Being Mechanically Perfect

By Spence Petros

You would think that just because a person is a musky angler, he or she would know more about the basics than the average angler. After all, anyone who fishes for the ultimate freshwater trophy has to be fairly accomplished. While the average musky angler may be a cut above the rest, I still see plenty of mistakes happening on the water.In my fishing classes I teach every spring, a part of the first nights session is devoted to getting attendees as “mechanically perfect” as possible. When you are dealing with a minimal amount of strikes, mistakes have got to be rare. Even with almost 40-years of musky fishing experience behind me, I, like everyone else, will still screw up every now and then.

On one October trip I attempted a deep net job on a 30-pound musky I wanted badly for one of my best friends who had never caught a decent size musky. It was windy and he fought the fish sitting down, but I still should have more patient. The fish was hooked on a crankbait that had 3 treble hooks. Instead of waiting for the musky to tire and come up closer to the surface, I tried to net it too soon, something you don’t do several feet under the surface with an exposed front treble hook. The hook hung on the bag, the fish twisted, rolled, and then ripped free. Luckily my friend was a wise and caring person who saw I really felt bad. He consoled me saying our friendship was more important than a fish and not to worry about it. This lifted quite a burden off my shoulders and was a good lesson about the quality of this person. I know several high-strung egomaniacs that would have reacted a lot different.

One classic mistake occurred when I had two relatively inexperienced musky anglers in my boat. They hadn’t been seeing much so I took them out after dinner. On the first spot we fished, a beautiful 25-pounder charged one of the anglers lures hard, eyes flashing and wanting the bucktail. With the fish about 8-feet from the boat I heard a shout “there’s one”, and turned to see the angler having the follow stop reeling. The bucktail fluttered softly towards bottom and the musky veered sharply to the side. After about 15-seconds of dead silence I heard “ I guess that’s what you call buck fever”. “Yep” was my one word reply.

Being Mechanically Perfect

Practice makes perfect really makes sense when it comes to musky fishing. You should try to be as mechanical as possible on every cast, which means the same smooth routine on every cast and crisp, positive reactions to follows, strikes, and hooked fish. I can watch a person make two or three casts and get a pretty good feeling about how good or bad of a musky angler I’ve got in the boat. Study the mechanics of a good musky angler casting and here’s what you’ll generally see: low-trajectory, accurate two-handed snapped casts, not big looping arches that can get blown off target by moderate winds. When the lure is in mid-air, an experienced right-handed caster will usually shift the reel into his left hand, or may learn to cast left-handed to avoid hand switching at all (a lefty using a right-handed reel will have no problem at all); rod tip is usually held low (some lures dictate a higher position) and pointed in the general direction of the lure, which helps achieve a powerful, sharp, hook-set. Having a long-billed hat, and polarized glasses that have wide pieces of glass or plastic along their sides to further reduce glare are part of good “mechanics” because they help you become more efficient.

A skilled musky angler will be the picture of concentration. Near-perfect boat control, while scanning the waters, shorelines, and sonar for any clues that can help. Accurate casts are expected, along with minimal hangs, while watching for a strike or following fish. And the good ones just don’t see the obvious follows. They note a deep flash before the lure comes into view, a shadow that turns back into the inky darkness, or a small wake a yard or two behind their top-water.

Virtually every cast should be ended with a “figure 8” or at least with a “J”, before the lure is lifted out of the water. Don’t be in a hurry to pull the lure out, especially when fishing stained water. You’ll see a sharp musky angler snap a crankbait forward several times on each cast, and rip a deep-diver upwards as it approaches the boat. Both maneuvers are practiced to trigger a following fish. An experienced bucktail angler will generally favor a rod at least 8-feet long that will allow him or her to change the direction and speed of the lure as it nears the boat. A longer rod will also allow an astute angler to weave a high-riding bucktail tight to a particular clump, or through a narrow slot. More accurate lure placements may be needed to catch muskies on heavily pressured waters.

Watch the smoothness into a figure 8 that occurs when this boat side tactic is executed by a good musky angler. No herky-jerky motion, no pause to decide what to do, and certainly no “buck fever” when a fish is sighted. And if the musky doesn’t hit during the first couple of 8’s, watch how a seasoned angler will plunge the rod deeper, or make the lure angle up towards the surface, then explode downward, or go into a big circle instead of just going side-to-side. Short jerks or splashes may be tried, or the lure will be pulled completely around the bow or stern of the boat…and all in a smooth, mechanical, confident manner.

There are two lines of thought about what to do with the line release while executing a figure 8. Some well-respected anglers claim they favor doing the “8” with the reel in free-spool with their thumb clamped down tightly on the spool. When the musky hits the hook is set and the fish usually makes a short burst. At the end of that “run”, the reel is engaged and the battle is on.

I favor making boat-side maneuvers with the reel engaged, but with the drag set light enough so it can be pulled out. When a fish hits next to the boat, I may quickly depress the free-spool to release line. Then I also wait for the first burst to end, engage the reel, and continue the fight.

You probably won’t be able to release the line by hitting the free spool when the rod is severally bent. The tip usually has to be dropped a little to get some of the tension off the reel spool. To test how much pressure it takes to “unlock” a stressed reel, tie the line to something, apply a bend to the rod and push the button. If it doesn’t release, reduce the stress on the rod by lightening up on the pressure and try again. After a little testing the process becomes pretty easy. I have never lost a musky because I couldn’t get the reel out of gear to release the line. But I have heard of numerous instances where advocates of free spool figure 8’s got caught by a surprise strike and backlashed the reel after a surprise strike. This is easy to do with cold fingers, particularly when using a hard “super line”, or when the lure is blasted after hours of no action.

Hooking, Fighting and Landing Muskies

The mechanics of good casts and figure 8’s are a must, and our next considerations are hooking, fighting and landing muskies. Savvy musky anglers aren’t waiting for a rod-jolting strike. They may see a sidewards movement of their line as a fish attacks from the side, a sharp “tick” when a falling lure such as a jig or spinnerbait is engulfed, or note that the tip-shaking vibrations from a crankbait or bucktail have halted because a musky has overtaken the lure from the rear.

These subtle strikes may turn into hard pulls felt a split second later, or the musky can eject the lure and you never knew what happened. Razor-sharp hooks help this situation a lot, as they often hang on the skin long enough for you to feel the fish.

While the rod tip is usually held no higher than parallel to the surface, a seasoned musky angler will sweep the rod to the side on a hook-set, while an inexperienced angler may set with a more upwards pull. Muskies are much harder to hook through the roof of their mouth than they are in the corner of their jaw. You may be able to drive the hook(s) through the upper jaw of a smaller musky, but the big ones present a problem. And even if you find a more tender area to bury a barb or two easily near the sides of their mouth, a heavy lure can tear a hole or be tossed free on a head shake, jump or roll, But stick a razor-sharp treble into that corner of the jaw and that fish is yours, unless a monumental fish-playing screw up occurs, which is our next topic (even on a figure 8 try to set the hook more sidewards than upwards if possible).

Seeing someone do a figure 8 with 4-feet of line out, or reel in a hooked fish to within a couple feet of the rod tip tells me I have a relatively inexperienced angler aboard. NEVER, have the line to a hooked fish be shorter than the length of your rod! When I observe an angler reel a wire leader to within a foot of the rod tip when battling a musky I expect the worst to happen, and it often does. I’ve seen muskies on these short lines quickly roll up on the line right to the rod tip and snap it like a toothpick, or dart under the boat to break the line, rip the hooks free, or wrap around the motor. Even when hand-releasing a musky, how do you grab it with just a few feet of line out? Sure, more line can be released, but why put yourself in that position in the first place. A line that is at least the length of your rod to a foot or two longer, gives you a lot more room for error to combat any boat-side surprises.

Once a fish is hooked my next concerns are; do I have to move it away from cover, and how well is it hooked. If the strike occurred near cover quickly try to move the musky as fast as possible. A long sweeping hook-set with the rod parallel to the surface, along with some hard cranking should do the trick.

I may play a musky hard, soft, or somewhere in between, depending on how it is hooked. If the musky is lightly hooked, swimming parallel to the boat and the hook is on the side of the fish facing me, I usually don’t apply much pressure. But if the fish reverses direction, more pressure can be applied that now pulls the hook into the fishes face. I’ve even “rehooked lightly hooked muskies that I really wanted, by pulling the lure into their mouths, if the correct angle became available.

Watching a large musky jump and crash back down into the water is an awesome sight, unless your lure has just been launched into space. Sometimes if a musky under 20-pounds is hooked, I’ll often hold the rod tip high so the fish will jump. If it get off, it gets off. More likely than not the rod tip will be held inches above the surface, and some pressure will just about always be on the fish to keep it in the water. Jumps may occur, but they are a lot less apt to happen.

The mechanics of playing and releasing muskies may differ from one veteran angler to the next. I usually fish with a fairly tight drag than can be pulled out by the fish with a fair amount of pressure. My thumb is clamped down on the spool on the hook-set, and if cover isn’t a problem, I may quickly turn the drag (after the set) counter-clockwise an inch or two (drags vary) so line will more easily play out. When I want to move the fish, the rod will be pumped, while my thumb clamps down to keep the drag from slipping. Some excellent anglers are touting hitting the free-spool button every time a fish makes one of their short runs. What method used is OK, as long as it can ALWAYS be done as mechanically perfect as possible.

The best release, for the fish and you, is done without taking the fish out of the water. Just reach down with a long-handle pliers of at least 10-inches, and pop the hook free. This works best on lightly hooked fish. Unfortunately, other releases are generally needed. If a musky is under 40-inches, I can usually grab it behind the “shoulders” with my left hand, and work the hook loose with my right. I may hand-land muskies hooked on a jig, or bucktail with a single treble when fishing alone, or if with a “net person” I don’t trust. When landing bigger fish, I’ll often slid a gloved hand (welders or heavy-duty rubber glove) between the gill plate and gills and gently lift the fish out of a large net. Some anglers use a “cradle”, and I’ve tried it a few times, but fish have to be played out more before they can be led into into a cradle, plus lures tend to get caught up more in the mesh.

When using smaller sized, 3-hooked lures, I usually take off the 3 trebles and put on two larger, stronger, hooks on the front and rear. My hooking percentage is probably a little higher, and the stronger hook is better for controlling fish. I’m also less likely to get hooked when handling a fish, and the musky is less apt to get a dangling, spare hook in the eye or other vulnerable area.

There are several good ways and plenty of bad ways to handle larger muskies, with the in-water release being best, but who doesn’t want to take a quick photo of a big musky. I will generally put a monster musky into a large net, but not one with a cotton bag that easily tears or hangs up on hooks. The nets favored by most serious musky anglers are Frabils and Beckmans. I particularly like the “treated” net bags they make with the rubberized coating. Temperature doesn’t affect them, they are very strong, and hooks don’t easily get caught up in the mesh. I really big nets because you never know when that once in a lifetime monster will be hooked.

These wide, deep, treated nets work great on large fish caught on multi-hooked lures, because you don’t have to lead them into the net and risk a hook getting caught on the bag. A wide-rimmed net coming up from under a big musky will allow you to get most of it’s length (from the head back) in on the upwards scoop. After some initial thrashing by the fish, the musky is then unhooked in the net while it’s still in the water. If it’s hard to get a hook out, cut it free and so the fish isn’t overly stressed. Some hooks will inevitably be tough to reach with a “side-cutter” type hook cutter. I prefer the style with the cutting mechanism on the tip. This allows you to reach tough-to-get at places that a side cutter can’t. The tip style cutters also seem to give you more leverage to more easily snip off a hook. I’ve cut hooks out of fish and people from Canada to South America, and believe me, no price is too much when a big hook is planted in your body. The best cutters I’ve used are the ones sold by Musky Hunter magazine and the Felco C7 cutter. Both these cutters goes through metal up to 1/8 inch thick.

There you have it, some of the important mechanics of musky fishing. Getting in the habit of being as mechanically perfect as possible goes a long way. And when that big one hits you’ll be able to take care of her in a systematic manner. Now if I can only get my heart to stop pounding and my knees from getting weak! To be placed on a mailing list for Spence Petros’ newsletter and Fishing Schools, go to his web site

Tackle Tips

On virtually all my reels I’ve gone to no-stretch “super lines”. The 14-17 pound test on my spinning reels that used to be favored when jig fishing, has been replaced with 20-30 pound test Spider Wire Stealth. When casting crankbaits, bucktails, or top-waters, 80-pound test Spider Wire Stealth or Power Pro is used. Put about 20-yards of mono on your reel that’s the same diameter as the super line to be used, tie it to the braided or fused line with a back to back uni-knot, and wind it on tight. I often go outside after spooling, tie the line to an object, and walk out almost all the line, then reel it back on very tight , almost pulling myself to where it was tied.

There are several great reels on the market for muskies that I really like. I have great success with Garcia’s Revo Toro series. The “Winch” is as good of a reel for pulling the big double bladed bucktails as you’ll find. Shimano’s has several saltwater reels that some hard core musky angler favor, but they are pretty expensive.

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