On the move
Secret strategies that keep hard-core muskie hunters catching giants all season long
Trolling is often thought of as an imprecise way of fishing, where luck has more impact on catching than skill does. With today’s technology and better knowledge of fish behaviour, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only can you now troll with the same level of precision as casters, you can also cover a lot more water in the process—a key to connecting with elusive muskies. Here’s how some of the best muskie hunters out there use trolling to put more and bigger fish in their boats.
The need for speed
Andrew Grant (above), owner and head guide of Ontario’s Georgian Bay Musky Charters, started fishing the trophy waters of Georgian Bay when he was just a kid at his family cottage north of Parry Sound. Now a seasoned muskie ace, he operates all along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, but has a soft spot for the Honey Harbour and Severn Sound regions.
Grant believes trolling speed is one of the largest overlooked factors in triggering big fish to bite. While others switch up lure colours, profiles and sizes, he changes his presentation by varying his speed—and it’s helped put some absolutely giant fish in his boat.
During the summer months, Grant likes to troll “fairly fast” and cover as much water as possible. “During this warm-water period, muskies are willing to move a greater distance to strike, so by increasing my boat speed, my lures have a higher probability of contacting active fish.”
What is fairly fast by Grant’s standards? We’re talking 5 to 6 mph, and sometimes even faster in super-clear water, he says. This is significant, because even with today’s high-speed reels, you’re simply not going to be able to achieve those speeds when casting.
Once the warm-water bite starts tapering off and water temperatures begin to drop, so does Grant’s trolling speed. In the fall, when fish become more lethargic, he slows down to 2½ to 4 mph. These slower speeds keep his baits in the strike zone longer, and he can still cover a lot of water.
No matter what the season, Grant says it’s best to keep changing your speed throughout the day, letting the fish tell you what they want. The best way to go about this is to make a lot of turns, and pay attention to when a fish strikes. If it’s on the outside of the turn, it means the lure was moving faster, so you can increase your speed. If it strikes on the inside, on the other hand, the lure was travelling slower, so try reducing your speed.
Tackle that can take it
The amount of torque applied to your gear when trolling at high speeds is astounding, especially when a fish hits or if you snag the bottom. So, make sure you have the right tackle for the job, says Dave Kormanyos (above), owner of Louisville, New York’s DK Musky Lures. A builder of muskie baits, he not only pays attention to the detail and quality of his lures, but also to the trolling gear he uses.
“Rod holders and their attachment points are a major part of your trolling set-up,” says Kormanyos, who does most of his muskie hunting on the world-record waters of the St. Lawrence River. In this department, he prefers locking Down-East Salty rod holders matched with specialty Fat A.Z. bases, which use a slip washer to allow for the easy pivoting of the rod. This makes it simple to check if your bait is running true, or if you need to raise your rod when trolling over shallow sections. As added insurance, he also uses St. Lawrence Custom Rod leashes.
For rod and reel, Kormanyos recommends using an eight-foot, heavy-action fibreglass rod—he likes the Custom X Trolling Rod—paired with a high-quality line-counter reel, such as the Shimano Tekota. The fibreglass rod, along with a looser set drag, will absorb shock when a fish hits, reducing the odds of tearing the hooks out of a muskie’s mouth.
When it comes to baits, Kormanyos suggests having a few lures with different styles and actions at the ready. Baits are simply tools, he says, and there’s always a proper tool for the job at hand. He says there are days when the fish prefer a wide-wobbling lure, such as his own DK Fifty Finder, or a Mortimer Baits’ Kirby or Legend Lures’ Perchbait. Then there are days, especially in the fall, when fish want a bait with a tighter action, such as his DK Subban or Musky Mania’s Jake. For speed trolling, in-line bucktails, spinnerbaits and Hose Bait’s Jointed Hose Fatty are excellent options, as they’ll run true at even the highest speeds.
If you’ve watched any online muskie videos in the past five years, you’ve probably stumbled across a few of Kyle Garon’s, which he posts on his YouTube channel, Slobland Flicks. Garon (above) is a diehard muskie angler, who now guides on Georgian Bay, Lake Nipissing and the French River—some of the toughest waters in Ontario.
One of the main ingredients of Garon’s success over the last 20 years of his muskie career has been his ability to use his electronics to their fullest. He knows that replication is the key to precision and success, making a mapping and waypoint system so invaluable when it comes to trolling.
To start, Garon keeps his waypoints and icons simple and organized. For example, he marks out structure and trolling routes using icons that depict the bottom composition of a particular pass. If he’s fishing a weedline, he uses an icon that resembles weeds; if it’s a rock break, he uses a series of rock icons. He also marks the shallowest point on the structure, and if anything can damage his motor, he marks it with a skull and crossbones. Finally, he drops a waypoint any time he comes into contact with a fish, whether it’s a follow, a strike or a catch. Over time, all of this info will begin to paint a picture and help with figuring out future patterns for a particular piece of structure or waterbody.
Garon also closely monitors his graph. And while he looks for bait, the main thing he’s searching for is a muskie. “Keeping a close eye on your graph will allow you to see a muskie before the rod goes off,” he says. “If the rod doesn’t go off, at least you know there are fish in the area. You can always come back later, or turn around and tweak your presentation to try to get the fish to commit.”
John Mortimer (above) runs Northshore Musky Baits, an online tackle shop that sells premium musky baits, including DK Musky Lures and his own handcrafted Mortimer Baits. A bit of a madman when it comes to muskie fishing, he records every detail of his outings and uses the information to help him better understand muskie behaviour. With data from more than 10,000 hours on Georgian Bay alone, it’s safe to say the man has come across a few successful patterns in his time.
One basic but important factor that Mortimer says a lot of muskie anglers overlook is knowing the exact running depth of each lure they use. “There’s lots of charts out there to give you average running depths of lures,” he says, “but different line types and pound tests will give you varying lure depths.”
Mortimer believes there are situations and times when the only way to get bit is to have your lure run just above bait, or make it contact the top of a reef. And the only way you can present a particular lure in such a precise manner is if you know its exact running depth. That’s why he takes the time to calibrate every bait he trolls.
To do this, Mortimer trolls over rocky areas that are free of weeds and submerged wood, with depths of 10, 15 and 20 feet. Trolling at 4 mph, he lets out 10 feet of line at a time and records exactly how much line he has out when he contacts the bottom at the various depths.
During the summer, Mortimer prefers to troll his baits high in the water column, no matter how deep he’s fishing. “It’s always best to be far above a muskie rather than below it,” he says. “Most of the time, if they’re deep, they’ll have no problem swimming up 20 to 30 feet to eat.”
Even though Mortimer usually doesn’t run his baits deeper than 15 feet in the summer, he still prefers crankbaits that have steep dive curves, such as his Kirby. This enables him to get the lures down to his desired depth with the least amount of line, giving him a lot more control when making tight turns around structure.
It’s a different story in the fall when the water turns over and the muskies and their forage gravitate to the slightly warmer waters found on deep structure. That’s when Mortimer’s hard work calibrating his lures comes into play—instead of summoning the fish from the depths, as he does in the summer, he goes to them. “Sometimes if there’s a fish hugging bottom in 30 feet,” he says, “I’ll literally have to run my bait across its face in order to get it to bite.” Now that’s trolling.
Contributor Leavon Peleikis is a multi-species angler specializing in catching big fish.