I remember vividly when my brother Tom was still trying to catch his first muskie. At the beginning of his trip, we were fishing an island with a sneaky little weedbed on the side opposite a well-known reef. His first cast into the weeds was hit hard by a big fish that came up to the surface thrashing, rushing straight at us and throwing the hook. The image of the fish busting up the quiet lake burned itself into his brain, and during the rest of his week he was obsessed with getting a rematch; but with muskie fishing, you have to be careful what you ask for. On the last evening before his long drive home, I took him back to the spot that was haunting him. After just a few casts into the weeds, his big fish smashed the bait again. She ran at us shaking her head and threw the hooks in an almost perfect replay of the first encounter. Ouch!
It seems to me that there is an aspect of muskie fishing that doesn’t get enough attention: namely, what you should do in those crucial moments after you finally get one of these cussed, wonderful fish to eat the bait. The difference between catching the muskie of your dreams, or having a nightmare like Tom’s, depends on making the right moves in just a couple of irretrievable seconds. Anybody who fishes for them much has experienced the agony of defeat.
A typical muskie battle is a quick, violent bar fight, not a drawn-out affair. Their mouths are all bones and teeth, so hooks don’t get much purchase. They dive under trolling motors and into logs and weeds, and they roll up in the line. They get away for many reasons, and the heartbreaking thing is, the bigger a muskie gets, the better she is at throwing the hooks. That is mostly because big fish like Tom’s tend to run at you, mouth open, and head shaking until the bait comes loose. It’s a devastating move, so, let’s analyze this Houdini trick and see how you might counter it.
When a fish eats coming at you, it’s difficult to get a good hookset. Away from the boat, a modest fish might slash at your bait and hook itself firmly in the corner of its jaw. Big ones, though, often slide up behind the bait and overrun it from behind. It doesn’t feel like much, and they are creating slack just when you need to hit them hard. With a funky hookset, you are behind the eight-ball right from the start. The usual headshaking is enough to throw the bait.
Better hooksets start even before a fish strikes. The first tactic is to point your rod toward the bait throughout the retrieve. That way you have no-stretch line straight to the fish and the full swing of your arms and rod to set the hook. If you watch the experts work a bait, most of the action is subtle little triggers that allow them to quickly aim the rod back at the bait, not exaggerated movements that leave their hands up in the air and slack in the line. Hit hard on anything you feel. Once, fishing a reef that was new to me, I snagged a big, sloping shelf and thought I burned the spot freeing my bait. Wary about unseen rocks, I fished around to the other side of the structure and snagged again, whereupon I stupidly gave the line a moment of slack. Oops! It was enough for a 40-pound fish to rise out of the water and throw the lure. You’re looking for a fish that feels like you hooked Canada, so set the hook even if you think it’s a reef. You can always free your bait from a rock later, but you can’t go back to retrieve a lost fish.
And that brings me to the second thing you can do before hook-up: never throw a bait that doesn’t have sticky-sharp hooks. The hooks that come from the factory aren’t nearly sharp enough, whatever the hype says, and any bait that has been bumping around in the boat or hooking obstacles underwater likely needs a touch-up. Get a good sharpener and learn to use it—I’ve seen people sawing away on their hooks and actually making them duller. Ask a guide to show you what sticky sharp is and learn how to make your hooks that way all the time, especially while fishing them. If you are ever lucky enough to have a giant eat the bait, you will be connected by just the tips of your hooks to a beast that has been shaking unwanted things out of her mouth ever since she was a minnow and got a baby stickleback stuck sideways. Ridding herself of a bait with hooks too dull to penetrate is literally child’s play for a fish like that.
Even at boatside, jumbo muskies tend to eat coming at you. They lunge after the bait in the last few feet of the retrieve, just before you start the turn, or they dart away and come back from a weird angle to strike just as you begin the inside sweep of another turn. You can’t set back into a fish that eats that way. All you can do is try to pull the fish right to the bow of the boat. Apply all the pressure you can. If she stays on and turns away, then set the hook hard. And, sometimes, you just have to take your hat off to a fish. One evening, when I was burning a bucktail over and through the weeds, a bruiser followed into the turn at high speed, engulfing the lure at the perfect spot. I buried the hooks in the corner of her jaw, whereupon she instantly did a somersault and came back up straight at me, mouth open, head shaking violently, practically in the boat. All I could do was keep pressure on her, but now from the opposite side of her head, so I effectively helped pull the bait out of her mouth. That fish handcuffed me with the roll and jump, and completely reversed the direction of the line. It’s a good example of why you don’t want them to jump.
A muskie that jumps can make far more rapid and powerful head shakes than one fighting the water resistance. The bait thrashes through the air, eventually finding the angle that pulls the hooks loose. When a fish jumps far from the boat, keep the line tight, pray, and hope you’ve been leading a good life. If she jumps near the boat, though, there are a few things you can do about it.
In the instant the fish jumps, you should be going to your knees and forcibly pulling her down out of the air and back into the lake. The second she hits the water, get into free-spool with your thumb on the line and let her go down and away from the boat against moderate pressure. If you cinch up on her, she’s likely to jump again, or turn her head toward you and start thrashing, which is almost as bad.
In fact, the best thing to do is avoid having the fish jump at all, an outcome you can facilitate by letting her run as soon as you have gotten a good hookset. The difficulty with this is that it’s hard to disengage most reels with the full pressure of a big fish on the line, and you might backlash if you aren’t careful. Some people solve this by going into free-spool as they start their boatside turns. They clamp hard on the line with their thumb to set the hook and can then easily let a fish run; but I like the freedom to change hand positions as I make boatside turns, making that approach impracticable for me. You might back off your drag setting to where a hooked fish can power line off the reel, but a light drag will mean a poor hookset on a fish that eats away from the boat. For me, the best solution is to run a firm drag, hit the fish hard, and instantly go into free spool before the fish puts all its muscle into fighting the line. Once she fights her way down about twenty feet against my thumb pressure, I put the reel in gear and begin to fight her with confidence. Setting the hook on a big muskie at boatside is one of the most exciting things you can do in freshwater fishing, and it’s an invitation to chaos, so you’d better have a plan for what you are going to do when all hell breaks loose in the next moment.