Live bait fishing is not often the first technique that pops into an angler’s head when thinking about muskie fishing. However, under certain conditions it can be the absolute best way to go, particularly in the cool water periods of early spring, late fall, or in severe cold front situations.
Every season, many nice muskies are taken using live bait, with the occasional bonus of a big pike. However, there are some serious precautions an angler must take when using live bait as there is tremendous potential to kill a lot of fish. Thankfully, though, this has taken a real turnaround in the last few years. More education and peer pressure is needed to eliminate mortality caused by live bait completely, but things are certainly headed in that direction. And, the good news is, it is possible to achieve 100% releasability with live bait, if some simple rules are followed.
Realize that if you allow esox to swallow the hook, you have killed them, and this includes undersized fish too. Live baits (and any deadbaits for that matter) must be used with quick-strike rigging. To insure a clean release (and to increase hooking percentages) immediate hooksetting is a must.
In choosing good live baits (we’ll focus on suckers because they are the predominate live bait used for pike and muskies) for quick-strike use, baits ranging in size from 12 to 17 inches are the easiest to manage when it comes to handling the bait and installing the rigging. They provide a good-sized target that will attract a large size range of esox, including those of exceptional size. Smaller baits can work too, though, as can larger baits. And sometimes you are left without a choice, due to availability.
There are several different types of quick-strike rigs on the market these days. It still seems that the majority of these incorporate a leader system on which there is an adjustable front hook (either treble or single) to be attached to the front of the bait (usually the lip) and then a stinger hook or hooks in the rear. There are also a couple of rigs that have a rubber band system that eliminates any necessity for a front hook. A rubber band system provides more built-in safety for the fish and better hooking percentages. The key to quick-strike rig effectiveness is in the whole rig breaking free cleanly from the bait, and then into the mouth of the fish.
Once the critter has been rigged, there are lots of ways to present baits. They can be vertically presented over the side of the boat, which works very well on breaklines and for any deeper situations. They can also be suspended below a float (bobber) to run over vegetation or other shallow structure. Concentrate on edges with live bait though, since this truly seems to be where it is most effective.
Finally, hooksets are very important for success with these rigs. Heavy tackle is a must. You must have enough force and snap to break the rig free from the bait and drive the hooks into the fish. Use a quality, low-stretch super braid line in a minimum of 80 pound test. Set the hook hard, with snap, as soon as you can.
Using these rigs, with proper rigging and setting the hook as described, it is possible to hook well over 80% of the fish that take, and they’ll be totally releasable. If you set immediately, hooks will always be in the mouth. It can work when other methods don’t, and its fun too. Do it right and it’s a neat method. Do it wrong though, and you kill fish!
As mentioned above, heavy tackle is a must when bait fishing for muskies and pike. Beefy heavy-action rods in the 7 to 8 foot range and no-stretch braided line in the 80 to 100 pound test class are ideal. Tackle like this ensures you can break the quick-strike rig free of the bait and drive the hooks home when you set the hook. I’ve come to rely on lines like Spiderwire Stealth in 100 or even 150 pound test to get the job done. The heavy line holds up well to the hard hooksets needed to make these quick-strike rigs work.
If you choose to tie up your own quick-strike rigs, as many anglers do, I’d suggest making them with nothing less than 90 pound test Sevenstrand uncoated wire. This stuff is tough, yet very flexible and is a great leader and quick-strike rig material.