By Steve Heiting
The sport of muskie fishing has been good to me. I’ve enjoyed countless moments and made many valued friendships, and from it I’ve forged a comfortable living.
But in one way, it hasn’t been so kind: It hasn’t let me forget my mistakes, the times I’ve been wrong in my beliefs about the sport. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I learned from each mistake and became a better muskie angler because of them. But as I look back all I can do is roll my eyes and move forward.
In my defense, much of what I know about muskie fishing had to be learned on my own. When I started, there wasn’t today’s glut of information – the internet, social media, website forums, magazine articles, television shows, and YouTube didn’t exist. There were a handful of clubs, but I found the members of the one I joined a little standoffish to the new kid in the room.
Here are the incorrect beliefs I once held, and what I know now.
1) Bucktails are overrated. I actually said that in a story I wrote for a small, regional magazine more than 30 years ago. At the time I was catching a lot of muskies by using minnowbaits and jerkbaits, and I found the more action I imparted to them, the more muskies I caught. I saw bucktails as a bait you simply cast out and reeled in, and that’s the root of my mistake. I wasn’t doing anything special with my bucktails.
Today, I make every cast with a bucktail an adventure. I synchronize them so their blade is spinning when they splash down. During every retrieve, I speed them up and slow them down, which flairs their skirts and makes them rise and fall in the water. At the same time, sudden bursts of speed trigger nearby muskies. One or two direction changes are included in every retrieve. And I’ve become a technician with the figure-eight because bucktails are the ultimate lure at boatside.
For at least the past 20 years, bucktails have produced more muskies than any other lure type cast from my boat because I’ve learned to fish them correctly. Overrated? Hardly.
2) You don’t need a leader. As stated, I’ve caught a lot of muskies on minnowbaits and jerkbaits and still do to this day. Muskies tend to hit them from the side in classic T-bone fashion with the line and leader far from their sharp teeth. One thing I noticed was a heavy wire leader caused smaller, less buoyant sizes of these lures to rise nose-down after a twitch. I also realized the more horizontally these lures rose, the more lifelike they appeared and the more bites they attracted.
One season I decided to fish leaderless to allow the lures to rise as naturally as possible. I did seem to get more strikes. However, my line was cut three times by large muskies that totally engulfed the lure, including one that may have been the largest I’d ever hooked in Wisconsin waters. Fortunately, that fish thrashed a minute or so later and freed itself of the lure, but the other two did not. I vowed I would never fish leaderless again.
A few years ago, I worked with a well-known company to design strong, lightweight leaders that allow anglers to get the most from their lures without the risk of cut-offs. I believe these leaders to be integral to my success.
3) Enjoy the fight. The first large muskie I ever had on my line – at the time – grabbed my sucker one October morning. I waited about a half-hour for the fish to swallow the big minnow before I set the hook. Back then, the belief was that if you cut the leader and let the muskie go, its stomach acids dissolved the hook and the fish would survive.
However, mounting anecdotal evidence of fish dying from “swallow rigs” and a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources study in the early 2000s that indicated near 100% fatality from their use have resulted in the almost-complete disappearance of the practice.
Back to the story … After I set the hook, I was pleased to see the leader was well down the muskie’s throat. My fishing partner asked if he should net the fish, and I said, “No, it’s hooked pretty well so I’m going to enjoy this.”
The fish took some line, and when I worked it back toward the boat I was shocked to see the sucker’s tail protruding from the muskie’s mouth. Realizing the fish was not hooked, I fought the muskie with a frenzy but it soon thrashed and regurgitated its stomach contents, including the now-dead sucker and the rig. The fish paddled back to the depths and I was left with nothing but a story.
I learned there is no sure thing when fighting muskies. If you like fish pictures rather than fish stories, it’s best to get them in the net at the first opportunity. This especially applies to big fish that have considerably more weight and strength to pop a hook free.
And, quite frankly, a quick net job is better for the fish because they don’t tire as much and can be released more readily.
I’ve made a lot of other mistakes, but these three really stick in my craw. You’ll be a better muskie angler if you learn from my miscues.