By Jim Saric, Editor
It had been four hours since we had a sniff from a musky, and we were baked from the afternoon sun. Finally … a little relief, as the sun had settled low enough on the horizon to cool the air and increase the shadows. The water — which only a few hours before appeared clear — now was black and spooky. Magic time had begun.
Whenever I notice such an apparent change in water clarity due to the lowering of the sun angle, I get rejuvenated. Forget about what the rest of the day was like, because most likely, whatever is going to happen is going to happen in the next couple hours. And on this day, did it ever.
I was fishing with my close friend Tom Sullivan and his son Tom on a final summer trip before he was to head back to college. We had been having a great time and the previous couple of hours had been one of those lulls in the action. Despite Tom’s youth and strength, the Cowgirl was starting to get the best of him. Anyone who fishes these lures knows the feeling. When the action is fast and furious, fishing the big lure is easy as you are fueled by adrenaline.
Yet, at this point, he had very little left in the tank. However, after a little harassment from me, he did what any college-aged kid would do, which is give me a dirty look, cast far and crank fast, just waiting for the opportunity to “shut me up.” As his Cowgirl approached the boat, I looked down and glanced at his bait to check for any late follower, as I had already done more than a hundred times that day. Out of nowhere a giant mouth appeared and the bait was gone.
The water exploded at boatside and young Tom’s rod bent in the fury. Instinctively, he lowered his rod tip toward the water and the monster musky’s head went below the surface. I quickly grabbed the net as the fish seemed to move away from the boat but did a complete 180-degree turn and swam right back toward me. I saw nothing but the leader sticking out of the fish’s mouth, so with a quick scoop the battle was over. This event probably didn’t last more than 20 seconds. Hours of boredom separated by seconds of pandemonium. Now, that’s musky fishing.
We quickly unhooked and measured the fish and Tom was proudly displaying a 55-inch giant. He looked at me, smiled, and just said one word … “Yes!” I was speechless at the sight of this awesome fish and the incredible job he did fighting it. Despite the fight only lasting seconds, Tom had the sense to react to the fish, get its head off the surface and when the opportunity presented itself, steer the fish back toward the net. Tom doesn’t spend a lot of time musky fishing as he is busy with school and other distractions, yet he’s listened and watched his dad fight big fish and knows how to react to a musky when it matters most.Believe me, if Tom would have raised his rod tip or stood there as a “spectator” while the musky did its thing, the end result could have been completely different.
As musky hunters, we all get our share of strikes, but in the end, what separates everyone is the ability to convert those strikes to fish brought to the net. I don’t necessarily claim to get any more strikes than other top anglers, but I do believe I know how to fight muskies and react to specific situations that can make the difference between catching and losing a musky. Let’s analyze a few ways to react to musky strikes and how to increase your odds at landing them when the moment of truth occurs.
One common type of musky strike is when the fish hits as soon as the lure lands in the water. It’s almost as if the musky was waiting for the lure to land. Everyone in the boat is usually surprised when this happens. Also, when the strikes occur at this point your rod is often in a high position and the musky usually comes out of the water, and the head and upper portion of the musky remain on the surface thrashing back and forth as it rapidly swims toward the boat. It may appear as if the musky is sitting still, but most of the time the fish is headed right toward you.
This surprise attack has cost many a musky hunter a lost night’s sleep. It’s real easy to be stunned when this happens and sit back and watch for a second until you realize what is happening. Unfortunately, if you don’t react quickly the fish will shake the lure free and/or get slack line and your dream will now be a nightmare.
The key approach in this situation is “power-reeling.” This is simply reeling as fast as possible whenever the musky is on the surface thrashing a cast length from the boat. Rather than worry about rod position, focus on power-reeling. You’ll pull the fish toward you and use its own momentum to drive the it back into the water. Once under the water the fish may initially continue to swim toward you, so keep reeling. Often this is when anglers make the mistake of thinking the fish has gotten off, when in reality it’s swimming toward the boat, so if the fish continues toward you keep cranking as fast as you can.
Usually, the fish will change directions shortly and from this point it’s time to fight the fish “as usual.” It’s very important to react quickly when the fish in on the surface. Don’t become a spectator and watch the musky put on a show. Take the fight to the fish. Use the long rod, tightened drag, and no-stretch braided line to your advantage. Today’s equipment will help you get the fish back underwater where it belongs and keep the fish hooked. Often you have a split second to react. Power-reel or it’s over!
Business As Usual
When you have regained control of a musky after its initial impact strike, or if the fish hits at mid-retrieve and stays deep, it’s time to fight it in your comfort zone. The two key things to remember is when the fish is down, your rod should be up; and when the fish is up, your rod should be down.
During this phase of the musky battle I try to watch the angle of my line entering the water. If my line angle is steep or straight down into the water, that means the musky is staying deep and as long as I keep my rod tip up, I have constant pressure and I am in a good position. Let the 8- or 9-foot rod do the work for you.
When the line angle become shallow that means the fish is coming toward the surface and getting ready to jump. I’ll start lowering my rod tip parallel to the water surface or point it toward the water surface, while simultaneously power-reeling. You really can’t keep a big musky from jumping, but you can affect how much and how long the musky stays out of the water with your rod tip. By keeping your rod low and power-reeling, typically the entire fish will not break the surface and the musky will quickly go back underwater. Use this approach until the fish gets boatside and you are almost home free.
When a fish hits at boatside or anytime the musky gets at boatside, this is the primary time when muskies are lost. The reason for this is there is less room for error. Even with longer rods, when utilizing a tight drag and no stretch line, mistakes such as dipping your rod tip or failing to maintain pressure on the musky get amplified. Certainly the longer rods really help, but you still have to pay attention to what’s happening.
At boatside I try to maintain control of the musky and ideally I want the fish traveling parallel to the boat so my partner can net it alongside the boat. Anytime the fish is coming perpendicular to the boat and you have to reach with the net, things can get dicey! Use your musky rod to control the direction of the fish and try to quickly get it in position to get netted.
If the fish hit on the lure’s impact or mid-retrieve, you may have taken some of the battle out of the fish, or at least you may get one “easy” shot at the fish before it goes crazy. Try to turn the fish parallel and toward your partner and net the fish.
If the fish hits at boatside, either at the end of the retrieve or the figure-8, I always heed the words that my good friend Joe Bucher taught me years ago — “initiate the fight.” Like an impact strike, muskies like to thrash on the surface at boatside. Don’t let that happen … at least only let it happen for a split second. I’ll keep my thumb on the spool and not let the fish take line. I’ll then use my 8- to 9-foot rod and drag the musky for a walk around the entire boat. As you pull the fish and its head shakes you are driving home the hooks. Plus, you are taking a lot of the fight from the fish. I’ll tow the musky around the boat, around the transom of the boat and when I get back to the bow and the fish is moving parallel to the boat, I want my partner to net the fish. A boatside strike literally only takes seconds to land. I have used this approach on hundreds of boatside strikes and it’s been extremely effective.
There are some situations in which you just can’t make it from the front to the back of the boat. So, you have to turn the fish around without ripping the hook from the fish’s mouth. This is a tricky maneuver, but when mastered it can be extremely effective. When you get to the point where you need to turn the musky you have to rapidly change the position of your rod tip, while maintaining pressure on the fish. This is simply a quick movement of both wrists to change the rod direction 90 to 180 degrees in the opposite direction of travel, but you also have to reel a few times to keep the same bend in the rod and tension on the fish.
I like to imagine trying to turn the fish in a figure-8 while it’s hooked. The idea is to simply get the fish coming back parallel to the boat. You have to be careful in this situation to not lift straight up on the fish or let the fish swim directly away from the boat. A hard upward force exerted on the musky when it’s swimming away from the boat will often work against you as a lever to tear the hooks out of the muskies mouth. That’s why, whenever I get a boatside strike, my first reaction is to take the musky for a “walk.” You really don’t have to do much other than to hang on and keep constant pressure on the fish until you complete your lap around the boat.
Finesse Or Power?
Here are a few remaining things to consider. I keep my drag locked down so I can’t pull it out. Surprisingly a big musky can. A tight drag is great for a hookset away from the boat, but at boatside you might need to release you star drag on your reel a quarter-turn. It isn’t much, but it’s all you’ll need to maintain control and be able to handle a sudden burst of speed from the fish. I also release my thumbbar and use thumb pressure to give line to the fish as necessary. This way I never have to rely on a drag, except to be locked down enough to set the hook.
There’s no perfect way to fight a musky, as no matter how hard you try, some just get off. Yet, the above-mentioned items are quick-yet-subtle moves that can directly result in a musky being boated rather than lost. Anticipate how to react when a strike occurs, and by all means try to get the fish’s head off the surface.
Finally, I have a different fish fighting style then other anglers, I take a very “offensive” role in the fight, as I tend to put a lot of pressure on my equipment and the fish. I certainly do not believe in being passive. Yet, there are many other outstanding musky anglers who take their time during the fight and probably take twice as long to land musky compared to me, and they still catch a lot of fish. You need to develop a style all your own, and not be afraid during the fight, but try to maintain control. Pay attention to what the musky is doing and be prepared to react, before it happens, and at the end of each season, you’ll be amazed at how your overall catch records increase.
Jim Saric is Editor of Musky Hunter magazine and the host of The Musky Hunter TV show.