By Steve Heiting
As I let my 8-inch Slammer rise to the surface between a patch of reeds and a large boulder, the water beneath it lightened as the image of a musky slowly materialized. The fish’s jaws flexed and its tail seemed to sink as it eyeballed the cisco-colored lure, and I wanted badly to give the bait another twitch. I didn’t need to tell myself to let it lay still because my buddy, Kevin Schmidt, was doing so for me.
“Hold still. Hold still,” he hissed. “Its jaws are moving … he’s going to eat it.”
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the musky closed the distance until it was just inches beneath the motionless twitchbait. Then, with just a pop on the surface, the musky’s lips closed on the Slammer and I rammed the hooks home.
I probably let out a chuckle or two every time I fight a musky, but this time I was giggling like a kid. Catching a musky with what we’ve started to call the “dead stick” technique indicated that we were onto the start of something good. After all, it proved to me that what I previously thought were “uncatchable” muskies really aren’t, and the rare fish that did bite under these circumstances were not flukes.
“That’s a pretty good fish,” Kevin called out as the musky shot across the tiny bay and ripped the trailing line through a patch of cabbage, sending leaves floating to the top. It boiled on the surface and swapped ends, this time heading for the reeds. I stopped it shy of the reeds, then muscled it to the waiting net. After photos, the musky paddled off and disappeared.
Those of you who fish with twitchbaits or jerkbaits have seen it before, and have likely been just as frustrated as I. You’ve worked your bait back to within 20 feet or so of the boat and as you’re letting your lure float toward the surface — a popular technique known as the boatside rise — you spot a musky hovering beneath the bait, sometimes even moving its jaws as if it’s trying to scent or taste the lure. A friend says “It looks like they want to lick it.”
If you let your lure float to the surface the musky turns off and lazily swims away or merely sinks. If you try to trigger a reaction strike by snapping the lure back under the surface and pull it into a quick figure-8, the musky disappears.
I used to wish these muskies wouldn’t bother showing themselves at all because nothing I tried seemed to work. But that all changed last season when Kevin and I hammered out a technique that was uncannily predictable. You just have to get past the idea that muskies always feed in an aggressive or ferocious manner … the first time you see a musky pluck your lure from the surface like a brown trout eating a mayfly, you’ll know what I mean.
A Pattern Within A Pattern
It all started four or five years ago when a musky rose beneath Kevin’s Suick and seemed to hang there, wasting our time. “You’re never going to catch that fish,” I scoffed and fired another cast. And another, and another … until, suddenly, I heard water splashing from the back of the boat. “What the … ? I asked in disbelief as I turned to see Kevin battling the musky.
“I just let the lure lay still,” Kevin explained after the release. “Nothing else seems to work with these kind of fish, so I decided that as long as it was going to lay there and do nothing, I was going to let my lure lie there and do nothing. After awhile, it started to flex its jaws and then came up slowly and grabbed it. I wasn’t sure he’d eat it until he finally did.”
We had other instances over the succeeding years in which we’d had muskies grab motionless lures, but it wasn’t until last season that we felt we had all the twists figured out.
Fishing the dead stick pattern is dreadfully slow. If you think jig fishing for muskies is about as exciting as watching paint dry, wait until you try this. It’s not like you can start the day trying to catch a musky in this manner; you just have to perform the technique when the opportunity presents itself. But literally watching the musky eat your bait kind of makes up for how slowly you have to fish.
The opportunity occurs when you’re fishing twitchbaits (Slammers, Grandmas, Shallow Invaders, Cranes, etc.) or dive-and-rise jerkbaits (like a Suick or Bobbie) and a musky suddenly appears beneath the lure, slowly moving its jaws. Or, if you’ve fished through an area with other techniques and you know for a fact there are several muskies in the vicinity because they followed but didn’t eat, the situation is ripe for the dead stick.
It’s simple, but it requires patience. Let your lure float to the surface without any forward movement. If the boat is drifting or your buddy won’t turn off the trolling motor (he’ll learn), put your reel in freespool and pay out line. It’s imperative that your lure not move beyond bobbing in the ripples or waves.
If there’s a musky beneath the bait, watch its actions. If the musky continues to rise, jaws moving, get ready to set the hook. If it seems to lose interest and begins to sink or starts to turn away, give the lure a very subtle twitch. A snap of your wrist is enough — you want the lure to barely wiggle. A hard twitch will often spook the musky, but a tiny sign of life, no matter how slight, can renew its interest.
When fishing an area known to hold muskies, let the lure lie motionless for 20 or 30 seconds or so, and if a musky suddenly appears beneath the bait — be alert because sometimes you see nothing more than a glow or a lightening of the water — keep the bait in place as long as the musky shows interest. If no musky appears, twitch the lure hard a couple times and let it rise back to the surface, and let it lay for another 20 or 30 seconds or so. Like I said, this isn’t for the heavily-caffeinated angler.
Eventually you’ll be in a position where a musky is hovering in a nearly-vertical, head-up/tail-down attitude beneath the lure, jaws flexing. Mouth movement appears to be the indication the fish will bite. Then it’s just a matter of making sure your reel is engaged, that you have enough slack line so you don’t move the lure but not too much that you’ll have difficulty setting the hook, and waiting until the musky takes the lure. Fish that seem to hang beneath the lure but don’t move their mouth and “go vertical” usually will not bite.
Seconds may seem like minutes as the musky inches closer. The mouth will open wider than previously, and suddenly it will just grab the lure with a small splash. No swirl, no explosion, just a small bulge of the surface and the musky will have your bait crossways in the tips of its beak. You might hear a “pop!” as the fish takes the lure.
What you do now is as important as keeping the lure motionless as the musky eyeballs it — you must set the hook with a hard, downward sweep to the side to drive the hooks home. Remember, the musky is looking up as it grabs your lure and if you set the hook upward, you’re very likely going to pull the bait from its mouth. And, there’s just skin, cartilage and a lot of bone at the tips of their lips, so your downward hookset must be hard.
The dead stick technique will work anywhere muskies are holding — weeds, wood, rocks, or suspended over open water. This technique seems to work best over weeds and wood; perhaps this ultra-slow, vertical presentation is the answer for rooting out negative- or neutral-mooded fish that have buried themselves in thick cover.
We also found a dead stick rise as a potential trigger for muskies that have followed a minnowbait into a figure-8 but have disappeared from the scene. Stopping the figure-8 and letting the lure flutter with slack line to the surface can bring the musky back quickly and turn it into an eater.
A long, fast-action rod is imperative for this technique because you’ll have slack in your line when you set the hook. The long rod creates a longer hooksetting sweep to pick up the slack, and the fast action drives quick energy into the hook points. Having your hooks filed to razor sharpness goes without saying. Since your first hookset likely will not be solid, quickly reel down and set the hooks again. The long rod will help keep tension on the line between your first and second hookset, and absorb the shock of hooking the musky at what can be extremely short range.
Since a musky may eyeball your lure for what seems like an eternity before it decides to grab it, we feel that nearly-invisible fluorocarbon leaders are more effective than wire. And it’s a must that you and your boat partner remain as quiet and motionless as possible since the musky will already be close to the boat and surface, looking upward. You want it to remain focused on your lure and not distracted by your movement or noise.
As when fishing topwaters, the dead stick technique is extremely visual and requires a steady hand. You don’t want to set the hooks too quickly and must wait until the musky finally grabs the bait.
And they will, eventually, grab it. When it works for you, don’t be surprised if you find yourself giggling as you battle a musky that otherwise would not have been caught.
Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter magazine. For more about Steve, visit www.steveheiting.com