Crankbait Secrets For Muskies

Perhaps the best way to use big crankbaits is short-line trolling. Run the lure 10 feet to 15 feet behind the boat and use stout tackle.

I don’t often use “wide-side” wood baits in high winds. Casting them accurately is tough in windy conditions.

A rough September day in northern Wisconsin, however, seemed to offer potential. Strong south winds rolled whitecaps into a shallow bank of reeds facing deeper water as I struggled to hold my boat in range. The spot looked great!

I got a floundering, “injured baitfish” action by casting a big perch colored Crane crankbait close to the reeds, and twitching it sharply back out. As soon as I fed some slack in the line, the bait would roll back toward the reeds on the crest of a wave. A heavier lure with “lower” sides would not have reacted the same way under these conditions, and maybe the 45-inch muskie my friend Ken Poor caught this way would not have hit.

When your gut tells you big fish are nearby, and you get a flash of intuition about what kind of bait and action to use, try it. For me, these premonitions have often involved using crankbaits, and this kind of lure has produced many memories.

Big, noisy rattling baits, such as this Lewis brand Rat-L-Trap are overlooked as choices for oversized muskies.

A couple of days later, I was on another lake on the same impoundment. This time moderate north winds blew across the waters. No whitecaps were present and as a result I didn’t feel muskies would make the extreme shallow movements that rough water seems to encourage. This particular lake, however, had a series of very well defined land points that continued out underwater, creating long, narrow bar formations. Each had some sparse vegetation, but not much. Deeper water ran along either side of these bars, and off their tips.

Two friends and I observed a few local anglers working these spots with bucktails or jerkbaits above and near the vegetation, but did not see any of them raise fish.

A Drift Technique
My approach was to let the wind drift my boat parallel to the bars where possible, or to cross them on extended “angular drifts.” I normally began these drifts about 300 yards or more out into the lake off the land points. I did this because I believed muskies would only be found in the shallow vegetation when the wind was strong and waves rolled through the shallow targets–like it had during the “reed pattern” I mentioned earlier. I was looking for fish “staging” in deeper water off the points, much like whitetail bucks hold in the woods off fields before venturing out in the open.

Two well-known muskie hunters–Jim Saric and Spence Petors–once told me that when casting along weedlines, every third cast should be directed straight away from the vegetation toward deep water. I used a variation of that advice.

By working two bars within sight of each other, we landed and released four muskies between 32 inches and 40 inches. All these fish hit Lindy #9 Deep Diving Baitfish, and Bucher’s Depth Raider lures. I don’t think we saw a muskie closer than 50 yards from the nearest vegetation. The fish we caught were suspended over deep, open water.

Until recently, an entire class of crankbaits was overlooked, but trollers began pounding big fish and making news on hard-fished lakes with them. These are big, noisy rattle baits such as the 1-1/2 ounce Lewis Super Trap. I’ve used them in many ways including fast retrieves over weed flats, “free fall” retrieves along sharp weed edges, and vertically jigging them over rock humps or other submerged cover.

Perhaps the best way to work these baits is extreme short-line trolling. They can be run 10 feet to 15 feet behind a boat on stout tackle, so irregular weedlines and other structures can be followed accurately. Running your lure close to the boat does not scare off these fish.

Dealing With Snags
Another crankbait issue is whether you should use these lures over a snaggy bottom. I use this tactic all the time, however, I do it very carefully by concentrating intently on my sense of feel and using lures that float at rest. Start by estimating the average depth the snags are found at, then select a bait that runs at or slightly deeper than this average depth. Fire out long casts, and use a series of slow to medium-speed upward pulls to bring the lure in, rather than steady reeling.

Concentrate intently on the feel returned by the lure. Be alert for two things: a “bump” from the crankbait striking on the bottom and a sudden loss of feel from the crankbait’s built-in wobble as it moves along.

Feeling for the bump helps greatly reduce the number of snags. Each time the lure bangs something underwater, instantly stop pulling and let the lure rise upward several feet as it floats free from the obstruction. After this pause, pull slowly upward on the rod to move the lure forward a few feet until it clears the potential snag, and resume the normal pull and reel sequence. Incidentally, bumping bottom cover with a crankbait can trigger strong hits, so use this technique confidently!

The second thing to stay alert for is a sudden loss of feel. In other words, each time you pull up on the rod tip, you should feel a wobble of the crankbait as it vibrates along. At times, a muskie will come up directly behind the lure and engulf it as the fish overtakes the bait. A sudden slack in the line, or a loss of feel indicates this type of strike.

In closing, my advice is to stay alert! Expect a large muskie to come up behind your lure as it bites down. Anticipate the head-shaking surge of a heavyweight hauling on your line. Muskie fishing is long hours of hard work, spaced with a few minutes of pure angling excitement. These proven tactics will increase your odds of catching fish.

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