Muskie Fishing Basics – Chasing River Dragons

The Muskellunge – the fish of 10,000 cast.

Catching a Muskie is on many people’s bucket list, and most Muskie anglers will tell you it is incredibly addicting to chase these apex predators. However, with great success comes many failures along the way for most anglers seeking to claim the prize of pulling one of these Class A fish out of the water. I have found this out all too well as I was a wide eyed bass fisherman dying to catch one of these myself. 

The first time I encountered a Muskie on the end of my line was the moment I nose-dived right into the Muskie addiction. For years I craved the opportunity to fish for them but had no clue where to go or how to do so. I was very fair-weathered about the idea of pursuing the species because of the distance I would have to travel from home to go after one. Plus, I am primarily a bass fisherman; well, I was anyways. I would only fish when the weather was warm enough the bass would hit. Typically, my fishing routine started after Spring Gobbler and ended around the time Archery opened up. 

Some of you reading this may have already had some success in Muskie fishing and have different tactics that work. I am by no means a professional; however, I have caught 16 Muskie in the last two years and have had plenty come off my line between each successful catch. I am here to give some insight on my successful catches and pass some of the knowledge I have acquired over the last two years onto you. 

I am going to break down what helps me succeed through 5 topics:

  • Gear & Tackle Stereotypes
  • Rod & Reel Setup
  • Go To Lures
  • Netting & Release Gear
  • Handling & Proper Release 

Muskie Fishing Gear and Tackle Stereotypes

I think the most crucial items on the list to talk about, before we discuss fishing tactics, are gear and tackle. If you are like me, the first thing you do to find out what kind of tackle you need to fish with any species you are unfamiliar with is to Google or YouTube insight. Most of the content you will stumble upon will tell you about large lures like Medusas, Muskie Killer spinners, large Jerk baits, etc. to catch big fish. Along with large lures, you will also find additional tackle tips telling you that heavy rod and reel combos and a combination of durable leaders and braid line will be the tickets to success. 

While all this information is true, it is also based on the expectation that you will be fishing from a boat on a large lake either casting or trolling for Muskies. You will also find out rather quickly that if you decide to buy everything that is considered a “must have”, it is very expensive. So make sure you are comparing apples to apple and oranges to oranges by for the location and terrain you are fishing.

I was relatively green and gullible when I began my research and preparation for Muskie fishing. I spent a good chunk of change based on what I read and watched on the internet, hoping that it would set me up for success immediately. I was completely wrong!

Experimentation and grinding away with trial and error have proven to me that you do not have to break the bank to catch these fish. Although, I also do not want you to think you can go to your local Walmart, buy a cheap spinning combo and a few oversized swimbaits and you are set. You will have to spend some money if you want to commit to Muskie fishing; however, I can guide your pocketbook in the right direction, so you will not be spending an insane amount of money searching for these fish. I primarily target smaller bodies of water for these River Dragons rather than larger lakes. In targeting smaller areas, I can downsize from larger lures and tackle to more cost friendly and easier setups.

Muskie Fishing Rod/Reel Setup

We all have preferences in brands, sizes, and types of combos we use. My personal preference I have found reliable for catching these large fish include: 7’ Medium Action Uglystik, Pflueger President Spinning Reel series model 35x, Powerpro 30lb braid, and Berkley 6” 30lb black leaders. This setup has been my money maker! Over half the Muskies I have caught have been on this combination of tackle. I have other rods and reels that I use, but this combo is by far the most cost efficient one I own. 

Fishing smaller bodies of water allows me to cast into tight areas, work lures appropriately and have a solid hook set without worries of my line breaking or the teeth of a Muskie slicing through it. If you are fishing from a boat or in a large body of water where larger lures can be applied, you can upsize your gear. I know many people who use higher poundage braid and longer rods; however, I have had little issue using essentially bass gear with a little bit of an upgrade. 

My Go-To Lures for Muskies

There is a joke that floats around the Muskie angling community that Bass fishermen catch more Muskies than Muskie fishermen. This statement is more accurate than most people think. I have found out firsthand that you do not need to use massive 10+” lures to catch monster muskies. Depending on the waterways, time of the year, and mood of the fish, you can have great success catching Muskies on smaller lures that you would primarily use for Bass fishing. 

If I were to give you a percentage on the amount of Muskie strikes I have had on Bass lures vs Muskie lures I would say roughly 75% of my hits came on a Bass lure. This is great news for beginners, simply because the price of bass lures is significantly lower than that of Muskie lures. You can absolutely find success in using lures you already have in your tackle box before having to spend money on the big ones. Time of the year will factor into how successful certain lures are than others, but for now I will break down a few of my go to lures for Muskies in small bodies of water.

My absolute go to lure in all types of weather is a swim jig with a craw trailer. I typically fish creeks or shallow water with this lure. A light version has found the most success, typically ranging between ⅛ ounce and ½ ounce. My preferred color is Black and Blue combination however depending on water clarity the color variation will change.

My go to jig is the Terminator series by Rapala.  These jigs have durable hooks, great coloration in the skirts, and an added rattle for noise. The swim jig is a versatile lure that can be used many ways, bass fishermen know this lure can change a day of fishing when used right. Well, I can tell you it is the same for Muskies and when I am having a slow day casting with little reaction from the fish, I grab a swim jig. 

The two ways I primarily fish with a jig for Muskies is either slow jigging along structure or steady retrieve with a few stops and goes if I see aggressive activity with the Muskies. Muskies can be a finicky fish at times. I have spent hours targeting them some days with zero interest in swimbaits, crankbaits, chatterbaits, and topwater lures, but as soon as I throw a jig in the mix it has turned a skunk day into a day with a Muskie in hand!

Another bait I have found success with, primarily in spring and fall, is a swimbait. Swimbaits spark fire in water at the right time of the year. Downsizing to a 4” swimbait during spawn or upsizing to 6”+ in the fall feeding time could result in you catching a monster Muskie. 

My biggest Muskie to date (46”, ~30lbs) came this spring out of a creek fishing with a white 4” swimbait on a ⅛ jig head. A slow steady retrieve has landed me 5 muskies this year in early spring.

My advice when searching for the right swimbait is find one with great tail action. The more life like it looks in the water on a steady retrieve the better chance of a hook up. Keitech swimbaits offer a great swimbait and it is my personal favorite to use for Muskies and Walleye in early season. For fall, larger swimbaits like the Medusa series lures or Pan fish style lures will spike success rates up as Muskies are looking for a larger meal to prepare for winter. A slow retrieve in the Spring and an aggressive faster retrieve in the Fall are keys to getting the bite to happen. The downside to this swimbait is with the teeth of a Muskie, typically after one hookset you will need to replace the swimbait with a new one. 

I can list a half dozen more lures that can be used to fish for Muskies but to not overwhelm anyone I am going to recommend just two more that I have had success with. The first of the two is a whopper plopper. The whopper plopper has long been used in both Bass and Muskie fishing. This lure is great to use when fish push shallow but also in deeper water. Muskies like to attack from below when given the opportunity, so do not be afraid to throw this in deeper water around first light or dusk. A blow-up attack from a Muskie on the surface of the water cannot be compared to anything else. When you have a Muskie hit a lure on the surface it is absolute chaos and even if it misses it is still a sight to see. 

The last lure I want to recommend is from Mepps. The Mepps Musky Killer bucktail spinner is a great lure to use in all types of water. Smaller than other versions Mepps offers, it can be used on lighter setups and perform greatly. A steady retrieve along a shoreline or cover can spark a Muskie to follow and ultimately snatch it up. These lures run a little more expensive than a few listed above however it is not a bad idea to have two or three in your tackle box. My personal favorite is the orange and black colored spinner. Most bodies of water I fish are muddy with little clarity and the color combination of orange and black has proven to be successful. The last Muskie I caught on this lure was 36” and hit it as I was retrieving it from downed logs on the other side of the creek. 

Netting and Release Gear

In my honest opinion, this is the most overlooked component of Muskie fishing and handling. I will admit that I too had fallen victim to not fully investing in the proper gear needed to handle Muskies after the hook set. It is crucial to have the proper tools with you to handle Muskies after reeling them to the bank or boat. 

The first thing to acquire is a quality net that not only is big enough to handle a fish of 40” or more, but also durable enough to hold the weight. I went through three nets before finding two quality nets that have proven to be durable enough to safely handle a Muskie. My bank fishing net is a Landing net by Ranger Nets with pole extension and my kayaking net is a Wade Trout Net by Frabill with a teardrop rubber basket that stretches to the weight of the fish. 

I cannot stress enough how crucial a good net is when it comes to fishing for these large fish. The ranger net provides a wide and deep basket that allows me to scoop a Muskie in from the bank or a drop off on a slope if caught in a tight area on a creek. The Frabill net is perfect for kayak fishing because it takes up little room, has a clip on the handle to attach onto the kayak, and allows me to one hand scoop a fish once it is close to my kayak. 

There is an abundance of nets on the market you can choose from, but I suggest researching and finding the right net for how you plan on fishing. Quality is key and you do not want to lose the fish of a lifetime because your net broke while trying to land it! 

Another important reason to have a quality net is that it ensures safer handling of these fish. Muskies are beasts in the water, but they are also very fragile when it comes to handling. A good net will ensure your catch and the survival of the fish! 

Next items to invest in are a good pair of long pliers and hook cutters. It is an unwritten rule to release a Muskie after you catch one. Most states have regulations on size limits and typically anything under 40” needs to be released back into the water. However, most anglers release all Muskies back to the water as a sign of respect to these monstrous predators. With wanting to release these fish in a state almost as well as you caught it in, you are going to need some tools with you or you may end up hurting the fish or worse… get hurt yourself. For anyone who does not know, Muskies have sharp, large teeth. Careful handling of these fish is very important and sometimes a simple pop out of the hook is just not feasible once netted. 

Pliers, preferably longnose, can help get a hook out of the fish without having to do much handling. If a Muskie has completely engulfed your bait and risk of hurting the fish by removing the hook(s) is high, a good set of cutters is a must. Using hook cutters to snap a hook lodged in a Muskies mouth will leave minimal damage and the hook can ultimately be replaced. Cutting the hook off the lure as close to the point of contact possible will increase the fish’s survival rate tremendously.

When it comes to the handling of a Muskie for a photo opportunity gloves are recommended but not necessarily needed. When I first got started and began catching Muskies, I would wear a glove on my hand that would be around the fish’s head to help prevent an unexpected bite. I suggest wearing gloves until you feel comfortable holding Muskies without them. Simple fishing gloves with grip texture will work fine when handling these fish. Lastly, this is a suggestion but not a necessity, measuring tape or a large ruler is nice to have to get an accurate length on the fish. Typically, most anglers only worry about measuring Muskies rather than weighing them. A few reasons for this are that trophy Muskies are measured by length and rarely by weight, and by just measuring a fish you are not adding any unnecessary stress to the fish while it is temporarily out of the water.

Handling and Proper Release for Muskies  

I will be making a future blog about Muskie fishing tactics, target locations, and tips but the last thing for this blog I want to discuss is the handling and releasing of the fish. Muskies can be fun and exciting to fight against and catch. Made mostly of pure muscle, Muskies can give you the most epic battle when hooked. But with an epic experience in the catch it does take its toll on the fish. Muskies are tough fish; however, improper handling can seriously damage or even kill the fish. 

When catching a Muskie, especially in warmer weather, it is crucial to handle the fish with the utmost respect and care. If you find yourself successfully netting a Muskie, it is ideal to keep the fish in the water as much as possible while prepping for release. This allows the fish to rest and prevents suffocation. 

When you are ready to unhook the fish and get a photo, take the fish out of the net carefully. Grab the Muskie by the head, placing your hand underneath its jaw with your thumb pressing onto the top of its mouth, if you are not comfortable doing this without being bit, I recommend gloves. With your other hand you will grab and hold the fish around the tail as you would any other fish, in a horizontal manner or slight angle. Make sure you are not holding the Muskie vertically! If you hold these fish vertically it can really risk damaging their jaws or gill plates as the weight of the fish will be pulling against itself. Also, it is crucial to not handle the fish too much, try to avoid grabbing the fish multiple times. Muskies have a slimy coating on their bodies that helps protect them from bacteria and diseases, it is very important not to disrupt the coating. 

When it is time to release, DO NOT just throw it back into the water like bass or other fish. Muskies are very sensitive when it comes time to release them. To prevent the potential stress that could lead to death for the fish you need to do it right. Taking the Muskie back to the water via net or by hand should be done gently. Allow the fish to sit for a little while in the water and get oxygen back into its body. Hold the fish steady by the tail, do not move the fish back and forth, just let it sit and regain stamina. When the Muskie is ready to be released it will let you know. Typically, the fish will begin attempting to swim while you gently hold its tail. When the fish feels like it is ready to swim off, release your loose grip on the tail and watch the beautiful beast swim back into the depths.

The Wrap-Up 

Muskie fishing is one of a kind. It has its own style and vibe about it that normally leaves anyone who tries it addicted for more. I believe the information I have given from my experiences are good stepping-stones for anyone who looks to start fishing for these River Dragons. I hope you found this helpful and I hope you see some great success on the water! Respect the catch, savor the moment, and release to ensure the future of these awesome fish. Tight lines my friends!

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About Tyler Babinchok

Tyler Babinchok is a die hard outdoor enthusiast from West by God Virginia currently relocated in Pennsylvania. Fishing since the time he could walk, he has experience, knowledge, and stories that are probably relatable to many anglers at any level. Bass fisherman turned Muskie Addict, he currently is dialing in his skills and knowledge in the chase for a Class A muskie. Using his experiences, muskie fishing and other, he wants to share his knowledge of fishing to assist anyone and everyone, new or seasoned in their chase for the big one.