Speed for Musky Fishing

By Jeff Gardner
Originally published in the Release Journal July / August 2011

As my bucktail hit the water the blades started spinning immediately on entry, and two seconds later a long green shadow shot out of a weed pocket from my left, covering the twenty feet to my lure in the blink of an eye. She lined it up….and bailed out with only inches to go.

…I guarantee you can’t reel (or troll) too fast for a Musky to chase down your lure.

What happened? Well, I’m convinced that it was simply moving too slow. Prey flees for its life when being chased, and I believe the fact that my lure didn’t speed up further when the musky went to attack mode sent it a signal that something wasn’t right.

When it comes to casting, no matter what reel you are using or how fast you crank, I guarantee you can’t reel (or troll) too fast for a Musky to chase down your lure. Most of us have seen fish easily cover 20′ in one second; that works out to 13.6mph, and there is speculation based on observation that they are explosively capable of up to three or five times that speed.

So, does this mean to stop fishing slow altogether? No, not at all. In fact, there are times when fishing slower can be the ticket. The key lies in identifying when to apply what speed.  This comes down to knowing whether you are fishing for reaction strikes from neutral or opportunistic muskies, food seeking/hunting strikes, or reaction  strikes from negative muskies.

Reaction Strikes The Case for High Speed

The time a fish spends feeding represents a small fraction of each day. So, the vast majority of the time, it isn’t likely that we’re fishing for a musky that is actively seeking bait/food. However, the saving grace – and the point that allows an angler to capitalize – is that they are opportunistic feeders.  In other words, Mrs. Musky might be just resting next to a nice little patch of cabbage, or on top of a warm boulder, but if something zips by and looks like it’s struggling, fleeing, or dying, she can make a split second decision to rocket out and chomp it, or let it pass by.

To catch a musky in this neutral mood, you have to make it flip the switch. Bring a lure past at low speed, or with too rhythmic a cadence, and she’s apt to either let it go by, or give a halfhearted lazy follow.  When fish are on structure and in this kind of mood, it’s hard to beat a burned inline spinner (traditionally called a bucktail, but these days most often made from other materials). This technique literally gives the fish only a split second to react ‘fleeing food…eat it!’

Now, if you are built like a gorilla and have all the stamina in the world, you can high speed burn double 10’s Colorado blades, such as the Double Cowgirl. It takes a lot of work to crank up the speed on them; they just thump/pull so hard. If you’re going to do this for any length of time, I would highly recommend inlines with single or double #8 blades, in french or indiana, or willowleaf varieties.

Another group of lures that gets the nod for high speed are glider jerkbaits. In this  application, the approach is not taptap-pause, tap-tap-pause. Instead, the lure needs to be ‘quick hopped’ back to the boat; in other words, twitching and snapping while reeling as fast as you can the entire time.  This brings the erratic into the equation. Here the fish gets one or two seconds to react ‘injured/dying food…eat it!’   Both torpedo shaped (e.g. Reef Hawg) and flat sided (e.g. Phantom or Hellhound) gliders can be worked in this fashion.

Finally, tail spinning prop topwaters like the Topraider bring surface commotion into the mix, and can be worked at a fairly fast clip to trigger strikes.

A selection of high speed baits. Counter-clockwise from top left – Reef Hawg, Soft Tail Phantom, fluted french bladed inline, colorado bladed inline, double fluted french bladed inline, and double willowleaf bladed inline.

 Food Seeking/Hunting Strikes

It’s pretty difficult to say with any kind of certainty when exactly a feeding event is going to take place, or when a window will open. However, there are a couple of queues that can be taken while on the water, as well as events that can be planned around ahead of time.

When it comes to planning ahead of time, I always consider the major and minor periods of every day to be a feeding window sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset. These are the prime times to be on the best spot you know, or where you’ve seen the biggest fish.  When it comes to queues on the water, there are two key indicators to feeding activity a change in weather, and sighting of fish.

Weather can be a complex subject, but suffice to say that change is good. A storm rolling in is best, and wind picking up or changing direction to the southerly and/or westerly side of the compass is very good. The wind dying after a northerly or easterly blow can also be a positive change.

Seeing follows can be simultaneously exciting and frustrating. However, learning to read the attitude of the fish can lead to improved success. Watch for signs to see whether the fish is on the hunt for food. If the distance to your lure doesn’t change, or the mouth or gills aren’t discernibly moving, the fish is messing with you. Well, ok, let’s not give them that much credit. Perhaps the mood is curiosity (if they are capable of that), or perhaps it’s just escorting an unwelcome guest (your lure) off its  spot/home.

A selection of high speed baits. Counter-clockwise from top left – Reef Hawg, Soft Tail Phantom, fluted french bladed inline, colorado bladed inline, double fluted french bladed inline, and double willowleaf bladed inline.

If the fish closes the distance to the lure, gills flaring, mouth open, consider it an eater. If you don’t get it to go on the figure 8, or on a back cast, now is the time to hang a lure in its face for long enough that it can zero in and gobble it up.  When speed fails in these situations, it’s time to break out the slow movers. My favourites are slow moving wobbler style topwaters, or slowing a prop tail topwater down to where it just rotates the blade with a deep plopping sound. The imitation of a slow moving, dying baitfish on the surface is just too much to resist for a musky that is actively seeking food.

If you’re senses tell you that the surface is not the place to go, it’s also hard to beat a dive and rise jerkbait like a weighted Suick, which offers the best of erratic/dying imitation and the hang time to let the fish line it up to t-bone for an easy meal.

 Negative Moods – The Middle Ground in Speed

So what about when they are just plain in a funk, sitting on the edge or just off structure, with not even the slightest notion in their mind about food?  We’re talking bluebird, cloudless days; blistering hot, or drastically cooler, than the previous  days. On days like this, I prefer to fish solely at first light and last light if I’m on a vacation trip. If I have to get out during the daytime, there are two approaches I’ve found to work in these situations.  The first is going erratic, and the other is getting right in their face. Both approaches basically come down to pissing a fish off to provoke a strike not out of hunger or opportunity to eat, but out of downright aggression.

On the erratic side, my weapon of choice is a 10” Jake. The technique involves twitching the lure very hard two or three times, with slack given in between in each twitch, followed by a pause. What I’m trying to do is get the lure going hard and fast from side to side, but not coming back toward the boat more than a foot with each twitch. From a mental/visualization perspective, try to twitch it in place.  You’re aiming to get a reaction strike, but are giving the fish time to make up their mind.

The other technique is bringing a spinnerbait right past their face. Sometimes this means grinding it through weeds, sometimes slow rolling across the tops of rock, and sometimes halfway between surface and bottom.

Rad Dog spinnerbait, and 10” Jake. Bluebird day savers.

This is a  ‘hit it-or get out of the way’ approach; think about someone putting a finger in your face you either defensively move out of the way, or you act to get it out of your face.

Double #10s & #12s:


You’ll notice there hasn’t been much talk here about the ‘magical’ double #10 and #12 colorado bladed inlines. Without a doubt, they catch fish under a very wide variety of situations. For me, there’s two applications in which they shine. The first is using it as a search bait; there’s probably nothing that will cover water better and show you where fish are.

The second is as a first attempt at a known big fish. I’ll give such a fish a chance to smoke a big double bucktail first, and then move on to a slow mover if it fails.

Final Thoughts:

My parting advice is to also consider mixing up speed within a given cast. A burst of speed or a pause can be just the thing that gets a fish that was eyeing your lure to commit.  A speed burst puffs the skirt material of an inline, or sputters water forward on a topwater, signaling a musky that it’s trying to get away. A pause of a slow moving topwater or big minnowbait signals that injured prey is on its last legs, and makes for an even easier meal.  The next time you’re out there don’t just think about what is he right lure or the right spot to fish. Think about the best speed to fish as well.

Targeting Big Fish

By Jeff Gardner
Originally published in the Release Journal March/April 2010

Browsing across the various web forums or flipping through the pages of magazines, one might be led to conclude that trophy muskies are only accessible to those willing to pound it out in frigid, windy November and December conditions.

The fact of the matter is that the biggest fish in every body of water swim beneath the surface all year long, just like their smaller brethren.  While they won’t be at full winter weight during the summer and early fall, would anyone turn down a 30 or 40lb’er earlier in the year just because it wasn’t at peak late season weight?  What follows are my general thoughts on what it takes to target and catch the biggest fish in any particular body of water.

Pick Your Waters

If your goal is to catch a fish over 50”, you need to concentrate on bodies of water with a fishable population of them.  While the odd 50” might come out of numbers areas like the Kawartha chain of lakes, fishing there for a giant stacks what are already long odds even  more heavily against you.

There’s no secret about the bodies of water that routinely crank out trophies the eastern shores of Georgian Bay and the rivers and bays that connect to it, the North Channel, Lake Nipissing, the St. Lawrence River, the Ottawa River,Lake St. Clair, Lake of the Woods, Eagle Lake, Lac Seul,etc.

What makes these bodies of water so good?

Massive acreage, cover and structure options, forage base, and the strains of Muskies prevalent. Now, this doesn’t mean you should stop reading if you aren’t inclined to fish these waters.What will follow applies to catching the biggest fish in any system whether that’s a 40”er, 45”, a 50”, or bigger.

Right Place at the Right Time
Trophy Muskies are elusive beasts.You could be fishing the greatest piece of structure in town, but if you are there at the wrong time, you might as well be casting onto shore.  For a thorough explanation of structure favoured by Muskies on both mesotrophic and trout water, pick up a copy of Dick Pearson’s  Muskies on the Shield.  As a quick summary, you will increase your odds greatly if you focus on complexes.  Complexes are areas where multiple pieces of structure and cover intersect for example, a group of islands located in/near a neckdown, with points, saddles, reefs, cabbage beds, inside turns, current (wind or natural), bait, a feeding flat, and quick access to the safety of deeper water.

The more of these things you can put together, the more often big fish will be found.  No matter how good it looks, a lonely piece of structure might cough up a big musky only from time to time.  Complexes, on the other hand, hold fish consistently either right on them or off the edges, depending on conditions.

When it comes to the right time, particularly in summer and early fall, I am a firm believer  that big fish and smaller fish are distinctly different. The biggest fish will use the easily identifiable classic structures mostly under prime conditions. That means stable or  rising warm temps, some wind blowing, a cloudy sky, one of the majors imminent (sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset), and there could be a storm coming.

In these conditions you may find the biggest girl in town up on the spot-on-the-spot, and possibly even in five or fewer feet of water. For many musky hunters, fishing skinny water is a piece of cake; it’s where they spend much of their time regardless of conditions. The problem is, in less than prime conditions, this usually results either ringing the doorbell when no one is home, or only contacting the smaller fish.

So, what about cold fronts, bluebird cloudless days, and other less favorable conditions?

I  curse these days, but fish whenever I can and try to make the best of it.  Remember, they haven’t vacated the lake, and while it may be more of a challenge, they can still be caught. Based on experience, my most successful approach under tough conditions is to fish the outside edges and a cast length or two off the edge, where classic structure that forms complexes drops off quickly into deeper water.
Depending on the body of water, this could be a drop to anywhere from 5-15′ into 25-90′ of water in a matter of a few boat lengths.  In my experience, 40-60’seems to be best.

The key is that whatever the depth of water, fish your lure at the same depth the structure dropped off. If a saddle dropped off at 5′, fish your lure 5′ down. If a shelf dropped from 15′ into 50′, work your bait in the 10-15′ range.  Some will argue that under cold fronts  Muskies might be predisposed to drop vertically when they do slide off the edge. That may be the case, but a fish that negative (dropping vertically in the water column) is not likely to be persuaded by any means.

I think for the most part we’re pretty good at knowing what kinds of structure and cover  Muskies like.  The key to finding big ones lies in knowing when to fish what.
Big fish call for stout tackle.
When it comes to line, 80 or 100lb braid is the bare minimum.  It’s required to cast large lures, eliminates line breakage, and keeps the fight short, which is a must for successful and responsible release.  You should be able to put every fish – whether it is 24” or 60” – in the net in a matter of a couple of minutes at most. The epic tales of half hour battles may sound glorious, but the end result of that is a dead musky (either at the boat, or near certain post-release mortality).

Heavy and extra heavy musky rods in lengths over 8′ help hook big fish and keep them  pinned. They are also much less fatiguing than shorter rods through the course of the day, and are easier to figure eight with. I wish I’d found that out when I first started. One thing I wish more manufacturers would do is make an action slightly slower than ‘fast’ or ‘extra fast’. While stiffness and backbone are critical for hooksets, your rod must maintain bend while fighting a big fish.  Most of us know all too well that a split second of slack line  results in a tail-waving goodbye and a stream of obscenities. Rods with the right amount of bend during the fight eliminate the possibility of slack.

Stout rods will also take the fatigue out of throwing big baits all day long.

Match durable well built reels to the stout rods. The reel is going to take the brunt of abuse  from throwing big baits.  Preferences vary greatly on this, but some popular choices include Abu 7000, Shimano Trinidad, Daiwa Saltist, Abu Revo Toro, and Shimano Calcutta 400TE.

Leaders and terminal tackle:
It is up the individual what kind to use – solid wire, seven strand, fluorocarbon, etc.  Personally , I prefer solid wire in heavy gauges (140lb or more), tied in a haywire twist, in lengths of 12-18” for casting, and up to 36-48” for trolling.  I fish a lot of rocks, and after seeing a 130lb fluoro leader nicked after landing a fish a few years ago, I made the switch back to wire. These fish are not leader shy , and I believe solid wire gives me the best chance of no break off, and standing up to pounding rocks.

Whatever your choice of leader material, remember that your setup is only as strong as the weakest link.  Pairing heavy wire or fluoro with undersized rings or snaps doesn’t cut it.  Stick with 150lb-400lb terminal components. Some will contend such tackle is overkill, but the fact is that insufficient terminal tackle can result in near certain death for a fish that swims off with a lure pinned in its mouth.
There is no such thing as a magic lure. Big muskies eat everything – surface lures,crankbaits,jerkbaits,bucktails, spinnerbaits, and so on.  I pick something I believe in, that has a high hook-up ratio, and follow the guidelines below.

When it comes to Musky lures in general, I believe bigger is better; all the more so when it comes to targeting big fish.  I know , I know – lots of big incidental Muskies are taken on little walleye lures and jigs. On St. Clair it is practice all season long to catch big fish on 6” baits, etc.  But, I’ve caught so many big bass and small pike on 10” lures that when it comes to targeting four foot plus beasts, very few lures under 10” get the nod for me these days, regardless of conditions.

On speed – I spent a couple of my first years starting each day with my best one or two  lures, regardless of conditions.  This typically meant throwing a jerkbait or crankbait all day to hopefully catch one fish when I could have been throwing fast moving lures and catching multiple fish.   I ultimately stumbled across an article that suggested the best approach was to always fish the fastest that the prevailing conditions would dictate.

For example, with a warm summer storm pending, the sky clouding over , and wind starting to kick up a

Above: necessary terminal tackle – 100lb line, 140lb solid wire, and swivels, snaps, split rings and solid rings in the 200-400lb range

bit, I would highly recommend you throw something you can run back to the boat as fast as possible -inline blade baits, spinnerbaits, tail prop topwaters.  Or, if it is dead-calm bluebird skies at mid-day, think more along the lines of low and slow.

Fishing as fast as conditions warrant allows you to make contact with the maximum number of catchable big muskies on any given day.  Don’t make the mistake of  thinking big fish are fat and slow either; they are explosively fast. No matter what reel you are using or how fast you crank, I guarantee you can’t reel too fast for a big Musky (or any Musky) to catch and annihilate your lure.
To illustrate, let’s say you are a machine and you can reel 10′ per second (that is five full cranks in 1 second on a reel that picks up 24” of line per crank) – that converts to 6.8mph.
Most of us have seen fish easily cover 20′ in one second; that’s 13.6mph. You simply   cannot reel (or troll) faster than they can swim.

Big lures for big fish. A selection of baits from 10-18”, covering the water column from top to bottom. Don’t worry about going ‘too big’. Many big bass and small pike ar e caught on 10” lures, and the author has caught Muskies down to 36” on 14” lures.

We are already targeting the apex predator , and therefore lowest density fish, in the system.  When you take that a step further and target not just any musky you can catch, but the biggest one that swims, you have to accept that you are going to spend a fair bit of time not catching.  While some bodies of water carry larger numbers of big fish, by and large it is a trade-off; numbers for size.

You could go days without even seeing a fish. You could also hit conditions right, make the right choices about where to fish, and catch (or at least see) several fish over 50” in one day.

Some guys have the trophy bug so bad they will fish all year for the sake of a couple of   bites from 50+”ers.  Some guys are happy to land a 30”something on most of their trips.

Some like to mix it up between the two. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into with targeting the big ones, because that first rod buckling behemoth might change you forever.

Spend some time before the season thinking what camp you want to fall into this year and gear up accordingly.

John Anderson Talks Ottawa River Muskie

Paul Shibata talks with Ottawa River muskie guide John Anderson about the 2015 season, keys to success and how new gear helps make you a better angler.

We’re still a couple of months away from getting on the water, but listen in and get your self ready (like you haven’t been ready since the day after the season closed last year …..)

This was originally aired on Renegade Bass Radio in October 2015.

Muskie Fishing Tips

By Ross Nichols

New to the sport or a seasoned veteran, these tips should help improve your game.

1. LEADERS – Use a 3-5 foot leader for trolling depending on water clarity. 130-150 pound test. A 12 inch in wire or fluorocarbon for casting.

2. NET- One with a sizable basket for the muskie in your fishing area. Put some glow tape around the net and place a flashlight on the yoke.  When netting in the dark the net and fish will show up. If you are alone, once the fish is in the net, place net in Down East rod holder  and attach lanyard

3. RELEASE TOOLS – Have long handle, long nose pliers, vise grips for removing hooks in a fish or for “T” your hooks and a Knipex bolt cutter easily accessible for cutting hooks.  You will also need a hook out tool.   Tools can be expensive – tie a lanyard with clip to each tool and attach it to you net in order to prevent loss.

4. CAMERA- Have your camera ready for that photo of a lifetime, ensure that battery is charged and be sure to protect it during the cold weather from freezing. Take a release shot in the water.

5. When trolling at last light or night trolling, put a little glow tape around tip of your rod, when the light from your headlight or spot light shines on the tip you will be able see your rod action.