"Fish-on! Oops sorry… just another snag. Quick turn the boat I'm losing line!" This is the second most yelled phrase in my boat when "grinding" lures on the riverbed. Usually it's just plain - "FISH-ON!"
The more I talk with musky fishermen from around the country the more I realize how localized trolling bottom-grinding lures is. Why? I don't know, as this is a great musky-catching method that could and should be used more universally.
There are as many ways and methods to catch muskies as there are people fishing for them, and no two musky fishermen will target them the same way. Differences in techniques vary from line and lures, to presentation methods, and trolling speeds. Figuring out which of these variations will consistently put muskies in the boat, and putting techniques together for a refined fish catching presentation, is the secret to successful bottom-grinding for trophy muskies.
Every lake or river without exception has a different fishing style or technique that is conducive to triggering strikes. On Lake Chautauqua in New York it may be speed trolling a Bagley DB-08 through and over weed pockets. On Georgian Bay, fishing a suspended lure just above the tops of deep-water humps and points catches muskies. And on some rivers, including the Niagara, bottom-grinding a lure can be the magic technique necessary to entice muskies into striking when other methods are ineffective.
First, let me explain the difference between bottom-grinding and bottom-bumping lures. Simply put - bottom grinding is extreme bottom-bumping. While bottom-bumping is considered the occasional contact between the lure and the bottom, bottom-grinding is constant contact in which the lure is literally digging into the bottom much like a farmer plowing a field. Bottom-grinding is a skill mastered by feeling your lure through the fishing line as it works its way over the bottom and structure. While not all anglers on the Niagara River use this system, many do, and find it produces muskies on a consistent basis.
To fully exploit this fishing system, we must first analyze where we are fishing and why the muskies are found on bottom. In a river system, millions of gallons of water are pushed through a gap-like structure every day. Muskies must not only find a way to minimize this slow, but also utilize it to feed and spawn. Obviously, swift-flowing rivers are conducive to muskies or they could not survive and grow to the trophy sizes we have previously seen and caught.
Rivers hold many different types of structures like crevices, eddies, boulders, bends, weedbeds, sunken islands, humps, reefs, breaklines, retaining walls, and other man-made debris such as cars, sunken boats, etc. All these various structures break up or change the current, which creates feeding opportunity sites and ambush positions for muskies. When river current and ambush points are combined, the musky has meals delivered right to her door step. This creates fish-catching opportunities. It's up to fishermen to discover which of these sites are preferred and most commonly used by muskies, along with which fishing method will trigger the most strikes.
Before the bottom-grinding system will work there are several factors that must be considered for it to be as effective as possible:
- Do muskies live permanently in the river, or do they move out?
- Which structures, if any, do they prefer?
- What type of river or lake bottom is conducive to bottom-grinding?
- Which lures are productive and can withstand this punishing grinding method?
- At what depth do muskies hold directly on the bottom?
- How do we get our lures to the bottom?
It's generally accepted on the Niagara River that some muskies will periodically move to and from Lake Erie, much like muskies move between the St. Lawrence River into Lake Ontario. There are also some resident fish along with a percentage of these "travelers' that inhabit these rivers. Therefore, muskies are usually present at any given time. Knowing this, it's now a matter of time on the water using the right technique and tackle in the right locations that will enable us to catch these fish.
One of the secrets to bottom-grinding lures is to cover as much water as possible when conditions are favorable, (clear water, small wavers, etc.) To accomplish this I troll either directly down-current or in a zig-zag fashion. The current speed will dictate how fast to troll, but in warm water speed is not a big factor. I usually troll between 3 and 6 mph depending on conditions; factor in a 4 to 6 mph current and it's a pretty good clip. Down-current trolling exposes my lures to as many potentially active muskies as possible, which generates the most strikes. When conditions are unfavorable (stained water, rough water) or at night, I troll up-current. Up-current trolling forces me to slow my lure presentation down, giving muskies more time to target and hit the bait.
Feeding muskies are found just about everywhere in the river and fishermen would suspect that they should have the best action on the most pronounced structures, though this is not always the case. It comes as a surprise to fishermen when muskies are caught on what is perceived as flat or barren sections of water that appear to be void of major structures. In reality, these barren sections are holding muskies that may be the most active in the river.
Muskies move onto these flats awaiting prey to be carried to them while lying on the bottom in crevices using their natural camouflage to avoid detection. It's on these flats, especially in clear water, that muskies can see prey approaching from a distance. I am not implying you should ignore other structures but it has been my experience that some of the biggest muskies can be caught from large flats adjacent to shallower water drop-offs by bottom-grinding. This bottom-grinding method is best suited for this type of hard-bottom, structure-free fishing. However, while grinding on humps and other large structures, can also be productive, it's often difficult because of constant lure snagging and therefore not recommended unless you are capable of quickly adapting to the rapidly-changing structures.
Bottom-grinding on a river or lake bottom is imperative to trigger strikes and flat rock or a shale-type bottom is preferred to make lures as noticeable as possible. With a shale-type bottom, lures can be presented in a manner that will trigger strikes by alerting muskies through constant noise and annoyance. Lures will dig up and bang small rocks, sand, and just about every other object in their path, which draws the muskies' attention. This constant grinding will literally make some muskies strike at a lure that they would not otherwise have hit and can turn neutral muskies into aggressive muskies.
When fishing lakes or rivers that do not have this type of bottom, but have a bottom consisting of boulders and larger rocks, occasionally "tapping" these rocks - not grinding - is advised. Unless the bottom is fairly flat, bottom-grinding lures in just too many snagged or lost lures. The grinding method works on bottoms consisting of sand and small rock, but weedy bottoms are a problem for the obvious reason of constantly weed-fouled hooks. Again, the real key is hard-bottom structure to trigger strikes.
The depth of the water plays a vital role in determining when and if this system can be used. Water depth ranging from 15 to 30 feet is most preferred. Depths deeper than 30 feet are hard to reach, and maintaining constant lure-to-bottom contact is difficult using conventional tackle. I have also found that in water deeper than 30 feet muskies will not necessarily be lying directly on the bottom. Normally I will switch to suspending lures in water deeper than 30 feet as these have produced well for me.
Getting lures down 25 to 30 feet is not a problem when the right lure and line is used. Deep-diving lures such as Believers, Bagleys, DepthRaiders, Hookers, Hi-Fins, and Spinda's King-Fisher are ideally suited for this type of fishing, and have all proven themselves rugged enough to withstand the rigors of grind-trolling over the years. By combining deep-diving lures with a thin diameter line, getting and keeping lures on the bottom in depths to 30 feet deep is easily accomplished.
When it comes to fishing line, my first choice is 30-pound test multistrand wire. However, stainless steel wire, one of the super lines or leadcore line will also work. I like wire because it sinks fast, is supersensitive and telegraphs the lure's action despite the rod being used. And, you can instantly tell if your lure gets fouled with weeds or other debris. The one major drawback to wire and bottom-grinding is instantaneous lure snagging with almost no forgiveness. When a lure snags in fast current you only have a matter of seconds to get all the other rods up, turn the boat around, and try to retrieve the snagged lure.
The use of 7- to 8-foot fiberglass or fiberglass composite rods is recommended because these have more give than either the shorter "pool-cue" or graphite rods. It makes no sense to use an expensive rod for this type of trolling, as these less expensive fiberglass rods are better suited, stronger, and more flexible for this bump-and-grind trolling.
When bottom-grinding try not to let out too much line. Let line out until you contact the bottom; when you feel the lure digging up the bottom, reel in a few feet. Keep doing this until your lure is barely hitting the bottom. Now let a few feet out until a consistent bottom-grinding effect is felt. This should be the right amount of lure digging pressure to make the grinding system productive. It is worth noting that when trolling down-current lures tend to go deeper than when trolling up or against the current, so adjust your line length accordingly.
This system has caught many trophy muskies, but like any other fish-catching method it takes practice and patience to master. Holding your fishing rod at all times is recommended in order to feel the bottom, this however, can be physically challenging. Bottom-grinding may not be for everyone, but for those who regularly use it and score they are glad it's a part of their arsenal.