The Plastics Revolution In Musky Fishing

By Steve Heiting

Musky fishermen can be extremely slow to change because they are seldom willing to risk time on the water to try what they perceive as an offbeat method. The soft plastic revolution that is occurring right now in their sport underscores that statement.

It was about forty years ago when a group of Illinois anglers lit up northern Wisconsin’s muskies by fishing with outsized bass jigs rigged with an eel-like piece of plastic called a “reaper.” Did that cause musky hunters to change their ways? No, because most viewed the fishermen’s success as a fluke.

About twenty years ago, the late Joe Borgwardt and a handful of friends enjoyed tremendous big fish success with a lure of Borgwardt’s design called a Live Action Lure, but known to insiders as the “Big Joe.” This lure, which resembled little more than a fat sausage with wiggly tail fins, was dismissed with amusement by many.

It wasn’t until early in this decade when soft plastics began to consistently be the winning pattern in the Professional Musky Tournament Trail that fishermen took notice. Today, soft plastic lures, or lures that are hybrids between a wooden or hard plastic bait and soft plastic, are practically exploding in use and availability.

A look at the 2007 Rollie & Helen’s Musky Shop catalog bears this out. When it comes to musky lures, if it’s made, Rollie & Helen’s sells it. Of the more than 550 different lures (without counting colors) available for sale in the catalog, almost a fourth have soft plastic incorporated into their design. If you discount topwater lures, the percentage goes up to almost a third. Even a high percentage of bucktails have a wiggly tail on the back.

This isn’t just the product of clever marketing. Musky lures get popular by producing fish and lures that don’t produce are relegated to garage sales. Yet the popularity of plastics is growing.

Rod manufacturers have taken notice. As plastics increase in popularity and grow in size (sometimes exceeding a pound), rod designers have scrambled to create extra-heavy but sensitive offerings. The upside for them is they are selling the rods as fast as they can make them.

if this isn’t a revolution, I don’t know what is.

Why Soft Plastics?
Nobody understands the need for an edge than the competitive fisherman. Today’s musky tourneys sometimes draw as many as 150 boats (300 fishermen) to the same waterbody for a day-and-a-half event. With payouts to first place often in the vicinity of $20,000, nothing is left to chance. When 300 anglers are casting everything that wiggles, wobbles, vibrates and rattles, it’s the lifelike lure that glides like a fish that often catches the muskies.

Even the everyday angler is looking for something different. The sport of musky fishing has experienced a growth spurt in the last decade, and many are highly-mobile, highly-efficient anglers. If there’s a hot bite somewhere, it doesn’t last long before the masses get wind of it. An extremely high percentage of the muskies they catch are released after photos, and with muskies being a long-lived fish, the chances of them repeating the same mistake and eating another noisy lure diminishes. But a lure whose only action is a wiggling tail is viewed more favorably.

Types of Soft Plastics
Essentially, there are three types of soft plastic musky lures — jigs, all-plastic baits, and hybrids. Jigs feature a big leadhead and some sort of plastic tail, be it a reaper, creature or shad. I also include big tubes in this category, but I fish them differently.

I use jigs in the spring when sight-fishing muskies that are holding shallow, soaking up the heat of an early summer sun, or when fishing along weed edges during a cold front. In sight fishing, ease your boat slowly along with the trolling motor while scanning ahead for sunbathing muskies, then cast ahead and beyond the fish. Let the jig settle, then scoot it forward, stop, scoot, stop, all the time imparting the action with the reel. If the musky is interested, it will rise slightly in a tail-up-nose-down stance, then pounce.

When fishing along weedlines, I let the jig settle until my line goes slack, indicating the bait is on the bottom, then crank hard for 3-4 cranks to hop it off the bottom before allowing it to free-fall again until the line slackens. If the line hops, moves sideways, stays slack without settling on the bottom, or you feel a distinct “tick,” set the hook hard.

I use big tubes as a throw-back bait to a fish that followed but didn’t strike. Cast it in the direction the fish went, then swim it back to the boat. For either jigs or tubes, a 7 1/2-foot medium heavy action rod and 80-pound test superline should suffice.

All-plastic lures include the Bull Dawg, Live Action Lure and Castaic, among many others. The beauty is you can’t fish them wrong — cast and reel, and you’ll catch fish. I like to fish them like a jerkbait, pulling and pausing. Some anglers even troll these lures. These baits tend to be heavy, so I use my heavy jerkbait-action rods, and upsize to 100-pound test superbraid. The hit on these lures often is not the hard strike one would expect — often all you feel is a “tick,” while sometimes there’s just extra weight. Razor sharp hooks help a lot with baits of this size.

Another all-plastic lure are the eels, which look like giant plastic worms and are known by such funny names as Sluggo and Kill’r Eel. These again require a jerkbait-action rod, and I fish them with slight twitches of my wrist which make them dart side-to-side.

There are dozens of hybrids available and can be as simple as adding a Mr. Twister tail to a bucktail. Usually these are half jerkbait-half soft plastic, or half crankbait-half soft plastic and are often designed to give a traditional lure more wiggle and flash. My two favorites of this category are both crankbaits — the Storm Kickin’ Minnow and the Shallow Invader. Both have a steady wobble thanks to a diving lip, but their soft plastic tail section gives them a more lifelike appearance and wobble. There are so many hybrids of different sizes, actions and weights that it’s impossible to name an all-around rod action — just use your bucktail rod for the bucktail hybrids, your twitchin’ rod for the smaller crankbait hybrids, and a jerkbait-action rod for the big stuff.

Today’s musky isn’t the same fish of a hundred or even twenty years ago. It’s a fish that probably gets caught at least once each year, and when it’s not biting it’s ducking from the hundreds of lures that whir, rattle and wobble over its head every day the season is open, and that’s why lifelike lures are gaining in effectiveness and popularity. If you aren’t using them already, it would be a wise move to join the soft plastic revolution.

Steve Heiting is the managing editor of Musky Hunter magazine. He lives near St. Germain, WI.

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