How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Magic Lure?by John Nesse

Every Angler looks for that special lure that will increase their odds of catching fish. Something different. A magic lure!

There is a magic lure for the king of freshwater, but it isn't something new, different or hard to find. In fact, you probably have several, if not dozens of these baits in your possession. What is this bait? Well, it might surprise you, but I talking about the bucktail.

More muskies are caught each year on bucktails than any other bait. It is true that the catch is proportional to use, numbers don't lie. The bucktail is an extremely effective muskie lure! Unfortunately, the bucktail is often looked at as the bait to use when fish are in shallow weeds, and not much else. Most anglers, including many of the best, simply cast out a bucktail and reel them back in without giving much thought as to where the bucktail is running, their rate of retrieve or the subtleties of the bait. How boring!

Today there are bucktails available for a wide range of fishing scenarios. Each 'tail has a specific niche in which it will outperform all others. The secret to making a bucktail work its magic is finding that niche. Finding that niche is what this article is all about.
Blade size and shape is the deciding factor in where the bucktail will run in the water column. Most bucktails run shallow, within 4 feet of the surface. There are a few bucktails, however, designed specifically to run at different depths, many of which can be much more effective than a standard bait in certain situations. If fish are feeding aggressively on a deep cabbage edge, will a simply slowing a normal bucktail down get you down to the fish, or more importantly, get them to bite? It can depend on more than speed and depth. The blade is the heart of the bucktail.
Bucktail blades come in many shapes and even more sizes. Each is designed to perform a different duty. Smaller blades run deeper than larger ones, and heavy blades (.040" thickness) run much deeper and spin slower than their thin counterparts. In fact, my experience has shown that a heavy blade will run more than fifty percent deeper than a standard blade at the same rate of retrieve. A heavy blade may also imitate a larger prey, as it gives off lower vibrations than do standard blades. Different blades have different applications. I often use several bucktails in the course of a day, choosing each bucktail carefully to perform in the area I am fishing.

There are five main types of bucktail blades: willow, french, indiana, colorado and in-line. Each blade runs at a different depth and gives off different vibrations in the water. We will consider the features of each separately.

Willow blades, for example, are generally thought to imitate a baitfish (long, slender shape) and run deeper than any other blade. They also tend to spin quite close to the shaft. Willow blades run deep because the blade, which is long and narrow, creates little water resistance. Low water resistance decreases the lift of the lure in the water column.

A french blade also spins close to the shaft, making for a deep running bucktail. French blades have little water resistance but give off a rounder flash than the willow blades. The low water resistance and round shape of a small french blade makes them popular for "burning", that is, cranking it as fast as possible.

Indiana blades run shallower than french blades and also give off a large, round flash. The fluted indiana blade, in particular, seems to be the most popular blade choice. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that it runs well over shallow weed flats and spins very easily. One of my favorite bucktails is made with the .040" thick indiana blade. It is probably the most versatile bucktail blade as it can be retrieved fast or slow and still spin at a proper rate. On a well balanced bucktail, this blade can be fished anywhere from four feet on a fast retrieve, to nearly fifteen feet deep on a crawling retrieve.

Colorado blades provide the most water resistance and are generally the shallowest running blades. Colorado bladed bucktails are usually designed for fishing over shallow weeds very high in the water column (2 feet or less). They are a good choice for covering a lot of water in a hurry as they perform well on a fast retrieve, though they can wear a fisherman out in a hurry. Magnum colorado blades, which are almost a hybrid of indiana and colorado blades, run even shallower than a standard colorado, and will do so on a much slower retrieve. A .040" thick colorado blade, like its indiana counterpart, is very versitile. It is my favorite blade for fishing after dark as it normally runs shallow, but can be slowed down to fish the weed edge. This blade also seems to send out tremendous vibrations, which is a distinct advantage at night.
In-line blades, those that attach directly to the shaft of the bucktail with no clevis, are very popular with trout fishermen, but haven't made much of an impact in the muskie world. This is probably because of their relative small size, though larger models are becoming more available. In-line blades give off a stronger vibration than other blades, but can be difficult to start spinning on the retrieve. I personally only own three bucktails equipped with in-line blades, and I'll admit that they rarely make it out of my tackle box. I am starting to use them more for night fishing, however, as I believe that like the .040" thick standard blades, their strong vibration can be helpful for fish attempting to locate a midnight snack.

When buying a bucktail, everyone looks at color. Color can be important, but the type of hair is equally important. All true "bucktails" are made with the hair from a deer's tail, for which they are named. There are other varieties of dressings, such as skunk hair, feathers, plastic, and fox or coyote hair, and each has distinct qualities.

Deer hair is hollow and will float. A lot of hair will make a bucktail run slightly shallower, where as a bucktail with sparse hair will run deeper. It's simple, right? Not so fast. Let's talk a little about the different kinds of deer hair. I'm betting that many people think it is all the same, which is far from the truth.

Pick up a few of your favorite bucktails and take a good look at the hair. All deer hair is hollow, but not all deer hair is the same. Thin, soft hair is dense, and is not very buoyant. On the contrary, some hair is very stiff and thick. Stiff, thick hair is not dense and is extremely buoyant. On bucktails you'd like to run deep, the hair should be thin and sparse, while the opposite holds true for shallow running bucktails.

If you'd like to make a bucktail run deeper, trim the hair. This will also allow you to retrieve the bucktail somewhat faster due to the reduced water resistance. Some people prefer thinly tied bucktails for the majority of their applications simply because they are easier to retrieve.
I always use a thinly tied bucktail when I'm "burning" the surface with bucktails or trying to get down as deep as possible. In fact, if you have a bucktail you seldom use, burn it! Ok, so I don't mean that in a literal sense. What you can do is see how the bucktail performs on a very quick retrieve. If it tends to come out of the water, start by trimming the hair. Once you have adequately thinned it out, add some weight. Clip-on bell sinkers work well for this. Add between 1/4 and 3/4 oz. of weight and try it again. You might just end up with a new favorite.
I do believe there are times and places for a thickly tied bucktail. If you don't like catching pike, use a larger bucktail. If you are headed to Canada, by all means get out a big, slow moving 'tail. I usually use a bucktail with two tails when I head North of the border and even much of the time I spend on stateside waters in August and September. I'll use a thickly tied tail when I'm trying to keep the lure above the weeds or using a slow retrieve.

There has recently been a tremendous interest in different types of hair. Skunk hair is an especially interesting example. This hair is much longer and softer than deer hair. I am personally a big fan of skunk hair bucktails. They really breathe in the water and the fact that they are most often tied thinly makes them easy to fish with all day. The color pattern, white into black, is also a bit unusual. I'm still not sure if the scent of the hair has much to do with the attraction. Some of my old roadside finds have a tremendous odor, even when they are dry. Yet the tails I now purchase for tying have no dry odor, and a moderate odor when wet. So far they have produced similar results, but I've only been fishing with them for one season.

Weight and Depth
A first thought might tell you that a heavily weighted bucktail would run deeper than a lighter bucktail, which is often true. However, bucktails must be balanced in order to run properly at different depths. In most cases, added weight won't just make a bucktail run deeper; it will also increase the speed with which you must retrieve the bait. Most blades seem to have a maximum depth at which they will spin and all the weight in the world won't make them work at greater depths.

Modifying a bucktail designed to run three feet below the surface with an extra half-ounce of weight in the tail it will obviously make it sink much faster. It will also increase the rate of retrieve needed to make the blade spin. The faster retrieve will simply pull the bucktail up, close to its original depth. The point is that simply adding weight to bucktails will seldom make them run significantly deeper. Bucktails must have a certain balance between blade and weight to run properly at different depths.

Putting It All Together
And there you have it: the three components that determine the where's and how's of a bucktail. The pieces that make a bucktail really aren't magic at all, but the results of knowing how to make the most of them can be. Next time you hit your favorite lake, think carefully about exactly where the fish are and what kind of mood they are in. Are aggressive fish holding tight to a deep weed edge? Grab a deep running willow blade bucktail and put it in their face. If the fish are sluggish and shallow put a slow moving magnum blade bucktail right on top of them. You're sure to find fish that wouldn't have budged for the traditional approach of throw and crank.
Who knows how many fish simply ignore the boring bucktail cranked over the weeds? There's no doubt in my mind that those same fish would respond to a different presentation. Arm yourself with information and consider different options to increase your success.
That is the result of putting this information together. Next time you visit your favorite muskie haunt you'll think harder about which bucktail you're using. You'll be able to make a better choice of lure and presentation. You'll probably see and even catch more fish. And if that isn't magic, I don't know what is!

John is the President of Blackburn Tackle, LLC. Visit his website at


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