Fishing with Live Bait

Many anglers have never even tried live bait for any species. Where I come from in northwestern Wisconsin, live bait use for musky is a tradition as old as the sport itself. Generally, live bait use is common in the spring, and almost standard procedure for most muskie seekers in the fall. There are those that are either disinterested in live bait use, or simply prefer other tactics. There are also those within the muskie community that are “dead-set” against live bait use.

These folks won’t use it and, they don’t feel anyone else should be using live bait either. I’ve been in the presence of, and once in a while involved in, boisterous discussions on the “do’s, don’ts and whys” on the use of live bait. While I certainly don’t agree that live bait should never be used under any circumstances, or that the use of live bait is, “unfair, unsporting and only for ‘lazy’ people”, one of the concerns anti-live-baiters will offer is legit. That the use of live bait kills musky. Unfortunately, I can’t argue that point. They’re dead right!

Live bait has been a deadly way of fishing for years in the fact that it can be more effective than other methods, such as artificials, but also because it can often result in delayed mortality with released musky and other gamefish. Unfortunately, live bait use is still killing muskies today! The percentage of loss per caught fish may have dropped some, but it is still substantial.

Does it have to be? No way! I am absolutely, positively convinced that the way I now handle live bait use is not only more effective for catching musky than my old methods, it also is accomplished with as close to 100% ‘releasability’ of musky as is possible. Actually, there is less ‘incidental’ damage than is caused by artificials, casting or trolling. In Europe, they have monstrous northern pike that are being recaptured multiple times (up to 10) on quickstrike live/dead bait rigs.

The first step is to get away from the use of single hooks “swallow method” (basically waiting for the fish to ingest the bait, hooking it in the stomach or gullet most of the time). Quickstrike rigging MUST be used exclusively to insure there is no mortality. We’ll discuss proper rigging and use of these rigs later, since improper quickstrike use can be deadly too, but for now, lets talk about some old myths regarding live bait use.

Almost immediately after catch and release fishing became the norm, some concerned folks started developing and using quickstrike rigging. We’ve come a long way with these rigs, but one big problem with the movement to quickstrike rigging was that many realized poor hooking percentages. Because of this, many switched back to the old reliable method of “let ’em swallow”. Uncertainty with these new rigs and their performance stopped many from experimenting further.

As I guide, I used some pretty feeble excuses in justifying my temporary switch-backs to old ways. My excuses were my ‘supposed’ responsibility to have my clients catch the maximum number of fish possible. Then there’s the excuse that quickstrike rigging is often too gaudy, preventing all but the very active musky from hitting. Oh, I also used to say that quickstrike rigs just don’t work with large live baits.

Well, the first excuse may have some merit, but in reality, my job as a fishing ‘teacher’ is more important. A big part of that to me is showing respect for the resource. Teaching potentially fish-damaging methods doesn’t show much responsibility. Number two excuse “may” have some merit, but I’ve found that with proper rigging and smaller hooks it just isn’t true (but makes a good scapegoat on slow days). The third excuse has no merit what so ever, really. I’ve since caught muskie using 20 inch baits with quickstrike rigging; I’ve also found that it really requires three or four pound baits to interest a trophy fish.

I can still remember a conversation some years back with two Muskies Incorporated members following one of our fall meetings. Basically, the conversation involved the fact that I was still using single-hook, swallow rigs on big suckers with my late fall clients and was catching quite a few that way. They were telling me, in as nice a way as they could (since we’re friends), that most of those fish were probably dying, and that, as someone who has a direct influence on others’ tactics, I was providing a poor example.

I can recall assuring them that this wasn’t the case; that if you just clip the leader off at the fish’s jaw and let ’em go, they’re fine. Those hooks don’t really do much damage inside the fish and they deteriorate to nothing in as little as 10 days via stomach acid. (Myth # 1) That was common thinking among those of us still using single hooks. But did any of us really know? I certainly had had my doubts, but had quickly brushed them off. Thinking about the conversation with my friends the next morning while on my way to pick up my clients, my conscience was really gnawing at me.

Common sense told me that the old “cut-the-leader-let-’em-go-and-they’re-just-fine” theory was a bunch of baloney. The fact that a 12/0 single hook and 2 feet of leader material were just going to magically disappear, causing no damage whatsoever in less than 2 weeks basically seemed impossible and, I’m certain it is. I asked myself what I thought of having a couple 12/0 hooks and several feet of sevenstrand down my gullet. The answer came easy.

So, I finally made up my mind to stop it, period. No more second guessing, no more excuses, quickstrike rigging only, and figure out how to get the most I could from this method while making absolutely certain nothing got swallowed by a musky. I figured this was really the only way to go, to be honest with myself, since I really felt I’d rather not catch the musky if I knew killing it is a likely part of the bargain.

I’ve read about several studies done on hooking mortality, mainly with northern pike. The most recent involved striped bass. None of these studies have shown anything positive about hooking, fighting, then leaving the whole rig in the fish’s stomach or gullet. A few survive it, but most don’t, and in every case in these studies, the hooks involved were substantially smaller than what is commonly used for muskie.

The ‘theory’ that it doesn’t hurt them is easily perpetuated, since release is easy and fast (which is certainly desirable). Just snip the leader material, take photos, and let ’em go. The fish easily swims off, upright and under its own power. No blood … no foul ? until later.

In the striped bass study, one group of fish were hooked in the gullet or stomach and released. A control group with no hooks were monitored as well. No surprise to me, the researchers found that big hooks did not rust away in the “120 day” experiment (keep in mind, musky hooks are bigger). Also, it was no surprise that the fish from the control group that were hooked began to die during stressful periods such as high water temperatures. The fish that had no hooks were fine. The researchers felt this delayed mortality was due to bacterial infections associated with the wound from the still embedded hooks. Regardless, the fish with hooks died and the others didn’t.

So, if your common sense doesn’t throw up a red flag for you, the studies should. It’s plain and simple. If you allow fish to swallow single hooks, a good percentage of these fish die. Therefore, if we are staunch in our catch and release ethic, we should avoid allowing musky to swallow hooks at all costs.

Can quickstrike rigging work as well as the old swallow method? Actually, if you make the effort to do it right, it works much better! In addition, no time is wasted waiting and wondering if the fish has swallowed yet. One thing few consider is how valuable 20 to 30 minutes can be spent waiting to make sure the fish swallows. If you’ve done even a “little” muskie fishing, you’ve noted distinct, often short feeding windows. While you are waiting for a fish to swallow (and likely die from it). How many other strike have you missed out on? So, you’ve missed those opportunities on the other fish, plus there’s still a good chance you won’t get the one you’ve been waiting for!

Proper Quickstrike Rigging

This may be old news to some of you since myself and a few others have said it before, but, if the hook system is not rigged so that it will “rip-free-from-the-bait” on the hookset, you won’t hook the fish, PERIOD! This is, without a doubt, the number one reason people fail with quickstrike rigging. Usually the hooks are rigged too heavily into the bait, or, due to stretchy line, whippy rods and wimpy hooksets (or all of the above), the rig does not pull from the bait.

There is nothing simpler. If the muskie still has the live bait crosswise in its mouth after the hookset, it’s not hooked and your system is not working! Think ahead and choose good rigs. Some rigs are really gaudy. The majority currently in the marketplace use an adjustable “front hook” on the leader material, either a treble or a single. They can work if rigged lightly.

But, a method my friend Steve Herbeck pioneered, attaching the stinger hook system to the leader material via a crosslock snap, held in place by a small rubber band through the live bait’s nasal passages is simply the best for several reasons. This way if the muskie has turned the bait into its gullet before the hookset (possible if strike isn’t immediately detected, or if purposefully wait too long), there is no front hook to damage the fish. Most hungry fish will swallow ASAP. The half-hour play period is simply a myth. I’ve held fish close enough to the boat so I could see them eat it. They’ll do it in as little as 10 seconds.

Set the hook IMMEDIATELY following the strike. This insures the fish will not ingest the hook system and results in the best hooking percentages (more later).

If a quickstrike system with a front hook on the leader system is used, place front hook in the meat of the cheek rather than the bony cartilage of the upper lip. This will rip out easier (remember to put a piece of rubber inner tube over barb of front hook to prevent it from falling out). However, Herbeck’s rubber band system is the best way to attach the stinger hook system.

The rubber band system just hooks better. It is also simply a much cleaner system, allowing the bait to swim much more naturally and in general less gaudy. Herbeck has his version of this rig offered by bait rigs. Musky Mania Tackle also has a rig called the “Lift-Off” (a little different) that I designed using Steve’s idea.

There are many different ideas on how to properly rig the stinger hooks. There are two considerations, one of which few consider. The hooks must rip free easily; odds are better if something is done to prevent the treble from re-burying in the live bait on the set (musky won’t get hooked). This is one of the reasons I bend one of the three hook points of a ‘stinger’ treble ninety degrees to the side. This becomes the designated hook to stick into the bait. Simply slide this hook point under the skin and back out (as in diagram/photo). The angle of this bent hook point not only assures that it cannot get stuck in the bait (will easily rip free), it also acts as a pivot, keeping the other two hook points from sticking in the bait when a muskie crunches it.

I prefer to stick with one stinger hook on baits (usually suckers) under 14 inches and a two-stinger system for baits 14 inches and longer. When using a two-stinger system, stagger the length of the stingers from the bait’s head (photo/diagram).

Handling the Hookset

This is simple. Some confusion results from differing opinions regarding handling the set. Everyone claims his or her way is right. I’ve tried it all, and there’s no way to say this without sounding unbelievably egotistical, but it needs to be said for the good of the fish. So, What follows is the information for THE RIGHT WAY to handle a strike:

Set the hook immediately with the fish angling away from you. If when you grab the rod, the fish is taking line out, drill ’em with a nice, quick ‘snap-set’ in the opposite direction. If they are sitting still or coming at you when you get the rod, (with the rod tip low so you’re ready to set) start putting pressure on the fish, and continue to increase it until fish reacts against it. You will be able to feel it. The fish will turn away, possibly shaking. That’s exactly what you want. Quickly drop the rod tip to create a little slack and hammer ’em! Have confidence in what you are doing and do it. Don’t sit around wondering if it’s time. If the angle is right when you grab the rod, set it. If it isn’t, create the angle through force and set!

There are those who will tell you to wait. You may think it’s a good idea after missing one. It’s not. I’ve found that out through countless experiences. Let’s consider, what can possibly be gained by waiting? A swallowed rig? The musky will either immediately swallow or start munching. The stinger hooks ‘could’ remain in the proper position, but with enough chewing, will likely be smashed into the bait or ripped out. Either way rendered worthless. The fish may move its grip to the tail after being poked by a hook; or it may just drop the bait after being poked repeatedly. Or, they swallow it! There are no advantages here.

Conclusion

Live bait can be very effective. It is one of my better tools. But used improperly, it’s deadly, and it’s time we all accepted that fact and make adjustments to avoid it. It’s very cut-and-dried with no gray area here. Use a quick strike rig properly and catch more fish with 100% releasability, or let a fish swallow any kind of hook and VERY likely kill it.

There is not near the awareness there should be regarding this problem. Old traditions sure die hard. It sure took me way too long. Educated anglers, guides, speakers, resort and tackle shop owners and anyone in a position to influence should be concerned enough to try to eliminate any further unintentional musky mortality via live bait use.

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