By Don Wirth
Some whopper muskies have been caught on the diving lures favored by the bass tournament crowd.
Yes, muskies. To my mind, these long, toothy predators are the most exciting freshwater gamefish that swim. And you don't have to trek to Canada to catch 'em -- the muskellunge thrives in a surprising (and growing) number of lakes and rivers throughout the upper portion of the South. Southern muskie fishing, once a localized cult activity limited to a few die-hard anglers, is fast becoming a bona fide outdoor tradition in parts of Dixie.
Most Northern muskie hunters rely on super-stout rods and lures the size of sawed-off table legs. But if you're interested in chasing after a Southern muskie, don't think you have to invest in an arsenal of exotic and expensive equipment. Fact is, you can catch big muskies on the same rods, reels and lures you're presently using for bass.
Dale Hollow Lake (Tenn./Ky.) guide Fred McClintock proved this one blustery March day a few years back. "My client and I were casting little quarter-ounce Rebel crankbaits for smallmouths on a rocky point when I had a powerful strike," McClintock said. "The fish took off in a smoking run, nearly spooling me as it headed for the river channel and went deep. I knew it was too big to be a bass."
Twenty minutes passed, then 30, and still the fish hadn't shown itself. "I was beginning to suspect I'd hooked a muskie -- there are some big ones in Dale Hollow. But it wasn't until some five minutes later when the fish finally rose up shallow enough so we could see it that I knew for sure what I had."
McClintock, a Pennsylvania native, had caught some large muskies from Northeastern waters, but even he was surprised at the size of the fish that had eaten his tiny red crankbait. "My client almost passed out from excitement -- it was a really big muskie," Fred continued. "When it eventually rolled over on the surface from exhaustion, I lifted it into the boat and weighed it on digital scales. It topped out at 38 1/2 pounds. and spanned 53 inches from nose to tail. I quickly slid the fish back into the water and it swam away."
But the truly amazing part of this story, beyond the sheer size of the fish, is the fact that McClintock battled and eventually landed the beast on a light spinning rod and 6-pound mono -- the same tackle he uses for Dale Hollow's fighting smallmouths!
Northerners rely mainly on foot-long wooden jerkbaits and massive in-line bucktail spinners for muskies, but Southern muskie hunters know deep-diving bass crankbaits work as well or better in our often-weedless waters.
My favorite muskie crankbaits are old-style metal-billed models like the Hellbender, Waterdog and 600-series Bomber. If you dig into the depths of your tacklebox, you'll probably find one of these venerable lures gathering dust. Once popular for bass in the South's stumpy reservoirs, most metal-billed baits have been phased out by lure manufacturers; crankbaits with clear-plastic diving lips are now in vogue among the bassin' crowd. But if you search, you may still find the old standbys in out-of-the-way bait shops.
Metal-billed crankbaits are tops for muskies for several reasons. One, they dive extremely deep -- the Hellbender was the first crankbait to hit the 20-foot zone; both it and the old-style Bomber can run nearly 30 feet deep when trolled on low-diameter line. This makes them especially deadly in Dixie's clear, cavernous highland reservoirs, where muskies often suspend in the 15- to 35-foot zone. Two, these are the toughest bass crankbaits ever made. A big muskie can make mincemeat out of lesser bass lures, but metal-billed baits have hooks and hardware that can withstand the abuse these snaggle-toothed behemoths dish out. And three, they're incredibly resistant to hangups -- I call 'em four-wheel-drive crankbaits! You can run a Hellbender right through the middle of a submerged tree and it'll bump and grind its way to a trophy muskie, hardly ever hanging up.
Some whopper muskies have been caught on the clear-lipped divers favored by the bass tournament crowd, too. On Green River Reservoir, Ky., fish in the 30-pound class are taken annually by anglers casting or trolling Bagley DB3s, 400-series Poes and other popular largemouth crankbaits. Heading east to Cave Run Lake, muskie addicts there crank standing timber with these same lures for 50-inchers.
Crankbaits: Casting vs. Trolling
How you should fish a diving crankbait will vary from one muskie venue to the next. Here are some pointers:
In rivers and timbered reservoirs where muskies lurk, use a casting approach. Muskies will hold around large boulders, logjams and submerged or standing trees; grinding a large bass crankbait like a DB3 or Bomber through the cover may produce a jarring strike. When muskie casting, avoid the bass angler's super-soft crankbait rod and opt instead for a medium-action 6 1/2- to 7-foot baitcaster and 15- to 20-pound monofilament. Heavier braided line can be employed if the water has some color.
Whenever you're casting or trolling in muskie territory, it's best to be prepared -- these fish are notorious for striking when you least expect it.
Trolling crankbaits works in clear muskie reservoirs year-'round. I've trolled up big muskies in August, when the water temperature topped 90 degrees, and again in February, when it barely bumped 36. In summer and fall, Dixie's highland reservoir muskies usually inhabit big, open water, so troll main-lake structures including river channel drop-offs, submerged humps and deep points, where muskies often suspend in the 30-foot zone. In winter and spring, muskies will gravitate to bays and tributaries, where they prowl gravel bars, mud flats and steep rock bluffs; strikes normally occur now 12 to 20 feet deep.
Whether casting or trolling, vary crankbait colors with water clarity and light conditions. On sunny days in clear water, try rainbow trout, red and silver. If skies are overcast or any time the water is murky, use perch, frog, bone-white or fire-tiger.
Spinnerbaits & Rattlers
Target-casting with spinnerbaits and rattling bass crankbaits can yield exciting muskie action in timber-filled reservoirs and rivers.
Most Northern muskie hunters prefer giant in-line bucktail spinners, but these fish will hit safety-pin-style bass spinnerbaits as well. Use a heavy spinnerbait (5/8 to 1 ounce) for muskies; these cast easily on stout tackle and vibrate well even when heavy line and a wire leader are employed. The Terminator spinnerbait is an especially good choice for muskies, since its titanium wire frame is virtually indestructible. White, chartreuse, black and hot-orange are dependable color choices.
Lipless rattling crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap are awesome muskie lures. I especially like them in murky rivers, because their slender profile retrieves well in current and their chattering rattle makes them easy for a muskie to locate. On a recent muskie expedition to Kentucky's Barren River, heavy rains had turned the water to mud, so my companion and I figured a noisy presentation was in order. I tied on a 1-ounce chartreuse spinnerbait with a glass worm rattle attached to the shaft of the hook, while my buddy used a big fire-tiger Rat-L-Trap. We both cast to a likely looking blowdown, and a huge wave rolled off the tree, signaling a hot muskie. Just as the water bulged up behind my friend's Rat-L-Trap and he braced himself for the strike, the fish veered to the right and grabbed my spinnerbait. I set the hook, the river boiled and the 'gator-headed monster cleared the water, tail thrashing and jaws snapping. I had a brief vision of the beast mounted on my den wall, but my dream evaporated when the fish bulldogged back into the tree and broke my line.
Use a stout 6- to 7-foot bass baitcasting outfit and heavy line with spinnerbaits and rattlers in murky water. Since visibility isn't a factor, use 30-pound mono or heavier braided line for this application.
If you've nerve enough, cast a surface lure for muskies. These fish will absolutely obliterate a topwater bait worked overhead in timbered reservoirs and snaggy rivers.
Most Northern muskie hunters prefer giant in-line bucktail spinners, but these fish will hit safety-pin-style bass spinnerbaits as well.
Many bass surface plugs work well for muskies, the noisier the better. A big prop bait or Jitterbug is liable to provoke a vicious strike when fished around shallow cover, especially under low-light conditions. Topwater plugs are best fished on a 6- to 6 1/2-foot medium-action baitcasting rod and 20- to 30-pound mono.
Whenever you're casting or trolling in muskie territory, it's best to be prepared -- these fish are notorious for striking when you least expect it. In Dixie, they've been known to hit just about any bass lure -- even jigs and grubs. The former world-record muskie in the IGFA's 8-pound line class division was a 31-pound, 12-ounce monster caught from Dale Hollow on an itty-bitty leadhead jig. By a bass fisherman.