How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Fight Em Right, Part 2

In part 2 of his series "Fight 'Em Right", Pete Maina covers the fine details required to properly fight and land a monster muskie!

Editor’s Note: The following is Part 2 of a two part series by Muskie Expert Pete Maina. In Part 1, Pete covered Muskie gear and getting a good hookset on these mighty fish. We pick up the story from there … the fish is now hooked, and the battle begins.

Once a muskie is hooked it becomes awareness time. While hooking a muskie seems like the majority of the challenge, in reality, it’s only about half the battle, since much can go wrong between the strike/set and the net. Part of this awareness is having a “plan” on how to handle the fight and just keeping your cool. Few anglers consider this … and they should!

Knowing how to handle a fight is important. Being confident in your ability to handle it is equally important. A few very common mistakes lay the groundwork for discussion. Avoid slack, avoid “horsing”, make certain you actually “use” your rod, and, unless you are filming a thrashing video—keep the fish’s face below the surface of the water if at all possible!

In talking rods and line earlier, I mentioned widening those holes that the hooks entered through. Before going any further I want to address the “multiple set syndrome” that some folks are prone to. When I started muskie fishing, I was promoted to set the hook several times. After all, if one set is good, two or three must be better, right.

It’s been my experience that one is best; the only exception being that the initial effort was weak. Otherwise, if the first hookset snapped and the fish is shaking (reaction to being hooked), any further hooksets are simply counterproductive. All they will accomplish is ripping bigger holes and possibly creating periods of slack. None of this is desirable.

So, we now have a head-shaking, hooked muskie … what now? Simply maintain marginal, but not overbearing pressure and “use” your rod to both steer the fish and to maximize its shock absorption qualities. If this is a fish you really want to catch, the idea is to keep the fish calm. You must stay calm and concentrate on “steady” pressure. That means being ready to give when the fish moves. So (and you should have thought of this already), are you using the drag system or disengaging and thumbing? If you are using the drag system, your very first thought after hooking the fish should be to back off on the drag.

Get in the habit of testing the drag with your free hand, and be ready to loosen it more if the fish turns to make a run. Or, be ready to disengage the reel when the fish turns to run … at the very least, be ready to move. You can be the drag system by simply moving with the fish back and forth in the boat much of the time … how’s the fight going?

If the muskie appears docile, it’s your job to keep it that way. If it’s going wild then it’s your job to calm it down and take control. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that it can be amazing to note the differences in personality (for lack of a better word) during battle between fish of similar size. Some appear to be nonchalant, seemingly unaware of anything even being wrong with the situation. When you are lucky enough to encounter a fish that appears happy to just swim around a little with the occasional, half-hearted shake—take advantage of it and play the game until you can lead them to boat side.

I’ve mentioned controlling the fish, and this is key … it’s also the part most folks just miss. You can have a tremendous amount of control over the fish and what it does. No matter how big, these fish will follow the pressure (especially those docile ones mentioned). Careful though, because if you cross that gray line to the point of “horsing” it can backfire too, and they’ll violently react against it.

They do follow the pressure though, since this is the reason you are eventually able to bring them to boat side. I’ve seen large, docile-type fish hooked and more or less lead around—never more than 15 feet of line total out—and easily landed in less than a minute. Steady pressure with the butt of the rod at “right angles” to the fish maximizes the rod’s shock absorption and “steer ability”. Concentrate on maintaining that rod angle at all times, whether you are trying to steer the fish down, up or to the side. The only time you should “bow” to the fish (lessen that angle by pointing the tip at the fish) is when they make a solid run. At this point you need to let the line flow smoothly off. As soon as the fish stops though, regain that 90-degree angle.

To me, the muskies that represent the most challenge are those mid-size fish in the twenty to twenty-five pound range. They have the weight and strength to go where they want. They also tend to be more exuberant in battle and more easily angered (likely because of their relative age). They are prone to much head-shaking, twisting, rolling and jumping; none of which are good news when it comes to keeping hooks in place.

This is to be avoided if possible, or at the very least kept subsurface. There is no cut-and-dried answer. Concentrate on “steady” pressure and that right angle, and forget all that baloney you hear about keeping your rod tip up. You can maintain right angles to the side or down to. Remember that fish follow pressure. Keep the steady pressure in the upward direction and odds are that you cause the fish to get its face above water. Panic and use heavy upward pressure, and I’ll guarantee a savage surface show! Trust me on this.

The majority of the time, the rod angle is best kept down, especially so when in close quarters with the boat. The basics are: maintain that bend and steer the fish where you want them; that is usually sideways or down.

And, I know its tough when you haven’t caught many, and especially when it’s your first and certainly if it’s your biggest—but keep your cool until the fish is landed. I’ve seen it all-too-often where everything seems to be going fine and then suddenly there’s a transformation when the fish gets close to the boat the first time. The “would-be” captor wants the fish in—now! Muskies aren’t afraid of boats. Just because they get near has nothing to do with their being “ready”. The first pass by the boat is rarely the time to land them. Try it, and it just about always ends in disaster. The best case scenario here is a landed fish that enters the net completely wrapped and violent, and continues to twist once in. It makes release tougher, if not impossible.

Of course, in consideration of the fact that muskies aren’t real afraid of the boat, we need to consider those that often strike the bait close to the boat. I’ve never really felt driven to keep track of the most asked questions while guiding, but one that is easily at the top of the list would have to be: “What do I do if one of these big ?!*#!’s hits by the side of the boat.” This is most commonly asked by a fledgling muskie fisher immediately following instruction on the “figure-eight’ maneuver at boat side. Regardless, it’s a pretty good question.

Way too often the angler’s answer is to simply hang on. Like many scenarios handled without a plan, hanging on can work, but is a little risky. Often, it’s a great way to get a quick bath, a broken something and a fleeting thrill.

With a plan though, there’s really plenty of time to react. The obvious problem here is the minimal amount of line to work with. Keep in mind though, that muskies don’t just take off at mach-90 when they hit a bait. Their first reaction after getting hooked is always head-shaking, generally with little forward movement.

So, it’s really the same old story, just be prepared to react to let the fish take a little line after its initial head-shaking. This is accomplished by either immediately loosening the drag or disengaging the reel. Many folks will tell you that you “must” disengage the reel before you go into a figure eight and have your thumb on the spool. When the fish hits, you set the hook by holding tight with the thumb on the spool and are ready when a fish needs to take line. A great idea and it works for many people.

However, it doesn’t address all … the problem I see with this, especially when teaching beginners, is the simple fact that there can be thumb-slippage. They still need to know that they can/should loosen the drag, and that if they need to disengage the reel under pressure—they’ll need to pull back on the spool with their thumb. Also, what those that promote disengaging before going into the “eight” often don’t account for—is the fact that muskies are not prone to cooperation or predictability. They often hit a foot or two before you go into your figure eight.

So, you need to be ready to react at all times. If you’re thinking, you will always have time to loosen that drag before the fish attempts any savage runs. At boat side with a fresh fish, another tremendous aid is your mobility. Moving up and down the boat with the fish works great. Immediately following hooking a fish at boat side, my rod angle goes down, generally my rod tip is buried in the water, all the while concentrating on maintaining that bend and that right angle. Often, I am able to walk and steer that fish around the boat and never have more than 10 feet of line out during the whole battle.

But, if the fish decides to run, I’m prepared to allow it to do just that with a loosened drag and a rod angle that bows to the fish a little—yet maintains a downward pressure. Keep that pressure steady and always “angling” that fish where you’d like them to go.

If you can keep your cool, and keep these tips in mind, you will take pictures of far more fish each season. Have that game plan and get lots of practice. Here’s to wishing you lots of practice.


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