Though I enjoy the pleasures that summer brings, the recent spell of hot weather has me looking forward to fall, and while the thermometer would suggest otherwise, it is a mere couple months away. One of fall’s fine options is vertical jigging for muskies in rivers.
By vertical jigging I’m referring to classic jig-and-minnow combos and vibrating metal blade baits. These two offerings are well-suited for jigging just off the bottom as the boat drifts slowly through the deep holes where gamefish such as muskies gather up during the fall months. During fall and early winter of 2019-20, when mild weather conditions prevailed, I was on the Allegheny River (the impounded lower Allegheny and free-flowing middle Allegheny) dozens of times. During those outings — which were primarily aimed at walleyes — we hooked muskies, in some cases multiple muskies, on roughly two-thirds of them.
Myself and my boat partners have landed muskies up to 48 inches vertically a variety of leadhead jigs and blade baits. Jigs have included bucktail jigs as well as ones dressed/tipped with plastics and live minnows. Blade baits have typically been half-ounce versions of the Silver Buddy design.
Knowing musky encounters are likely while vertically jigging river holes, there are a few things you can do to up the odds that you’ll get them into the boat. First off, let me say that I’ve experienced relatively few bite-offs from muskies. Typically, they are lip-hooked, having likely simply clamped down on the jig or blade as it drifted by. Hits are generally light, not unlike the subtle tap of a walleye take.
Still, bite-offs do occasionally occur. For musky protection I’ll often up the leader material to 20-pound test from the 10-pound test I typically use. Admittedly, 20-pound fluorocarbon is not going to prevent a hard-fighting musky, one hooked down in the roof of the mouth, from shredding line that rakes across its canine teeth and brush-like tongue teeth. But in cold water musky battles usually don’t include head shaking violence, but rather a series of powerful runs that shorten as the fish is brought boat side.
Another leader option is to use a light wire leader. The stuff I use — 20-pound test single-strand titanium — comes from American Fishing Wire. It is “tie-able” to the extent that it accepts some simple knots eliminating the need for crimps. I use a standard clinch knot, and though it doesn’t set as neatly as with nylon or fluorocarbon line it’s strong and won’t slip. A barrel swivel on one end of the wire leader serves as the braid-to-leader connection. On the terminal end the wire is tied directly to the jig, or in the case of a blade bait, to a snap. Leader length is 12 to 18 inches.
With either wire or fluorocarbon line the goal is to achieve a fair degree of protection from bite-offs without hampering the action of the jig/blade, which could reduce walleye bites.
The other major consideration comes in handling a musky once it’s boatside. This is not a major issue for properly equipped musky anglers specifically targeting the species, but it is for walleye anglers likely to encounter muskies. Walleye-sized nets won’t handle a good-sized musky, and if the musky is small enough to fit in a net, if that net has a rubber bag, the fish can use the springy material to catapult itself back out like a trampoline. Standard musky nets are huge, cumbersome devices that take up a significant amount of the boat, the bag grabbing anything that comes by.
I’ve found two good alternatives to the classic musky net: one, a musky cradle such as the Pro Tech Musky Cradle from Frabill; the other, a folding net, specifically the Stowmaster TS94IM.
The cradle wraps up like an oversized minnow seine and takes little boat space. When put into service it’s held in the water, parallel to the surface, with the musky led into it. The downside is that it takes two people to use it. And you must be careful when lifting the musky into the boat not to allow the open end of the cradle to dip or the fish can slide out back into the river.
The hoop of the folding net hinges so it can fold in half like a clam. The handle retracts into the hoop. Stowed as such the entire package takes little space in the boat and deploys for service in seconds.