Cure For The Blow-Up Blues

By Jim Saric, Editor
I was pretty keyed up as the day started, as my friend Tom Sullivan and I were filming a television segment. The excitement of filming a show is much like the anticipation of the first day of any big musky trip, or the moment before the start of a tournament. You can’t wait to get going, and your hopes are high.

The first spot we fished had been holding a big musky, that we had seen twice the day before. So as we cast the spot my adrenaline was rushing in anticipation of what might happen. On about the third cast a 45-incher hit at boatside and after a quick battle she was quickly released. I breathed a sigh of relief, relieving some pressure of at least getting one fish on film. Then it was back to trying to get the big one to strike. As we approached the tip of this large point, I made the first complete turn of the figure-8 with my bucktail when the water exploded. Unfortunately, the explosion was two feet way from my lure, as the big musky obviously misjudged my bucktail’s location. I continued to figure-8 feverishly, and my heart rate was certainly aerobic. However, the fish did not return and strike the bucktail.

We laughed, and as I began casting I must have had a spooked look on my face as my friend Tom jokingly looked at me and said “Don’t be afraid.” That was one of those catch phrases that stuck the entire year. And anytime I watched someone have a big fish explode on a lure, strike and get off, or even quiver as a big fish followed, they immediately heard “Don’t be afraid.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get to use the phrase on Tom, but then again there is a whole new season ahead.

Muskies missing lures at boatside, nipping a lure and quickly getting off, blowing up or rolling on baits, and even striking, jumping and tossing baits are all part of musky fishing. Did you ever notice this often happens on those one-strike days, or when cooler or strange weather patterns develop? On tough days, sleeping at the switch can be a problem and will result in you losing a fish, but other times part of the reason for the weird strikes is the actual reaction or mood of the musky.

Chase these fish long enough and witness enough strikes, and you’ll see they don’t always demolish a bait. Sometimes they gently nip at the back of the lure. Sometimes they swipe or slash at the bait from a distance, and sometimes they just appear to make a weak effort at the lure. In all these cases, your chances of landing that musky are diminished. The way a musky strikes the lure can be dictated by weather, water temperature, or the actual lure retrieve. So, believe it or not don’t beat yourself up. You are not alone — muskies get off, miss lures and sometimes even “put on the brakes” at the last minute and decide not to eat your lure. This is the reality of musky fishing, and part of the thrill of the sport.

Here are some tips for getting a few of those fish to strike, hit the lure harder, and hopefully stay hooked a little longer so you can get them in the net.

Hook Selection
Believe it or not one of the first questions I ask people when they talk about losing muskies on a particular lure (besides if they sharpen their hooks) is what hook size and style they use on the bait. We often just use the existing hooks placed on the lure by the manufacturer, but they may not be the best hooks for the situation or your style of fishing. Pick a particular lure and look at a bunch of them at your favorite retailer. You might notice a few of them have different hooks sizes and/or styles than the others. The reason for this is often either hook inventory or availability. Yet, you might get a lure that doesn’t have the hooks that best suit your needs. So, examine the hooks on your favorite bait if you are losing fish. If you are real aggressive when fighting fish and use a tight drag, you better use a heavy gauge hook as you don’t want it to flex. If you tend to take your time when you fight a musky, you should probably use light wire hooks. If you’re not sure which category you fall in, just ask your boat partner(s) for a real assessment.

Another thing to consider is the size fish you are encountering. We all want to catch giants, but if the waters you are fishing aren’t loaded with big muskies, use smaller hooks in the 2/0 to 4/0 range. On the contrary, if you are fishing a trophy water and your focus is boating a 50-incher, then you should be using larger hooks in the 4/0 to 7/0 size. The larger jaw and lip of a big musky often requires a larger gap hook to ensure better hooking. This same size hook, let’s say a 6/0, tends to be not as effective when landing muskies under 40 inches. So, depending on the “size reality” of the waters you fish, seriously consider the hook size.

How do you handle the situation in which a musky follows a bucktail or topwater lure and tends to just sluggishly or playfully nip at the back hook, maybe only getting stuck by one barb of the treble hook? When dealing with this situation I opt for a lighter gauge hook on the back of the lure. Further, one with an O’ Shaughnessy bend is even better. Obviously the hook needs to be razor sharp, but the thinner wire hook will penetrate better on these less-aggressive strike. If you have a tight drag, no stretch line, and a longer rod, you can increase your chances of penetrating that fish’s mouth with one quick hookset. Heavier gauge hooks and even some with a round bend don’t hook fish as well that strike in such a fashion. You just don’t seem to get the penetration you would on such “weak effort” strikes.

So, on those tough days or when dealing with cold fronts or strange fish activity, make a little adjustment to your favorite lures. It might mean simply replacing the back hook. If you think the conditions are setting up for a last-light strike, make the lure adjustment early, as to not be sorry when you work all day to get that strike. You don’t want to lose that fish.

Rips, Jerks, Pauses
This trio of erratic retrieves is necessary, particularly when conditions get tough and it just doesn’t seem like the fish are responding. When the fish are active, a straight retrieve is usually all you need, but when things get tough, it’s time to trigger a reaction strike or even a follow, something you can come back and work the fish again later. Sometimes you really have to manipulate a bait to get a strike. It seems the more fishing pressure that exists, sometimes you just have to work that much harder.

When fishing bucktails this may mean using quick bursts of speed with your reel handle. This makes the bait increase speed, lift, flare and slightly change direction. When fishing a minnowbait or a crankbait, ripping the bait every third or fourth crank of the reel handle will make the lure dive, turn and sometimes move sideways. Again this unexpected motion may trigger a strike from a following musky or at least get a real lazy one to swim to the boat, so you can get a look at them.

When fishing jerkbaits under tough conditions there really seem to be two extremes to triggering a response. There is the quick hop, where you are really moving the bait and getting it to dance everywhere. This fast-moving-yet-erratic retrieve can trigger strikes. However, you still need to put in the occasional pause. I’ll often work the bait fast for a quarter of the retrieve and then pause it for a 3-second count and then quickly make the bait take off.

Again, rip the bait fast, but throw in a couple pauses during the retrieve. The other side of the coin when jerkbait fishing under such tough condition is to fish the lure slow with prolonged pauses. I can remember catching a 53-incher with just such a retrieve. The lure was motionless and when I went to jerk it seemed like I had snagged a tree … only the tree moved. It is important when using such a slow and methodical jerkbait retrieve to add a couple quick hops. Such a slow retrieve uses the effectiveness of the pause quite a bit, but mix in a couple quick hops directly after a prolonged pause. If a fish is slowly following the bait and suddenly it takes off, you might get the fish to swipe at the bait.

One last thing on this topic is to be aware that the erratic nature of lure will cause muskies to slash, miss, and get foul-hooked. So, it is important to remain in a good hookset position and stay focused on your lure. You should be able to tell if the lure bumps a rock or weed. Also, if the lure is free from the cover you will know when a musky bumps the bait or strikes the lure. React quickly, as those with quick reflexes and ultra-sharp hooks tend to land those slashing strikers, whereas those who don’t react just feel the fish bump the lure and tear free before realize what has happened. However, the musky usually will leave a telling scale sample on your hook as a souvenir!

Bells & Whistles
As musky hunters, it seems like we will stop at nothing to get fish to strike. I have seen bucktails with four or five hooks each with a different color hair attached, twistertails, extra blades, etc. Usually such strange creations can be found in Spence Petros’ tackle box.
But then again striving to make the bait look different is sometimes all it takes to get that one fish to bite. And Spence manages to get some big muskies to bite on some tough waters.

I love to add twistertails to my bucktails. It seems to give them more action and increases my confidence. However, if the fish follow and won’t strike I take them off — sometimes the jewelry is just too much. On the flipside, if I am fishing a bucktail with no bells or whistles attached and I have a few fish follow, it is time to add something to the bait. Generally, under warmer and more stable conditions I use the twistertails and under cold fronts and colder water conditions I go without them.

Another extreme under tough conditions it to not only remove any twistertail or tail gunner blade on the back, but to significantly trim back the hair on the entire bucktail. My friend Tim Widlacki, owner of the Professional Musky Tournament Trail, does this a lot when fishing bucktails under cold front conditions. I tell him they look like rats, but he likes to remind me how often those rats catch muskies when nothing else seems to be working. So, don’t be afraid to crack out the scissors and remove 80 percent of the hair from the bucktail. Be sure to leave a distinct space between the end of the hair and the back hook. Tim believes that when the fish go to nip at the hair you can often get them with that trailing hook.

My final act of desperation in tough conditions, particularly when the fish seem to have disappeared from the entire lake, is to pull out a shocker. Any large, obnoxious lure in a bright orange or chartreuse gets the nod. It could be a soft plastic or a giant jerkbait. In any case these lures tend to attract attention from muskies. They don’t always catch them, but they do get them to follow. It is amazing how many muskies I have caught at last light only to have had them lazily follow a shocker lure earlier in the day. In most of those cases I might never have been on that spot at dark if it wasn’t for the shocker. Sometimes part of catching them is determining where they live.

Figure-8 Fine Points
I can’t end a discussion on triggering strikes from nippers, short strikers, and followers without a discussion on the figure-8. If you are not making a figure-8 pattern with your lure at boatside after every cast, you are making a big mistake. Most likely, you will end your day with a short-striker at boatside and that may have been the only fish you boated all day. Then again, you may have missed an opportunity and never known it. One thing I have come to realize over time and after fishing lots of different waters is that muskies respond to figure-8s differently. Some fish respond to a fast figure-8 and others like one slow and smooth. You just never know. It does seem on those tough and strange days that adding a little speed to the figure-8 works. If the fish are really following a lot you have time to experiment.

Besides making large circles in each half of the figure-8 There are a few key things I try to trigger a strike. As the lure approaches the boat I try to make the first move into the first turn abrupt at 90 degrees. This really makes the first turn at boatside appear to have the bait making an escape maneuver. Although the lure may appear to make an abrupt movement, since the fish is usually slightly behind the lure at this point, they can make a quick adjustment and stay with the bait. If they have their nose on the bait as they approach the boat, hang on tight as you make this first maneuver. If they don’t strike the bait at this point keep moving the bait in a figure-8 pattern.

Another thing I try to do when maneuvering my bait in a figure-8 pattern is to actually increase the speed of the lure in the turns. Keep the turns large, but keep the speed going. Now, just as you start into the “straight-away” portion of the figure-8 return your bait to its normal speed. The lure is slowing down slightly, but what it actually does is make the lure appear to hesitate. It creates the illusion of a pause, but the lure is not stopping; for example, the bucktail blade never stops spinning. Yet, it almost seems like the lure is hesitating. Often the fish will nail the bait at that point.

When it comes to setting the hook on these fish at boatside and keeping them hooked, my advice is to set the hook across your body if possible, and try to jam the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth. However, depending on where the musky strikes the bait in the figure-8, your best bet is often to just set the hook in the direction the fish is moving. When the musky strikes at that point the most important advice I can give you is one of the most important things ever taught to me by Joe Bucher — “initiate the fight.” Don’t sit there and watch what happens when the fish strikes the lure. Initiate the fight, pull the fish forward and around the bow of the boat. As the fish’s head shakes it will drive in the hooks.

Don’t give the fish any line, although a big musky will take it on its own. Just keep the fish moving and its head down. With a 7-foot-6 to 8-foot rod you can tire a big musky in a short time being aggressive at boatside — at least enough time for your partner to get the net and take the fish.

This time of year I relive many battles with muskies, some won and some lost. I always try to learn from my mistakes, and analyze ways to get better. You can turn the negative of losing a fish into a positive by making an adjustment to land the next one that nips at the lure, slashes at the bait or makes an half-hearted attempt to strike a lure at boatside. By the end of the season you will have boated a lot more fish. You can’t land them all, but you can makes some adjustments to increase your odds of landing a few more of those “crazy” fish that seem to pop up at the worst times.

Jim Saric is Editor of Musky Hunter magazine.

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