Finessing the monsters
Forget the heavy-duty tackle. To up your odds of catching more muskies, lighten up your gear—and tactics
To most anglers, muskie fishing is a game of power and speed, requiring extra-heavy-action rods, winch-like reels, 150-pound leaders, massive swivels and large-profile baits rigged with the heaviest-gauge hooks available. Such hardware is certainly effective for catching the fish of 1,000 casts, but why not try finesse fishing for muskies as we do for other species?
I remember when the switch flipped for me. Although I’m a muskie nut at heart, I spend a great deal of time fishing competitively for several other species. On one particular outing, I was targeting smallmouth bass along a grass-sand transition with a drop-shot rig. I was making long casts and slowly working the presentation back toward the boat when I had a very subtle but heavy take. At first I thought I’d hooked a monster smallmouth, but then the headshakes began, followed by a long run and an acrobatic leap. I had hooked a muskie.
I soon realized this was much more than mere coincidence—the muskie was in the area presumably feeding on the bass and had simply taken advantage of a seemingly easy meal. We’ve all heard tales of anglers inadvertently taking monster muskies with finesse tactics while fishing for other species, so why not actually use those presentations to target muskies in the first place? And here I’m talking specifically about using lighter tackle, drop-shot rigs and spybaits.
Chris Huskilson#1 Lighten up
During my early years of muskie fishing, I was in the same rut as most other muskie hunters, locked in the mindset that bigger and heavier was the only way to go. I always caught a lot of muskies, but found I lost just as many fish at the end of a cast during the violent headshakes, or at the side of the boat following a hard run or jump.
A few years back, I decided to try something that changed the game for me forever. I put down my extra-extra-heavy rods and winch reels and picked up some medium-heavy rods with low-profile reels. I also went from 100-pound-test line down to 30-pound and, most importantly, I reduced the size and gauge of my hooks.
I find the medium-heavy rods don’t limit the baits I can use, yet they provide better shock absorbency during headshakes, boat-side runs and jumps, dramatically improving my landing success. The low-profile reels, meanwhile, not only provide less strain on my wrist and hands, they also pack more than enough power and line capacity to handle any bait I choose. Plus, they balance perfectly with the lighter rods.
As for the smaller, lighter-gauge hooks, they require much less force to penetrate than larger heavier-gauge trebles, and they stay pinned during battle thanks to the added shock absorbency of the lighter-action rods. And the hooks don’t bend with the rod doing the work it’s meant to do, resulting in more fish landed. They’re also much easier to cut if a fish gets deeply hooked, making for less stress on the fish and a dramatically better chance for a successful live-release.
Your equipment set-up is also key when finesse fishing with drop-shot rigs or spybaits. Again, I really scale things back from what would be considered conventional muskie tackle. I prefer medium-heavy, fast-taper spinning rods, 30-pound braided line with a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 5000-size spinning reel with a fast retrieve and smooth drag. And again, light-gauge hooks and the added shock absorbency of the medium-heavy rods make for a high fish-landing ratio.
When fishing a drop-shot rig for muskies, I usually focus on the outside edges of hard-bottom weedlines directly adjacent to deep water. I use fairly large, seven- to nine-inch soft-plastic baits that imitate the local forage base, which is typically walleye and suckers where I fish. Don’t be afraid to also fish this set-up in shallow water. I’ve caught plenty of muskies on the drop-shot in as little as three to four feet of water.
Given the large size of the plastic offering, a one- to three-ounce weight is needed to maintain contact with the bottom. I’ll increase the weight as needed based on the water depth and the wind. As for the leader, the length depends on the location of the forage fish and their position in the water column. If mud bottom-hugging suckers are on the menu, for example, I’ll run an 18-inch leader. When I find walleye higher in the water column moving along the outside edges of weedlines, on the other hand, I’ll lengthen my leader to as long as 30 inches.
I don’t impart a lot of action on the bait while probing the bottom; I just make a couple of light twitches, then slowly drag the rig a foot or so and repeat. I’ll even deadstick the offering in high-percentage areas such as depressions and rock piles, or drop it down to a large fish if one suddenly appears on my graph. This approach is similar to what I do when drop-shotting for other species.
When the bite is really tough, don’t hesitate to downsize your soft-plastic. My secret weapon of late has been a 5½-inch swimbait intended for bass, threaded onto a 4/0 straight-shank hook (above). I make long-bomb casts in high-percentage areas and simply drag the rig back to the boat. Maintaining bottom contact is key. And be patient—the reward is worth the extra attention to detail.
When you feel that unmistakable bite, don’t be too quick to snap into a heavy hookset. Instead, reel down, load up the rod and make a solid pump to firmly set the hook. From there, let the medium-heavy rod and spinning reel’s drag do their job as you maintain good pressure on the fish and lead it safely to the landing net.
One of the benefits of the drop-shot rig is the single hook, which is less likely to require cutting to free the fish. That means less time in the net for the fish, and less time out of the water. Drop-shotting is a game changer in muskie fishing, making it a tactic every true muskie nut needs to try.
Spybaiting is an ultra-finesse technique that, much like the drop-shot, is typically used to target other species. But much like the drop-shot, it also produces a lot of muskies for me. And as effective as the drop-shot rig is, it pales in comparison to the subtle yet deadly action of a spybait. Since this is not your usual muskie technique, however, finding muskie-sized spybaits at first proved difficult. Luckily, I discovered what is currently the fishing industry’s sole manufacturer of muskie-sized spybaits (above)—Chaska, Minnesota’s Kodiak Baitworks. (You can contact Kodiak Baitworks via facebook at www.facebook.com/kodiakbaitworks.)
For a spybait to work properly, you need to tie your 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader directly to the main line. I use an Albright knot, which I use as the connection knot for every leader I tie; I’ve found it to be most reliable. Plus, the Albright is very small and easily flows through the guides when I choose to run an extra-long leader. I generally use an 18- to 20-inch leader, but will go longer in gin-clear water to maximize the realism of my presentation. Note that if the leader is too heavy, the bait will roll over during the retrieve and lose its natural action.
For this finesse technique, a spinning combo is an absolute; I use the exact same set-up as I use for drop-shotting for muskies. I like to make long-bomb casts over deep basins, counting the bait down to the depth I’ve detected forage on my graph. Then a slow and steady retrieve is all it takes to elicit a strike. The bait may appear to be doing very little, but its tiny propeller blades churn up a lot of water, which muskies can easily detect. They can hear it, see it and detect it with their lateral line—and I can’t keep them off it.
When a muskie does hit the spybait, it’s often a subtle take, feeling as if the lure has run into a clump of weeds, with a solid weight suddenly on the end of the line. Then a simple flick of the wrist followed by a sweeping hookset is more than enough for the lighter-gauge hooks to penetrate the fish’s mouth. And the same rules apply when reeling the fish in as they do with the drop-shot. Simply maintain good, solid pressure and allow the medium-heavy rod and spinning reel’s drag to absorb the high-impact headshakes, jumps and runs.
Fishing deep isn’t the only productive approach—I’ll fish anywhere with a spybait. Sure, 90 per cent of the bigger muskies will be taken in or directly adjacent to the deeper sections of a waterbody. But if I can’t catch them deep, I’ll gradually go shallower until I start to contact fish. The only thing I’ll change is my retrieve speed, reeling in faster to avoid hanging up on cover. Indeed, spybaiting is extremely versatile when it comes to muskies.
Considered a finesse bait demanding a slow retrieve when targeting other species, spybaits can be fished at any level of the water column for muskies. And they can be slow-rolled, or reeled in with a steady or moderately fast retrieve—just take care that at no point the bait starts to roll over. Best of all, spybaiting excels all season long. It’s a sleeper technique that, I believe, will take hold on the muskie scene in the very near future. And you read it here first.
When not hunting muskies, Chris Huskilson competes in bass tournaments across Ontario.