Trolling for Top-water Muskie
When I started fishing the slop for muskies, I spent countless hours casting big muskie bucktails, jerkbaits and top-water plugs over shallow weed flats without so much as a promising follow. My arms were tired from casting, my wrists sore, and my ego deflated when I stopped at a local bait shop one spring morning to buy a coke, a craving I frequently get.
"Troll for muskies in four feet of water?" I commented. "I'll be hanging up in weeds all day."
I returned to the lake and launched my boat. After making a few casts in the same areas and not getting any takers, I decided to take his advice as the last resort. I would troll for muskies the rest of the day. If nothing else, it would be more relaxing.
Initially, I got caught on the weeds, and lots of 'em. Every couple of minutes I had to stop to remove dense green cabbage from my line and lures. But after a couple of hours, I figured out I could troll certain lures, at certain distances behind the boat, at certain speeds and avoid most of the weeds.
Though I didn't hook any monsters, I did catch a muskie that measured 38-inches. That was all I needed. From that day on, I continued honing my shallow-water trolling-methods. After locating the flats and bays that attracted muskies, I was able to improve my casting game as well.
I do not advocate shallow trolling as a cure-all for slow muskie fishing. But it can work wonders in the right situation. The best times to troll shallow are when you're looking for fish, targeting new water, or just don't feel like casting anymore. In the north, anglers may find muskie in the weed-laden bays throughout the entire open-water season.
In the south and mid-west, the shallow bite often ends with the spring season. The first problem you'll have to overcome is hanging up on weeds, wood and rocks. Anyone rolling shallow areas can expect this - it's par for the course. The problem can, however, be mitigated by paying attention to lure selection, rigging, line, trolling speed and boat control. I recommend that you keep a lure retriever in the boat. Those big muskie lures aren't cheap. My retriever has saved me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the years.
The best lures for shallow trolling are obviously shallow running. How shallow, however, is the question. If you're working waters where the weeds are within a few feet of the surface, you want to run the baits 2 or 3 feet down. The idea is to keep the baits just above the tops of the weeds. Rapala's HJ 10 and HJ 12 are great choices in extremely shallow water. The HJ 12 has three treble hooks positioned across its slender body, where as the HJ 10 is smaller and has two treble hooks.
Another lure option might surprise you a bit - big bass baits. Large crankbaits and jerkbaits designed for shallow water bass can prove highly productive when trolled shallow for muskies in spring time. Don't rule them out. Trolling with Spinnerbaits also works exremely well.
Fred McClintock, a member of the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, with 40 years of experience guiding for muskie recommends nothing but big muskie lures. "Big bait catch big fish," McClintock recently said on another fishing expedition. "There really is no rocket science to it; bigger is better."
For the the past 20 years McClintock has used lures like the Believer and Cisco kid when trolling shallow. "Believers have 2 rings on the bill to tie your line on. I use the first more shallow-running ring," McClintock explained. " If you let out around 200 feet of line when trolling, the baits will typically run around 2 feet below the surface. I've rarely seen them go deeper than 3 or 4 feet, But it really depends on speed and line diameter."
In 2002, the Believer accounted for a third of all the 50-inch-plus muskies reported caught in the US. If you opt to go with the Cisco Kid, which is an equally superb bait, use the 600 series. It, too, is designed for shallow water, is 7-inches long, and sports three 1/0 treble hooks running the length of its body McClintock has landed 30-pound-plus fish on both of these hooks. Another highly effective McClintock shared is trolling big bucktail spinners.
Most in-line muskie bucktails are light and just skim along the surface when trolled. To get the bait a foot or two underwater, McClintock adds a trolling weight about 3 feet ahead of the lure. "This keeps it just below the surface and draws the fish up," he said. McClintock clearly knows what he is talking about and no doubt big baits are the big ticket on big lakes, BUT, other expert muskie anglers firmly believe that waters where muskies are heavily pressured, smaller baits can shine. They believe the small baits may work better because a muskie cannot study the small lure or its actions as well, so the muskie strikes out due to a reflex reaction.
There are many schools of thought on color, as well, and all make good points. I recommend experimenting with a variety, as the fish's preference can vary from on day to the next. Having a stock of colors that resemble the forage fish prevalent in the body of water you're targeting is never a bad idea. And be sure to bring some oddball colors, too.
Apart from lure selection, but directly "tied" to it, is the fishing line. Line helps to determine how deep a lure will run. Larger-diameter lines prevent baits from attaining maximum depth while light lines enable lures to run deeper.
In most situations, premium 20 or 30-pound test monofilament will serve you well as a main line. To help prevent a hooked muskie from slicing the line, add a 4 foot length of 100-pound test braided line at the end. This braided line replaces the need for a wire leader. Attach a Cross-Lok snap to the leader and put the lure on that.
"I've been trolling rigs like this for decades," McClintock explained, "and I have yet to lose a fish from cutting through the line." Some anglers, including myself, just spool up with 80-pound-test Spider Wire. This too replaces the need for a wire leader, and I've never heard of a muskie cutting through this line. The only problem with this line is that spider wire is so thin that it allows certain lures to dive much deeper than desired.
Regardless of which type of line you use, picking up weeds is inevitable when trolling shallow bays or flats. To help keep the weeds from running down the line onto the lure, crimp a small split-shot three feet above it. As floating weeds slide down the line, they hang up on the split-shot, allowing the lure to continue working. "
When you are letting your baits out to trolling distance," McClintock continued, "don't do it where you're planning on fishing. Do it over deep fishless water. Once your lures are in position and your rods in their holders, then move into the shallows where the muskie are."
There is no reason to do all the prep work and make a lot of boat noise while overtop of hungry muskies. If you troll with 4 rods (where legal), set 2 off the sides of the boat and 2 off the back; let between 100 and 200 feet of line off the side reels and around 40 feet off the rear reels. The exact amount depends on the lure, line and boat speed. You must experiment until you find what works best for the particular body of water you are working. If you hang up a lot, adjust to make lures run shallower.
Mcclintock always runs at least one lure off the back of the boat in the prop wash. He may let out as little as 20 or even 10 feet of line.
"There aren't enough anglers who do this," Mcclintock said. "They are under the false assumption that muskie won't come that close to the boat to feed when the motor is running. To disprove this theory, I used this tactic for an entire year and caught well over 1/3 of my muskie in the prop wash, not 20 feet from the boat."
McClintock's favorite bait to run behind the boat in the prop wash is the original muskie bucktail rig. "The added water pressure from the prop really gets the blades moving on a buck tail.
There are times, however, that the muskie get spooky, and this truly varies from day to day. If you're not having a lot of luck, let more line off the back rods. If the fish are active, keep it close. Muskie anglers must make constant adjustments to catch fish. Trolling speed is another topic of great debate among muskie anglers. Some say the faster the better. Others insist that a slower, more methodical approach catches more fish. But when targeting shallow water, trolling is an absolute must. Moving fast just buries the baits in weeds.
By slowly maneuvering your way through an area, a slow troll, approximately 2-3 mph, should be adequate. On lakes where 15 feet deep constitutes a shallow flat, 3-5 mph may be better. It's all relative to where you're fishing. The goal, however, is to always keep the baits above the weeds and in the strike zone.
When muskies get finicky, especially after a front passes through, you may not be able to run the boat over shallow areas without spooking the fish. In such situations, you have two options. The first is to turn off the motor and cast, which can be quite effective. The other is to use planar boards to carry lure out away from the boat to the fish. I also use planar boards where boat traffic is heavy.
You need a quality rod to battle these powerful fish, and McClintock adamantly proclaimed that long, limber rods are best. He prefers them in 8 to 10-foot length, medium/heavy top action. Short stiff rods can rip a lure right out of a muskie's mouth. "These fish are far too hard to catch to lose one due to faulty equipment."
One final caution: trolling in shallow water can be dangerous. Rocks, submerged tree stumps, and a plethora of other underwater objects can quickly put an end to a great day on the water. Such hazards are not to be taken lightly, as anyone who as ever sunk a boat would agree. To help avoid such hazards, thoroughly study a detailed map of the lake bottom, talk to local bait/tackle store owners and local anglers. And when you're on the water, keep an eye forward, closely watching for obstructions at all times. If you get hung up or hook a fish, angle yourself away from the shore line and then stop the motor. Until next time, good fishing!