I found a silver and black Livewire Cowgirl with a black holoform tail. From that point on, Kevin and I matched each other fish for fish, as that particular color pattern remained the hot bait for the week despite our efforts to find something better.
To sum up this instance, the muskies wanted a double-bladed spinner with one silver blade with reflective tape and one black blade with reflective tape, and a black holoform tail, over spinners with matching blades but a flat black tail, and spinners that were identical except they didn’t have the reflective tape.
I know what you’re thinking — this kind of stuff shouldn’t matter. I would really like to believe that, but I’ve seen too many instances in which such minutia matters to the muskies to believe otherwise. Lures of different colors, buoyancy, profile and water movement all have their time and place. I think you’ll agree when you’re finished reading this article that minor differences can mean everything.
Considering all the different materials used in the tails nowadays, I have a hard time calling a spinner a “bucktail.” So, for this discussion, I’ll refer to them as spinners.
Take what is likely the most common double-bladed spinner — one with two silver blades and a black tail — and compare it to one with two black-plated blades and a black tail. On the surface they look very similar. However, I can come up with six more variations from these two standard colors, all of which I’ve seen be the “hot” bait for a week-long trip at one time or another. Starting with two silver blades and a black tail, here are the remaining seven: two silver blades with a black holoform tail; silver blade/black blade with a black tail; silver blade/black blade with a black holoform tail; silver Livewire blade/black Livewire blade with a black tail; silver Livewire blade/black Livewire blade with a black holoform tail; two black-plated blades with a black tail; and two black-plated blades with a black holoform tail.
Taking the color discussion a step further, many anglers like double-bladed spinners with two chartreuse blades when fishing on overcast or rainy days, as well as in the evening. I like brighter spinners in the same scenarios, except the first bait I’ll choose will have one chartreuse blade and one white blade. While spinning in the water, the two chartreuse blades appear as a bright yellow, but a combination of chartreuse and white blades will appear as a muted, or faded, yellow. For proof of the latter color’s effectiveness, consider of the 12 muskies I personally caught on double-tens during the week-long 2017 University of Esox Canada Musky Adventure at Sandy’s Blackhawk Island Camp, nine were on the chartreuse/white mix.
Why do such minute differences sometimes matter? It likely has to do with water color at the time you’re fishing, but it also may also be the fact your bait is slightly different from what’s being cast by everyone else. In the latter scenario, the more fishing pressure your favorite waters receive or the more your favorite baits are cast by others, the greater the likelihood that minor differences count.
We can go further if we start investigating lure size. For the past decade I have firmly believed that double-tens will outfish other spinner sizes overall through the duration of the musky season, but there are days and weeks when downsizing to double-nines, eights and sevens, or upsizing to 12’s or 13’s, will make a difference. If the water is warm, and especially if fishing in Canada, I usually start with tens and adjust from there.
What I call a “minnowbait” is nothing more than a flat-sided crankbait. Reel it in and it will dive and wiggle like a crankbait, but the real magic occurs when you twitch it because the flat sides throw off lots of fish-attracting flash. Examples are ShallowRaiders, Slammers, Grandmas, Jakes, etc.
Color can make a big difference, as casting a perch-colored minnowbait when the fish are eating perch can be more effective than a minnowbait of a different color. However, I think there are factors that matter more, as in the amount of flash a particular bait gives off when twitched, its buoyancy, its profile moving through the water, and the water it moves.
Generally, a minnowbait with a round lip like a Grandma or Jake will have less wiggle and flash when twitched than one with a flat-ended or square lip like a ShallowRaider or Slammer. A less-buoyant minnowbait will “hang” more in the water column and may trigger a less-reluctant fish than one that pops right back to the surface when you pause mid-twitch. As a rule, the larger the minnowbait the more buoyant it is because there is more air trapped inside. An exception to both rules is Salmo’s Skinner, a round-lip minnowbait that has a smaller profile but throws an incredible amount of flash.
Of course, larger minnowbaits tend to have greater side profile and move more water than smaller baits. Why does this matter? You’ll typically want a smaller minnowbait when fish are less aggressive or when making multiple casts to the same small spot, such as an isolated weedbed or a fallen tree. If you’re trying to twitch a bait over the top of a thick weedbed, a smaller, buoyant minnowbait generally helps. In chaotic situations, such as when fishing in waves around rocks, your bait needs to get noticed. Profile, flash and water movement can all make your lure stand out, so go with a larger Grandma, Jake or a Magnum ShallowRaider.
Other Bait Types
By now, I hope you’re getting to understand the subtleties of lure differences. Here are a few more:
• Two diver jerkbaits that work essentially the same are the Suick Muskie Thriller and Bobbie Bait. A Suick is usually my first choice because I work them aggressively with long rod sweeps, a retrieve that seems to work for me. However, a Bobbie has a wider head design and is much more buoyant, so if I’m fishing around thick weeds the Bobbie will bump its face into the weeds and protect its hooks better. When fishing for suspended muskies, a Bobbie’s greater width will cause a more wobbly, erratic rise, which can trigger reluctant fish. However, if the fish want a long, sweeping, darting action, the Suick wins. Pick the bait for the application at hand.
• Gliders have almost become a forgotten bait in this day of giant spinners and rubber baits, but they remain as effective as ever. The best are those that dart initially and then slow to a wobbling glide, as well as those that rise and dive in addition to moving side-to-side. Gliders that maintain a horizontal plane tend to produce follows, but little else. I rarely choose anything but a Hellhound, Phantom or Reef Hawg when I need to fish a glider because they give me the control to speed up, slow down, bring the bait up in the water column or make them dive.
• For years, the TopRaider was the topwater of choice for thousands of anglers. Then the PaceMaker, with its distinct clicking sound, was the pick, and lately the hot topwater has been Lake X’s Fat Bastard and Cannonball Jr. Never forget that every topwater has its own sound and cadence, and when the production of your favorite falls off it’s a good idea to have a different model in reserve. In the last year I’ve seen more active fish behind my old TopRaiders. Through all the incantations of such baits, an ancient LeLure Water Thumper whose tail piece is held on by a wrap of wire continues to produce because its thump and splash is far different from what most anglers are currently casting.
• Ever wonder which soft plastic you should be casting? A Bull Dawg or Medussa are always a good choice, but because it has greater wiggle the Medussa is my pick when fish are more aggressive. A Shallow Dawg is great in skinny water, but when fish prefer a slower retrieve and fall, it can be the hot choice even when working deeper weed edges or open water.
So … How?
Casting favorite lures aside, how do you determine which bait is the right one the day you’re on the water? Always consider that in stable or pre-frontal conditions, more flash, vibration, size and speed is often better, whereas in post-frontal conditions, less is more. Neutral or turned-off muskies tend to prefer less flash, vibration and speed from your baits, as well as smaller size.
When you go on a musky-fishing trip, you have hours, days, or maybe a week to determine the best lure for the situation. The sooner you figure it out the more muskies you’ll probably catch, so time is paramount. You must work as a team with your boat partner(s).
Experience on my favorite waters has taught me what should work in a given situation, and that’s my starting point. I want what should work being cast from the bow of the boat so it’s the first bait muskies see when fishing down a shoreline or a similar edge. To determine the variables of retrieve speed, boat speed and boat control, I switch off running the boat with many of my fishing partners, with the bait that should work being cast by the angler in front. That way we’re both using it, but its retrieve speed or the closeness of the boat to cover or structure will likely vary due to differences of how the angler fishing “first” is running the boat. If my fishing partner is moving fish on the lure that should work while I’m not, then I need to mimic what he’s doing with his retrieve or how he’s positioning the boat. If my bait appears to be hot, then my partner needs to copy my retrieve or boat position.
The job of the second or third person in the boat is to narrow down the preferred bait by trying different colors, sizes and/or retrieves than the guy running the boat, or using a completely different lure type. Understand that picking through your tackle box in the hope of finding a lure that produces magic is a complete waste of time. Discovering what the muskies prefer demands a systematic approach.
Once you learn to dial in the “bite” to the specific lure (including its size and color), retrieve and cover or structure, you’ll find musky success will become a predictable event. Consider it life-changing, because once you get to that point you won’t fish any other way.
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