How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Small Jerkbait advantage for Muskies

By Gord Ellis

For muskie hunters, size matters. Bigger is better. This goes for all muskie tackle, but especially jerkbaits. Glance at the racks of any tackle shop and you'll see jerkbaits made of plank that you could build a deck with. The concept of finesse fishing is as alien to the jerkbait angler as subtle chord changes are to Limp Bizkit.

Throwing a big jerkbait is probably the simplest and most effective way to consistently attract huge fish. Notice that I said attract and not catch. My theory is that using oversized jerkbaits doesn't necessarily translate into big fish in the boat. I'll explain.

When I think back over 20 years of muskie fishing, most of the really giant fish I've had follow up to the boat have come behind big jerkbaits. One of the largest fish - it was about 55 inches (139 cm) and looked to be between 45 and 50 pounds (20 to 22 kg) - appeared underneath a bright orange 10-inch Suick one August day on Lake of the Woods. The fish floated barely an inch below the lure, its beady eyes locked on my "Great Pumpkin." Yet, it wouldn't hit and frustrated me by never showing itself again. I've often wondered why that fish ignored the temptation of my partner's bucktail and chose to breathe deeply on that mammoth jerkbait. Certainly the heft and movement of a foot-long chunk of wood is difficult for a hard-wired predator like a muskie to ignore. Yet, I've actually hooked few fish on really big jerkbaits, and landed even fewer. Seeing big fish is great, but not catching them will slowly drive you crazy.

On the other hand, jerkbaits that measure 8 inches or less have accounted for a large number of my hooked and landed muskie. In fact, the first one I ever caught hit a 6-inch Suick in natural sucker pattern. I've also had more immediate reaction strikes to 6- and 8-inch Suicks and similar jerkbaits than just about any other lure. I'm not sure why this is so, but I have a couple of theories.

Number one, small baitfish move faster than big baitfish and the see-saw movement of a bite-sized jerkbait might flip a different switch than the sight of an oversized offering. There's also the size consideration. Even a big fish has to pause for a moment to consider how to fit something the size of a rolling pin into its mouth. A decent-sized muskie can suck in and crush a small bait without giving it a second thought. The bottom line is that small jerkbaits catch numbers of big fish and the bonus is that they're easy to throw.

Once upon a time, there were only a handful of muskie jerkbaits to choose from, including the Suick, Fudally Reef Hawg, Windel's Muskie Hunter, and Bobbie Bait. They came in 6- and 8-inch sizes and were the choice of most muskie anglers. These days, the jerkbait business includes Suicks and Reef Hawgs that measure nearly a foot long. There are also a lot more specialty jerkbaits out there like the Musky Brute, the Sledge, the Pig, and Wades Wobbler. All this variety gives you more selection, but adds to the confusion about which bait to buy. Before your head explodes, remember that all jerkbaits are similar and the real key is to keep them in the water and fish hard. Almost all jerkbaits can be placed into one of two categories. The classic chopbait, best exemplified by the Suick, is plank-like and has no inherent action. A small metal flap at the back of the bait does, however, allow for minor adjustments in diving depths and lure direction. When a chopbait is pulled with sharp jerks on the rod tip, it makes a repetitive, slicing action in the water that can be devastating on muskie.

The second family of jerkbaits is called glidebaits. The Fudally Reef Hawg and the Bobbie Bait fit this description. Unlike blocky chopbaits, glidebaits are smooth and look like a miniature baseball bat. When pulled through the water with long strokes of the rod, they dart right and left and occasionally head towards the surface. They're especially effective on rock reefs, in cool water, and in weed pockets.

About 10 years ago, after a hard day of pounding giant jerkbaits, I clipped on a 6-inch black Smity glidebait. It looked small after throwing a 10-inch Suick for eight hours, but I knew it would fit nicely in the weed pocket I wanted to fish. I lobbed the bait into the hole and gave it a soft pull. The Smity rolled to the right and then disappeared in a huge boil as a muskie inhaled it. Landing that fish was no picnic in the heavy cabbage, but we finally got the fat 42-incher (107 cm) into the boat. It was the only fish of the day and it was caught on the smallest bait I had in my box.

Chopbaits like the Suick are perfect to use in a wide variety of muskie-fishing conditions. They can be worked over the top of weedbeds, pumped down reef edges, and scratched along sunken rock saddles. Most classic chopbaits are buoyant and won't dive much deeper than about eight feet (3 m). This is fine for shallow water or for skimming the tops of cabbage weeds, but won't allow you to probe deeper water.

I've solved this problem by customizing several Suicks to fish deep. I start by taping a few small egg sinkers on the bottom of the bait and then placing it in a bathtub or pool. Only in the water can you see how a bait sits and sinks with extra weight. I then mark where the sinker had been taped and drill a small hole. Then I tap the sinker into the bait with a hammer and seal it in with epoxy. Many jerkbaits now come pre-weighted and most of them work well, but if you really want personal bait customization, weight them yourself.

Another neat trick for both chop and glide baits is to add a little flash to them with reflective tape. A couple of thin strips of pearlescent tape on the side of a Reef Hawg or one small chunk on the metal plate at the back of a Suick will light up a presentation. One of my most heavily chewed jerkbaits has a strip of tape on its belly and a circle of it on the metal tail.

You can use traditional heavy tackle for throwing down-sized jerkbaits, but it's not necessary. I recommend using a medium-sized baitcasting reel loaded with 17- pound monofilament and matched with a 7-foot flipping stick.This system will handle jerkbaits 8 inches or less, while still providing enough jam to beat a really huge fish. Your body will appreciate the lighter gear. If baitcasting tackle is not your thing, a medium- to heavy-action spinning rod and reel loaded with 12- to 15-pound test will suffice. I once fished with a lodge owner who only used spinning tackle when fishing his small jerkbaits and he had no problem besting a 30-pound-plus (13.6-kg) muskie with it.

One final note. There are videos on the proper way to fish jerkbaits. Often they show you how to achieve a perfectly rhythmic pattern as you retrieve the bait. Try that if you like, but in nature wounded baitfish are not so predictable. Usually these potential muskie dinners are flailing for life, spastically heading every which way. Mix it up on the retrieve and visualize what that bait might look like to a big, mean muskie. It's been said that good things come in small packages and that's surely true in the case of jerkbaits. This fall, just for fun, put down the plywood and lighten up with a little jerkbait. The rewards of going small could be absolutely gigantic.


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