By Dan Johnson
Few freshwater experiences rival the adrenaline rush you get when a monster muskie shadows your lure to the boat. But this addictive surge of epinephrine can make it hard to focus on the best course of action to convert follows into strikes and, more importantly, get the fish in the boat.
Even if you manage to keep your cool, turning lookers into biters is not easy, especially on heavily pressured waters where jaded dragons have seen every move in the book. Whether you enjoy muskie fishing on a few select trips each season or flog the water 100 times a year, a handful of tricks can help you maintain composure and execute the right sleight of hand to fool more fish into eating the lure.
Few anglers know the drill like diehard muskie stalkers Spencer Berman, Pete Maina, and Jeff Andersen. Veteran guides and experts with thousands of fish to their credit, they offer ideas on how to maximize your chance of success at the moment of truth.
Readying for Battle
“The number one mistake muskie anglers make is not having their mind in the game,” says Andersen of Leisure Outdoor Adventures. “Everything happens so fast when a fish appears. If you lose focus, let your posture slide, and a fish catches you by surprise, you tend to do things you normally wouldn’t do.”
To avoid such frustrations, he recommends devoting full attention to the situation. “I know it’s hard to do in the 12th hour of a fishless day, but always have your game face on with every single cast,” he says. “When clients just can’t stay focused, I often have them sit down and take a break until they’re ready, so we don’t burn any fish by not being on point.”
Andersen’s second strategy for avoiding misfires under pressure is having clients practice their boatside moves long before a fish arrives on the scene. “Honing boatside maneuvers and developing muscle memory helps strike-triggering responses become second nature,” he says. “It’s no different than bowhunting, weightlifting, or any other sport with repetitive motion. When a fish appears, your body will respond with what it was trained to do.”
Toward that end, Andersen asks clients to show him what they’ll do when they see a fish behind their lure. “It usually takes at least five or six times to get it dialed in, but when the angler gets the end game down pat, it’s amazing how much better they’re prepared to take advantage of following fish.”
Berman also has clients perfect their moves prior to showtime. “A full figure eight on every cast is a good idea whenever you have some color to the water, and it allows me to critique them when there’s not a fish behind the lure. I also think it develops muscle memory that makes a big difference in the heat of the moment.
Berman adds that angler location also is critical. “Being in position to execute a figure eight is huge,” he says. “That means at the side of the boat, you should maximize your space and keep your turns and eights wide. When you’re at the side of the boat, you can bring the rod down and touch the rub rails. And when you extend it out over the water, the lure travels the entire length of the rod. With a 9-foot rod, like we use, you can cut a 9-foot circle. If you’re three feet from the side of the boat, you lose that distance—which can be a critical mistake, especially with big fish that can’t make tight turns. That’s why a butt seat is bad, since it positions you in the middle of the deck.”
Being at boatside also eliminates the need to step toward the gunwale to greet an incoming fish. “There are very few naive muskies anymore,” Berman says. “It doesn’t help your cause if they see you lurch toward them. I think it also helps to wear white, gray, or blue clothing, as opposed to a bright-red rainsuit. Some fish don’t care, but others do.”
To the untrained eye, muskies appear malevolent. But their moods and activity levels change, and if you know what to look for, it’s often possible to “read” an incoming fish and adjust your end game accordingly.
“Identifying whether a fish is going to eat right away or needs coaxing helps you figure out how to trigger it,” Andersen says. “With a hot fish, you can often make a simple down move, hang the bait on the outside of the turn, and catch them. With less aggressive fish, it’s more of a cat-and-mouse game.
“It’s hard to describe, but the position of the jawbone is a major clue,” he continues. “A fish that looks like it’s smiling is usually aggressive. Also pay attention to the tail and pectoral fins. It’s a great sign when these are engaged and the fish is swimming hard to catch the lure. And if the muskie’s eyes are locked on the lure, it almost doesn’t matter what you do, it’s ready to chow down.”
On the flip side, a negative fish gliding 5 to 10 feet behind and a bit below a lure needs more encouragement. To fire it up, Andersen often waits until the fish is within reach of his rod, then pushes the tip into the water and darts the lure out of the muskie’s view. Then he pulls it quickly past the fish in a move he likens to, “a sports car passing a semi.” He says the daring fly-by often lights up the fish’s lateral line and engages an otherwise hesitant follower.
“When reading fish, the thing I pay attention to more than distance to the lure or anything else is the muskie’s position in the water column relative to the lure,” Maina says. “If the fish is at the same level or even above the lure, it’s aggressive. You should be able to trigger that fish, provided you speed up and play keep-away with it.
“The most common reaction I see that costs people fish is maintaining the same speed or even slowing down,” he says. “It’s a deal-breaker with active fish coming in at or above the lure, but the same principle holds true for followers in general. If you get into a figure eight and the fish is hanging with you but hasn’t hit, keep increasing speed while watching the fish’s reaction. Nine times out of 10, the faster they go, the more excited they get. You can almost see it in their eyes.”
One exception to the rule is when a less-active following fish won’t commit. “With a fish that’s chasing but still neutral, if you speed up in a straightaway and they keep up with it, try slowing down as you round the corner,” he says.
If speed alone doesn’t trip a muskie’s trigger, Maina adds depth changes to the routine. “Taking the lure out of their view and bringing it back above them is a good approach,” he says. “If the fish is a little behind, bring the lure down out of sight, then cross over and come up right in front of them.
“A lot depends on the style of lure,” he continues. “I always recommend taking a topwater below the surface when working a fish at boatside, because your odds of hooking up are much better than if you try to pull it on top. With crankbaits it’s generally the same deal, especially if they’re neutrally buoyant. In the case of jerkbaits and plastics, I typically try to see how well speed works. If they don’t react quickly—especially if the lure is a sinker—when I’ve tried going fast and shown them a few twitches, I let the lure sink out of sight, often three or four feet below the fish. Then I snap it back up to or slightly above the level of the fish, then kill it and let it sit. The lure hangs there for just a second, but a lot of times that’s enough to push a muskie over the edge.”
Reading a fish’s activity level also helps Maina decide when to return to a muskie that didn’t respond favorably to his boatside presentation. “If the fish came in hot, at or above the level of the lure, I try again right away,” he says. “When possible, however, I attack it from a different angle. If I was casting deep to shallow, I reposition the boat so I’m throwing out to deep water. If I was casting perpendicular to the bank, I sneak up tight to shore and cast parallel to the waterline. As for lure selection, I use a similar lure but may tweak the color or sound.”
Muskies that idle in below the lure and never get excited in the figure eight need a little more time. “If the fish seemed neutral or negative, I leave it alone awhile and try it again on a wind switch or weather change.”
Berman, too, reads a muskie’s mood. “The higher in the water column the fish is, and the closer it is to the lure, the better off you are,” he says. “A muskie that starts to flare its gills and nip at the lure is a one-turn-and-done fish. Conversely, one that’s four feet behind the lure and four feet below it is a tough customer. You’ve got your work cut out for you, but you still have to try.”
Berman also notes that the most aggressive fish don’t follow a lure to the boat. “When you have good weather conditions and the fish are biting, you shouldn’t have to worry about figure-eighting,” he says. “If they’re jazzed up, they hit on the retrieve.”
Andersen braces for impact and preps for follows no matter the conditions, but says the Summer Peak Period generally brings the most active fish. “Muskies tend to move faster and are more willing to travel and track down baits,” he says. “They’re eating more to sustain their metabolism than in late fall. Still, you can get neutral fish in July and aggressive fish in November. It’s up to you to figure out how to trigger each individual fish’s predatory instinct.”
While some anglers advocate slowing down the retrieve and figure eight in cold water, Andersen differs. “The only reason we use slower lures in fall is they stay in the strike zone longer and get fish to engage better,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean baitfish swim slower in cold water. A cisco swimming for its life still moves fast, and so do muskies feeding on them. So when you’re trying to trigger a fish, don’t think you have to go slow at the side of the boat.”
Berman notes that triggering a strike is only part of the end game. You still need to set the hook. “Too many anglers win the triggering battle but lose the war by whiffing the hook-set,” he says. “You also need to know what you’re going to do when a fish grabs the lure.”
In Berman’s book, the worst reaction is setting the hook away from the direction the fish is moving. “Pulling the bait away from a fish is the worst thing,” he warns. “Always aim to set hooks into the fish. I tell clients to set toward the tail. It’s hard to do if a fish catches you off guard, but it’s critical to ensuring a solid hook-set. In dirty water or at night, when you can’t tell which direction the fish is facing, set the hook upward. Yes, the fish will probably jump. But at least you’re not pulling the hooks out of its mouth before you even get a chance to fight.”
Toward that end, Berman also tries to prevent fish from striking when they’re in poor hook-setting position. “Coming in five or six feet from the boat is the worst place for a fish to grab the lure because it’s hard to get a good hook-set,” he says. “To avoid that, I don’t let them eat at a certain point.” If a following fish looks like it’s going to strike in this danger zone, he burns the bait toward the boat and into the first turn as fast as possible. “I want the fish to get it on the outside of the turn, so I normally hang it there a second if I think it might lunge at it,” he explains. “This is ideal because the fish is then going away from you at a 45-degree angle and you can use its momentum to set the hook if you pull down and toward yourself.”
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