How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Jerk and Jig Tactics for August Muskies

When trolling doesn't work, jigging and jerking for muskies can make the difference. Our expert explains how and why these tactics can work for you this month.

By Mike Bleech

Sun comes up, sun goes down; muskies come up, muskies go down. The differences between night and day during summer are extreme because the sun stays higher in the sky than at any other time of year.

These longer daylight hours have a noticeable effect on muskie habits, making these already-challenging fish even tougher to find, but jerkbaits and jigs can provide muskie anglers with the necessary extremes in lure presentation.

Forget any notion you might have about muskies being less active during summertime. In truth, this is the time of year when food is most abundant and muskies take full advantage of it. Muskies feed more now than at any other time of year.

Being at the top of the aquatic food chain, muskies react to virtually everything in the water. They will try to eat just about any other fish (or duckling or turtle) that is big enough to be worth the effort.

During spring and fall, fish tend to concentrate in relatively small, easily defined areas. During summer, however, muskies, like most freshwater fish, disperse through their home lakes and streams. Finding them now is not so easy. For this reason, trolling is popular during summer because the technique helps anglers cover a lot of water. But trolling is not allowed in many places. Also, many muskie anglers believe that casting is more sporting (and more productive).

Casting muskie lures requires more effort than casting for smaller fish, therefore it is important for muskie anglers to find ways to minimize wasted effort. One way to do this is by fishing with lures that are not so hard on the shoulders after a long day on the water.

The popular jerkbaits are hunks of wood that weigh upward of 3 ounces and usually generate some serious resistance when they are pulled through the water. Plastic stick baits generally weigh less and can be jerked with much less effort. You can make a lot more casts per day using them and thus cover more water with more enthusiasm.

The major drawback with stick baits is that they often do not have the same side-to-side darting action as some of the bulkier jerkbaits. However, some of them can be tuned to do this. Try bending the line eyes down and the rear hook eyes up (if doing so does not destroy the lures). You might have to go through a few lures to get one that runs properly, but it is worth the effort.

A secondary benefit to lighter stick baits is that they can be used with lighter rods, further reducing fatigue. A fast-action 6 1/2- or 7-foot graphite rod rated for 1-ounce lures and 20-pound-test line is perfect for jerking stick baits.

The same tackle can be used with jigs. However, levelwind reels are normally used with jerkbaits. Spinning reels have a distinct advantage when using jigs. When a jig hits the water, it will drop straight down on a slack line. But a jig will swing back like a pendulum on a tight line, significantly reducing the retrieve distance. With levelwind reels, line must be hand fed to keep the jig sinking straight. All that is necessary to accomplish the same thing with spinning reels is to keep the bail open.

Jigs offer the same advantage as jerking with stick baits, but jigging requires a lot less effort, less wear and tear on the shoulders, than big crankbaits.

One of these two methods, jerking or jigging, can be used to cover almost any summertime muskie-fishing situation, and at any depth.

Jerking is simply retrieving a lure in a series of jerks or pulls. These jerks vary in length and speed, depending on the lure being used. Some lures are made specifically to be jerked relatively slowly, at least in muskie-fishing terms. Stick baits typically can be jerked at a faster rate, but will also have plenty of action when jerked slowly. This versatility allows anglers to vary the retrieve until something works. Summertime retrieves most often should be quite fast. Erratic retrieves can be very effective. For best results, vary the speed and length of jerks during a single retrieve. Changes in direction often trigger muskie strikes, so sweeping the rod to one side and then to the other should be part of the routine.

Step one in the one-two approach of jerking for muskies is going after the "easy" fish early in the morning while the sun is on the horizon, or even earlier, using jerkbaits. Although it is sunlight that drives muskies into deep water during summer, it probably is not the light itself that bothers them so much as it is a feeling of vulnerability. Muskies may be at the top of the piscine food chain, but like every other earth-bound creature, they're big on self-preservation.

Normally, the best times to jerk-fish are at dawn, dusk, at night, on heavily overcast days or when there is enough chop on the surface to minimize visibility. Conditions that muddy the water can also keep muskies close to the surface. Check the mouths of tributary streams after rainstorms. Wave action can roil the water close to silt banks, which can be very productive areas to fish when windy weather persists.

Although muskies might be anywhere during summertime, they will most likely be found in the places where feeding opportunities are best. The biggest muskies tend to take up residence in the most obvious spots, at least while they are actively looking for meals.

The outer edges of weedbeds are usually good bets, particularly points or cuts in weedlines. When weedbeds end abruptly (typically along steep depth breaks or in places where bottom composition changes from soft to hard), cast parallel to the weedlines. Jerkbaits that quickly dive several feet are good here.

Weedlines that are visible at the surface are not really the outer edges of the weedbed. Instead, weed growth tapers and thins, often reaching much farther out than the surface growth would suggest. Beyond the thickest parts of any weedbed are weeds that do not reach the surface. Often, these outer areas consist of clumps of weeds rather than continuously thick, matted weeds in the hearts of the beds.

These places are perfect for muskies waiting to ambush their prey. Keep in mind that a muskie's eyes are set high in the head so the fish can view the area above him. Normally, these fish hunker in the weeds waiting for meals to pass overhead. The trick in this situation is to use jerkbaits that wiggle and dive just above the tops of the weeds, occasionally nipping the tips of tallest weeds. This is why it's best to carry a good selection of varying-depth lures.

Some of the best muskie lakes are manmade reservoirs that lack significant weed growth. Boulders are important cover in many of these. Rocky bars, fallen trees and steep cuts along the banks formed by small streams can also be good. The bottoms of these small cuts are often covered with sunken trees or stumps.

Larger rivers and slow-moving rivers can be fished like lakes. In smaller rivers with hard bottoms and stronger currents, muskies are often found in shallower water than they might frequent in lakes or larger rivers, so shallow-running jerkbaits are most useful here.

Among the best places to jerk-fish in swifter rivers are the edges of currents. In these waters, muskies will suspend just out of the current waiting for a meal. Cast into the current and then jerk the lure into the calmer water.

Stick baits often turn onto their sides as they break from swifter to calmer water. Use lures with flashy sides that look like feeding suckers when they turn onto their sides.

Any obstacle that breaks the current might create a good holding spot for muskies. Sharp bends in the riverbank can be good. So are the bottom ends of islands. In normal low summer flows, however, the water might not be deep enough to hold fish in many of these places. Pay special attention to midriver obstructions such as boulders and bridge piers where the water is normally deeper.

As the sun rises into the sky, muskies tend to head for the bottom to the point where they are hard to reach with jerkbaits. Often they will lie right on the bottom, sometimes in depths of more than 30 feet. The only practical way to reach these fish without trolling or live-bait fishing is with leadhead jigs. These can be fished to virtually any depth.

Muskies are often inactive at midday. Sometimes, though, they can be tempted or taunted into striking by a jig that is presented so closely that the fish can't ignore it.

Jigs can be retrieved at any speed, but because of the depths that are often involved, there is no way to cover all of the water. In other words, this is not a searching method. It should be used only when you know (or suspect) the location of muskies. This is why it's best to learn how to identify deep muskie-holding spots.

Good places to start jigging are in deeper waters adjacent to the same places where you jerk-fished for muskies.

Weedlines are classic locations to jig for muskies, especially where the weeds end abruptly. The outer edge of a weedbed is a choice lie and is often occupied by muskies, as many bass anglers have discovered. During midday, look for them in the weeds, close to the bottom. If you can see the edge of the weeds at the surface, it is relatively simple to retrieve a jig very close to the edge.

Perhaps the most difficult situation to jig for muskies is right in weedbeds. Weedbeds provide ideal midday shelter. Although the weeds may be matted at the surface, close to the bottom there is usually plenty of room for muskies to maneuver. Aquatic vegetation, like other plants, concentrate their leaves where there is the most sunlight, invariably close to the surface. Typically, leaves become increasingly sparse toward the bottom until all that remains are the stalks.

Jigging in weedbeds presents two problems. The first is getting jigs down, and then back up, through the weeds.

Here we can take a lesson from bass fishing by using the flipping method. This involves dropping weedless jigs straight down, then lifting them straight back up, minimizing contact with the weeds. A long, stiff rod is required for this kind of fishing. The same flipping rods used by bass anglers are fine.

Arkansas-style jigs, the same type used for bass flipping, are effective for muskies if the weeds are not too thick. Instead of tipping jigs with pork frogs, use longer pieces of pork or plastic. These are generally flipped into small openings in the surface mat.

In thicker weeds, even more weed-resistant jigs and heavier weights are required. Texas-rig a large plastic body, but rather than using a bullet weight, use a 1-ounce egg sinker pegged to the line with a toothpick. Remember that muskies are better suited to looking upward, so rather than letting the rig lie on the bottom as you might do for bass, lift it a couple feet off bottom and wiggle it.

Muskies on the move over reefs or points often slide into the deeper adjacent water to ambush their prey, or they will suspend near shallow-water structure. Jigging for these fish can be difficult because it is tough to pinpoint their location without spooking them. Vertical banks are easier to fish if they do not drop too deep. The bottoms of cliffs are very good places to jig because muskies tend to suspend close to the vertical walls.

Jigs can also be fished like jerkbaits. The major difference between jigs and jerkbaits, besides depth, is that the only action a jig has, other than a wiggling tail, is what you give it. It will not dart from side to side unless you create the action by jerking your rod from side to side.

You can move a jig as fast or as slowly as you wish, but realistically, jigs are moved rather slowly. If you move them too fast, they rise toward the surface. Of course, how fast they can be moved before they rise toward the surface depends on their weight and bulk. Heavy, slender jigs can be moved relatively quickly. Lighter or bulkier jigs must be moved slowly.

Leadheads used for muskie fishing, in most circumstances, should weigh at least 1 ounce. Anything lighter cannot be used in deep water, because some bulk is required to make it sink and work for you. Muskie jigs should be at least 5 inches in length, and if you are targeting big muskies, they can be even longer. Check shops and catalogs that cater to muskie, striper or saltwater anglers to find suitable muskie-sized jigheads and plastic bodies.

The second, more challenging problem with jigging for muskies in weedbeds is hauling hooked muskies out of the weeds. Very strong line is necessary, at least 30-pound-test, and 50-pound-test is even better. You are not only dealing with the weight and strength of a thrashing muskie, but also the weight of entangling weeds. A battling muskie can twist a lot of weeds around the line. To thwart this problem, try one of the newer, fine-diameter, low-stretch braided lines. These cut through weeds better than monofilament or softer braided lines.

The deep-water ends of fallen trees are likely midday muskie haunts in most manmade reservoirs. These can be real jig eaters, though, and it is virtually impossible to keep a jig out of the limbs all the time. But if you can stay close to the outer edges of the limbs, you will hang up mostly on small limbs that can be easily snapped with strong, braided line.

Vertical jigging, of course, can minimize snags. Also, watch your sonar. You might be able to see both the limbs and your jig if you fish directly beneath the transducer.

It is very likely that a big muskie will completely engulf a jig. This makes it prudent to use a wire leader or risk losing the fish (and the jig) to the muskies' sharp teeth.

Color patterns for both jigs and jerkbaits should emulate natural forage during summertime, even more so than those you might use during spring or fall. One reason is that the water is usually clear. Combinations of black, brown, green or blue with silver or gold are excellent. Try to match a natural food, such as perch, suckers or carp. If you fish a lake that has a good trout population or a lot of shad, match their natural colors. Also, carry a few brighter, bolder colors in case you encounter stained water, and do not hesitate to try them in clear water if natural colors are not working.

Muskies are unpredictable, probably more than any other game fish. Even though jerkbaits are generally most productive during summer in low-light conditions, they might also be effective at midday. Also, jigs are not just for midday muskie fishing.

Most of the things you have read or heard about muskies, no matter how contradictory, are probably true to some extent. Learn from your own mistakes (and successes) and see where your experiences lead you.


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