Forget Finesse

By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor

If I remember right, it was about my tenth cast on the first spot of the first full day of the University of Esox Musky School on Lake of the Woods last July when a musky charged out from the rock point behind my Double Cowgirl. I whipped the lure into a figure-8 and watched as the fish shot forward and crushed the bait going away, exactly the same reaction that I triggered from two nice muskies the evening before. 

“My God, I could catch every one doing this,” I thought to myself as I set the hook and brought the 39-inch musky to boatside for release. After bending the shaft of the bent lure straight, I set the bucktail rod down and switched to a jerkbait, and told student Mike Milz of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to put an identical bucktail to the one I had been casting on his line. Then, I turned to his father, Quentin, and told him, “If the fish keep reacting like this I’ll want you to go to a bucktail, too.”

On to the next spot, and Mike caught the biggest musky of his life, a 47-incher. A few spots later he added a 36 1/2-incher and then a 45 1/2-incher. Somewhere in between all the muskies Mike caught a three-foot northern pike. 

“Okay Quentin, you get to throw one, too,” I said. “I’m going to move the boat closer to the spots so we can make shorter casts and overlap the retrieves, so we’ll be moving through quickly and rapid-firing.”

Two spots later Quentin missed a hook-up with a musky in a figure-8. The fish shot off, and he cast back to the structure and the bucktail was immediately engulfed by a 42-incher.

It was a remarkable day in more ways than one. Counting a 44-incher that I caught on a Hellhound, we ended up with six muskies by dinner time with four of those of 42 inches or better. After dinner, while fishing with musky school instructor Kevin Schmidt, I added two more to the total on big bucktails, including a tank of a musky just shy of 49 inches. 

That day marked the beginning of a pattern that lasted not only through the rest of the school week, but through most of the summer and resurrected itself for 2007’s extended pre-turnover period of fall. The result was a season that was tremendous for both numbers and big fish in my boat. 

The pattern? Nothing more than fishing fast and tight to cover and structure with fast-moving lures, and forgetting about finesse. On the days when the muskies were moving, following this pattern turned out incredible catches. Even on the slow days, fishing fast picked up the handful of biters that didn’t get the don’t-bite-today memo and produced catches that were as good and likely better than finesse tactics would have yielded.

Forget Finesse
Many musky anglers prefer to position their boat about a cast length away from the cover or structure they intend to fish. They make the long cast, drop the bait in the precise pocket they targeted, and start their retrieve. Sometimes muskies strike the bait, sometimes they follow back to the boat and can be caught in a figure-8. When a fish nears the boat but turns away without striking, or spooks, it’s often said that the fish “ran out of room.”

The problem with this approach is usually a substantial portion of the retrieve is outside of the zone where you expect muskies to be holding. If the last half of your retrieve is through “dead” water, why fish it? Why not eliminate that zone by positioning your boat closer to the targeted cover/structure, and shortening up your casts, thus keeping your baits in the fish-holding zone the entire time, and fishing faster to cover more water? That’s what the “forget finesse” approach is all about.

Think about it. Instead of making long, arching casts while using the trolling motor to slowly move your boat forward as you try to pick apart every nook and cranny of a shoreline or weedbed, while your buddy follows with a different lure to offer the muskies a different look, both of you snap on the perceived “hot” bait and power-fish along the edge, overlapping your casts as you work along. By working together you can still pick apart the structure, but while doing it you will cover more water and fish more spots with the hot lure. Your baits will be in the fish-holding zone for a longer period of time so you should contact more active muskies.

Besides the water-covering advantage, fishing the shallows just makes sense. I’m not the first one to say in this magazine that shallow-holding muskies are usually there for one reason, and that’s to eat. 

Depth and water temperature are critical factors to forgetting finesse. This pattern will work just about anytime muskies are holding shallow, except for the spring when they’re spawning. Typically, this pattern works once the fish are done spawning in rising water temperatures and will last until turnover if a prolonged midsummer warm period doesn’t drive muskies deep. During the past season, power-fishing worked for me from the middle of June until the last week of July, when the fish seemed to vacate the shallows for about three weeks. Then, a major mid-August cold front dropped water temperatures back into the 60s and the muskies resumed haunting the shallows and stayed there until early October, when water temperatures finally started to drop, resulting in turnover.

This pattern is tailor-made for bucktails but any fast-moving, aggressive presentation will work — topwaters, fast-moving jerkbaits, minnowbaits, crankbaits, or even soft plastics. Short casts with a weighted Bull Dawg, Kickin’ Minnow or Suzy Sucker and burning them back to the boat can be tremendously effective. Just try to choose a lure that will move through the correct depth in the water column. Remember, depth is relative — in dark water, fishing water that’s six feet deep and shallower is often the correct place to power-fish, whereas in clear water, you may want to keep your boat over 15 feet while casting shallower. Another consideration is the aggressiveness of a shallow-holding musky. A fish that’s somewhat turned off by a weather front or cooler evenings probably won’t come up to eat a high-riding bucktail, so fishing with a lure that moves a little deeper through the water column, but can still be fished fast, is the ticket.

That last point can be a huge factor anytime you’re musky fishing, but seems to be even more of an issue when using shorter casts and fast retrieves. Last June, my boat partners and I were frustrated for three days by multiple follows; in fact, we estimated that we’d had follows from more than 60 muskies. It didn’t matter what we cast, the muskies would follow it back, swim around in a figure-8 or two, then leave. Occasionally a smaller fish would rise up and whack at a high-riding bucktail, but that was it.

Considering that the only strikes we were getting occurred on bucktails, I decided that a deeper-running bucktail might be the answer. I snapped on a Mepps Giant Killer Sassy Shad, which is essentially a bucktail but with a swimbait tail, which — with a slightly slower retrieve speed — I could easily keep in the 2- to 4-foot zone. Not only does the willow leaf blade create less drag, but the tail adds weight — the lure casts like a bullet (so I could pinpoint my casts) and runs deeper. I caught two muskies measuring longer than 40 inches the first afternoon after switching to the Giant Killer Sassy Shad, and that lure remained my primary presentation for nearly two weeks until more stable weather resulted in the muskies wanting a higher-riding bucktail.

It’s important that you and your boat partners work as a team. You can’t have one person casting a bucktail while the second guy in the boat casts a Creeper or other slow-mover and be effective. Note that in the anecdote that opened this article I switched to a glider jerkbait while Mike and Quentin cast bucktails — by fast-hopping the jerkbait, I was able to work it at a pace equal to that of the bucktails without slowing us down. And the muskies seemed to really want bucktails, so having two of them cast from my boat multiplied our odds of success.

So, Should I Throw Away My Finesse Baits?
Of course not. Finesse is still very important when muskies are shallow but in a pre-spawn or immediate-post-spawn funk, or when they’re holding deeper. I’ve caught hundreds of muskies with crankbaits and soft plastics from deep water so I’m not about to give up on them.

Maybe the title of this article is a little harsh and oversimplifies things. But then again, too many musky fishermen get caught up in favorite/confidence baits when times get tough. What I’m seeing more of each season is that if the timing and water temperatures are right, the whole key to success is to just fish through the slower times, cover water, and hunt active muskies. Slowing down when muskies are shallow may actually cost you fish — sure, you might get a few more follows, especially lazy ones, but I’d rather catch one musky and not see another all day than not catch anything but have 20 slow follows. We often tend to overanalyze what muskies are doing when we should just go fishing.

It’s seldom when a point is driven home in a day’s time, but such was the case for Kevin Schmidt and me one day last July. We fished all morning without a follow and didn’t see a musky until Kevin boated a 41-incher on a bucktail in the middle of the afternoon. Two spots later I caught a 47-incher on a Hellhound and as we rounded the corner of the same island Kevin stuck a 46-incher on the same bucktail. I switched my lure to a bucktail and we moved closer to shore and began power-fishing, and caught five more muskies on bucktails before dark.

My entire focus after boating a musky is to catch another because there’s nothing like catching a bunch of nice fish in a day’s time. Power-fishing the shallows is the best way I know to achieve this. It’s a high percentage way to contact lots of active fish. At these times a finesse presentation will actually (italic) cost you muskies, so it’s best to just forget about it.

Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine. For more about Steve, go to

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