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Choosing a basic setup for fishing muskies

Heiting with a great, basic muskie-fishing setup – a medium-heavy, 81⁄2-foot rod, a medium-retrieve reel, 80-pound-test braided line, a quality leader, and a perch-colored minnow bait. (Photo by John Stellflue)

By Steve Heiting
Contributing Writer

Not everyone wants to be a muskie angler, but after you catch your first muskie, you’ll probably want to do it again. Even small muskies are longer than most walleyes, bass, or pike, and their fight tends to be spectacular and memorable.

The number of muskie anglers entering the sport is not as great today as it was 20 years ago, when fish stockings expanded the fish’s range by leaps and bounds in non-traditional muskie states. But the question of what kind of equipment is needed to start muskie fishing remains a common one, so the sport continues to grow.

Muskies can and will continue to be caught on everything from spinning and spincast rods to Snoopy poles, and the cadre of those using fly-fishing gear is increasing. But most muskie anglers use baitcasting gear because no other tackle can take the day-in, day-out abuse of casting lures that are “bigger than the fish I usually catch,” as newcomers to the sport like to say. You want your tackle to take the abuse rather than your shoulders, back, hands, and arms.

Baitcasting reels don’t twist line as do spinning and spincast reels, and baitcasting rods designed for muskie fishing have the strength to not only cast heavy lures but to set the hook once a muskie strikes. Moving a large, wooden plug when setting the hook against the vice-like grip of a muskie is more difficult than hooking a large spoon or spinner in the maw of a northern pike. 

Considering all of the above, the following gear is what I recommend for beginning muskie anglers. While you don’t have to buy the best equipment to get started, like everything else, cost usually equates to quality. If buying new equipment, do so from a shop that specializes in muskie tackle because the salesmen probably know a thing or two about muskies.

As you’re about to start shopping, keep in mind that you can often find good used equipment at a fraction of the cost of new through various social media outlets – and sometimes even garage sales.

• Rod: It’s much easier for a beginner to enjoy the sport with smaller lures than the massive options that can weigh a pound or more, so start with a medium-heavy-action rod that will cast 5- to 8-inch offerings with ease. 

While some fishermen still believe the notion that you should base rod length according to an angler’s height, I recommend you choose a rod measuring 8 feet long or longer. Rods act as levers, so longer rods cast farther with less effort, allow better lure manipulation, set the hook better, are more forgiving when you’re fighting a large, thrashing fish at boatside, and make larger figure-eights. 

By the way, it’s wise to perform a figure-eight at the conclusion of every retrieve. On some lakes, a full 50% of the muskies you catch will bite boatside. Even if the water is ultra-clear and you can plainly see there isn’t a muskie following, you must still make the effort. Every year I catch several muskies that I didn’t know were there until they bit during the figure-eight.

• Reel: Muskie reels are either “round” or “ergonomic.” The style you choose should be the one most comfortable in your hand. Look at the reel from the side – round reels are self-explanatory, while ergonomic styles are shaped kind of like a sports car.

Reels typically fall in slow-, medium-, or high-speed designations, and generally that means they have a 4:1, 5:1, or 6:1 retrieve ratio, respectively. Some social media “experts” will recommend that you buy only high-speed reels to pick up slack line as quickly as possible, but understand some lures perform best with slack line at some point in the retrieve. You’ll quickly figure that out as you start fishing. 

For a first reel, buy a medium-retrieve (5:1 ratio) model. It will allow you to fish fast or slow simply by changing your cranking speed.

• Line: Perhaps the greatest innovation in muskie fishing during the past 25 years has been braided line that doesn’t stretch or rot. It provides easier lure manipulation and incredible hooksets. 

The best line weight to start with is 80-pound test, which has the equivalent diameter of 18-pound test monofilament. While 80-pound muskies do not exist, the higher breaking strength combined with thin diameter offers easy fishability while being almost indestructible.

• Leaders: Muskies have big mouths and sharp teeth, so you must use a leader between your line and lure to prevent bite-offs. Leaders are subject to tremendous stress when a muskie thrashes, so buy those made with high-quality components. Trying to save money with cheap, discount-store leaders is an extremely bad idea because they will fail.

• Lures: Regardless of what a buddy may say is his favorite lure, pick your first half-dozen or so to cover surface to bottom so you’re prepared for anything. 

A topwater, a spinner/bucktail, a minnow bait (a crankbait with flat sides), a crankbait, and a jerkbait, all 5 to 8 inches in length, is a good starter’s lineup. 

Choose colors that are “natural” – perch, sucker, crappie – because they’ll work in any water color. Fluorescent colors tend to be good choices for stained water, but not so much for clear water, and you can always add them later.

Once hooked on the sport, you’ll find purchasing muskie gear is a slippery slope. The gear discussed in this article will get you off to a good start, and as you gain experience you’ll develop the knowledge to guide future purchases.

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