Playing Keep-Away with Muskies!

By Todd Berg - June 1, 2005
One of the great parts about fishing is that you always learn something new- or at least you should. Over the years, the data that you accumulate should make you a better fisherman or fisherwoman… or "fisher kid"- on each and every outing. Empirical knowledge adds to your arsenal and one day, you hope you find yourself being referred to as a "hot stick" on one or several bodies of water or with one or more species of fish.

I've fished (maybe "hunted" is a better word) for Musky for twenty years on the nose as of this year and have guided for ten of those twenty and fished the Esox Masquinonge more seriously than I ever thought possible or desirable. During that time, I will offer a pretty well estimated guess that I've seen close to five-hundred fish. My calculations after some mental gymnastics tell me that my boat maintains a catch to sight ratio of approximately 1 in 10. My goal for this past season (I'm big on goals and lists- just ask my wife how many lists I have around the house...) was to improve on that ratio. The brutal truth is, that in previous seasons, I have had absolutely dismal results with the figure 8 maneuver. I've tried everything (or thought I had). I've circled, I've made hard L-turns, and I've gone deep and shallow. I've even worked fish down one side of the boat, around the bow or stern and back up the other side. I've been close- oh-so-close to so many fish, but getting them to seal the deal seemed so very elusive that it became discouraging.

One fish sticks out vividly in my mind. During the last tournament of the season in mid-November of 2002, I raised a fish- a healthy fish of 45-46" out of 8-feet of water on a small rock point. She came charging in hard on a big piece of plastic- hot on the lure and only fractions of an inch off the back treble as she neared the boat. I steadily and slowly began my figure-8. She turned… and followed some more. Beginning the second turn- she stayed right with the bait- easily gliding through an amazing full turn with her big body that was so very impressive. On the third turn she lost interest and glided out of view to the stern of the boat. My mind instantly went to a conversation I'd had earlier in the year with seasoned musky pro and fellow Pure Fishing Captain Chip Leer. Chip had told me as we shared a boat one pleasant late-summer afternoon chasing Musky on Leech Lake, that he was convinced that as musky anglers, we often quit our figure-8's too soon after we lose sight of a fish and that many times the fish hasn't really left- they've just re-positioned, often trying to get themselves ready for a charge. I'd lost a bit of faith but kept the bait in the water and kept the thing jerking and turning. "Do you see her Jimmy?" I asked my tournament partner of the day. "Nope" was his single word reply. The following 30-seconds seemed like an hour as I kept working the bait at boat side, but suddenly, Jim hissed at me "There she is! Right back here by the stern". I caught sight of her and instantly found renewed energy and widened the turns on the figure-8. I watched her carefully as she moved forward a foot or more, keyed in on the bait and I swear I watched her shoulder muscles bulge and saw her body shiver as she made a tail-sweep and came freight-training at high-speed, right at the bait. I readied myself for the crash, hit the spool release and thumbed the spool and kept the bait moving steadily.

She got within inches of the bait and I thought "This is it… she's gonna' do it and I replayed the straight-up and backward hook set I had planned as my own muscles tensed.…" and she went straight under the bait like a rocket and right out of sight with a purpose. Gone- not to be seen again that day by me or anyone else apparently. Was I crest-fallen? You bet. Not only because I truly thought that fish was going to go, but because I later found out, that had things gone right, that fish would have won the tournament. I did catch a sub-legal fish later that afternoon but found out at the end of the day that a single legal musky was landed that day- a 35" fish that won all the money.

Fast forward to the 2003 season. Sometimes by pure luck we find things out. I had an opportunity to fish with a group of friends, sponsors and tournament competitors and some spouses and kids for a week of almost non-stop musky chasing. My wife Veronica and I were dissecting a small saddle with submerged rocks near a neck-down between two small lakes, tossing buck tails and small crank baits. The wind was forcing us up shallower than I wanted to be and too near some barely submerged boulders that I did not want to tangle with. At the end of a retrieve, I gave a thorough look behind my blade as it tracked towards me along the gunnel of the boat. Seeing nothing for three to four feet, I turned my attention to the trolling motor foot control, wanting to push us out away from danger. As I did so, my 90-degree body shift and resulting arm position pulled the bucktail faster alongside the boat. At the same time I instinctively began to lift my rod to clear the bait from the water and prepare for another cast. Then it happened. I turned my eyes back to the bait just in time to see the last second of that increased speed of the bait- and the 35" musky that had tracked the bait up from somewhere outside my sight line or from underneath the boat. As the bait bulged forward and reached the surface, the musky gave a simple swipe of the tail and was all over it like Grant taking Richmond. I didn't land the fish. She was hooked for about 10 seconds, did a wonderful acrobatic leap at the boat to show herself fully against the sunlight for two beautiful seconds- and she was gone. No matter. I'd hooked a fish- and I knew why immediately. Bait speed. After seeing that reaction and having the light bulb go off in my head, I began dramatically increasing the speed of my figure-8's and L-turns on every following fish I saw that day and Veronica did the same. In fact, we increased the speed to almost "ridiculous" proportions- and it worked. During the next 6 hours, I hooked 4 more fish- and Veronica hooked two- every single one of them on figure-8 maneuvers! I found out that day (and have confirmed this on many successive outings) that you virtually cannot move a musky bait too quickly at the boat. Several factors play into this. First, I believe that by moving the bait quicker on figure-8's or L-Turns or whatever move you use specifically- you give the fish far less time to inspect the bait, find imperfections, get spooked by the boat etc., and force them to either turn off or commit to a meal. Second, I now understand that in a natural setting, a baitfish or prey is not going to move steadily and slowly through the water with a freight train on their tail. Let's face it. If you were a Cisco or perch, and you had a 40" musky tracking you, don't you think you'd try and take some evasive action to get that monkey off your back?!

During the next 4 days of that trip, my various boat partners and I hooked 11 fish on figure-8 maneuvers! There are a couple of keys to the system that I've discovered while refining my thoughts and patterns throughout the season. The first is obviously speed. You've got to make that bait appear to the musky as if it's going to get away and trigger them into the strike. With a burst speed of more than 60 miles per hour, you're physically not going to get a musky off the tail of a bait if the fish wants it. Physics won't allow you to move a bait fast enough- don't worry about that. Keep that bait burning- under the surface- but burning through the water. Tell your partner(s) to get outta the way and make that bait rip through the water. Fish or no fish- you should be plum tuckered out when it's over from working the rod and bait against the resistance of the water.

Secondly and most important, what you must consider to make this work is having the right tackle. I fish Fenwick's Techna AV line of rods exclusively for bass and musky both. For bucktail and general musky cranking, we use the AVC70MH which is a 7-foot rod with a responsive tip, a solid mid-section and a Rock of Gibraltar butt section. The AVC70MH is truly a revolutionary development in this new line of rods. The Aramid-Veil technology is responsive, soft and resilient as all get out, and I swear you can feel fish breathe on a bait through that rod. To the rod we add an Abu Garcia 6500C4 reel and spool it with 65/16 Power Pro line. Finally, add a quality titanium leader that doesn't kink with a good cross-lock snap and you're in business. Remember- there are a whole lot of things that can go wrong with a big musky inhaling a bait 2-feet or less from the end of your rod tip. When you pursue this technique, you have to have gear that is up to the task. You need to be in constant control of the bait, the line and the movement. As soon as we see a fish, I immediately instruct clients to hit the free-spool on the 6500. While maintaining motion, thumb the spool while keeping the bait constantly accelerating. Doing this ensures that when you set the hook into a fish (always straight up or up and back toward the fish- never away from the fish) and it makes a leap, a huge roll, or a dive to the bottom- you can be assured of giving the fish some line. Don't be afraid to go too fast. I now believe that a systematic, measured and deliberate figure 8 or hard L-turn is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Gear up properly and give this technique a try. Playing "keep-away" with muskies is a fun-filled action packed game that will wear you out if you raise a few fish during an outing but it seems to me to be about the most exciting thing there is, to be a few feet from a giant fish with an attitude that's looking for trouble. Have fun, catch fish and remember to consult your cardiologist before you take this to the water!

Until next time, from Into The Outdoors, we wish you… "Safe Travels, Tight Lines, Sharp Hooks & We'll Look for You on the Water"!

Author Todd Berg
Todd Berg
Todd Berg and his wife Veronica own and operate Into The Outdoors, Inc., a licensed and insured guide service in both Illinois and Wisconsin. Into The Outdoors is a multi-species fishery and their motto is "First Class Fishing for First Class Clients". In addition to spending 100 or more days per year on the water (they bring the gourmet food too!), Todd & Veronica give speaking engagements and presentations for numerous fishing clubs and retail outlets. Todd is an active member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), is the executive field producer for Mike Jackson Outdoors Radio, and is sponsored by Alumacraft Boats, Waterwerks, Johnson Outboards, Bottom Line Electronics, Rebel, Heddon, Smithwick, Cotton Cordell and Power Pro Lines among others. Into The Outdoors can be reached at 847-922-1271 or by e-mail at sales@intotheoutdoors.net.