By Kevin Schmidt
When comparing musky catch log records for fish caught casting or trolling, one obvious difference is speed. Muskies caught while trolling are recorded with precise numbers such as 3.4 or 3.7 miles per hour, not just 3 or 31⁄2. The numbers are exact. When trollers talk of speeding up or slowing down, it’s in tenths of a mile per hour. Casters, on the other hand, don’t even fill in the blank. The assumption is that we reel at the same speed, no matter what. Yet speed, even for casters, can mean everything.
There is a huge difference in retrieve speed between fishing partners. Have you been in a boat that has caught multiple fish, seen several more, but all the action was enjoyed by the same fisherman? That’s fine if you are “that” fisherman, but what if it’s your partner and you are the one being skunked … then something has to change, and the sooner the better. Many times the change that will make the most difference is retrieve speed — a little faster or slower will make the difference.
So how do you control retrieve speed? When casting there is no way of actually measuring it. About the only way is to gauge your retrieve speed against that of your partner. Cast at the same time and for the same distance, and look at where your baits are when they reach the boat. Then you have to adjust retrieve speed to what the muskies want.
Speed can be controlled some by the type of reel that you use. A lower gear ratio like the 4.6:1 will be easier to reel but usually it will pick up less line per turn, whereas a high gear ratio such as 6.6:1 picks up more line, but will be harder to reel and may cause fatigue by the end of the day. By having a couple of reels with different gear ratios — one for power and one for speed — I can have a reel that is comfortable for me in any condition, with any bait.
So if I need to speed up, how do I force myself into a faster retrieve? When casting twin-tens, I may switch from a Double Cowgirl to a heavier bait such as a Mepps H210, which will run deeper at a similar retrieve speed. Since I want to maintain visual contact with my bucktail during the retrieve, this forces me to speed up. At the same time I need to be aware of the rod position because lowering the rod to water level also makes the bait run deeper. By combining the two techniques — a heavier bait with a lower rod angle — I am forced to increase the bucktail’s speed which in turn gives me a better chance to connect with a musky.
If you think going to a fast retrieve is hard slowing down is even harder. Using the same lures in the example above, a lighter twin-ten like a Cowgirl and a lower-geared reel, such as a 4.6:1 will help, but rod position will be key. Typically I want my rod pointed directly at the bait, or slightly lower, to feel the blades work and be in position for a quick, hard hook-set. But when trying to slow down I will
raise the rod tip from normal, which is a 4- or 5-o’clock position, to a 3- or 2-o’clock position, causing the bucktail to rise in the water column and actually blow out of the water if I reel too fast.
When you see the bait about to break the surface of the water, slow your retrieve down. Do not lower the rod tip or you will defeat the purpose. When I have the rod up in the 2-o’clock position, it will also
affect the hookset, as the rod does not have as much swing in the hookset arc to pick up speed for a solid lockup. To help get a better hookset, try turning your body slightly by having one foot six inches or so ahead of the other. This will open your stance and shift your weight to your back foot, giving a more sweeping hook-set by picking up more line and increasing the hook-set arc.
When choosing minnowbaits, I look for one that will dive to a the appropriate depth. Generally, if you reel faster the bait goes deeper; slow down and the bait runs shallower. So, if you need to pick up the
speed, go to a bait that runs shallower and reel faster. This shallow-running lure won’t dive into the weeds or rocks, eliminating the tendency to slow the retrieve. When forced to slow down, I almost
always go to a jointed bait or one that has a rubber tail as these will maintain action at slow speeds. It also works to select a bait that runs deeper than I would usually choose for the situation — as it makes contact with cover I pause or hesitate the retrieve, which lets the bait rise, thus slowing the forward movement. With any minnowbait, your rod position will also affect the depth of the lure.
Being aware of this will allow you to start with a higher 2-o’clock position and as you bring the bait toward the boat, lower the rod tip and the lure will go deeper and the speed will remain the same.
When fishing minnowbaits or glider jerkbaits, smaller models tend to work very well with quick, short snaps, and a faster retrieve. Large baits swing a little more from side to side and slow down the retrieve.
Soft rubber tails also slows the bait down, and with an extended pause the tail of the bait will continue to wiggle as the bait settles.
How you control your boat as you fish through structure is also key to controlling speed. If the boat moves quickly down the shoreline you tend to feel rushed and may pick up your retrieve speed to make sure you make enough casts to cover all the water. By setting the trolling motor on a lower constant speed I can fish slowly without feeling rushed.
When more speed is needed, I want a fast-moving bait like a bucktail being cast from the front of the boat to set the pace. To slow down, use a minnowbait like a ShallowRaider or a glider such as a 7-inch Phantom Softail as the lead-off bait. If a real slow approach is needed, go to a 10-inch weighted Suick. Not only will you thoroughly sift the water with such a bait but its action will draw out even the most sluggish fish.
I rely on my boat partner to remind me to speed up or slow down, especially if we are approaching a spot where we saw fish earlier. When you get to the spot-on-the-spot the adrenaline takes over and you think of nothing but the fish — not your cast, retrieve or figure-8. To catch that fish, all of these things must be perfect.
While a caster’s lure speed will never be as precise as a troller’s, by keeping in mind a few of these simple things you can adjust to the speed the muskies want and thus be more successful.
Kevin Schmidt is a University of Esox Musky School instructor and former northern Wisconsin guide. He lives near Ashland, Wisconsin.