By: Spence Petros
Our anticipation ran high as we neared a spot that produced two large muskies and a big pike the previously day. But as we rounded the last corner we saw a boat making a trolling past along our hot structure. My partner had a dejected look, but I told him not to worry because they probably won’t catch a muskie.We killed time trolling a near by chunk-rock bank waiting for the other anglers to pull out. Soon it became our turn. Our trolling run paralleled the bank until we got to the fast-breaking inside corner of the bar. We went up on the bar a few feet, slowed a bit, then turned sharply out towards deeper water at a 90-degree angle and gunned the motor. As I expected, a hard strike occurred on the inside line as we spun out on the turn, and a chunky 45-incher was quickly landed. Several more precise trolling passes were made and a second mid 40-inch fish was caught, this time by my partner who had the inside position as we worked the structure from the opposite direction. Deep-diving crankbaits run on short lines and precision boat control played a big part in our success.
“Why were you so sure those other anglers weren’t going to catch a fish?” my partner asked as we reeled in prior to moving to a new spot.
“Their boat had a steering wheel and there is no way you could have made a precision trolling pass on that particular structure unless you were steering the boat with a tiller handle, I explained. Both inside corners of the bar are the key fish-holding areas, and a lure had to be jammed into them. And to make the presentation more difficult, the bar’s top came up to two feet as you cut out towards deeper water. If you were able to jam the lures into the corner with a ‘wheel’, you’d run right up on the two foot rise because the boat wouldn’t respond fast enough to get out of that danger situation. Plus, gunning the motor after the lures got into the corner helped trigger the strikes.”
While boats with steering wheels can be effective when contour trolling, this was not one of those instances. Boat control is a major lesson here, but the turn and burst of speed coming out of the corner really fits the theme of this article. About the only time I retrieve a lure in straight and steady, or make a straight line trolling run at the same speed is when my concentration level has slipped! Changes in speed and direction are major factors that trigger musky strikes. Let’s examine some of these triggers.
Trolling turns generally don’t have to be as dramatic as the one described, as “lazy S” passes sometimes do the trick. I’ve caught way too many muskies on turns to know that even a slight change in direction and/or speed can be a devastating trigger. On any turn the lure(s) on the inside of the turn slow down, while the ones on the outside speed up. More hits on one side or the other are clues that you should be going faster or slower.
When making a sharp turn I like to come out of it with a burst of speed. The lure on the inside line is slower on a sharp turn, and if you come out of it slowly you’ve got a good chance of not hooking a muskie that strikes. A burst of speed increases the percentage of solid hook-ups, and will trigger more strikes.
When trolling a tight contour, making unnecessary turns may put the boat out of position. Ripping the lure forward as it passes over a likely spot is a good tactic to trigger more strikes, as is briefly gunning the motor if the rods are in holders. Anglers having the most success that aren’t altering lure speed are often using lures that periodically kick out to the side (Swim Wizz, Believers, Depth Raiders, etc.), or have short line presentations affected by churning waters created by the motor.
Strike-triggering turns can also be created by anglers who cast. The 8 to 9-foot rods favored by many knowledgeable muskie hunters are ideal for altering a lures direction and speed. When retrieving a bucktail I almost always sweep the rod to the side when the lure is 15 to 20-feet from the boat. If I see a muskie following from a distance, several side-to-side turns may be made. Other tactics that can be executed to cause a response are to plunge the rod tip deeper into the water and kick up the speed a notch when the lure is about ¾ of the way back to the boat. “Puffing” a marabou bucktail, or slowing the retrieve speed of certain bucktails then turning the reel handle super fast a few times often causes the blade to change directions. This, plus the change in speed, often provokes a following fish into hitting.
At one of our Musky Hunter Schools on Lake of the Woods one July, a big muskie began stalking my Top Walker surface lure shortly after it hit the water. A quick turn to the side when the lure was 15-feet from the boat combined with a couple twitches to activate the marabou tail and the 30-pounder gobbled it right in front of us.
Strike-triggering turns are pretty easy to create with top waters and crankbaits, but jerkbaits are another matter. A good tactic I learned at the Musky Hunter School a few years ago was explained by instructor Kevin Schmidt. His “figure 8” at the end of the cast was to jerk the lure to form a box in the water. A short pull, another pull at 90-degrees, followed by as many more 90-degree changes as needed. This works a lot better than a conventional figure 8 when using a jerkbait.
Years ago a guide showed me another way to make strike-triggering turns with diving jerkbaits such as Suicks and Bobby Baits. When the lure is 20 to 30-feet from the boat, rip your rod hard to the side, pause a split second, then rip it the opposite direction. This will cause sharp turns in two directions. Start off with medium rips to see how the lure performs. If you try this with a lure running inches under the surface make sure you wear a helmet.
It’s no secret that a lure bumping off something has a deadly effect on muskies. I almost always like to have a lure glance off cover or structure whenever possible. Not only does a bumping lure trigger strikes, it tells you are at the correct level when fishing sub-surface cover or structure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt a trolled crankbait tick a high spot, or a spinnerbait rip through some vegetation; then bam…a bone-jarring strike!
In late August I made a three-day trip to North Shore Lodge on Ontario’s famed Eagle Lake to tap into the big fish rock pattern that should be happening. While mostly fishing rocks, I decided to give the weeds a look. Weeds in the flatter bay areas were generally down or slimy, but a few beds nearer deeper water still looked like they might hold fish. My plan of attack was to fish an overhead spinnerbait deep over the downed vegetation. I chose a spinnerbait that had two single up-right hooks because it generally slid through the weeds, and 90% of the weed muskies and big pike we caught last year came on this type lure.
The L-armed spinner was allowed to sink 3 to 5-seconds before it was retrieved just over the sunken beds at a medium speed. Occasionally the lure would run into a higher clump of weeds. When this occurred, I’d turn the reel handle fast 3-4 times and blow the lure through the cover. The rod tip was never lifted. My partner was trying several different presentations and never raised a muskie. I had several 50-inch plus fish up on the last day, and they only showed on casts that bumped and blew through the higher clumps. I took a friend out with me on my last night at camp and showed him the spots and how the fish were raised. When he got home at the end of the week he called to thank me for the 52-incher caught bumping the spinnerbait through the weed clumps in one of my spots.
When trolling for muskies in colder weather, a lure that occasionally bumps the higher spots on your trolling run usually produces the most strikes. If a drop-off starts at 10-feet, I’ll usually run the inside lure on top of the break 8 ½ to 9-feet down, while the outside lure runs 101/2 to 12-feet deep off the edge. This generally puts us in position to bump across peaks. Line counter reels are a great aid in achieving precision depth control.
Most avid musky hunters I know use crankbaits at night when fishing over weeds that are at least a few feet under the surface. Good friend Joe Bucher perfected the technique of weed bumping at night with minimal hang-ups, using a buoyant straight-bodied Depth Raider as his go to lure. The lure is cranked at medium speeds but when you feel it come in contact with vegetation stop reeling, let the lure float up a foot or so and resume the retrieve until more weed contact is made. Raising the rod tip up and slowing the retrieve speed for a few seconds will reduce the lures running depth. This is not something that is learned in a few casts, but when perfected you’ll catch five times as many weed-prowling night muskies. Shorter casts and thicker lines will help you to cope with higher weed growth.
A lot of my days of musky fishing in the early 70’s were spent on Deer and Bone lakes in Polk county Wisconsin. I caught the majority of my muskies jigging the weed edges, trolling large L-armed spinnerbaits and Cisco Kids, and ripping Hellbenders through the deep edges of cabbage. On one trip when the Hellbender bite was hot my sonar quit. At first I panicked, then decided to make the best of the situation by trying to feel out the edge of the cabbage with the deep-diving crankbait. It didn’t take long to get the hang of it. Some casts got fouled, but most bumped the fringe weeds. The lure became my eyes under the water. During the two days of fishing “blind,” the lures that bumped and ripped through the vegetation produced three times as many muskies as the previous two days when the sonar was my guide.
Rips and Twitches
By my definition a rip is a hard pull that tends to provoke a strike, while twitches tend to tease a less aggressive muskie into hitting, or at least showing itself. Sometimes the two can be mixed to both attract and trigger a musky into a reaction. I tend to use rips and twitches a lot when casting to targets, and to get a response from muskies during less than desirable weather conditions.
Many times muskies will snug up next to piers, clumps of weeds, pockets in the weeds, fallen trees, tight corners on a structure, or other such recognizable targets. When fishing spots like this it’s usually not a good idea to make a cast and immediately pull the lure away. Muskies holed up in these spots are usually taking advantage of the cover to ambush feed, as oppose to roaming around to chase down prey. A lure moved quickly out of the area often doesn’t get their attention.
Last summer three of us made a few casts to a large fallen tree. The first casts were along the out skirts and drew blanks. On about my fourth cast I saw my Shallow Invader bump a large limb. A pause let it rise above the limb, a couple turns got it past the limb, and several hard rips triggered the fat 46-incher into darting out of his hiding place to slam the lure. Keep the lure in contact with a target via a few rips and/or twitches before pulling it away.
Rips and twitches are deadly on brighter conditions or after cold fronts days when muskies aren’t chasing much. Most of the time I’ll use a crankbait such as a Shallow Invader, Shallow Depth Raider, or Grandma. But another great twitch lure is the Titan Tube, as light twitches can cause the tentacles to undulate in a manner that can tempt a tight-jawed musky to open up.
A good rule of thumb to remember is the tougher the bite the smaller the lure. While we may start out ripping a 9 or 10-inch crankbait, fish activity might cause us to end up twitching a 6-inch lure or going to the tube.
One twitching tactic that has paid off with a few fish but has located a lot of others for us to pursue later, is a rise and twitch technique. Medium to deep-running crankbaits or weighted jerkbaits that still can float upwards are the lures of choice. As the lure nears the boat let it slowly rise to the surface while giving it small twitches. Often a musky will come up with it. Let the sit motionless on the surface a few seconds, then give it a few twitches before going into a figure 8 with a smooth motion that doesn’t spook the fish. A strike may come during anyone of these maneuvers.
This next season when you are chasing muskies, incorporate plenty of turns, bumps, rips, and twitches into your bag of tricks and watch your catches soar!
Spence Petros fishing schools will start again in early March at the American Legion Post 690 in Palatine, Illinois. Classes will run from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Fee for complete course is only $80. To find out more or to sign up click on to www.spencepetros.com or call (815) 455-7770.