Pick 5 For Early Esox
By Joel DeBoer, Contributing Writer
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem … well, I had a problem. You see, I started out life wanting to grow up to be a professional bass fisherman. As early as I could read my eyes were combing the pages of every fishing magazine and book I could get my hands on in an attempt to fulfill my dream. While I certainly took notice of articles about musky fishing, in the infinite wisdom of my 7-year-old mind I figured they were the “fish of 10,000 casts,” so bass fishing was the way to go.
But it was during a family excursion to the Minocqua area when my fishing focus abruptly changed. While pitching lures for largemouth bass — coincidentally on Opening Day of musky season, my bait was engulfed by my first musky, a 34-incher. From then on, musky fever had a stranglehold on me! Soon I was enamored with chasing muskies and my Musky Hunter subscription taught me how to catch them. But I never forgot my bass fishing roots and soon found that many of my bass baits were deadly for musky fishing
While much has been written about using smaller lures for muskies under tough conditions or during the early season, “down-sized” is a relatively-loaded term. This article will focus on what most anglers would typically categorize as “bass” lures” because they can be true musky magnets. Given the disparity in lure size from more conventional musky offerings and subsequently lighter hooks and terminal tackle, any discussion of incorporating down-sized lures needs to begin with a look at appropriate equipment.
While not exclusive, my main point of emphasis when determining which rod, reel and line to use when choosing bass baits for muskies begins with the lure’s hook(s). If the lure sports a single hook, especially if it is a heavier-style hook such as commonly found on flipping jigs and spinnerbaits, I choose a long, stout rod with just enough load to accurately and effectively cast the bait. The single hook allows me to use a heavier rod for powerful hooksets and once its firmly set, I will have a higher landing percentage while not having to worry much about the hook’s durability while fighting a big fish. For such fishing, I’ll mount an Abu Garcia Revo Toro atop a St. Croix Mojo Bass Slop-N-Frog or Flippin’ model. Spooled with 15- to 30-pound test braid, this setup will handle baits as light as 3⁄8- or 1⁄2-ounce.
For bass-sized lures sporting treble hooks, such as Rapala Husky Jerks, Storm Twitch Sticks, etc., I again look for a long rod but one with more flex to absorb the shock of fighting large fish pinned to lighter hooks. While I always change out the split rings to heavier models and prefer to replace the hooks on any bass bait I intend to use for musky fishing, to maintain the lure’s action and triggering qualities you frequently need to use lighter hooks than you are accustomed to. You will also need more finesse when fighting fish — the correct rod makes a world of difference! If you must change to heavier hooks, consider using two on a lure that comes with three. Longer bass-model rods designed to cast crankbaits should be your choice.
Here are the five you probably aren’t fishing, but should:
1. Safety-pin style spinnerbaits — Spinnerbaits from 1⁄4- to 3⁄4-ounce appeal to early season muskies for a variety of reasons. For starters, the size and relative profile of the bait is very much akin to preferred forage species such as panfish and shad. Depending on weight and blade configuration, spinnerbaits can be used in a variety of ways, and by simply casting and reeling will cover a lot of water. Terminator’s T-1 Original Titanium Spinnerbait line-up can be especially effective when fished through cover. A plastic trailer will add vibration, size and silhouette. I keep a Plano soft-side containing over 50 different trailer combinations encompassing a vast array of different colors and styles in my Ranger year-round for use on blade baits. My favorite trailers for early season spinnerbait muskies are 4-inch Mister Twister Double Tail or Split Double Tails. An additional strike-provoking maneuver with spinnerbaits is helicoptering — or allowing the lure to periodically fall in the water column — by simply stopping your retrieve. This technique is deadly on sluggish follows, and allows one to “hang” the lure in key areas such as specific weed pockets and edges, alongside fallen trees and other ambush points that conventional lures might pass by too quickly.
Whereas the standard cast-and-retrieve method is meant to cover shallow water or higher in the water column, slow-rolling spinnerbaits does just the opposite. This consists of casting the lure out, allowing it to flutter down to the bottom and then retrieving it just fast enough for the blades to spin. It’s an excellent post-spawn producer as well as during cold fronts or high pressure, and excels along drop-offs adjacent to spawning areas, deep weed edges and submerged timber. Depending on water depth, I still opt for a T-1, but will instead use a 1⁄2- or 3⁄4-ounce model to maximize depth and speed control. My preferred trailer for slow-rolling is a 3- or 4-inch Mister Twister Sassy Shad — there’s something magic about a paddle tail retrieved at slow speeds.
2. Weedless Spoons — Spoons are the Rodney Dangerfield of the musky box – they don’t get any respect. Weedless spoons such as the Johnson Silver Minnow are great when the bite appears fickle and muskies seem to be buried in the thickest vegetation or other heavy cover. Contact with cover is often a key strike-triggering mechanism, and not only are weedless spoons effective at doing just that, they were designed for it. The single-hook design allows for high hooking percentages and the bait’s simplicity means even the most inexperienced of anglers can achieve success almost immediately. Even more so than with spinnerbaits, the addition of a plastic trailer is truly a key component of presenting weedless spoons; whereas I like larger trailers when fishing spinnerbaits, with spoons I am much more attentive to trailer size — too large of a trailer and the spoon’s wobble is compromised.
With 1⁄2- to 1 1⁄8-ounce Silver Minnows, a 3-inch Mister Twister tail is typically my trailer of choice, although I will go to a 4-inch Twister tail when throwing the 1 1⁄8-ounce model, which itself measures 3 3⁄4 inches. Although no longer in production, my favorite lure in this category is the old Rapala Minnow Spoon. The beauty of the Minnow Spoon is that the single hook was attached to the body of the lure via a split ring rather than soldered directly to it, as is the case of the Johnson Silver Minnow. The split-ringed hook allows the plastic trailer to swing independently of the spoon itself, thus creating a dual rocking motion. I have begun making my own Minnow Spoon-style baits by removing the treble hook on a DarDevle and replacing it with Mustad W3369A, which is a weedless single hook available up to size 5/0. With the plastic trailer threaded on the split-ringed trailer hook, the combination has an excellent back-and-forth swinging motion.
3. Swim Jigs — Simplicity, low maintenance, easy to use, and incredibly effective. Having been made quite popular in recent years with a small-but-loyal following, swim jigs during the early season is a technique that any musky angler should incorporate into his repertoire. Designed to target fish in cover that would be difficult or even impossible to fish conventional, open-hook-style lures, swim jigs are equally effective in more open water situations such as when fishing large flats, sand or rock bars, and submerged points and humps. The process is simple — having selected a size and weight applicable to the depth of water you are fishing, cast and retrieve the jig, using only the reel itself to impart a drop and rise action by varying the cadence of the handle, even stopping reeling on occasion, while keeping the rod tip pointed at the incoming lure. Bites can be surprisingly subtle, especially on the drop, so vigilance need be kept to avoid missing strikes. The 3⁄8-ounce Swim Jig by Terminator Tackle is perfect for the shallowest of fishing situations while J-mac Lures and Li’l Hustler’s musky jigs are available in 5⁄8- to 1 1⁄2-ounce sizes.
Regardless of which jig you are using, complete the equation by tipping it with a 4- to 6-inch paddle-tail style trailer such as the Mister Twister Sassy Shad. Rig the shad trailer with the flat side of the lure parallel to the surface of the water, which allows for the lure to flutter and glide on the drop, and do so much more slowly than if the trailer was rigged vertically. The flexibility of swim jigs is that they can be used as both search lures or in more of a slow, finesse-style retrieve. As simple as they may be, they are downright deadly on muskies, especially in colder water situations such as we all often face during season opener. Throw in the fact that swim jigs flat out are not utilized by many anglers, and you have a lure that is not only potent, but one the fish do not see often.
4. Plastic Lizards — I remember the trip quite vividly: a cold spring had played havoc with the beginning of fishing season and now that musky opener had arrived, scores of smallmouth bass were on the beds while muskies were cruising the shallows. My guests for the day, initially smitten with smallmouth fishing, quickly became captivated by the green giants regularly cruising by the boat. The muskies were far from enthusiastically chasing any of the “spring” musky lures I was able to locate in one of my boat’s compartments, at least not until a more thorough search yielded a bag of 6-inch plastic lizards. Five muskies later I was convinced, springtime muskies love lizards.
Mister Twister’s 6-inch Super Lizard and the Berkley Havoc Boss Dog are standouts for this type of fishing. Depending on water depth, I prefer to fish the Texas-rigged lizard unweighted as the slow fall maximizes the action of the flapping appendages. Once on the bottom, subtlety is key — use the rod tip to make the bait shimmy and shake, quiver and dance with as little horizontal movement as possible. Sight fishing muskies can be frustrating but intensely exhilarating as well, and patience is key. Minimizing noise and movement in the boat is imperative. In addition to sight-fishing, I have also found lizards to be exceptional throw-back lures during this time frame for fish that follow other offerings won’t commit.
5. Suspending Jerk/Twitchbaits — Although the category may not be foreign to musky anglers, the lures and sizes may be: Rapala Husky Jerks and X-Raps, Storm Twitch Sticks and other similar 4- to 51⁄2-inch baits. Immensely popular with bass, walleye and pike anglers, these baits are just as deadly for early season muskies. As mentioned earlier, beefing up the hooks is often the very first step I take before beginning to cast them for muskies, but make sure your “upgrades” do not negatively affect the action or suspending nature of the lure. As with so many other fish species and applications, cadence is absolute key when fishing with suspending jerk/twitchbaits.
I generally begin by fishing them aggressively, but incorporating 1- to 3-second pauses between rips; if the fish dictate that I may speed up, I do so and vice versa. In really nasty conditions, or if I know specifically where a fish is holding, I often incorporate pauses of five-plus seconds during the course of the retrieve. While this seems painfully slow (and it is), the bone-jarring strike after a 5-count makes it worthwhile. Know the limits of the tackle you are using and do not be afraid to rely on the teamwork of your reel’s drag and the action of your rod to assist you in fighting a big fish. While you certainly do not want to play a fish to exhaustion, you need also be mindful of just how much pressure your gear can put on a fish before failing.
Keep an open mind this season opener — let the weather, circumstances and muskies tell you what you should be throwing. There’s nothing worse than being on the water wishing for a handful of lures that are back home in the garage. Do a little “micro” managing this season and see if you can’t come up big!
For more about Contributing Writer Joel DeBoer, visit jdonthewater.com
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