For Those Who Refuse To Fish Live Bait – Here’s a Viable Alternative
By Joe Bucher
“It’s snowing like mad”, I thought to myself. “Sure hope you know where you are. It’s even tough to see the shoreline now and it’s starting to get dark!” Assuring myself with a nod, I peered at the nearby rocky bank and quickly deduced we were right on target. With icicles forming on my rod guides as well as the many shoreline obstacles, the scene was beginning to look more like deer hunt than a musky trip. Ironic, how similar both tasks are in reality. Musky fishing really is a hunt more than anything else. Admittedly, that’s why I ended up naming this magazine “Musky Hunter”. We hunt muskies, and this sport is truly all about the hunt. Being out in the latest part of the fall, with winter-like conditions, confirms this analogy with no argument. And, I’d been out hunting all day with no results.
Just then, my thoughts were interrupted when I realized I was getting dangerously close to the shoreline rocks. A hard left turn and a sudden burst on the engine throttle pushed the bow back out towards open water making my deep diver vibrate intensely. Just as the boat safely cleared the rocky point, I reversed course a bit forcing the boat back towards the steep rocky bank on the backside of the point. However, the deep diver running 75 feet behind the boat momentarily changed its rhythmic swimming vibe to one of impact pounding the rock/gravel bottom underwater point that protruded outwards from the shoreline. I immediately held the rod higher and move the rod tip forward even more in order to put myself in a position to immediately release all the tension if a snag-up occurred. The trusty deep diver would then float upwards and free itself. A quick hard yank afterwards would surely free and debris that might be clinging around the diving lip or hooks.
I had performed this task countless times before and was sure it would work once again, but something wasn’t quite right this time. The tell-taled vibration of my favorite late fall lure would not return. Weeds, a branch, or even some newly fallen leaves from nearby trees were probably the culprit. In frustration, I stood up, pointed the rod tip directly at the lure, let the boat movement draw the line tight and then I heaved upward on the rod tip extra hard and fast in wide sweeping motion. The deep diver pulsated like a jack hammer, scurrying forward like a fleeing baitfish.
Just as I completed the exercise a sudden jolt set the rod in a deep throbbing bow and line began stripping off the reel! As cold as it was, my musky hunting brain quickly perceived “fish on!” This moment, this feeling of a deep water crankbait strike trolling in the real late fall cold water period, is nothing short of unbelievable. It is almost beyond description. It’s like catching a touchdown pass in a playoff football game. It’s awesome.
Instead of reeling, I simply kept a good bend in the rod and turned the boat out towards open water away from the shore. Under slow controlled idle speed, a deep bull dog battle ensued. Rarely do late fall cold water muskies hooked in deeper water jump or even surface much at first, and this one was no different. It took a surprisingly long time to gain line, and as the minutes crept by the snow come down harder as we ventured out into the main lake further and further. Eventually, I lost all visibility of any familiar shoreline surroundings, but I was unconcerned concentrating solely on the task at hand — landing this big brute.
After what seemed like an eternity, the fish finally tired and approached boat side. All at once, it was on the surface, thrashing slowly back and forth, in a last ditch effort to throw the three firmly embedded trebles. As always, I look at two things once I first see a hooked fish surface near the boat: 1) how big? And 2) how is it hooked? The guesstimate on question one was at least 50 inches; probably closer to 52. The assessment on question two was “hooked well! No problem.” All seemed over but the photos at this point, until I realized I couldn’t get the landing net free. It has actually frozen to the bottom of the boat! The accumulating heavy wet snow combined with frigid wind chills and the long fishless outing had allowed this to happen. Now, what was I going to do? I was all alone. No help. I quickly deduced I’d have to land this fish by hand – and that would be tricky. A big musky’s jaw with a mouth full of hooks can be one intimidating sight. Now, I’d have to get my hands near all of that dangerous looking stuff.
Yet, the cold late fall elements actually worked in my favor here. I was already wearing heavy winter-like work gloves. My hands were somewhat protected. My confidence suddenly rose and before I could think otherwise, my gloved right hand was inside the big gill place and I was heaving the big fish upwards and into the boat. In one quick motion, the big brute was up, over and down on to the snowy boat floor. I had done it! Then, I realized there was no one there to take photos. No one there to verify any measurements. No one there to even share this incredible moment. But, that realization quickly faded. It really wasn’t that important. What was important was that I had succeeded in another trophy musky hunt, and it was extra rewarding since it happened at the very end of the season, in such torrid conditions. This was truly one of the heaviest muskies I had ever taken, yet I’ve never had a photo to show anyone of it. It was released a few moments later. It took me another 30 minutes to find my way back to the boat landing in the snowy darkness. The lake froze that night. My season was over.
Cold Water Crankin’ 101
This story is one of many I’ve told over the years about my success trolling deep divers during the cold water period. I simply can’t say it enough — deep diving crankbaits are absolute killers on late fall muskies. I am convinced beyond a doubt that deep divers are superior to all other lures during this time of year. Hundreds of late fall, cold water muskies are taken on some version of a deep diving crankbait all across North America. The key is being able to get it deep enough – where late fall cold water muskies are most apt to be. This is where trolling comes in. Most states and provinces allow some form of motor trolling. In those few instances where it is not allowed, row trolling can be equally effective as long as you don’t have to deal with wind and big waves.
Trolling is essential during this time period for several reasons. Most notably, it is often just too darn cold to cast. When air temperatures inch below 30 degrees with wind chills compiling the problem, equipment freeze-up simply doesn’t allow one to cast effectively. Ice build-up on the reel and rod guides after only a few casts renders this favored method almost useless. On top of that, it is virtually impossible to get crankbaits down to the most effective running depths with any casting style presentation. My experiences suggest that most muskies are taken at this time of year from the 14 to 22 foot range with the 22 to 28 foot range being a close 2nd in real gin clear waters. That is far below the reachable depth of conventional casting techniques. Trolling allows the angler to reach these productive depths, and a deep diving crankbait is the tool to get you there.
Why so many musky still fail to realize the deadly effectiveness of crankbaits in cold water is beyond me, but this continues to be so. Somewhere long ago, someone convinced the angling masses that livebait was the only way to catch fish when the water chilled below 50 degrees. This must-fish-livebait-in-cold-water concept is especially prevalent in north central Wisconsin where live sucker fishing is still so popular. Ironically, many of my fellow Packer fans look down upon someone trolling an artificial lure yet they see nothing wrong with catching that same fish on livebait which is arguably less sporting than trolling a lure. I am not here to dispute this one way or the other. I am simply offering an alternative to those who are interested.
The Precise Science Of Deep Water Trolling
Deep water trolling is a precise science. It’s almost an art form. It requires good boat control, a watchful eye on the sonar unit, and an intimate knowledge of how deep your lures run. Deep water muskies in the colder waters of late fall are less apt to move vertically, up or down, to take a lure. This means the lure must travel by the fish at a precise level. Otherwise, success to any great extent is doubtful. Therefore, every effort must be made to determine exactly how deep your target species is. Then, it’s a matter of matching the right tackle with the right crankbait in order to achieve that depth.
In the most basic terms, trolling basically doubles your running depth enabling you to run deep divers much closer to bottom hugging muskies. By the way, contrary to popular belief conventional musky crankbaits do not attain great depths by conventional casting. The length of line out on any given cast simply doesn’t allow it. And, the line tests that most of us use for muskies creates so much drag it severely retards the maximum running depth of any crankbait. The combination of a short distance (cast length) and heavy diameter line results in a maximum running depth of less than 8 ½ feet with most lures. These limitations do not exist in the trolling world. You can put out a lot more line, and even weight the lure in order to attain the right depth. That’s why trolling is a great option for the cold water cranker. Getting down where the fish are is important; especially once the water gets colder and the fish move deeper.
One of the key things to grasp about crankbait trolling is this — the more line you have out, the deeper your lure will run. If you want the lure you are using to run deeper, let out more line. If it is running too deep and dredging the bottom, shorten up that amount. Line diameter and trolling speed will also effect this equation. This is why I call it a science. It really is. Knowing precisely how much line you have out from rod tip to lure – and then knowing how this affects the running depth of your lure — is vital. A metered trolling reel helps here. Keep a notebook on your most productive line lengths for various lakes and lures. You will find this works.
Water temperature as well as the health of shallow cover dictates how deep big fish are likely to be. That’s why I suggest keeping an eye on both. Water temps, in particular, give me a good starting point as to what to expect. Generally speaking, when I see fall temperatures in the 50’s, I’m confident that I can catch fish crankin’. However, when surface temps dip down into the 40’s, the majority of the fish start to move deeper, below that magic 12 foot mark. That’s when I consider the trolling option. Once the water temps near the true freezing mark, trolling becomes the absolute best method.
Line choice is another factor to consider during the cold water period. Braided cloth lines are nearly always a bad idea in cold weather situations. Braided line freezes quickly to the reel spool. Musky hunters commonly prefer various low stretch braided lines, but they’ll have to give ‘em up if they want to seriously attempt frigid crankin’. Line freeze up is a serious problem with braided lines. Any nylon monofilament style of line is desired whenever air temps inch below the freezing mark. Personally, I’m a big fan of extra tough, saltwater grade monofilament lines in the 50 pound range for cold water crankin’. They have additional abrasion resistance durability built-in. Superior abrasion resistance is a major plus when jagged ice edges rub on your line all day long.
The Need For Speed
The speed of your trolling pass must always be considered no matter what the season, but it has some special significance in cold water crankin’ applications. In my opinion, speed control is the most misunderstood part of cold water crankbait fishing. Many anglers have the mistaken impression that the only speed that works when the water is real cold is – slow. In fact, most anglers think of cold and slow as synonymous. As obviously simple and clean cut as this sounds, it’s simply not true. I won’t dispute that ultra slow retrieve speeds with certain lures can be deadly at certain times, especially with spinnerbaits and jigs, but slow speeds are rarely necessary with crankbaits. I’ve had surprising success with fast lure speeds in cold water. Admittedly, I stumbled onto the oddity of fast crankin’ speeds and cold water fish quite by accident. Consider what happened in this opening story. That lure was bursting forward at high rate of speed. That’s what triggered that fish to bite.
By accident, I learned that muskies will take some speed on lures even during the coldest water periods. A windy cold November late afternoon over twenty years ago sold me on this possibility. I remember wind blowing at nearly a gale force, and big white capped waves. I also remember waves crashing so hard across one of my favorite points that it was almost impossible to troll around it without taking on water. Initially, I tried trolling against the wind in order to maintain some boat control as well as keep the lure speed down. After an unsuccessful attempt on my upwind trolling pass, I quickly turned 180 degrees, and made another shot across it going down wind. However, a gusty wind pushed my boat at nearly three times the desired speed. Frustrated by a lack of boat control, as I struggled to hold the rig off the rocky shore. My rod tip vibrated like it was going to rattle right out of the rod holder. Traveling at this high rate of speed, I never considered that a fish would hit it in this low 40 degree water. Boy, was I amazed when the rod doubled with a bone jarring strike.
Nearly 46 inches of fat feeding musky told me that speed control in cold water doesn’t necessarily mean “slow”. I should also point out that this incident was the beginning, but no means the end. I caught two more muskies and a couple of lake trout that day, and all of them came on the downwind trolling pass over that same point. The water temperature was 41 degrees.
Since that day, I’ve never hesitated to “crank it up” whenever things seem slow. I’ve also talked to a number of other experienced cold water crankers about this cold water/speed phenomena. I was surprised to find some similar success stories. Eastern musky hunters, in particular, are big fans of fast trolling in cold water. They purposely troll fast, and don’t believe in ever trolling slow.
I am not advocating that you should always troll fast in cold water with crankbaits. Conditions might suggest a slower trolling speed occasionally. A lot depends upon the style of lure being used. Some lures reach maximum running depth and vibration at much slower speeds than others. Conversely, some of the larger slab-style minnow baits out there today need additional speed in order to perform correctly.
Wanna catch muskies on artificial lures during the coldest waters of late fall? It can be done. Learn the art of deep water trolling with crankbaits and you’ll become a believer for sure. You’ll also find that it is one of the most exciting ways to catch ‘em, too.