By Steve Heiting
Canada. The name alone triggers memories for many of us. Besides the great fishing and sense of adventure, visiting the unspoiled beauty simply feels good from a spiritual sense. For those of us who have been there, a musky season wouldn’t seem right without at least one trip north of the border.
Rather than wax poetically about Canada, this article is about practicality.
Regardless if you’re planning your first trip to Canada or your fiftieth, we’re all faced with the question of tackle — what to bring and how much of it. Tackle shops with walls layered in musky lures aren’t commonplace in Canada. Bobby’s in Vermilion Bay comes to mind, and a couple resorts do a pretty good job stocking some of the essentials, but in most cases what you’re going to have available for your week is what you’ve brought with you.
If this will be your first trip to Canada, understand you will eventually face a situation in which somebody in your party has a hot lure or color, and you don’t. You might have it in a tackle box at home, but it doesn’t count unless it’s available to you (italic) now (closeitalic). Every musky the lucky individual catches on his hot bait will be a reminder that you own one just like it, but you didn’t bring it, or you looked at a similar lure during a sport show that spring but didn’t buy it. You’ll be in for a long week when this happens.
If you’re a Canada veteran, you’ve probably at one time or another looked at the myriad of tackle boxes you’ve brought and wondered if it all was necessary, especially since on most trips you end up using no more than five or six lures, anyway. I’ve watched as individuals rolled back a cover from the bed of their pickup truck to expose one giant tackle box — hundreds of PVC tubes had been cut to provide hanging space for thousands of lures. That was a little extreme, but the guys said they got the idea from somebody else …
A trip to Canada may result in your bringing too much tackle or not enough.
That’s an uncertainty we all face, and I’ve been on each end of the spectrum several times during the 40-plus Canadian trips I’ve taken. Out of necessity, I’ve developed a checklist of lure categories that must be represented in a tackle box for any summer musky trip to Canada, one that should stand up to any conditions the weather may throw at you. Each lure type has its purpose, both in terms of where they’re used in the water column to the conditions in which they work best. How many of each lure type is up to you.
I’ve geared this list heavily toward bucktails with good reason. Canadian musky fishing in summer often amounts to running and gunning, picking off active fish, and if the first lure out of your tackle box each day isn’t a bucktail the reality is you may be costing yourself fish in the boat. Cover water, contact muskies, catch muskies.
Believe it or not, there are some who still think the twin-ten bucktail sensation is but a fad, or that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in that with so many fishermen using them they’re bound to produce big fish. However, there is something about the large tandem blades that either closely mimics the water movement of baitfish or simply drives muskies’ senses crazy, because the reality of these lures is they work anywhere muskies are found.
While some have learned to slow-roll twin-ten bucktails or to troll them in deeper water, in Canada they’re at their best when cast into shallow water and retrieved at a high rate of speed. Every cast with every lure should end in a figure-8 if you hope to be truly effective, but the twin-tens are so good in the figure-8 that some anglers report catching more than half of their muskies on them at boatside.
Not every musky is willing to pick off a bucktail when it’s traveling just under the surface. Sometimes, because of weather or fishing pressure, using a bait with a smaller blade and profile is the right move to make. French blades, such as those found on the popular Mepps Musky Killer, or fluted blades, like those on the venerable Buchertail line, will easily run a foot beneath the surface or can be sped up so they bulge the top.
Considering what twin-tens have been producing the last few years, it would be easy to understand why someone may think they don’t need to bring another bucktail type. But with muskies being muskies, that kind of thinking could lead to a long week.
Willow-Leaf Bladed Bucktail
I hesitate to mention this because it’s been a favorite trick I’ve kept quiet about for a long time. When muskies have seen a steady diet of other bucktail types or will deeply follow other bucktails, almost nothing beats one with a willow-leaf blade. With less surface area and thus less drag, these bucktails run more deeply in the water column than other bucktails at a comparable retrieve rate, and the long, skinny blade gives off more flash and has a different pitch.
When I’ve discussed bucktails during my seminars, I’ve often asked how many in the audience use willow-leaf bucktails and usually only about a third of those present will raise their hands. If that proportion translates to the overall musky fishing public (and I have no reason to think it doesn’t), casting a lure that is ignored by two-thirds of the fishermen means you’re much more likely to score big.
My favorite lure is these situations has been Mepps’ Giant Killer Sassy Shad, because the swimbait tail gives off a whole different vibration. Bait Rigs’ new WilloBeast brings the giant blade idea to the willow-leaf bucktail lineup, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
I prefer an in-line bucktail because I feel they are much better at hooking muskies than safety-pin-style lures, but if you ignore spinnerbaits the time will come when you’ll wish you have them. Every lure is a tool, and spinnerbaits underscore that belief.
You can retrieve a spinnerbait like an in-line bucktail and you’ll catch fish, but I prefer to use them when muskies are in thick weed cover or, again, when they’ve seen a steady diet of in-lines and I want to go deeper. Muskies are often in heavy weed cover when they’re still in or near spawning areas, as is often the case during a late June or early July trip following a cold spring. On hot, sunny days, muskies will bury themselves in thick weed clumps. Letting a spinnerbait sink a second or two before “grinding” it back through the weeds is an effective way to trigger these fish.
If fishing pressure has been a factor, there’s nothing wrong with casting a spinnerbait over rocky reefs or points and crawling it back so it occasionally bangs into the bottom structure, once again a different approach than what the masses are doing. Since these weed and rock applications require it, every spinnerbait I use has two upward-riding, single hooks.
The classic run-and-gun Canadian scenario involves one angler casting a bucktail while the other throws a tail-spinning topwater, like a TopRaider, Stomper, Tally Wacker, or the like. Not only is the topwater a different presentation, but it allows the second angler to use a lure that can be retrieved at the same speed as the bucktail.
To many, classic topwater time is early morning, and then again from about an hour or so before dark until you quit fishing for the evening. When the topwater bite is really happening, having two anglers in the boat both using this kind of lure can literally be a thrill a minute. However, the summer Canadian musky will typically be holding in relatively shallow water, so using a topwater during the day — especially in windy conditions — is just another way of reaching shallow fish. I don’t think a musky really considers or cares if a lure is on the surface or just below it, and I’ve caught enough 50-inchers on topwaters at midday to believe it.
Slowing down and offering an in-their-face presentation is never a bad idea if the muskies won’t go for a faster approach, and this is especially so with topwaters. A surface glider, like a Maas Marauder, Jackpot or Weagle, is often my first lure out of the box when I know where a big fish lives and I want to give it time to make up its mind about eating.
These lures have a reputation for not hooking up well with muskies, but there’s a few things you can do. First, upsize your hooks (I like a 5/0 VMC Conecut), and “T” the belly hook so the points are away from the sides. Fish with a slow, steady cadence, but after every third or fourth twitch, pause for a moment to let the bait glide a bit further — this change of cadence may not only trigger a fish, but give it a moment to better line up its strike. Of course, don’t set the hook on the splash but wait until you feel the weight of the fish.
Lures that have gained a more prominent position in my Canadian tackle box are the Shallow Invader, Salmo Skinner 20, Slammer Minnowbait and Crane Bait. All are shallow-running crankbaits but fit into different scenarios.
Usually, as a summer day in Canada progresses, a fast, aggressive approach will work well through the morning, but as the sun gets higher in the sky the fish become less responsive. This is the time for the Shallow Invader or the new, all-plastic Slammer or Krisco — with their study diving lip, a straight retrieve that allows them to bump and bang into every shallow rock they can contact will either get the lure down to a fish that won’t rise up for a bucktail, or it will cause reaction strikes from muskies that just can’t help themselves.
The Skinner or Crane, on the other hand, are much more buoyant and their lips won’t stand up to steady rock abuse. Worked with short, fast twitches, and then pulled into a deep figure-8, they have proven deadly as a throw-back lure, picking up muskies that followed other presentations but didn’t strike. When fishing thick weeds, the Skinner’s or Crane’s buoyancy is a huge advantage to keeping hooks free of debris.
When the glider craze was big a few years ago, many anglers looked for lures that performed perfect, steady, side-to-side glides. I’m not sure why that was the case, because gliders are supposed to imitate dying baitfish, and a tullibee (for example) that’s trying to maintain its balance doesn’t exactly follow a script. Left and right glides are important, but in my book a glider must also go up and down. A glider that’s balanced properly will allow me to control its actions; when I want it to dive, it dives, and so forth. The only three that I’ve found that give me this control are Reef Hawgs, Slammer Drop Bellys, and Hellhounds.
I use gliders in the same situations as a Shallow Invader or Slammer — sometimes the fish don’t seem to like the structure collision and the glider will reach a little more deeply in the water column without banging and bumping. In summer in Canada, I’ll fish it fast right alongside other anglers who are casting bucktails.
In summer, almost every diver jerkbait in my box will be a 10-inch, weighted Suick Thriller. Because of its design and function it’s a tough bait to cast alongside bucktails, so I use Suicks on the one or two days of the week when a cold front has caused muskies to slowly follow or ignore everything else. I intentionally bump a Suick into weeds or bang its nose onto rocks and then allow it to slowly rise up, and there’s really nothing like the sudden, vicious musky attack from below you’ll often experience.
I’ve twice gone 28 consecutive days on Lake of the Woods with at least one musky in the boat, and on the days when I wondered if I could keep the streak alive it’s most often been a Suick that’s bailed me out. ’Nuff said.
There’s always a time and place for big plastics, because their realism will trigger a musky strike when nothing else will. I use a big plastic, like a Shallow Bull Dawg, often in the same situations as a Suick, but while the Suick rises the Dawg sinks, so it’s a different twist.
In summer I prefer the unweighted, or “Shallow,” version of this lure to the weighted model because, again, Canadian muskies are often shallow to begin with. Heavier baits may result in snagged lures.
A great secondary function of this lure is as a shocker, to get a musky to follow during those times when almost nothing short of dynamite will put a musky in the boat. A gaudy-colored soft plastic will sometimes cause a fish to at least show itself. Once you know where it lives, it’s just a matter of coming back in better conditions to catch it … and, every now and then, they’ll eat the shocker, too.
A Few Thoughts On Color
Every lake has color idiosyncrasies, which means that for no apparent reason certain colors work better than others. For example, bucktails with a silver blade and black tail, or on the other end of the spectrum, copper blades with red tails, are two of the must-haves when fishing on Lake of the Woods. It’s easy to learn favorite color patterns — just ask friends who have fished on the water in question before you, ask the resort owner, or ask the question on an Internet musky forum.
However, you need to be covered for all conditions. Sometimes a big wind or an algae bloom will cloud up the water and literally leave the usually-productive stuff in the dark. Chartreuse or blaze orange often come into play at these times. And, of course, chartreuse is always good in the evening and can be so on cloudy days, but don’t overlook lures that heavily feature white and black in cloudy conditions, either. The less fishing pressure muskies see the more prone they are to really have a thing for chartreuse, while an orange-bellied Suick has worked for me on every Canadian water I’ve ever cast one.
The best thing to do when considering color is to take a rainbow’s worth of all of the above lure types. For this reason, I really like bucktails with jointed bodies, such as the Mepps lineup, because by simply swapping tails two different lures can provide four different color patterns. The lure categories that are the exception to the rainbow consideration are topwaters because you can get by with one black and one brightly-colored, like fire tiger. If you must have a third color of a particular topwater, consider white. I prefer the bright ones during the day and the black ones under lower light.
A final lure consideration for Canada is to always have a retrieval device, such as Frabill’s Lure Retriever, in your boat. If you’re casting into the shallows where you should be, your lure retriever will pay for itself through saved baits on the first day. It’s not worth it to cause hundreds of dollars of damage to a boat just to save a $20 lure, and there’s nothing worse than having to break off a hot lure, especially if it’s the only one you have!
With these thoughts, you may be able to pare down your lure selections for your next Canadian trip from a couple hundred to maybe a hundred, as I have done. In reality, by the end of the week you’ll probably be relying on only a half dozen or so while the rest lay dormant in your tackle box, but having the (italic) right (close italic) half-dozen is what will make your trip.
Steve Heiting is the Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine. For more about Steve, visit www.steveheiting.com