Consider Small Changes for Muskies

By Tony Grant

“Top 5 times to downsize baits”

Let’s fess up; we all like to throw those MANLY muskie baits. Tossing those magnum Bulldawgs, Cowgirls and Hangten Mantas just seem to be part of the mystic in chasing the “King of Fresh Water” the mighty muskie. These large baits that make your body ache to no end do in fact frequently produce and are the backbone in most of our lure presentations throughout the year. However there are times when these giant baits can’t even get a look from a hungry muskie, on the other hand there are periods that a simple change in lure size can be the key to consistently boating fish under certain situations. From the season opener to the close many times I have found that downsizing can make the difference in making a successful outing. Let me share with you the top 5 times my clients, tournament partners and I downsize our lure choices.



1) The Early Season
It’s no secret to the readers of Musky Hunter Magazine that early season success many times can be based around lure selection. Early season downsizing has been discussed many times, but maybe some of the most important reasons we downsize in the early season can be related to other times of the year and give us an indication when the appropriate times to go small are. Smaller lures more times than not capture many more muskies than the traditional larger baits as the season kicks off. Many speculate on why this is true but I believe its several reasons that have these muskies selecting smaller portions at this time of year. For one an abundance of hatchlings at this time is at its highest, plus most other gamefish are still staging deeper as their march to shallow water is generally behind the muskies. Also reaction strikes could just be at there peak during the early season as the muskies pursuit for food slows but the need to eat is still there. Maybe even baitfish become a little bolder as they see the behavior of the sluggish pre and post spawn muskies. My experience has showed me that bass fisherman come in contact with more muskies than the muskie anglers in the early season, hearing stories of sightings and catches before the water warms gave me the confidence to make sure the smaller lures are the first out of my box. Whether tossing lipless crankbaits in southern reservoirs or small inline spinners up north, a smaller presentation often is the key to boating early season muskies.

2) Match the Hatch
Knowing the forage is always a key in catching muskies as to color and shape but pinpointing the size can be a major factor for a successful hunt during different stages of the year. As you know all baitfish species come in different hatchings which mean a variety of sizes. A repeating example of this size relation is one of my most dependable patterns on many smaller northern lakes. At times during the hottest part on the summer small perch show up in the shallow weed beds in great masses and as the fish eat fish world revolves, the muskies are right behind. I observe many anglers tossing larger more conventional muskie baits in these areas but most of the time the more consistent catches are on downsized lures. On the other hand just weeks before the smaller perch showed I noticed larger 5 to 6 inch variety darting out behind my lures. After seeing this several times over a few days we hooked on a smaller Delong Killer El which looked the most like those sporadic fish, the results were two twenty pound fish over the next 2 days. Matching the likeness to your hatch is not only the key factor, imitating its movement can be invaluable. Loose wobbles or tight wiggles should influence your selections when downsizing your lure presentation.

3) Angler Pressure
In Kentucky heavy pressure may be as high as anywhere in the muskie world at times, remember anglers in the south have limited lake choices. Many times you’re just a cast length away from other muskie anglers. Over the years downsizing in my boat has been the most effective presentation when fishing behind other anglers. I recall times when altering our lures to bass size buzz baits scored fish way more regularly than the standard musky size when amongst pressure from other anglers. This downsizing method can also be found exceptionally true when trolling; many times just dropping down to bass size lures has but fish in my Ranger when up against other stiff competition. I remember a haunting dry spell on Cave Run a few years back when the word got out of a hot troll bite, weeks of success turned cold as an unusual number of anglers pounded the common trolling pattern around our flats. After a day or so of frustration with no action my clients and I kicked down from our steady producing 7″ Wiley lures to the smaller 5″ models in the same color patterns. Our success was quick, in just a short period of time we landed 2 mid forties muskies that lead me to a great pattern during the following week where the smaller Wiley’s produced 13 fish in next 4 days for my boat, when others were struggling. In tournaments downsizing can sometimes be the difference in placing or going home empty handed. I fish almost a dozen tournaments each year and before every event most all competitors spend a day or 2 runnin and gunnin trying to find active muskies; those waters are now more pressured. Stop and think a minute, don’t you believe most of the lakes you find the toughest get the most pressure. I look back at the first ever PMTT event on Wisconsin’s Madison Chain in 2002 my partner Don Phieffer and I as well as most all other teams after day one had no fish as it seemed the heavy pressure drove the muskies closer to the bottom. Don and I decided to go smaller to get deeper and in just a few hours scored the fish that landed us a fourth place paycheck in a tournament that produced very few fish. Occurrences like these make the decision easier to downsize under heavy pressure from other anglers.

4) Cold Fronts
These dreaded days which commonly try to foil our confidence levels can often be overcome by basic lure choice, downsizing here can be the ticket to leaving the lake with photos or not. Obviously the early or late season cold fronts can make our muskies quite fickle. Many times as little as changing from a 2 oz CJ’s spinnerbait to a smaller profile rubber skirt of a 1 oz Grim Reaper has made the difference under less than idea conditions following negative weather chances. For what ever reason muskies are not nearly as aggressive under extreme post cold front conditions, I have seen many times not in just my boat but other guides and guest at Mountain Muskie Lodge that making a change to a smaller presentation could get the attention of these stunned fish. Just last year a great case in point to back up this theory, when a first time muskie angler landed 9 fish in 2 days while the rest of the lodge anglers and I were shut down during a long southern cold front. That fellow showed up at the lodge very excited about his first muskie trip, a lodging package he had won that I donated to Muskies Inc. This guy being an avid bass and pike fisherman showed up with only smaller baits “no muskie lures”. His results say enough about going small as cold fronts seem to shut things down. Another fine example of the value of downsizing is the 2005 Cabin Fever Challenge on Green River Lake, my guide client and Manta Maniac Jamie Freidman landed second place in the event by simply downsizing the size of his Manta under some of the worst cold front conditions I’ve ever seen that eventually drove all but 3 competing boats off the water. After moving nothing all day on the larger Hangten Manta it’s smaller cousin got the attention of three fish in the last 2 hours of the event. Once again smaller versions of the same lure scored under rapidly dropping temperatures.

5) Transition Periods
As our muskies make their seasonal transitional moves over the course of the year their food choices chance. Many times these movements are caused by the whereabouts of its prey. As I often view it this movement is repeatedly done by size. This fact that they come in sizes can be verified by most any walleye or crappie fisherman that catch fish that commonly come in size groups. And it follows though to baitfish like shad, ciscoes and perch that make up the bases of the muskies food source. Many times on Cave Run I witness the size of the shad as it passes through its many coves and creek arms. My clients have boated many muskies with baitfish pouring from it’s gullet as they hit my Frabill. This is when the size factor is most notable. Something as little as shrinking from a 1 oz Grim Reaper spinnerbait to there smaller ½ oz model can make the difference during these transitional periods where baitfish size change. As baitfish move from one spot to another many times the smaller variety show up first, I recall a time just a couple of years back when the bite seemed to disappear as the muskies where on their predictable move to shallow water in late summer. After a day or two with little or no success my clients and I went to a jig presentation. As I threw a larger reaper on a 1 oz Bait Rigs Esox Cobra jig head my clients were tossing the smaller ½ oz model with a rubber skirt, while I went fishless both my clients scored fish as they landed 3 nice muskies after downsizing.

Whether you downsize your jig, spinnerbait, crankbait or even topwater at times I like to throw in a couple of more ingredients into the mix. Dropping your line size can also make a positive difference under certain conditions, here I spool up with Power Pro 50LB when tossing blade baits and smaller cranks. 65LB is my choice for most other baits rather than my normal 80lb Power Pro my clients and I commonly use. Downsizing your leader, rod and reel can often fool the most finicky muskie.

Large baits catch muskie that’s a plain fact, but there are many times when they are completely ignored. Whether it’s a natural or manmade occurrence negative influences can shut down the bite, however something as small as downsizing just might make the difference.

Tony Grant has been chasing muskies for nearly 20 years. As his career started on Kentucky’s Cave Run Lake he has now expanded his guiding to the waters of Wisconsin and Minnesota during the southern muskies dangerously hot summer water temps. In 2005 Tony teamed up with Gregg Thomas to form Musky Road Rules, a series of “Cabin Fever Clinics” and Schools with “On the Water Workshops” across the mid west muskie range. Visit Tony’s sites and

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