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.

Mike Mitchell