Secrets of Successful Fighting Muskies and Trophy Pike: Or Why the Big One Got Away
By Tim Mead June 12, 2011

Tim Mead with a monster caught on light spinning using a jig.
Tim Mead with a monster caught on light spinning using a jig.

 The catch photos on this page were taken during smallmouth bass fishing, using very light tackle.  Big fish can be taken on very light equipment.   If you are skillful and follow the guidelines in the article below you can overcome many obstacles to be successful.   Note: the man holding the pike vertically does not have the use of his right arm.  He caught this pike with an electric reel.  He truly is a great friend, fisherman and an inspiration of what can be overcome.

Once you hook the “fish of a lifetime,” what then?   You spent a small bucket of money to get to a spot where muskies or trophy pike are found, hired a guide, and hooked a trophy.   Now what? From my own experience and extensive discussion with guides who make a living putting anglers on trophy pike and muskies, here are a baker’s half a dozen lessons.

Clyde Osborne with a 15+ pound pike
Clyde Osborne with a big pike

One, use your rod as a shock-absorber, not a lever.   When a trophy is on the other end of the string, the rod is not just a stick.   Consider the sweep of a 6 or 7 foot rod.   Without releasing any line from the reel, lowering or raising the rod tip can yield or gain 8 or 9 feet.   Often trophies make a sudden lunge as they are pulled toward the boat.   Big fish should not be brought to the rod tip.   As the fish tires, lift the rod tip.   Then when the last desperate lunge occurs, by lowering the rod most of the shock can be absorbed.   A more flexible rod provides more shock absorption than a less flexible one; that’s not to say a more flexible rod is superior in all cases, but be ready to use the flexibility of your rod when needed.  

Gordy Johnson with a musky caught on a Pop-r!
Gordy Johnson with a musky caught on a Pop-r!

In addition to the arc of the rod tip, by extending or retracting your arms another couple feet can be gained or lost.   Combined with flexibility and strength in the wrists, the angle of the rod and use of the arms creates a lever action making the rod more than a stick.  

Once the fish is hooked, your basic rod position should be ahead of you with a nice bend in the rod.   Too low, if the fish lunges you cannot accommodate by lowering the tip.   Too high, if the fish heads to the boat, you cannot recover by lifting the rod tip.   TV anglers with their rod tangled around the back of their head are not really fighting the fish.

Two, go armed with gear adequate to the task.   Stories abound of the kid going to the dock with a rod and reel from a discount store catching a trophy.   The reason those tales make news is because the odds are so long.   Several years ago Georgia largemouth bass guide Ron Savage told me, “If I suggest to a client, ‘use my rod,’ I’m really saying as politely as I can, ‘your equipment isn’t good enough for what we are going to do.’” Put the odds in your favor.

Rod quality, in the last 20 years, has improved dramatically.   Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s both sell excellent rods under their own name at a modest price.   A longer rod offers a better casting platform for heavy lures appropriate for muskies and trophy pike.   Pick a rod from 6- and a half feet to 8-feet long.   Check the guides periodically for wear.   If funny abrasions appear on your line, chances are good there is a rough spot on a guide.

If you are going to splurge, spend a little money, a reel is a good place to do it.   A better quality reel will help make longer casts more often and will have a smooth drag (more about drag later).   My favorite is a Daiwa Millionaire S.   This is a large format reel, that is, the spool diameter is relatively large.   Each revolution of the spool releases or takes in more line than is the case with a reel with a small spool.   When casting large lures, an overrun is less likely with a large format reel.   When a big fish surges, more line can be released quickly.   Conversely, when the 60-inch musky Bob and Gordy keep telling us about at Lake of the Woods rushes the boat, slack can be taken in more quickly.   And I like reels with a 5:1 spool revolution to handle revolution; what that means is for every complete turn of the reel handle the spool turns five times.

Musky and pike anglers are turning toward braided line.   I’ve been using Ultra-Braid 50-pound test.   It is roughly the same diameter of the most common monofilament line I use, so it feels comfortable.   Braided line does not stretch, at least not like mono does.   One consequence is that a savage hook set is not required to move a lure in a fish’s mouth.   Conversely, when a fish changes directions or appears to be in the net, there’s no stretch which can take up slack.   Several years ago, fishing with guide Marc

Tony Garitta catches nice pike on ultra-light
Tony Garitta catches nice pike on ultra-light
Thorpe on the Ottawa River near Montreal, one of his clients lost several muskies at boat side.   When Marc reached for the fish with the net, the angler unconsciously eased off on the line and the lure dropped out.   With mono, the stretch in the line would have taken up the slack.   The angler told me he did not let slack in the line, but a video proved him wrong.

To the braided line, attach a length of fluorocarbon leader with a quality snap swivel on the business end.   Last spring, I grabbed the wrong spool of fluorocarbon before filming with Pete Maina on Phelps Lake.   I had 17-pound test rather than 25- or 30-pound test.   But it worked OK.  

Whether using braided or monofilament line affects how you need to set the hook.   With braided line, constant tension after a subtle jerk should do the trick.   With mono, you need to take the stretch out of the line first.   Reel in as much slack as quickly as possible, a turn or two of the reel handle at most, pointing the rod almost directly at the fish, pull sharply to the side.   If you lift upward rather than to the side, all you really do is lift line off the water.   You want to move the lure in the fish’s jaw and sideways does that best.  

Three, get a good net.   Some thirty-five years ago, when I first got bit by the musky bug, I fished the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Hal Alexander was my neighbor and fishing buddy.   After losing two huge muskies, I bought a net from a nearby tackle shop with a 20-inch bow.   When Hal questioned the size of my net, I assured him, “I can net a 20-pound musky with this net.” I got three chances, not for muskies but trophy pike with that net.   All three were disasters.   Get a net that meets the task.

Beckman and Frabill both make suitable nets with large bows and treated fibers (the treated fibers make releasing fish much easier as hooks do not tangle as readily and the coating on the fibers minimize damage to the fish’s scales and slime).

As I often fish alone, I do not carry a cradle.   If you have a co-angler, however, a cradle works great, minimizing trauma to the fish and facilitating a good release.

Four, set the drag on your reel correctly.   The drag should be smooth.   When sufficient pressure is put on the line, it should peel off the reel without a sudden jerk.   Yet, as Montana trout guide Leon Sagaloff once told me, “Make him pay.” That is, the drag should be tight enough that as a fish slows a sudden rush, the fish has to pay in energy.   Two or three times a day, I test the drag by pulling line off the reel.   While many offer advice how and when to adjust the drag while battling a fish, it has been my experience that messing with the drag while fighting a fish is a bad move.   Three times in my angling career, I have tried to adjust the drag while a big fish was hooked.   I lost them all.   Set the drag correctly, then leave it.

Tim Mead with another nice pike
Tim Mead with another nice pike

Five, have the correct release gear.   A net – as described above.   Two other release items are needed, long-nose pliers and bolt cutter.   The long-nose pliers, Rapala makes a good set, are needed to grip a hook and wriggle it lose.   Short-nose pliers cannot reach deep into a trophy fish’s mouth.   Nor do they provide sufficient leverage to dislodge a stout hook stuck in the bony part of a fish.

Bolt cutters may be needed to free a hook.   Wire cutters are not sufficient.   Think of it this way.   You are trying to release a 25-pound musky.   The fish is only hooked with the rear treble of a lure half a foot or more in length with several sets of treble hooks dangling off the sides.   With one hand you hold the fish as it gives a huge flop.   Where do those loose trebles go?    Into your arm.   Now you really want bolt cutters.   Don’t skimp.

Unhooking a fish while it is in the net is a good idea.   Can avoid lots of problems.  

Six, keep the boat deck clear.   Loose lures, pliers, bolt cutters, nets are all items that can get in the way.

Seven, don’t make any mistakes.   After interviewing guides from across North America who target multiple and diverse species, the common thread of what they told me about clients who lost big fish was “angler error.” Certainly that was true of the first big pike I hooked.   Dad and I were fishing a small lake in northern Michigan.   And I hooked a “big one.” Dad and I later agreed, this was a 40-inch fish (we were carpenters with lots of experience with tape measures).   As the fish passed the canoe, less than 10-feet away, I decided to clamp down on the reel spool (this was before the day of adjustable drag on freshwater equipment).   With one lunge, the fish snapped my brand new 15-pound test line.   Angler error.  


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           Last updated on March 4, 2018