By Rob Kimm
From The Next Bite – ESOX Angler Magazine 2006 Fall Issue
I fish a fair numbers of hours nearly every week of the Minnesota muskie season. The odd trip to more exotic destinations aside, I spend much of this time on a fairly small number of favorite waters. Totaled up over the season, I’ve booked a lot of time on these lakes by the end of August. By the time fall rolls around, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s happening—which spots have been consistently good, and which, for whatever reason, have been stinkers this year, which techniques have been working and which ones, due to overuse by other anglers or changes in fish location and activity, haven’t done much.
Come fall, I’m in a pretty comfortable relationship with these lakes. Oh, day to day things change somewhat. Weather, fishing pressure, water conditions—these things can all stir up the mix now and then. But by and large, as things swing from summer into early fall, and on to the end of the season, life’s good. The kerfuffles, flubulations, the wherefores and why’s of why muskies do what they do and why the don’t do what they should, the hyperkinetic gotta get at ‘em-ness of early season, all long past. I’m ready to just go fish for the things. I will catch them, or I will not.
On these lakes, and on many of your favorites in the same part of the country (and I say this with certainty), one of the best ways to stay away from the ‘will not’ side of that equation is to fish jigs.
With so many more traditional fall tactics like jerkbaits, cast or trolled cranks, even live bait, jigs don’t often find a place in the arsenal for most fall muskie anglers. They should. Few baits better cover the range of location possibilities with less fuss, from fish deep on hard bottomed edges like points and reefs, to mid-depth flats where muskies prowl the remnants of summer’s weedbeds, to shallow sand, rock, or gravel bars. Fewer still cover the range of potential fish moods you’re likely to find in fall so thoroughly.
What’s great about jigs this time of year is they can be what you need them to be simply by changing the way they’re fished. Active fish on a shallow rock reef? Zip them along just under the surface, with just a pause now and then to trigger following fish. Fish parked on a deep weedline? Count them down so they’re just ticking the weed tops, and swim them in, wobbling and thumping along.
But hold on. Before we get too far into that part of the story, better talk about the jigs themselves a little bit first, as in, which ones I’m talking about, and which ones I’m not.
The Cobra Jig came about as a result of conversations between Steve Herbeck and I that began about 5 years ago, says Bait Rigs Tackle Co. co-owner Joe Puccio. When we looked at a lot of the jigs out there, all of them were lacking something, whether it was head design, weight distribution, hook design or quality. Steve recognized the need for a better tool what the world needed was a true muskie jig. It was something I d wanted to do for a while: build a muskie jig that was really a tool built for that purpose.
|Developing the Esox Cobra Jig
Esox Cobra Jig Available in 4 Sizes
The Esox Cobra Jig is a prime example of muskie and pike jigs evolving past plain ball or dart heads to purpose-built swimming jigs, with design features specifically crafted to optimize performance using horizontal presentations.
Key to the Esox Cobra Jig s performance is a unique head design, built on a modified Kahle Mustad UltraPoint hook. The wedge-shaped head places the center of balance of the head slightly farther back on the hook. Most jigs are a weight-forward design, says Puccio, which is great for a vertical presentation, but not necessarily for horizontal or semi-horizontal approaches. The Cobra head is a weight-center head. The weight is distributed so the bait stays horizontal on the retrieve, and when paused.
ESOX Cobra Shadtail Swimbait 6 Inch
The weight-center design is complimented by a unique feature of the Cobra a concave rather than flat bottom on the jighead. Most jigs have no inherent action of their own, says Puccio. We wanted something that.
Many of the jigs currently being marketed as muskie jigs aren’t much more than outsized bass jigs. Bass jigs, big or not, aren’t muskie jigs. They have to do different things, and what makes a good muskie jig doesn’t necessarily make a good bass jig. Bass jigs often have hooks that just aren’t up to snuff for penetrating bony mouths. In many cases, the fiber weedguards are far too stiff, and frankly, they’re often not needed at all. Bulbous rounded jigheads are ideal for a well-balanced vertical fall, but poorly suited for the horizontal presentation most often used with muskies, where staying flat while swimming over and through modestly dense cabbage and coontail, or over sand and rocks, is a much more important capability than punching vertically through heavy vegetation.
The jig I’m looking at as I write this, an Esox Cobra head from Bait Rigs Tackle, is a good example of what a good muskie jig should be. The head is wedge-shaped with the hook eye at the very point to slide through weeds, pushing stalks away from the hook point. The balance is right for a horizontal retrieve, with the weight set back on the hook rather than centered under the line tie, so the bait falls horizontally, and rides slightly nose-up on the retrieve. A slight concave dish to the flat bottom of the head gives these jigs a subtle action of their own—a slight shimmy on a straight retrieve, and a gliding swim on the fall. A rubber skirt adds bulk and movement. The hook is a modified Kahle-style Mustad Ultrapoint. At 5/0, it’s not overly-large, and fairly light wire actually, but with a wide bite, and scary sharp. Many muskies that hit jigs will be hooked right in the top of the mouth, and a razor sharp but thinner diameter hook is easier to sink into a bony mouth than heavier hooks. There’s no weedguard on the standard Cobra, and often they’re not necessary anyhow. The wedge head is weed free enough— surprisingly so in fact—for most situations, especially in fall. Throughout spring and summer, I’ll generally use 1/2 or 3/4 ounce Cobras. In fall, 3/4 or 1 ounce models are a little more efficient.
Other jigs out there too of course. In heavy cover, particularly around rushes or for zipping over the tops of thick mid-depth weeds, Musky Mania’s Jig-A-Beast or the Lil’ Hustler Super Swim Jig have thick weedguards and solid hooks. Pat Smith’s Stick-um Jig is another fine option. In real thick stuff, Pat’s Sick-Um Stealth is tops. No weedguard on the Stealth, but rather a coil spring screw doohickey on the line tie for rigging plastic trailers Texas-style. There is weedless as in “doesn’t pick up weeds too bad” and there is weedless as in weedless. The Stick-Um Stealth is weedless.
Esox Cobra® MAGNUM Musky Jig
The Bait Rigs Cobra Magnum is a monster jig, complete with an attachment for adding a stinger hook to the 10 inch grub or 9 inch shad trailer. These large profile baits are great for slow swimming, or as throwback lures once you’ve located a fish. Cobra Magnum heads also pair extremely well with giant Red October tube baits – a compact, fast-sinking package for casting in high winds and casting or vertical jigging deep breaks. It’s a combo I haven’t had a chance to use much yet, but by this fall, I will have used it quite a bit, I think.
Pair the jigheads with shad-style thumper plastics like a Lunker City Salt Shaker, or an Action Plastics 6-inch Shad. Earlier in the season, swimming tail grubs can work extremely well, especially Action Plastics Twin Tail Shrimp grubs used to slow the fall rate of jigs fished over shallow weeds. But in fall, thumpers get bit more. On Cobra jigs, shads can be rigged vertically, with the hook coming through the back of the bait, or flat, with the hook out the side. Vertically rigged shad wobble extremely well, fall slightly faster, and dart more on the drop. Rigged flat, the drop rate slows slightly, the wobble is less pronounced, and the bait has a somewhat bigger profile. On bullet-head jigs like the Jig-A-Beast, rig shads flat.
Finish the package with a leader. I prefer uncoated, stranded leaders in the 90 pound range. Others prefer single strand leaders. In either case, fix the wire directly to the jighead. Don’t mess with snaps. They just collect weeds and gunk.
So about the where and how of jigging in fall. During the transition from summer temperatures and locations through early fall, turnover, and the cold water post turnover period, muskies change locations several times. Often, different fish or groups of fish will be at different stages of this transition at once. Only in extreme late fall, just before freeze-up (and sometimes not even then) will you find even a slim majority of fish holding on the same types of structure, or at the same depths. Jigs shine this period of constant transition for lots of reasons, but foremost perhaps is their versatility when you need to probe several different depths and cover types quickly and efficiently.Take a typical flat on a mid-Mesotrophic muskie lake. You’ll have a shallow, inside weedline, maybe even a stretch of sand between the weedline and shore, the flat itself, covered with patchy clumps of remaining weeds, then the break itself, and the adjacent to structure confined open water beyond. Covering each of these options across the full range of depths and speeds with more traditional fall baits would generally mean switching lures multiple times. By comparison, the same jig can fish each piece of structure, at depths from a couple feet to, say, 15 to 18 feet, simply by adjusting the retrieve speed and how long they’re allowed to sink.
When I can, I prefer to work shallow first, then move outward. Backwards from most anglers I think, but that’s fine. I prefer this approach though because shallow water can be fished quickly, and if I’m finding fish shallow, I can fish several spots rapidly, making the most of a short day. Plus, in fall’s clear water, you can often see hits when fishing shallow, which I like simply because it’s fun. So I’ll begin at the shallow sand and inside weedline, with my boat a long cast length from shore. A long cast with a jig is a long cast. Fling them as far as you can. With today’s superlines, there’s no line stretch to contend with, so why not. I’ll begin reeling as soon as the jig lands, scooting it quickly over the sand and inside weedline, occasionally making a long cast in front of the boat to cover portions of the flat my boat is about to pass over.
After fishing the inside line to shore, the flat is next. Again, long casts, but count the jig down a few beats to run at mid-depth. Ideally, it’ll be ticking the tops of any remaining weeds. If I count down six seconds and don’t make weed contact, then next cast will be seven or eight seconds. Weed growth on flats is seldom uniform, so constant adjustments are necessary. As I fish the flat I’ll make note of where thicker stands of cabbage or coontail are. We’re talking a weed flat here, but the approach is the same over sand or gravel/rock flats. Run the jig mid-way down in the water column most often, although occasionally dropping them all the way to the bottom briefly doesn’t hurt. The outside break is a little different. I generally keep the boat 1/3 of a long cast length away from the break itself. Count the jig down, work it to the edge of the break, then let it drop down the weedline before bringing it back to the boat. Dropping it all the way to the bottom isn’t usually necessary. Active fish will most often be higher in the water column at least until very late in the year or unless the weather’s bad. If fish are tight to the bottom there are better ways to get jigs to them than casting—but that’s another article.
|Retrieves with jigs aren’t complicated, which is part of the beauty of it all. You can catch a lot of fish just by holding your rod tip at about the 10 o’clock position and reeling steadily, pausing for a second or so every few feet to let the jig do a dive and glide briefly.
Retrieves with jigs aren’t complicated, which is part of the beauty of it all. You can catch a lot of fish just by holding your rod tip at about the 10 o’clock position and reeling steadily, pausing for a second or so every few feet to let the jig do a dive and glide briefly. Better though to work the jig a little more. Reel steadily, but nod the rod tip as you reel. Not a true lift/drop—you aren’t bass fishing—but rather a subtle, steady nod of 4 or 5 inches, performed with your wrist. Then pause periodically. Or: Start at 10 o’clock, reel as you lift the rod tip to 11:30, then drop the rod back to 10, reeling back down as your rod tip drops. The jig will rise and fall, doing a steady stutter-step shimmy, then briefly stall and swim down before scooting off again. The point is, do it how you want to from a mechanics standpoint, but make the jig lively. Attract fish, and trigger them. If you hang on weeds, a quick snap of the wrist will pop them off. Jigs figure-8 exceptionally well, but most fish hit during the retrieve. If you’re doing it right, the depth and direction changes that trigger fish at boat side with other lures occur multiple times during the retrieve.
Strikes on jigs nearly always occur as the bait drops. Muskies seem to take jigs by rushing them from behind or quartering behind, engulfing them, and turning. The feeling is a solid and satisfying whump. At times, the line will simply go slack as a muskie overtakes the jig and rushes forward. Most fish will be hooked either solidly in the corner of the mouth, or right in the roof of the mouth. Unhooking and releasing fish with jigs is a joy. Usually a firm twist with a pliers is all it takes. Few baits are more fish friendly.
Jigging muskies is a quiet game with a lot of how it’s done left in the angler’s hands. Doesn’t take a lot of effort, but rewards concentration and attention to details of presentation like depth, speed, and applying basic mechanical skills to trigger fish. Not complex, just versatile and effective. About right for fall, when all there’s left to do is go fishing.
By Pete Maina
From The Next Bite – ESOX Angler Magazine 2006 Fall Issue
I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways when it comes to fishing vertical for muskies.
Years back, a great friend and guide in my home area of Hayward, Wisconsin, Bill (Fuzzy) Shumway, created a sonar-style lure intended for muskies. I remember pondering the whole thing when he showed me the Fuzzy Duzzit while fishing together. I was one of the first to get a hold of one.
Just prior to this, I’d gotten to know a guy who very quietly (‘quiet’ is a rare trait these days, but I recall him telling me if I ever took his picture or mentioned his name publicly, there’d be no more friendship) caught more big fall muskies from area lakes than anyone. He was ahead of his time on bottom-hugging muskies and hard-to-soft bottom transitions.
|Vertical is also perfect for small, precise spots of any kind. Smaller reefs, especially sharp edged ones, distinct holes and any deeper current breaks created by natural or wind-induced current are examples. Distinct holes can be a great fall target, especially on reservoirs, and are best fished vertically.
I recall some joy back then when I started to realize the potential in coupling his knowledge and Fuzzy’s new lure to fish an area body of water that was generally thought to be a tough fall lake. I found fish in different areas and on totally different structures from where most of the pressure was directed. It was a tough pattern to figure out on this water, since the forage didn’t expose itself on electronics well at all. And, it generally meant working the deep edges of very sharp, irregular breaklines. I quickly found the best way to fish these areas effectively was to fish them vertically.
But other than heavily-weighted live baits, I’d never had the tools for the job. To fish 15 feet deep or deeper, fish vertically, and still cover some water, requires specific stuff. Sure, jigs were around and used, but 3/4 or 1 ounce jigs don’t cut it here, unless you’re willing to accept moving at a snail’s pace. Apex predators are present in the lowest densities, and you have to cover some water to increase your odds of coming in contact with them. Waiting for them to come to you gets old (as you will, from boredom if nothing else).
The combination of a vertical presentations with good boat control is just flat effective, especially for fall muskies. Yet, since vertical isn’t nearly as glamorous as casting, it’s easy to simply forget how well it works, even when you should know better.
I was reminded, again, of the effectiveness of vertical jigging last fall while filming a muskie episode for The Next Bite television show. Huge northwest cold-front winds changed my plans quite drastically the first day of the shoot. I was limited to a sharp, western-shore rock break—only place I could hold the boat position well enough to effectively fish. None of our casting presentations were working, but I noticed the forage seemed to be tight to the bottom on the base of the break. I dug in the box for old Fuzzy. Three muskies were taken vertically while other presentations didn’t work all day. Later, a nice muskie on a Jake too, but remembering to think vertical turned what would have been one-fish day to a four-fish day. Big difference.
Certainly, how effective or appropriate the vertical jigging approach will be depends on the body of water and its make-up. It has to do with a combination of things, one of the most significant being the lake makeup mentioned above: sharp and irregular breaklines. If fish are holding tight, especially if at the base of the break, vertical presentations become the most efficient way to go. Sometimes, it can be the only way to go. If the fishery has bottom-hugging forage species as the predominant food source, you have the ultimate case for vertical approaches.Well, wait…Add in tough conditions, cold water and/or just fish with bad attitudes that just aren’t willing to exercise much for a meal. Nothing says “in your face” like vertical presentations. For fish not wanting to move for food, consider what an irregular, sharp breakline means for a normally very effective water-covering tool: trolling. Trolling becomes less and less efficient the more complex the cover gets, and the tighter fish are holding to it. If it’s really sharpbreaking, it can just be hard to place the right lures, at the right depth and coordinate that with boat control. Perfection is almost required—tough to pull off at 3+ miles per hour, in wind and waves. Suppose though you can do all of that perfectly. You can crash rock points effectively, and even cover very sharp edges, pretty well—as long as those steep breaks are fairly straight.
But, there’s simply nothing at all that you can do with sharp inside turns—often where the fish are under tough conditions. You really can’t hit them effectively trolling. Now, “can’t” is a big word. But where inside swings are fairly tight, and getting bit means triggering muskies at the base of the break—a muskie that’s backed in and parked perfectly at the base of the inside turn—it’s nearly impossible to get to that fish with a single trolling pass. Think about how things would work on a sharp edge: if your lure climbs up the edge prior to the inside turn area without fouling, once it blasts off on the other side, it’s likely 10 feet or more above the fish on a sharp-break. The majority of the time, that just won’t work—they aren’t going to move that far. Using multiple passes with lure depth adjustments and different angles, it becomes possible to get in the face of fish on inside turns, but the efficiency that is usually trolling’s advantage is completely lost.
The same efficiency problems exist when casting these areas. Especially in deeper water, sinking baits are a good tool, but letting them sink to get where they need to be is time consuming, and they often have to be fished slowly to keep them there. Deep divers can work too, but how much of their time is spent in the effective zone when targeting bottom-related fish? When there are sharp, twisting breaks, multiple casts in tight repetition are necessary to attempt to cover it. All things considered, the efficiency is lost here too.
Vertical is also perfect for small, precise spots of any kind. Smaller reefs, especially sharp edged ones, distinct holes and any deeper current breaks created by natural or wind-induced current are examples. Distinct holes can be a great fall target, especially on reservoirs, and are best fished vertically. Current breaks may be mid-channel hump, logs—whatever. Fish cribs are another fine example where fish may be tight, and here, trolling and casting become not only hard to do, but time-consuming and expensive. Though I have very little experience with it, standing timber is another place where a vertical presentation makes tons of sense.
When faced with situations like the one’s I’ve described, what I’ve found to ultimately be the most effective is precise boat control coupled with a combination of vertical and casting presentations. It pays to have help—two or three anglers are much more efficient that going solo. Basically, my usual method is to move the boat along the break, zig-zagging up and down the break as I move along it, making certain to cover the base of break, and occasionally creeping a little on to adjacent flats. Keep the idea of covering everything—the whole break, from lip to base—in mind all the time. At least one presentation should be vertical. Different casting presentations can be used to check the shallower zones, parallel edges, and for suspended fish.
By far the most important job here is boat control. Simple as that. The person in charge of the boat really has to be concentrating at all times, making certain that not only is there consideration for covering the different areas of a break for potential patterns, but also to control speed and movement to make certain no fish are passed by. It’s not easy when calm, and it’s even harder with gusty fall winds.
Anyone using a vertical presentation should be watching a graph at all times. It aids in keeping up with depth adjustments, and obviously you want to be watching for big marks. Truly, if there was ever an ultimate case for quality electronics for esox fishing, this is it. When precise boat control is made difficult by gusty winds, or if you feel two passes on a structure to be necessary to cover it thoroughly, plotter trails on a GPS unit are invaluable in making certain everything is covered. And, it’s simply a huge aide to have the large, color screen as on the unit I use, the Lowrance 111C, to really be able to best distinguish bottom-hugging fish. A split-screen with zoom on these units is frankly almost unfair when it comes to being able to see fish. (Of course you still have to make them bite…) It helps to distinguish forage, and bigger fish show up even better. While filming the episode of The Next Bite Television I mentioned earlier, I had just started filming a “tip” about vertical jigging when I glanced at my graph, saw a large mark, forgot all about the tip I was supposed to be doing, dropped Fuzzy down … one pump, drop …bang.
|Jigging muskies is a quiet game with a lot of how it’s done left in the angler’s hands. Doesn’t take a lot of effort, but rewards concentration and attention to details of presentation like depth, speed, and applying basic mechanical skills to trigger fish.
These days the door is opening wider, as there are quite a few new options coming in lures specifically designed for vertical use. It really is, and it almost seems odd to say it these days, something quite new in tactics for esoxchasers. And it’s got me thinking all over again. In sharing the above story with Bill Shumway at a sport show over the wintermonths, he mentioned that he had been successful on the Fuzzy Duzzit as a “comeback” presentation on a big fish. He’d raised it, and returned again with other presentations, only raising the fish again. Since the fish was located on a break, he thought of his bait, tried the fish again, and caught it. How many times have you heard about coming back on a raised fish with a vertical jigging approach? Hmmmmm. Like Pearson says: thinking is just being thoughtful.