Muskies and pike head for deep-water haunts for various reasons. Weather conditions, water temperatures, food availability and fishing pressure can all play roles singly or in combination. Successful trollers have ways of dredging up those deep-water fish, however. They use multiple rods, where legal, and run a variety of lures into the strike zone with planer boards and downriggers. Pike and muskie hunters have successfully borrowed these trolling devices from Great Lakes salmon trollers. Downriggers allow precise depth control, while planer boards spread lures over a wide area.
Sometimes, there’s no telling where muskies and pike will hold. They’ll often stage off feeding areas, holding in 25 feet to 40 feet of water some distance away from a rock bar, rock pile or submerged hump. They may even suspend only a few feet down in deep water, 100 or more feet from the structure. In any case, begin your efforts near structure where muskies and pike might feed, and expand your search from there, using sonar, downriggers, planer boards or both as the situation dictates.
With the use of a mast that mounts near the bow, large planer boards can be run a great distance off to the side of the boat. Smaller boards can be run inside the longer boards. Add downriggers to the formula and a team of three anglers can troll a wide swath at varying depths. When fishing multiple rigs, however, make sure you check load regulations. Some states allow only one rod per angler.
When a likely piece of structure has been located, such as an underwater hump, the tactic is to set the two outside lines about 80 feet out to each side with lures running 5 feet to 7 feet below the surface. The inside planer boards, set halfway between the boat and outside boards, should pull lures, which are running closer to the boat; this can be in the 12-foot to 15-foot range. Set the downriggers to run in the 20-foot to 25-foot range.
Once everything is rigged, it’s a simple matter of trolling in circles around the submerged hump. Make the initial circle fairly close to the hump, with each additional circle being a bit farther out. Systematically search the entire area. If you fail to connect with a predator, try again with the lures set at different depths. Drop the outer lures 8 feet to 10 feet, the inside 20 feet to 25 feet, and, the downriggers 30 feet to 35 feet. Resume the trolling search around the structure. This type of trolling can work on various types of structure. It’s just a matter of using a depthfinder to help keep you on the right track and to ensure that the lures are running at the proper depths.
Crankbaits And Wire Line
Trolling over, around and through schools of suspended baitfish is also effective when it comes to locating deep-water pike and muskies. Once again, the angler should use a flasher, graph or LCD to find schools of suspended forage fish, and to determine how deep to run the lures. Downriggers aren’t the only solution for deep-water predators, however. Deep-diving crankbaits are excellent for working depths of 15 feet to 35 feet. If you use wire or lead-core line, you can work at even greater depths. There is no doubt that deep-diving lures work. Muskie legend Len Hartman made history with his crankbaits catching three muskies over 60 pounds (each is quite a testimonial in itself).
The drawback to these giant deep-divers is that you need arms like an Olympic weightlifter if you plan on trolling for more than a few hours. A set of high-quality rod holders can be invaluable in this situation. They make deep-water trolling more comfortable and fun, extending the hours you’re willing to devote to trolling.
In most cases, the boat’s forward movement will even set the hooks. Of course the hooks must be honed to perfect sharpness so the barbs will penetrate a muskie’s or pike’s bony mouth.
Wire line is the choice when the fish are holding deeper than the trolling lures will reach. Deep-water weedbeds or the deep edges of shallow weedbeds are perfect examples of this type of situation. Using a depthfinder, you can maintain trolling position along the edge, and allow the wire to take the lure to the proper depth. Another advantage wire line has over monofilament is that it will slice through vegetation. If you’re line is caught in vegetation, you need only give a good jerk or two on the rod. You don’t have to reel it in. This saves time and energy.
If wire-lining doesn’t suit you, a simple three-way swivel, rigged with a heavy sinker at the end of a 6-inch dropline, will sometimes suffice. The three-way rig works much like a downrigger, except that you’ll have to fight the sinker’s weight, as well as the fish. Normally, you’ll fish a three-way rig in the 20-foot or 30-foot depths. The 4 ounces to 8 ounces required to sink a small lure to the desired trolling depth is not enough to hinder an angler who is using heavy tackle.
Late fall is prime time for using a three-way rig to take trophy northerns. Weather transitions and falling water temperatures push pike into deeper water. The fish will be feeding, but you’ll have to reduce trolling speed and run the bait right over them. Baits such as Fat Raps, Rat-L-Traps, Rattlin’ Raps or No.13 Floating Rapalas often work best. Colors such as chartreuse, fluorescent orange, bright yellow or combinations of these colors really turn on late-fall pike.
Read more about deep water tactics in Part 2.
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