May 10, 2018

Twitch that Spring Itch!

Musky follows and bites are prominent early in the year, but thinks about smaller and slower baits

By: Dan Gropengiser

Many of us attended a couple of musky expos through the winter months and can’t wait to get out on the open water. Possibly you have had dreams at night of catching your next personal best only to be awaken by the dog nudging you to get up and feed him.

Our passion or drive for muskies affects us just as much as hunters who prepare for rifle season of whitetail deer. A difference for us is our season lasts longer and we can break it down into separate stages of the season.

Early spring patterns

Typical seasons with normal-weather fish have already come off the spawn and are now in the recovery and feeding mode. Remember going to shows and finding that custom bait you’ve seen posted all over the internet and anticipating the first cast with it? You may want to hold off for now and think about what time of the year that bait is designed for and mainly what type of water temperatures in which it will work best for the size. Step down a couple of sizes and think small and slow for baits and presentations.

Musky are opportunistic eaters that want easy meals this time of year, and they can eat that meal a couple of times during the day. I will set my Just Encase pedestal box up days, maybe even weeks, in advance of opening weekend. As a rule of thumb, nothing larger than a standard-sized Suick will be put in my tackle box during the first couple of weeks on the water. My go-to baits consist of 5- to 8-inch minnow-style crankbaits and standard-sized glide baits. Smaller bucktails will come into play also as I run multiple rods for different presentations with multiple anglers in the boat.

Minnow baits / crankbaits

This style of bait is made by a couple different companies and will pay off big time when used properly. Slammer Tackle is a mainstay when loading up my boxes for early season. Snapping on a 5-inch Slammer Shad, I cast it and begin my retrieve with a couple of cranks of the reel and twitches of the rod towards the water. The Slammer Shad has an internal rattle that helps fish hunt down these baits in the water column with aid from their lateral lines.

The first five to ten feet of my retrieve I allow the bait to come up to the surface at least three times, and continue bringing it back to the boat twitching and reeling, finishing with a decent-sized figure eight. Remember to go slow and steady. Anticipate your bites to come when the bait dimples the top of the water or during the times when the bait pauses during the retrieve. Standard 6-inch and 7-inch Slammers also work and are more buoyant when fishing cover such as emerging reeds and docks. I use these baits the same as the 5-inch Shads in thicker cover such as fallen trees and higher weed growth areas.

Glide baits

These baits are just amazing at triggering muskies into eating. The side-to-side action or glide mimics a wounded fish in the water. My retrieve style on these baits is a reel-pull-reel-pull action with downward pulls and side pulls toward the water. During my pull I want to point the rod tip directly at the bait to produce slack line that causes wider glides of the bait. The best leader to use with glide baits is a steel single-strand wire leader, and sometimes I will place a split ring on the bait to get better action from it. Two of the easiest glide baits I run are the Warlock by Bitten Tackle and the Drop Belly Slammer. Once you get in the rhythm or cadence of your retrieve, these baits will trigger even the finicky fish that followed in other baits to strike.

Bucktails

Smaller blades at this time of year can be used to convert followers into biters and can be used by your boat partner while you are using a minnow-style bait. Bite Back Bait Co. produces the Micro Trilogy, a single blade with three off-blades produces a totally different thumbprint in the water. Standard single blades produce well at this time of the year as well. Smaller blades are versatile baits for triggering inactive fish. My retrieve style for blades is starting out slow and not burning them as you would in the later part of the season. Finishing with figure eights is a must, even with colder spring water temperatures.

Rods and reels 

Lighter weight and shorter rods with heavier actions work best in conjunction with minnow-style and glide baits. St. Croix manufactures some of the best tactic-specific rod actions on the market. The rods I have on my front deck are no longer than 8 foot, 6 inches and are going to have smaller reels on them with smaller frames.

The 7’6” XHF Legend Musky Elite is one of my favorite rods to use through out the season and really shines when using glide baits and minnow-style baits. It also doubles as a surface-bait rod when water temperatures climb. My bucktail rod is going to be the 8’6” Long Ranger Legend Tournament in MH action. This rod allows me to cast even the lightest blades all the way up to double nines later in the season.

A couple years ago I wanted to get the best performance from a lighter rod. I used 6-inch Slammers and combined a 7’10” Swim Bait Legend Bass Tournament rod with a bass-sized reel and 30-pound Super Slick line. The ease of casting smaller baits comes from how the rod loads, and the great fight from a musky on light tackle is amazing.

Locating active fish

Start out looking for shallow bays on the northwest side of lakes with emerging weeds. The north end gets the most sunlight during the spring warm-up period and promotes the best water temperatures for spawning and weed growth. I’ll start targeting inside weed edges toward the shore first, especially if there are reeds in the area.

My next passes will be just outside the emerging weeds if I didn’t contact any fish up in the shallows. If we have above-normal temperatures during the spring, another great location is in the 10- to 14-foot depth range – well outside the weed edge – to search for recovering fish that are suspended in the upper part of the water column. I’ll use deeper running cranks like the Joe Bucher Outdoors Depth Raider and regular-sized Bull Dawgs to contact these fish.

With the amount of baits and tactics available to the current musky angler, we sometimes get stuck in a rut of our favorite baits that only work during certain periods of the year. Early season can generate some of the most action and follows you will encounter on the water.

I hope these tactics will help you get a jump start on one of my favorite parts of the musky season, that I look forward to every year. Please remember to practice catch-photo-release and have the proper release tools so the next angler can enjoy a hookset on the fish you just caught. Good luck and have a great season on the water!