Cracking the code
5 secret new tactics for hard-to-catch summer lakers, largemouth, muskies, northerns, panfish and walleye
Summertime can be the most challenging time of the year for anglers. That’s where these five cutting-edge techniques come into play.
Summer secret #1
Blade baits for lake trout
My favourite summer laker presentation is one of the most efficient, yet overlooked tactics: I simply cast out a blade bait, such as a Heddon Sonar, Sebile Vibrato, Reef Runner Cicada or Silver Buddy, let it fall to the bottom, then reel it back up to the surface. Nothing could be easier—or more deadly.
The tactic works best during mayfly hatches, which typically occur in early June through to late July, depending on where you fish. Especially good is a hatch of the large Hexagenia limbata variety.
As you might suspect, location is critical because the best spots are not where you’d normally look for lake trout. Instead of rocky structures in the middle of the lake, the top locations are typically basin flats comprised of silt and soft clay, in moderate depths of 30 to 50 feet of water.
The soft bottom is where mayfly larvae—often as many as 100 or more per square metre—live for one to two years before swimming to the surface in the final days of their lives and emerging as winged mayflies. That is, as long as the lake trout don’t eat them on the way up.
Metal blade baits (above) perfectly match the size, shape, colour and vibration of the larvae struggling to reach the surface. I favour 1/4- and 3/8-ounce blades most of the time, opting for ½-ounce models when the mayflies and/or lakers are particularly pudgy.
A seven-foot, medium-heavy-action spinning rod is ideal for blade-baiting lake trout. I don’t think the colour of your lure matters much, although having said that, my first choice is always a neutral brown, tan and/or green hue that resembles a mayfly larvae. I’ll even put nail polish on an overly bright blade bait so that it’s a bit more subdued.
I wish I could tell you there’s a secret action you need to impart on the bait during the retrieve, but there isn’t. Simply cast it out as far as you can, let it sink down to the bottom, then reel it back to the boat. And, oh yeah—hold on!
Summer secret #2
Senkos for largemouth bass
Gord PyzerI bet there isn’t a serious bass angler who doesn’t have several bags of Senkos or similar soft-plastics stashed away. This stickbait shines when the bass bite is tough. Just rig it wacky-style or weedless, cast it out, let it flutter to the bottom on slack line, then let it sit there for as long as you can stand it.
But there’s another way to fish this amazing bait that few anglers have considered—as a topwater lure. If I hadn’t watched Bassmaster Elite pro Bill Lowen do it, I would never have believed it myself.
Lowen rigs his Senko arrow straight and Texas-style (below), with the hook point barely embedded to make it weedless. Fishing in the same shallow, weedy back bays and coves where most anglers would fish a frog, he looks for any lanes or openings, then swims the Senko over top as many of them as possible on any given cast.
He retrieves the lure at a slow pace, making it look like a tiny water snake slithering across the surface. If a bass explodes on the worm and misses, Lowen stops reeling. Unlike most surface baits that remain on top, the Senko will slowly slither to the bottom, appearing to be mortally wounded. Sometimes, he’ll allow the bait to sink even if a bass hasn’t shown itself. In either case, any lurking largemouth can’t resist it. Talk about a hot summer bite.
Summer secret #3
Paddletails for muskies & northern pike
Few lures have made a bigger splash on the toothy critter scene over the last decade than large paddletails such as the Water Wolf Lures Shadzilla (below), Big Hammer Swimbaits and the plethora of specialty soft-plastics hand-poured in garages and workshops by independent lure makers.
The rolling, side-to-side wobble combined with the back-and-forth tail action is too much for big pike and muskies to pass up. But there’s a unique way you can present the baits that makes them even more deadly in the heat of summer. It’s a trick I learned years ago from Dana Rosen, who’s also credited with weighing in the heaviest bag ever in a competitive bass event.
The key is to position your boat over deep water adjacent to muskie or pike structure, such as a main-lake reef, boulder shoal or rock pile. I’ll typically park over 30 to 40 feet of water while casting up as shallow as 10 to 12 feet.
After you cast, keep your rod tip pointed upward in the 11 o’clock position and wait until the line goes slack and bows as the lure settles to the bottom. That’s the signal to drop your rod tip to the nine o’clock position while turning the handle on your high-speed ratio baitcasting reel as fast as you can for five or six revolutions. Now, stop reeling, return the rod tip to 11 o’clock, let the lure plummet back to the bottom, pause for a second or two and then repeat.
Continue retrieving your swimbait this way, rocketing it up and off the bottom, and letting it fall back down, until it’s under the boat. Then reel it up and cast it back into the shallows. When a muskie or northern pike strikes—nearly always on the fall—it will feel like the peck from a perch. That’s your cue to reel up any slack as quickly as possible and slam the hooks home.
One last suggestion: if you’re using a swimbait with a treblehook under the belly, remove it. The single jig hook coming out the back of the bait is all you need, and you’ll be less likely to get snagged.
Summer secret #4
Float ’n fly for panfish
Just as floats have revolutionized steelhead and trout fishing in rivers, they can transform black crappie, bluegill, pumpkinseed and yellow perch action on lakes and reservoirs, too. This is especially so when you team the bobber with a hair jig such as my favourite, the Spro Phat Fly.
Along with designing the Phat Fly, Bill Siemantel is also credited with perfecting the float ’n fly technique. To create the rig, tie a small three-way swivel to the end of the main line (use four-pound-test gel-spun). Next, tie a two-, three- or four-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to the swivel.
The length of the leader should match the depth you want the fly to suspend, but it should never be longer than the length of your rod so that you can land the fish. A seven-and-a-half-foot, medium-light or light-action spinning rod is as short as you want to go, with nine-, 10-, and even 12-foot trout rods giving you the most versatility.
Next, push down the spring-loaded plastic button on top of your pear-shaped bobber and attach the clip to the third ring on the three-way swivel. You’ll be surprised how much more responsive a float is when fixed this way, as compared with a slip float. Be sure to match the size of the float to your jig so they balance one another.
To complete the rig, tie the fly—which is really a craft hair jig—to the end of the leader. Ninety per cent of the time, I opt for a 1/16-ounce Phat Fly (below); I find that the Gray Ghost and Chartreuse Ghost colours match everything the panfish are eating.
If there’s a breeze, use it to your advantage. Position your boat so that, after you cast, your float bobs up and down as it drifts over key structure—underwater points, mid-lake reefs and rock piles—and along the face of deep weeds. If it it’s calm, on the other hand, position your boat so that after you cast, you can retrieve the float ’n fly ever so slowly, either steadily or with frequent pauses, over and around the same fishy features.
Another deadly presentation is to quickly turn the reel handle a half-dozen times, then pause. This causes the bobber to scoot across the surface, pulling the jig upwards. That’s the attracting phase. Then when you pause, the fly seductively swings back toward the bottom.
Summer secret #5
Snap-strolling for walleye
With summer walleye at their physical peak, eating up to five per cent of their body weight daily, you don’t want to show them a slow, namby-pamby presentation involving live bait. They’re looking to crush something, so now’s the time to snap-stroll a Rapala Jigging Rap, Rapala Snap Rap or one of the new Kamooki SmartFish lipless crankbaits.
Snap-stroll? For the uninitiated, the technique covers water with an aggressive, erratic presentation that never leaves the high-percentage zone where most walleye are swimming, stacking the odds heavily in your favour.
It involves using your bow-mount electric trolling motor or tiller handle outboard to push the boat along at between 0.7 and 1.2 miles an hour. Meanwhile, you drop your lure over the side, allowing the line to trail behind the boat at no more than a 45-degree angle as you snap the lure up off the bottom and let it fall. The key is to balance your boat speed with the weight of the lure so that it remains in the critical two- to four-foot zone above bottom.
Ten- to 14-pound-test gel-spun line spooled on a 2500 series spinning reel is ideal. So, too, is a seven-foot, medium-heavy-action rod. I always add an 18- to 24-inch leader composed of eight- to 10-pound-test Maxima monofilament. When I use a Snap Rap or Jigging Rap, I remove the bottom treblehook to reduce snags. The Kamooki SmartFish (below), on the other hand, is brilliantly nose weighted, so the tail treble rides up off the bottom.
A critical part of the presentation is the pause after you snap up your lure, and after you let it fall back to the bottom. It’s during these brief intermissions that 99 per cent of walleye will smash the bait. And put an end to those summer fishing doldrums.