Three Keys for Muskie Fishing

Use these three keys to put more muskies on the line

I really enjoy teaching people how to catch more muskies. I started teaching muskie schools with my good friend, Joe Bucher, back in 1982. When Joe decided to stop teaching his muskie schools, Steve Heiting and I started the University of Esox in 1996. Through the years, I have fished with many muskie anglers of different skill levels. Many of the students have become excellent muskie anglers. Some are even top guides and tournament anglers. What is interesting is that, having taught fishing schools for 35 years, there are three keys that many muskie anglers continue to overlook. Instead, they focus on a specific lure technique such as working a glider jerkbait, or ripping a big soft plastic. Plus, every year there seems to be a new “magic lure” that brings eternal muskie hope.

However, as any seasoned muskie angler knows, there is no such thing as magic. Although developing lure techniques will make you a better muskie angler, there are three skills that most anglers don’t take as seriously. Yet, over the long haul, perfecting this trio will put more muskies in your boat than any one lure technique. The three must-have skills are casting, figure 8s and boat control. Let’s examine the importance of each.

1. Casting

Most muskie anglers I encounter are pretty good with a baitcaster, but they could become much better. Also, since we often make long casts to non-specific targets, muskie anglers aren’t nearly as accurate as bass anglers are at hitting targets. It is extremely important to focus on reducing backlashes with your reel. Plus, you need to be able to make both long casts as well as shorter, more accurate casts. How many backlashes do you get in a day? If you answer more than a handful, your casting needs some work. Actually, with today’s reels’ brake systems and magnetic cast controls, your goal should be to have only a handful of backlashes each season!

Three keys to casting greatness

First, pop out all of the brakes on your reel. Muskie lures are heavy and pull the line from the spool, so you won’t lose any noticeable casting distance by doing this. Then, adjust the cast control to let the line easily flow off the spool.

Next, if you are right-handed, you should begin your cast with the reel handle pointed at the sky. The most common reason for backlash is improper reel position at the beginning of the cast. If you are left-handed, you should start with your reel handles pointed down. Most anglers start their casts with the reel handle pointed to the side. This puts you in the wrong position and adds more pressure to your thumb. Start with your handle up, and use your wrist more. This places less pressure on your thumb to control the cast, which results in fewer backlashes.

Backlashes can result in lost lures on a windy day when fishing around rocks or other dangerous shallow cover. Further, backlashes damage your line. They can weaken even 100-pound braid. Multiple backlashes can result in the line breaking on a hookset, or even another backlash. This can cause you to lose a lure or, even worse, a muskie. Concentrate on your casting position and focus on what you are doing and you’ll significantly reduce backlashes.

Lastly, try and become more accurate with your casts. When casting, even to open water, pick an imaginary target to land your lure. Make long casts as well as short casts. Further, when casting close to cover, pick precise spots as targets. Compete with your boat partner. It’s amazing how quickly your casting accuracy can improve. This ultimately results in more muskies. You can cast to weed edges and pockets, resulting in less lure fouling and more strikes. Muskie fishing is a game of percentages. Throughout a long day, more casts without backlashes and without fouling in weeds or rocks produce more strikes.

Figure 8s

Many articles and videos, as well as “The Musky Hunter” television show, can teach you how to execute a proper figure 8 with a lure at boat-side. Every year, I meet many muskie anglers, particularly beginners, who don’t believe it really works. More experienced anglers who don’t catch muskies with figure 8s… well, let’s just say that I am willing to bet their figure 8s need some work.

Figure 8s take focus. You have to anticipate the lure getting close to the boat and make the first turn big and fast. Then, move along the straight-away and make another turn. You typically only need 12 to 18 inches of line between the lure and the rod tip.

Another pro tip: the bigger the bait, the harder the muskies will hit it! Check out our article on slab baits and big muskies.

Three keys to figure 8s:

A longer rod, such as an 8’6” Shimano Compre, helps you make those big turns. I tell people to figure 8 the lure and not the rod. This keeps the lure moving in the water. You don’t want to ruin the action. Keep the muskie’s interest. Also, don’t be afraid to go deeper or shallower with the figure 8 if the muskie maintains interest and keeps following.

I try to remain calm and watch how the fish is responding during the figure 8. If the fish follows a fast turn quickly, I move the lure along in the straight path and go into the next turn. However, I use a slight hesitation move of the lure at the end of the turn. It’s not a pause or stop, but a hesitation or split-second hang. If you are fishing a Cowgirl, you’ll see the flashaboo flare for a second. Then, move back into the straight portion of the figure 8.

Quite often, the hesitation move results in a strike or the muskie might snap and miss the lure. Repeat the hesitation on the next turn, slowing down slightly and the muskie is yours. If the muskie drops back from the lure, go slower and deeper with the figure 8. Quite often, the muskie might disappear and then reappear 30 seconds later and bite. So, don’t quit on a slow or deep follow!

Think about those tough days on the water with minimal follows, where it seems like there are no muskies in the lake. Where do you usually get a strike? At boat-side! You have to remain focused and committed to the figure 8 on every cast. The one bite you most likely will get on those tough days is a figure 8 strike. That’s why I believe practicing and focusing on the figure 8 is more important than learning any specific lure technique.

Boat control

We have all heard the cliché that you have to make the right cast to the right spot to catch a fish. Well, making that cast relies upon boat control. If your boat is too close to the cover or too far away from the cover, you won’t catch muskies. You must visualize how a spot looks, where the muskies might be located and then decide how to fish the spot. Most of the time, I work into the wind and use my trolling motor to slowly work the area.

If I have a follow or find an area where I want to make a couple extra casts, I simply step off the trolling motor and the wind lets me drift away from the spot and make more casts. Or, I’ll hit the anchor lock button on my MotorGuide Xi5 and hold the position. Most importantly, I’ll use my Lowrance GPS to mark the spot to be able to precisely return to the area later in the day. With today’s sonar, GPS, trolling motors—and a little effort—you can become much better with boat control, and make the right cast to the right spot.

Anyone can work the boat on calm days, but it’s the windy days when boat control makes a difference. Good boat control is the great equalizer.

These three keys may seem fundamental (because they are), but they are the building blocks for a successful season. Think about these three keys: how you cast, figure 8 and control your boat. If you strive to get better this season, I’ll guarantee you’ll catch more muskies!

If you want to learn even more about muskie fishing, be sure to check Musky Hunter magazine or Also, watch “The Musky Hunter” television show, which begins January 6, 2018. You’ll see 13 straight weeks of pure muskie fishing every Saturday morning from the comfort of your own home. You can bet these three keys will figure strongly in their success!