Making Wise Bait Choices
Jan 6th, 2006 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Jan 6th, 2006 at 12:00 AM
What am I doing with more than 300 baits in my boat? That is a question I asked myself during one of my much too infrequent mid-season boat cleanings. I had baits in my Lakewood, in planos, stuffed in storages, scattered on my deck and on the floor. I even found some in my livewell. I know I need to have options, but do I really need 300 of them? If you are anything at all like me, you are just as much a lure collector as you are a musky fisherman. Out of all those baits we cart around in the boat, which one is the muskie going to be looking for today? With all the choices we give ourselves, what are the odds we will choose the right bait? If you pay attention to the season and water temperature trends, odds are actually pretty good. The season and water temperature trends are the two main influences on my bait choice. Each and every lake has it own idiosyncrasies, but these are the two main variables in lure selection.There are many rules of thumb you can use to get in the ballpark when choosing your baits. Each season has its old stand-bys. During spring, the smart money is on smaller twitch baits, gliders and bucktails. Summer means cranks, bigger bucktails and topwater. As the year progresses, more jerkbaits and plastics are added to the mix, and bucktails and topwater gradually disappear from the rotation. Using these seasonal rules of thumb, you can narrow your choices down considerably, but there are still a lot of options to sort out to decipher which bait the fish of your dreams wants to eat. Watching the water temperature trends can help you narrow down your choices. Spring
Spring is without a doubt the most water temperature-sensitive time of year. The fish are recuperating from the rigors of the spawn, and warming water will reinvigorate them. This is the first time of the year the majority of the fish will go into the chase mode. Because of this, any rising of the water temperature in the spring gets me thinking bucktails. Bucktails may not be the sexiest bait out there, but year in and year out they put more fish in my boat than any other bait. They hook extremely well and cover a lot of water. This makes for an efficient bait whenever the water temperature is steady or on the rise. I always start small in the spring when choosing bucktails. I like to use a Mepps #5, and a new option that I had great success with this past spring, the new Mepps #5 Marabou. When there’s a drastic warm-up, I am not afraid to bring out the full-sized tails. A good complement to the bucktail under these conditions in the spring is a tail-spinning topwater. I have had good luck with prop-baits like the Top Raider early in the spring. There is no need to wait until the ducklings show up–or whatever it is they say to watch for–to start throwing topwater. If you aren’t using topwater in the spring, especially during rising temperatures, you are missing out on fish. A very common scenario in the spring is to have warm days followed by cooler nights. When launching your boat in the morning, you are likely to find that the water cooled several degrees overnight, and the fish that were chasing bucktails yesterday seem just a bit sluggish today. Whenever I see a situation like this, I grab a twitch bait. In the spring I nearly always start with the smaller twitch baits in the 5 to 7 inch range. I like baits that suspend a bit on the pauses rather than quickly popping back to the surface. Twitching these baits back to the boat while incorporating several pauses into your retrieve is oftentimes more than these fish can resist. Six-inch Grandma’s and Baby Shallow or Depth Raiders are a few of my favorites. During those days when it starts out cold and just does not look like it is going to warm up again, I have had the best luck working glide baits. Smaller gliders like the 6-inch Reef Hawg or the X-Glide by H2O are very erratic baits that can oftentimes get a neutral or even negative fish’s attention. Once again I incorporate frequent pauses into the retrieve, even more so than with the twitch baits. The pauses serve two purposes with glide baits. The first is to act as a trigger to get any fish that would be following to commit to the bait. The second purpose is to give the fish a stationary target to hit. Glide baits are notoriously bad hookers. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have seen fish swing and miss on these things. By adding these pauses into your retrieve, you are bound to see your hooking percentage rise.SummerWater temperatures pushing into the upper 60s to the 70s usually indicate summer’s arrival. This is the time to pull out your arsenal of full-sized baits. The most efficient bait to use when water temps push into the 70s is once again the bucktail. Much like the spring, the warming water has the fish active and searching for food. Now is not the time to rake every inch of your lake’s structure. The fish are moving, so you should be moving, too. The key to success now is to actively search out aggressive fish. The bucktail is the most efficient tool you have to cover a lot of water in search of these active fish. Not only are these baits good for covering water, they are also very high-percentage hookers. Still great complement to the bucktail is the topwater. I have fished with, and talked to, a lot of people who don’t have confidence in topwater unless it is a low-light condition. If you are only throwing topwater under low-light conditions, you are missing out on a lot of topwater fish. It is not unusual for me to go a week or more at a time in the summer throwing nothing but bucktails and topwater. If water temps are warming or stable, the fish will remain active. You will get more water covered and convert more strikes to hook-ups with these two baits, the end result being more fish in the net. If your summer trips are anything like mine, you are going to be greeted by a cold front. When the water temperatures start to drop in the summer, it is time to leave the run-and-gun mode and slow down. Go back to the areas you were previously seeing fish and start combing the water with full-sized twitch baits and jerk baits. The cooler weather might have taken some of the spunk out of the fish, but they are still catchable. You are no longer trying to cover as much water as you can in a search of active fish; instead, you are trying to coax a fish into eating your bait. Stick with a few of your highest-percentage areas and work them thoroughly with very erratic retrieves, again, incorporating extended pauses into them. Use baits that will make contact with the cover. Run crankbaits into the rocks, spinnerbaits through the weeds or, one of my favorite presentations for these conditions, snaking a 10-inch unweighted Suicks through the weeds. It is amazing the weeds these Suicks will run through without fouling. Presenting a bait in this fashion puts it right in the fish’s face, and sometimes is more than a neutral fish can stand. If the front is pretty extreme, and you lose several degrees of water temperature, don’t be afraid to go back to the smaller versions of these baits. Many a fish has come into my net on a six-inch twitch bait after severe cold fronts in the summer. So far every time the water temperature has fallen, my first choice of baits has been a more erratic presentation style. That is not the case in the late summer cool down. In my area, Northern Wisconsin, this is usually late August or early September. This is the first stretch of cooler nights when water temperatures start to fall off of their summer peaks. This has historically been one of my best topwater periods of the year. I can’t explain the whys of this pattern; I just know that it has happened too consistently over the past few years to be ignored. It seems like every big fish in the lake is susceptible to topwater baits during this period. Twitch baits and jerk baits are also very productive through this timeframe, but I will arm wrestle any one of my boat partners to be the one throwing topwater at this time.Fall
I consider fall officially started as the lake temperatures dip back below 60 degrees. The fall is a wonderful time of the year. Recreational boat traffic dips, fishing pressure lessens and the big fish strap on the feed bag. For that reason alone I use a whole bunch of big baits in the fall and rarely anything that you would straight retrieve. I have found that the most productive fishing in the fall comes with a slow steady decline in the water temperature. During these conditions, fish tend to congregate on the classic breakline structures. These are the times I am looking for the active big girls, and no other bait searches them out better at this time of year than a crankbait. In the fall, the crankbait takes the place of the bucktail as my main search bait whenever I think the fish may be active. Even though I call it a search bait, at this time of the year you have to force yourself to slow down just a bit. You can straight retrieve these baits, but to get the most bang for your buck, I suggest a more erratic retrieve. Crank them down a few feet and start a twitching series. Follow that up with a short pause and repeat. Working a Depth Raider, Triple D, or a 10-inch Jake in this fashion in the fall is the recipe to get bite. A good complement to crankbaits during these conditions is a jerkbait. I tend to go more with chop baits like a Suick or a Bobbie during these conditions because I like their hooking percentages a lot better than glide baits.Inevitably, every fall, we will get an Indian summer. Most people welcome the warm summer-like weather and take advantage of it for their last hurrah outdoors. I cringe every year when faced with such conditions. The rising water temps tend to scatter fish, lessening your odds of contacting them. The best luck I have had during rising water temps in the fall is to resort back to midsummer tactics and start covering water. It goes against most fall fishing philosophies, but faced with an Indian summer, I start to run-and-gun again. I snap on the bucktail and go to work trying to hit as many fishy-looking spots as I can in hopes of finding an active fish. As the fall progresses, and the water temps drop into the 40s I continue to throw crankbaits, but also start leaning toward the glide baits and plastics. When working glide baits during the post turnover fall, I tend to work them very deliberately. Usually I hit them two or three times and follow up with an extended pause. This allows the bait to appear erratic, yet still remain accessible to a lethargic fish. A technique that worked exceptionally well for me last year during these conditions was throwing a magnum Shallow Dawg. Work these baits much like you would a chop bait. The slow drop these baits offer along with the naturally undulating tail really triggered a lot of late season muskies for me. The cooler it gets, the slower I go, using a bunch of pauses in my retrieve. I usually end the year throwing nothing but neutrally buoyant cranks, slow gliders and Shallow Bull Dawgs.As musky fishermen, we tend to do a very good job of over-equipping ourselves. Most of us have more baits in our box than you could possibly throw in a month’s worth of fishing. In order to pick the most efficient tool out of all those choices, we have to take the fish’s attitude into account. The best indicator you have to the musky’s attitude is what the water temperature trend has been for the last couple of days. This year, rather than automatically grabbing the new baits you bought at the shows right away, put a little more thought into your bait choice. I bet you will be amazed at the results.