by Tony Grant
With musky fever hot on your brain, you contemplate your next spring trip to Southern musky water. When you get there, the high waters, rain, and muddy conditions have you re-evaluating your decision to use your vacation days on some early season musky fishing. You remember the stories we have all heard about how someone’s spring trip to a Southern musky hotspot was spoiled by extremely high water. Having heard these stories quite often in my travels to shows, tournaments and seminars across musky country, I have always looked for methods to help my clients overcome these conditions.
Early in my guiding career on Kentucky’s Cave Run Reservoir, I found early spring was the tough time to get on a pattern, as heavy rains almost always foiled our efforts to consistently boat fish. Fortunately, about five years ago, I came across the miracle cure – the bass-style, rattling crankbait. Most hard-core musky fanatics seem to turn their heads at such non-traditional – if not wimpy – baits. Whether water levels are rising or falling, these baits have become my most consistent producers during our pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn periods. In the last five years, our guides have boated over 250 muskies using this extremely successful rattling spring tactic.
Although multiple fish days are very common, the only drawback to this method is that it isn’t a trophy-producing tactic. Most of the fish we boat are 34 to 38 inches with 1 of 10 measuring over 40 inches. However, boating four to six muskies in a day happens more often with rattling lures than any other bait I’ve ever used at this time of year.
HOW THE MIRACLE BAIT CAME ABOUT
My ego wishes I could take credit for discovering this tactic, but I can’t. here’s how we came across this method. In 1995, as owner of Cave Run Musky Guide Service, I employed four or five guides during our busy seasons. One early April day, Bill Burns, a local bass and musky guide, was guiding some avid musky clients to some of the Cave’s smallmouth bass. He told David Christian and myself that his clients had boated three muskies. Our first question (of course) was “On what?” Bill, known as one of the most successful bass anglers around, finally gave up his secret – a gold 1/2 -ounce Rat-L-Trap.
Bill went on to inform us that all three fish had come off shallow flats. If you’ve been to Cave Run you know that about the only thing flat around here is the bottom of a Mason jar of moonshine. Areas that we call flats are just the small heads of hollows or coves – commonly known as hollers – around these parts. In fact, most all of our flats have a somewhat tapered drop. Bill added that his father, who was one of the first guides on Cave Run after its impoundment, always had good luck in the spring using Rat-L-Traps and other similar baits. Using small baits in the spring was no secret to us, but using Rat-L-Traps had never been a proven tactic.
The following day, David called me just before I met my client for the fishing part of a musky-turkey combo hunt, to inform me of three fish his clients boated that morning on the Rat-L-Traps Bill had given him. After rifling through my bass tackle box,, I headed out to meet my client. With only five hours to produce and only one chrome Rat-L-Trap my confidence level was no way near that of David’s. However, I soon found it wasn’t color that day, but the rattle. My client boated a pair of muskies measuring 34 and 36 inches, and I was a believer. The next day, after a 60-mile round trip to Wal-Mart, I hit the water on my own to further test my newly-purchased Rat-L-Traps. The first three muskies I boated were sublegals, so I changed to a ¾-ounce and proceeded to land fish measuring 35, 37, and 38 ½ inches. I determined that the ½-ounce was the choice of smaller fish. I had found my spring miracle bait.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
David and I quickly shared this valuable information with our other guides. At first, not all my fellow guides found this pattern to be quite as productive. They had to find where to apply these baits. Rattle baits weren’t working on points, around lay-downs or standing timber – the key factor was shallow flats near spawning areas.
Knowing your water becomes very important here. Muskies rarely follow these baits to the boat. Therefore, locating fish can be very tough. In fact, I can only recall a couple of fish taken on the figure-8 using these techniques. The most productive flats seemed to be those with a soft, mucky bottom covered with last year’s leaves. Even the smallest flats seem to hold fish. As the days went on, we found that to steadily produce, another ingredient must be added – speed. Several days of dredging up leaves during the retrieve made us speed up our lures, which provoked even more strikes. A fast retrieve was essential for rattling up consistent spring success. Reels with slower gear ratios didn’t have near the amount of strikes. It also took a couple of years to narrow down the exact time to apply this method.
As a group of guides working together, we all keep very detailed records which we share with one another. After numerous hours of nonproductive casting, we found that our water temperature needed to reach 53 degrees before we applied this tactic. The action continues until the water warms to 65 degrees. We also found that as the surface temperature warms into the 60 to 62 degree range, you should increase the size of your Rat-L-Traps to 1 ounce. Since schools of larger shad seem to be predominant over the smaller variety seen at cooler temperatures, this made sense. Always looking for that extra edge, I purchased some Supertraps, only to find that this presentation must have been more than our spring muskies wanted to chew. I’ve used Super-Traps many hours only to boat a single musky.
After reviewing our records, we found that line size was a key factor that we could not ignore. Our statistics proved that a smaller diameter line increased productivity. We spool up with 17- to 20-pound test monofilament, using a 35-pound test leader. This lighter rig seems to give our baits a tighter wiggle and yields a louder rattle. Fear of a musky breaking you off in Cave Run’s enormous amount of wood is not a factor here, as most all of the flats have little or no standing or lay-down timber. Presenting your baits with lighter bass rods adds even more excitement in playing the fish to the boat.
The final factor to consider is color. Color selection can be very difficult during this period. It makes sense to use bright orange or chartreuse, which is always a good choice on muddy Southern waters. Other times a coin toss determines my selection. I then change colors often until a pattern is established. After our success here on Cave Run, we were excited to try this method on other musky waters.
This miracle bait has been very successful on all of Kentucky’s musky fisheries during high water levels as well as normal pool. This is no longer a secret tactic used by a handful of guides. It is now the preferred method of spring musky hunting in the South.
In my travels during the past few years, I’ve found this method works all across musky country when applied in the right areas during the right water temperatures. My good friend and tournament partner Don Pfieffer put these tactics to work on two different Wisconsin lake chains and had great success in producing some fast spring action for clients during all types of conditions this past year. While participating in the Professional Musky Tournament Trail (PMTT) event on Chautauqua Lake in New York, I met a musky hunter who had been producing there using the same tactics. In June, with unusually warm water temperatures, we boated 2 smaller muskies on the Chippewa Flowage. During the PMTT’s Invitational on Lake Kinkaid I was amazed at the numerous flats that would be terrific spots for some spring rattling success.
We all know that there are no miracle bait sin the reality of musky fishing, but this tactic generates the most awesome spring action I’ve ever run across. Too bad it only lasts four to seven weeks. IN talking about this method with other musky anglers, one question usually comes up: “What is the rattling bait imitating to drive these muskies into a feeding frenzy?” I don’t want to put a dark cloud on such a bright spot in my musky fishing success so I don’t have an opinion (probably a first). Several opinions I have heard are the first activity of our crayfish, quick movements of our shad population in and out of the flats, and the swift movements of small bass battling for bed selection. For whatever reason, these rattling baits drive muskies crazy.
I’m just glad to have the confidence these baits give me during a very tough time on the high waters of the South.
Tony Grant runs the Cave Run Muskie Guide Service, the Mountain Muskie Lodge, and the Muskie Shack near Frenchburg, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at http://www.kymuskie.com