Talk of boatside strikes conjures up memories of muskies inhaling a bucktail at our feet, largely because their composition, retrieve style, and hook placement make them a dynamic figure-eight choice. For the same reasons, crankbaits/minnowbaits and prop-style topwaters are other high producers.
What about other lure styles? Muskies also provide boatside opportunities with lure styles that may not excel in the figure-eight. Therefore, we must tailor our boatside maneuvers specifically to each lure styles.
For this piece, I will address boatside maneuvers for lures in the gray area of swimbait/jerkbait/pullbait – whatever terminology you care to call lures like a BullDawg, HardHead, Medussa, Royal Orba, and so on. Let’s compare bucktails and plastics on two levels – retrieve style and lure composition – to better understand what’s required.
Bucktails will be cranked in with a straight retrieve. Speed may or may not be constant, but the bait will be moving forward to some degree. Trailing muskies will often closely follow, nosing on the business-end of the bait when aggressive. In this stalk mode they are waiting for the bucktail to do something different from what it has done throughout the retrieve, be it a side-to-side directional change, a speed change, or a depth change.
Conversely, plastics are rarely fished with a straight retrieve. Pull-pause or ripping tactics are most common. Muskies are likely to hang back with these presentation styles, carefully monitoring the cadence of each incurring rod twitch, timing the opportune moment to strike. Muskies are seldom “glued” to the tail of a plastic.
Bucktails are streamlined. Their components – a clevis or two to affix the blade(s); a few beads, body, and weight; and skirt material – are in line with the wire shaft. Hooks are placed somewhere in the skirt. With a follower pinned to bucktail, often it is simply a matter of executing a large, fluid turn that allows a musky to remain in contact until it decides to overtake the back treble.
Plastics, in stark contrast, are big-bodied, feature a long tail, and have hooks positioned near the head and the middle of the bait. A musky eating a plastic tail-first, as in the bucktail scenario above, would need to engulf the bait to be hooked. Fewer hook-ups are the result, and when the fish is hooked, it’s often deeply.
So, what does an ideal figure-eight with a plastic look like? I break from the traditional figure-eight or oval and instead focus on a boatside manipulation that resembles a rectangle. The key is to create "corners" with pronounced transitions between the straightaways and turns, yielding sharper, near-90-degree directional changes. I want the fish to eat while the bait is moving between the corners.
As the lure approaches, I lower the rod tip and increase speed as with a bucktail – this speed and directional change simulates a fleeing baitfish and pulls focus away from the boat. Most importantly, it lessens the chance of the fish eating my rubber bait tail-first.
When the bait hits the boatside/inside corner, I make a sharp, near-90-degree change in direction to enter the turn. This differs from the sweeping motion made with a bucktail. Instead, this action reroutes the bait straight out from the boat, between the corners. To prolong the duration between the corners, impart a few short twitches to incrementally hop the lure forward.
If the bait reaches the lakeside/outside corner, proceed into the straightaway. No need to take the “rectangle” too literally; you can continue to cross in the middle, as you would with a standard figure-eight. Doing so established a directional change, while bringing the lure to the boatside/inside corner first allows us to execute a larger figure-8 with greater distance between the corners. What’s more, the likelihood of hooking a fish that eats the lure moving away from the boat is far greater than strikes that occur as the lure moves towards the boat, as is the case with one turn of every oval or rectangle.
I work the straightaways with a fast motion, continuing to intentionally play keep-away. Remember, a musky lagging behind a plastic isn't a certain negative so long as it remains engaged and hasn't lost sight of the bait. This becomes a game of monkey-in-the-middle for muskies in hot pursuit. We’re trying to keep the fish positioned away from the lure so that it is able to tail-kick and eat the bait as it travels between the corners. More neutral followers will often sink out of sight, possibly continuing to watch from a distance, any they may re-engage anywhere in the maneuver. Repeat the process as necessary but remember that fish could appear after dozens of laps and minutes of continuous effort, long after many have relinquished hope.
This method most closely resembles the “hang move” triggering tactic made popular by Hall of Fame Angler and LOTW guide, Bill Sandy. In the hang move, the lure is slowed just before it enters each turn, causing it to momentarily hover, allowing a follower to swipe at an easy target.
Our boatside stratagem with rubber is much more emphasized, particularly because our lure allows us to dramatically alter our speed. The one disadvantage to fishing a bucktail is its inability to decrease speed too greatly, because the blades may stop spinning. This isn’t a concern with a plastic so we can really work to keep our bait in the strike zone – again, between the corners in this scenario.
The modified figure-eight described above is a semi-scripted attempt to create an optimal scenario for both ourselves and the fish. Throughout the retrieve, the musky has been lagging behind, timing that perfect moment to strike. That moment hasn't yet occurred naturally, but our maneuver creates that opportunity. It's an inherit belief that muskies are opportunistic, so we’re hoping that follower will to turn into an eater given the chance.
To bring this full-circle, tie in the nature of following fish in relation to the retrieve style of soft baits. With the hang-back tendencies of muskies shadowing plastics, and the speed bursts through each straightaway, we
are able to get away with the sharp directional change at each corner. As the plastic is slowly twitched between these two points, it is positioned perpendicular to the fish and is displayed at its largest profile. This plays to the anatomy of our quarry; eye location restricts field of view to the space in front of them and upward. With the bait stalled in plain sight, a fish that finally commits shouldn’t whiff.
Presenting the plastic perpendicular to the musky prevents it from devouring our offering tail-first during the maneuver. Instead, we’re inviting that follower to take a shot at a broadside target where you can expect a better strike. Headshot or T-bone, the odds of the fish connecting with hooks are greatly in our favor.
I set back into the fish with a plastic, but I’m relying on the effectiveness of the boatside tactic so that the fish eats where the hooks are situated on the bait. Ideally there will be enough hook penetration to last the duration of the battle. With this in mind, it is imperative to use the appropriate tackle so as to keep pressure on a lightly-hooked musky until it can be safely netted.
Longer rods, at least 8-foot-6, load more efficiently than shorter rods. The longer rod is more powerful for strong hooksets and is more forgiving to violent headshakes. The added reach translates into larger eights, ultimately extending the distance between the corners.
The final element to our plastic maneuver is speed which, like a bucktail, must be adjusted to the activity level of the following musky. Though I advocate increasing speed to pull the lure away from the fish, it must be done so with purpose. As previously stated, I want the musky to remain engaged; it needs to see the bait throughout the maneuver for this to be successful. There are no hard-and-fast rules for fish activity, but water clarity and water temperature factor in the speed of your boatside technique.
Though muskies use their lateral line to feed, sight is the key sense. I find it best to slow down at times when water clarity limits their view of my bait. Likewise, since an angler can’t see well into stained water, it’s smart to make multiple figure-eights when in historically-productive spots, or when fish seem active. When temperatures are at their extremes, whether in early spring, near summer peak, or in late-season chill, expect fish to be more sluggish and increasingly likely to hang deeper or trail further behind. During these times it is often beneficial to take a slower, more deliberate approach. Control the speed and give that fish the chance to track the bait.
Boatside success is a culmination of calculated efforts that put you and the fish in advantageous positions. Adjust your movements to guide that chaser into eating at particular areas of the figure-eight.
"Calculated Conversions" was featured in the August/September 2016 issue of Musky Hunter magazine