How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Boatside Techniques for Big Muskies

By Scott Jenkins

My knees began to shake as I caught a glimpse of the behemoth musky that was following my Squirko. As my bait got closer to the boat, I could see the musky's mouth opening and closing. Her gills were quivering. She seemed hotter with every twitch of the rod. Thanks to a lot of practice, I knew which way I needed to take the bait when I got it to the side of the boat. I took the 'L' to my left (I guess that would technically make it a 'J') and she was hot on it. I took her down deep at the boat and up high on the turn. She followed intently for three complete turns until I 'Dog Boned' her. On the outside turn, I slowed the bait a little and pulled it across her face. The move must have made the bait look like a Quarter Pounder with Cheese because she hammered it! What an awesome thrill. There is nothing better than getting a musky to eat on a figure eight. The last 10 feet of the cast can be heart stopping at times. If you take a look at the percentages, about 40% of the fish that get caught casting are caught in the last 10 feet of the cast. Why is that? Active fish seem to become very aggressive with the change in direction of the bait. Doesn't the boat, line, leader, pole in the water scare them off? NO WAY! If a 'hot' musky comes steam rolling to the side of the boat, Andre the Giant fishing out of a pontoon boat with anchor rope for line couldn't scare that fish away. If they want to eat, they will eat! When fishing for the fish of 10,000 casts and having one of your best percentage areas being the last 10 feet of the cast, I would assume you have practiced your boat side maneuvers until your back aches. Right? I hate to say it but in my experience, boat side maneuvers are the most forgotten tactics in musky fishing. After a long day of casting and seeing nothing (back aches, shoulder's ache, arm's ache, hand's ache - sound familiar?), the boat side maneuvers seem to be the first thing to go out the window. With a 40% chance to catch this elusive fish, I would think that people would spend a little more time perfecting their boat side tactics. If you are looking for a sure fire tactic to put fish in your boat, then read on. If you practice and make boat side maneuvers a regular part of your retrieve, you WILL catch more muskies! I can't stress enough the importance of practice. Each bait reacts differently when you get it to the side of the boat.

Before you go casting your arms off, make sure you understand how the bait reacts at the side of the boat. What I mean is a Hawg Wobbler will react differently than a Suick, an 8" Jake or a bucktail at the side of the boat. Aside from the obvious, each is in a different bait category. If you go too fast into the 'L' with a Hawg Wobbler, the bait will roll and lose action. I know from experience. I have botched a number of big fish because my knees were knocking so hard that I would go into the 'L' too fast. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! The first thing I do when I put on an un-familiar bait is understand exactly how the bait responds to boat side maneuvers. This will dictate what I will do with this bait at the side of the boat, anytime, regardless if I have a fish following or not. Since you don't get strikes on every cast, you will have plenty of time for practice. You may end up with a special maneuver for each bait that you own - this is the key for success.

When you make visible contact with the bait, start looking behind and below the bait. This is where a majority of the fish will be when following. Constantly scan the water for following fish. If you only concentrate on your bait, you will miss a lot of follows. Why is this important? The object to musky fishing is to find fish and establish a pattern. Once you have located a fish, chances are you can come back and catch it if it doesn't fall for a boat side maneuver.

One of the most important parameters to boat side maneuvers is the swing direction. As you are bringing the bait to the side of the boat, you need to be thinking about what direction you are going to take the bait. I see way too many turns that are so tight that it would make a minnow cry from laughing. When going into a figure eight or an oval, the first thing that needs to happen is the swing. What I mean by swing is you need to swing (turn) the bait to the right in an 'L' shape or to the left in a 'J' shape. You are dealing with LARGE fish here. They can't cut tight corners. Keep telling yourself that you need to make sure your swing nice and fluent and WIDE. On clear water, if you don't see any fish on the 'L' or 'J', go ahead and fire your next cast. On dark water, I will always do at least one complete figure eight or oval after each and every cast. Chances are, you won't see the fish in the dark water until it has clamped onto your bait. Should you have your rod tip in the water on the swing? You betcha! I usually have about 4 inches of my rod tip down in the water on the swing. This will keep the bait in the strike zone longer. How much line should you leave out between your rod tip and your leader? This is a very important question if you are going to master the swing. I use stainless steel leaders that are 12 to 14 inches long. I only leave about 1 to 2 inches of line between the tip of the rod and the tip of the leader. This allows for maximum control of the bait at boat side.

Probably the most famous maneuver known to musky fisherman. The idea behind the figure eight is to change the direction of the bait in hopes of enticing a following musky to strike. Remember, the figure eight begins with the swing. Envision a large imaginary eight sideways in the water next to the boat. Pretend you rod is your pencil. Trace the imaginary eight with your rod to get the feel of it. Once you get the hang of completing a large figure eight, try this. Plunge your rod tip down into the water at the side of the boat (almost to the reel if you can do it). On the outward swing of your eight, start raising the rod up so that only about two inches of your rod is in the water on the back side turn of the eight. As you complete the turn and start bringing the bait back towards the boat, start plunging your rod into the water again so that by the time you get the bait to the side of the boat, your rod is almost completely in the water up to the reel. Complete your inside turn down the side of the boat. Start raising your rod tip on the outside turn away from the boat so that about two inches of your rod tip is in the water on the back side of the outside turn. Repeat the plunge towards the boat. I have found this to be the most productive way to trigger fish. Down at the side of the boat, up on the backside, down at the side of the boat, up on the backside. It seems like 9 out of 10 fish strike when your are raising the bait during our outward turn away from the boat. The only baits where I don't plunge my rod tip down into the water are surfaces baits. I keep surface baits on the surface during the figure eight. The most important thing is to maintain normal, consistent motion.

Again, everything starts with the swing. You will find during your practice that you like some baits better when you do an oval instead of a figure eight. As you enter your swing at the side of the boat, plunge your rod tip down into the water (all the way to the reel if you can). Walk the bait down the side of the boat. Begin raising your rod tip on the outward swing of the oval so that only about two inches of your rod tip is in the water on the backside of the oval. On the inward turn towards the boat, start plunging your rod into the water again and walk the bait down the side of the boat. Remember to run your rod deep at the side of the boat and high on the backside. Continue this up and down oval until you are fluent with the motion. A key to success for boatside maneuvers like the oval or figure eight is to be calm, cool, collective and fluent. Herky, jerky motions are not going to put fish in the boat. It has to be smooth in order for you to become consistent.

When casting deep diving crankbaits, I like to perform a boat side lift in order to keep the bait from going underneath the boat. I have lost some really nice fish because the bait was underneath the boat when the fish hit. If you don't do a boat side lift with deep diving crankbaits, they could continue under the boat before you go into a proper figure eight. This is where practicing and understanding the bait will make you successful. As the bait is nearing the boat, I begin a series of upward pulls with my rod. These pulls will quickly change the speed and direction of the bait. Once I can see the bait, I will continue the lift until I am in the proper position to swing and go into the figure eight. The lift is a great way to get suspended muskies to strike.

This technique is generally used with neutral fish that appear to be backing off from the bait when they are following. It only works with baits that are buoyant enough to rise when you stop them. When throwing this style of bait and I see a fish that appears to be neutral, I will pause the bait and let it rise. Just before the bait reaches the surface, I will give the bait a sharp, hard twitch so the water splooshes. I will continue this tactic until the bait is in proper position for the swing. Fish will generally hammer the bait on the sploosh - BE READY!

It is extremely important to watch the musky very closely at the side of the boat. Pay attention to what direction the fish goes if it turns off at the side of the boat. I have found that a 15 to 20 foot pitch back in the direction that the fish went will yield great results. Work the bait in the same fashion that you were working it when you had the follow. The splash of the bait will get their attention and hopefully get them to strike.

The cast back generally requires you to have a lure on a second rod that compliments the bait you are casting. An example is if you have a blow up on a Topraider but don't get any hooks into the fish, cast back to the same spot with a Hawg Wobbler or a Creeper. Hopefully the musky will think it injured the bait the first time and hammer something slower moving. Some other examples would be: bucktail followed by a Crane bait; Jerko followed by a Squirko; Squirko followed by a Bull Dawg; Crane bait followed by a Jig and Reaper Tail. Try mixing it up. Soon you will gain some confidence with cast back baits.

I can honestly say that boredom on the water led me to trying this technique. When the bait is about half way back to the boat, start moving your rod to the left and to the right so you create a zig-zag (lazy S) pattern during your retrieve. Don't believe in it? Some of the best trollers in the world will tell you to troll in a lazy S pattern for success. If it works for trolling, why won't it work for casting? By far the best bait that I have had success with this tactic is the prop topwater bait like the Topraider.

This technique can be difficult to do but if you practice it, you will definitely catch more fish. The only time I use this technique is if a fish continues to follow the figure eight but does not strike. On the outward turn away from the boat, I will stretch my arms out as far as I can and then pull the bait across the fishes face in slow motion. More times than not, the fish will strike on this maneuver. It is explosive!

These are just some of the tactics that you can try in order to put some more fish into your boat. All I can say is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Success comes when preparation meets opportunity. Be prepared and you WILL be successful!


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