If there’s a freshwater trophy that can excite every angler, it’s a monster muskie. Esox masquinongy gets its name from the Ojibwe “maashkinoozhe”–meaning “ugly pike,” and just one look reveals that these fish are close kin.
Relatively uncommon and hard to target precisely, there are things you can do to tip the odds in your favor, but patience is number one. Remember, muskie aren’t known as the fish of 10,000 casts for nothing!
But if you’re an experienced pike fisherman, you already know a lot about how to catch these monsters. If not, their ways may be a mystery to you. In either case, we’d like to help you get one of these fierce fighters on your line, and a few tips and techniques I’ve picked up can make a difference.
Want to catch bigger, meaner muskie?
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The natural range of muskie is much smaller than the more common northern pike (Esox lucius), though it’s now been introduced in Maine and other states, increasing its distribution.
Muskie are elongated, torpedo-shaped predators that rely on a mouth full of sharp teeth, keen eyesight, and blazing speed. They prefer to hang-out near vegetation, making full use of their camouflage to pounce on unwary fish.
Muskie are pretty easy to differentiate from pike, despite their similarities. Muskie sport a distinctive pattern of undulating stripes, bending toward spots at the rear. Their tail fins tend to be speckled and more angular than the pike’s, too. And finally, you’ll find 6 to 9 pores on their lower jaw if you look carefully; pike have just 4 to 5.
Usually just two to four feet in length, and weighing in between 15 to 36 pounds, muskie can grow to as much as six feet and 70 pounds, though this is rare. As with most species, females are typically larger than males.
But muskie are slow to grow. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “On average, musky are about 11 inches long after their first year of life, reach 34 [inches] in year 7, reach 40 [inches] in year 9, and reach 50 inches by age 17.” That means that really big ones will be quite old by fish standards, and as wily and wary as the most seasoned bass.
They’re also decimated in their early stages of life.
Muskie spawn a few weeks after pike, making their fry a prime target for these tiny predators. And with birds, mature pike and muskie, bass, and trout in the mix, they take a beating. As a result, they’re far less common than their cousin, the pike, and demand legal protection to keep their numbers sustainable.
As Tim Simonson, a fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources explains, "Musky anglers have definitely been leaders in fishery conservation… Voluntary release of muskellunge has grown steadily since the early 1970s, to the point where many avid musky anglers now release every fish they catch."
In any area where muskie are native and protected, we strongly recommend that you practice catch and release. Protect the future of fishing for the next generation: your kids and grandkids will thank you!
Voracious: that’s the best word to describe these predators. Armed with a cavernous mouth full of rearward-facing teeth, they can take prey up to ⅓ their length. They’re prone to cannibalism as well. Indeed, they’ll eat pretty much anything they can catch: birds, fish, frogs, muskrat--it’s all on the menu!
They wait--motionless--near healthy vegetation, and because they hunt by sight, they like clear water. Most active in the hour or so around dawn and dusk, when they have a relative advantage over less keen-eyed prey, muskie use their impressive speed to snatch food before it knows death has found it.
In addition to vegetation, muskie hunt structure. Points, humps, drop-offs adjacent to weed beds--these are all prime feeding areas, as are the “shallow bars, flats, river mouths, rockpiles [sic], and channel edges” Josh Stevenson, a pro working for the Mighty Musky Guide Service, prefers.
As the water slowly warms to 50 to 60 degrees, muskie will move from depth to the shallows, particularly in southward-facing shallows. Like pike, they also like points where rivers or creeks join the main body of water.
Before the mercury rises that high, muskie will be slowly staging toward those areas, and fishing the edges of them, immediately adjacent to a steep drop-off, can be very productive. But once that magic number has been reached, expect them to be shallow, often in just feet of water.
Early summer finds muskie still in the shallows, hunting weed beds and looking for schools of prey like ciscoe. Where you find food, you’ll find them, too. But as the water warms further, they’ll look for the cooler water away from the shallows.
That’s a good time to target “deeper” structure: points, humps, rock piles, and anything else that gives these brutes access to cooler water while still holding prey items.
The colder the temperatures in the summer, the more likely the muskie are to be active during the day. Conversely, when it’s ridiculously hot, muskie often turn-on after dark, and a slow, systematic topwater strategy can pay off.
As the leaves begin to turn and water temps drop, muskie know that it’s time to pack on as much fat as they can. They’ll return to shallower water, though usually not to the flats they spawned in earlier in the year.
Aggressive presentations can really do the trick in autumn, though favorable water temps mean muskie can be hard to pin down.
Many muskie fishermen swear by braid because its low diameter belies impressive strength. As a result, you’ll often see anglers packing their reels with really strong superlines.
If you ask them why they’ve made this choice, you’ll hear things like improved abrasion resistance and knot strength. In fact, these are really common answers. You’ll also hear nonsense about need a “no-stretch” line for these brutes.
This just isn’t even close to correct--but it does sell a lot of expensive braid!
We’ve taken a close look at line before and dispelled a few myths. If you want all the details, take a look at our “Myths Debunked” article. Suffice it to say that these answers reflect some of the misunderstandings we’d like to correct.
Braid is not very abrasion-resistant. There’s no questioning the tensile strength of braided line, and diameter to diameter, it has no competition from mono or fluorocarbon.
That’s a simple fact.
But tensile strength isn’t a measure of abrasion resistance, and despite being unbelievably strong, braided lines aren’t particularly good at shrugging off nicks and other almost invisible damage.
Take a look at the pic above; that’s already way too much wear to keep casting!
That’s because braid is composed of multiple small strands of super strong material that are woven together to form the final line. If just a few of these strands are compromised by a muskie’s teeth, the line’s breaking strength drops tremendously.
As Gary Poyssick explains, “The fact that braided line is manufactured by wrapping multiple strands over the top of each other means that those strands can separate. When they do separate–and they will whenever something hard scratches the surface in just the right way–they allow water to enter what was a sealed surface. When they open up, the water that gets in wears them, and that wear can result in breaks. Trust us when we say that those stresses will result in big fish getting away.”
In head-to-head testing, braid was inferior to both mono and fluoro in abrasion resistance, diameter to diameter. And while you can improve that by stepping up in weight, the question is why?
Why choose the least abrasion resistance choice and then try to make it better?
Braid has poor knot strength. Because the polyethylene fibers that make up braid don’t bite on themselves very well, it tends to slip under pressure--especially under sudden, extreme force. Knots like the Palomar and San Diego Jam can help, but slippage is always an issue to keep in mind.
In fact, TackleTour’s tests revealed an average knot strength of just 49 percent with a variety of premium braids. For 20 pound test, that means that average line will start to experience knot failure at just 9.8 pounds!
That’s one reason that anglers run super heavy braided lines–they’re compensating for the inherently weak knot strength.
Braid has a place in every angler’s arsenal, however. Sensitive, strong, and low-stretch, it’s a great choice for bass fishing and can work for muskie--especially if you’re running a soft plastic or live bait. But generally speaking, the hard fights that make muskie famous demand a line with some stretch and cushion, and we favor mono for just that reason.
For this big, nasty fish, I recommend quality monofilament like Trilene Big Game. It ties well, offers high knot strength, features great abrasion resistance, and provides supreme shock strength.
In fact, when TackleTour tested the knot strength of Big Game, they found that it broke at 94 percent of its rated tensile strength!
That’s 94 percent knot strength--and no braid can touch that!!!
In terms of abrasion resistance, it’s actually very hard to out-do quality mono. Not only is the nylon it’s composed of generally forgiving of nicks and scratches, it’s also very round, making it harder for a muskie’s teeth to cut.
In short, we just can’t see any good reason to skip mono and throw braid instead.
Whether you opt for braid, fluorocarbon, or mono as your mainline, one thing’s certain: none of it can stand up to a muskie’s teeth. You may get lucky and miss those mouth razors, but most of the time, it’s pretty much game over.
For muskie, just as for pike, a relatively long leader is essential. And just a few inches of leader aren’t enough to keep your mainline clear of its teeth, so I recommend no less than two feet to be sure.
Especially for spooky muskie, one option is to run very heavy fluorocarbon leader, like Berkley’s 100-pound muskie leaders. While no more invisible than mono, flourocarbon is stiff and sensitive, and years of use in this capacity have demonstrated that it’s excellent leader material.
Another option is very heavy mono, 80-pound or more. Trilene Big Game is available in that test up to 130 pounds, and it makes excellent, nearly invisible leader--at a fraction of the cost of fluorocarbon.
But as too many anglers can attest, there’s really only one sure way to protect your mainline from a muskie’s teeth: metal.
There are plenty of excellent metal options, including Rio’s tapered leader, which is a single strand of knotable wire coated in nylon.
If you prefer to tie your own, I like the Terminator Titanium knottable wire. It’s easy to use, and if you find a muskie that can tear through titanium…well…I suggest you stay away from the water!
If you want to learn how to tie your own leaders, Ryan DeChaine from Wired2Fish offers clear instructions:
Muskie aren’t shy! As unrivaled apex predators, they’re looking for an easy, big meal any time they can get one. I play to this aggression, and I like to throw soft baits in the neighborhood of 5 inches, as well as crankbaits and jerkbaits in the range of 3 ¼ to 4 inches or even larger. If you’re fishing with live or dead bait, bigger is almost always better, too.
The hooks that come on your lures may seem plenty sharp, but they’re usually a budget option to keep costs low for the manufacturer. And if you’re using mono, to compensate for the stretch, I like to replace my hooks with the sharpest options I can.
One tip you can pick up from the pros is to trade your factory treble hooks with premium quality alternatives like Gamakatsu. Subtly different in shape, premium hooks improve set and keep fish locked to your line far better than the bargain options.
This is especially important when you’re running a single hook, as you do with soft plastics.
When you can see a muskie following your lure, but it just won’t take it, stop and try a figure eight. 9 times out of 10, that’ll trigger a strike.
Bucktail spinners, indeed any dressed spinner, are magic on muskie. Combining irresistible action with flash and vibration, they’re a go-to choice in any season. And because they can be worked quickly and thrown for a country mile, you can cover a lot of water in no time.
Check out our top recommendations for musky lures
Three of my favorites use a slightly different construction to achieve a similar effect.
The Musky Double Showgirl is a big, treble-hooked spinner sporting two fat #8 blades. Extra vibration, twice the flutter, and plenty of skirt make this a top pick for burning over and around weed beds.
The Shumway Flasher takes the maribou style to the next level, offering a big, fuzzy body and two spinners to excite a muskie’s lateral line. I love this lure, and it’s proven its effectiveness time and time again.
Last, but most assuredly not least, is the BigTooth Tackle Straight-Wire. A double-hooked design, it used a long blade and skirt and a soft plastic body with a wriggling tail to entice strikes. And whether a muskie takes it up near the blade or down by the tail, it’ll find one of those sharp hooks.
Savvy pike anglers know how effective this can be, and here, the similarities between pike and muskie are on your side!
A large tube jig, normally fished for bass, can be rigged on a heavy jig head, resulting in one of the deadliest muskie combos around. We particularly like the 4 ½-inch No products found. rigged on a ¼ ounce YUMbrella Money Head. When fished immediately next to a weed bed, the muskie rush in to grab what they think are young fish darting from cover.
And when you’re working rock piles, drop-offs, and humps, jigging these bad boys at the right depth can be murder.
Big Zoom Super Flukes on a 5/0 hook, suspended 18 to 24 inches below a large barrel swivel, can be muskie gold. With a substantial leader between that swivel and the hook, you’ve got assurance against its teeth and a wriggling meal that just can’t be ignored.
When the heat’s really on, topwater action can be killer. Especially after dusk, a slow, steady topwater lure with a propeller can elicit muskie to hit with a vengeance.
One of my favorite muskie lures is the River2Sea Whopper Plopper, a hyper-realistic pop lure that sends vibrations screaming toward the muskie’s lateral lines. Resist the urge to burn this guy across the water, and you’ll be amazed by how effective it can be.
As veteran anglers on the Great Lakes will confirm, patience is essential when fishing for muskie. Not as prolific as pike, and slower growing, you’ll need more than a few casts--and some luck on your side--to catch one of these monsters. But once you do, you’ll have caught the fever!
I hope these tips and techniques help you catch a real trophy, and if they work for you, or you have something you’d like to add, please leave a comment below.