Many of you Musky Hunter readers are old enough to remember the days when one all-purpose musky rod was the norm. A short, stiff, 5 1/2- to 6-foot pool-cue action was the musky standard, and nearly all of us had that one single rod. In most cases, this was the only rod that was offered in stores. While that same sport shop would offer a wide variety of lengths and actions in spinning or fly casting tackle, the “musky rod” was just that — one single rod.
It was not because there wasn’t a diverse selection of lures. While the musky department of yesterday couldn’t rival what is now available, there certainly was a complete array of lure styles and weights. Small, lightweight bucktail spinners, weighing no more than 1 1/2 ounces, were certainly the most popular in northern Wisconsin, but we also had plenty of 4 to 6 ounce heavyweights. Large wooden jerkbaits were even more popular than they are today.
So why the one rod? Well, for one, the rod industry certainly wasn’t going out of its way to produce a selection of rods to cover the wide range of lure weights and techniques. With the exception of St. Croix and a handful of others, few even offered a true complement of rods to handle lure diversities. Another reason was the retail industry itself wasn’t up to speed on musky fishing the way it is today. As soon as you got 35 miles outside of an area containing musky waters, the sport shops simply didn’t take stocking musky tackle with any priority.
Boy, that has certainly changed.
A third and decisive reason for this lack of rod selection in the past was certainly due to the materials used in large big game rods. While today’s graphite rods and their components are light but rigid, powerful and responsive, yesterday’s components were heavy and slow with no sensitivity. In order to attain proper action stiffness to effectively throw a larger 4- to 6-ounce lure, for example, fiberglass had to be beefed up quite a bit. This added weight. Rod weight slows down response and deadens sensitivity and promotes angler fatigue.
New technology along with the growing interest in musky fishing has spawned an industry today that now features musky rods with lengths, components and actions that rival a tournament bass angler’s repertoire. One can now literally buy a rod to fit every lure weight, and further refine his or her choice to fit individual height. And, these rods are built with the very best components right down to custom-designed rod blanks, as well as specialized reel seats. To go with this 21st Century selection of rods, reels are better than ever, and the lines we fish for muskies today are so superior to the products offered just 10 years ago that as a whole, the rod, reel and line are perhaps three of the most technologically-advanced items available.
The end result is a collection of outfits that enables today’s musky angler to perform at a much higher level. Less fatigue, far better castability, superior lure manipulation, fewer lost fish, and a host of other benefits are the byproduct of the new musky rod and reel combo. This is also a key reason why so many more anglers are giving the sport a try today. Certainly there are more places to fish for muskies today, but the tackle is far better now. This includes a great selection of rods. With that in mind, I thought it was high time I discussed three must-have rods which have made my total musky fishing experience much more pleasurable, as I’m sure it will for you, as well.
1. 6-foot-9 Heavy
Application: jerkbaits, glide baits, topwater zig-zag baits
Jerkbaits are such a big part of today’s musky arsenal, but they’ve always been a productive tactic. The main jerkbait rod of yesterday’s musky hunter was a 6-footer. Short by today’s standards, most of us had at least one of these in the boat not that long ago. The short 6-footer had its advantages. Its shortness made it easy to work big jerkbaits with a simple wrist action. It was also fairly easy to heave heavyweight plugs with little effort. And, a short rod with a fast action comparable to all the good 6-footers of recent past, kept extra weight out of the entire rod design making it easy to fish for long periods of time.
But, the short rod also had some noticeable drawbacks. The two biggest that come to mind are a lack of hookset sweep at longer distances, and a lack of overall rod bend during fish battle. Both of these factors usually meant a high number of lost fish after the strike — it is very hard to keep the line tight with a short stiff rod.
While a 6-footer might indeed work a jerkbait well, it can’t keep the line tight, and therefore the fish on after the strike. In order to keep a line taut and a good rod bend during battle, too much pressure is often exerted on the fish. The end result is usually a bent-out hook or a torn hole in the fish’s mouth, both resulting in a lost musky.
The other big drawback to the short traditional 6-footer occurred at boatside when a figure-8 procedure was needed. Rods less than 6 1/2 feet are simply too short for effective figure-8ing. Add a raised casting platform, common to most boats sold today, and the problem is compounded. Hence, the dawning of longer rods that were painstakingly designed to perform like the once popular 6-footer.
In the past, whenever length was added to a rod past six feet, the tip action either softened too much or the entire rod blank became a heavy, slow-action club. This is where modern technology came into play challenging rod makers to develop the right taper, yet maintain the rigid stiffness so critical to a good jerkbait action. This right action or “power” as some rod manufacturers prefer to call it, is now called “extra fast.”
Today’s best musky rod manufacturers have delivered on the demand and offer longer blanks that preform like a short 6-footer during the casting and jerking process, yet they bend correctly during battle. They also perform far better on short line hits at boatside. My favorite in this new grouping is St. Croix’s 6-foot-9 Heavy. A super extra-fast action rod that delivers on all fronts. It is one of my all-time favorite musky rods for tight wrist action snaps on minnowbaits and traditional jerkbaits, as well as the longer sweep-like pull that is preferred with many of the new glide baits.
But, I’ve also graduated to this rod for crankbaits and topwater lures in heavy slop where a short, pinpoint cast is more important.
This particular rod action is the most accurate casting rod I’ve ever used. If you are trying to “thread the needle” and drop a lure into open holes and pockets in slop, or are attempting to pitch a jerkbait accurately to muskies hunkered tight to brush, cribs or other woody cover, this is the rod for you. It is amazing how much more accurate a heavy, stiff extra-fast action rod is over longer models with more bend. The bend robs accuracy. Tie on your favorite topwater bait to two these two different rod actions and see for yourself. You’ll be amazed at how much more accurate the heavy extra-fast action model is. I would never even think of fishing the slop without it.
2. 7-foot-6 Medium Heavy
Application: bucktails, spinnerbaits, small to medium crankbaits
Still, the No. 1 musky producer overall is probably the bucktail spinner or an in-line spinner in some form. Open up any mail order musky catalog today and see for yourself how popular this lure remains. A cousin to the popular bucktail spinner is, of course, the safety pin-style spinnerbait. Spinnerbaits catch everything from bass to pike to muskies on any given outing, and more musky anglers are adding this fish catcher to their arsenal every year.
Both of these ever-popular lures are best fished on a longer rod that has some tip bend. The tip bend is essential for casting these lighter weight lures effectively. The 6-foot-9 heavy we just talked about would be a poor choice for this group of lures mostly from a casting point of view. And, while a 7-footer might be OK, experience has proven that a model that is at least 7 1/2 feet is even better. The additional six inches or so really makes a difference on casts with marginal weight lures. In fact, the 7 1/2-foot medium heavy makes casting the famed bucktail spinner a true pleasure. But, there are some other advantages to this rod that may not seem as obvious but are just as important.
When you choose a rod for any style of fishing, try to think of it from two perspectives. The first, of course, is to consider how the rod will cast and work a lure. But the second is to ponder how this particular rod will set a hook and fight a fish. Hooksetting and fish fighting are key elements to success in musky fishing, yet few consider this in their rod choice. It makes a difference in the overall amount of muskies you hook and land successfully.
If the rod doesn’t set the hook solidly, a bigger fish will surely expel the hook in short order. This can be a concern with longer rod actions that start pushing the 7 1/2- to 8-foot range. Many longer musky rods of the past were simply too soft and slow. They did not deliver enough horsepower when needed on the hookset. While a soft, slow action rod will certainly stay bent during battle and do an acceptable job of fighting a fish once hooked, if it doesn’t generate the proper energy needed to drive the hook home, it will all be for naught.
Today’s superior rod building techniques have once again solved this problem delivering a blank that is so perfectly suited for this specific application that I find myself using this rod probably more than any other. The right 7-6 blank has to be designed uniquely so it will maintain a rigid stiffness in the lower 65 to 75 percent at least, with 75 to 85 percent being more ideal. The section near the tip is where the bending should occur for both casting and fish fighting. This all has to be done without adding unnecessary weight near the middle and tip of the rod which creates casting fatigue and robs hookset speed.
One final advantage of the 7-foot-6 medium heavy is at the boat in the figure-8. Rods of this length are far superior to shorter versions when attempting to make a large figure-8 effectively on a following fish. It’s a real strain to work a shorter rod in a large figure-8 pattern, not to mention trying to keep a fish hooked once it hits. This is all easily done with the 7-6 medium heavy.
Like I said, I find myself using this rod more than any other, and like this action so much I actually keep two of these on my bow deck at all times — one rigged with an in-line spinner and the other with a spinnerbait. A third one rigged with a small 5- to 7-inch crankbait would not be out of the question. That’s how much I think of this particular rod action. It’s a winner in every respect. You will see me fishing with this rod for muskies on my TV show more than any other.
3. 7-foot-0 or 7-foot-2 Medium Heavy
Application: Topwaters and larger crankbaits and swimbaits.
In my opinion, this is the least critical of the three must-have rods. It has to be stout enough to throw the big stuff and set the hook well, but it shouldn’t be overly stiff on the tip action so it will perform well during battle. In this case, an angler of shorter stature might opt for a 6 1/2-footer, while a tall one might want something larger than the suggested 7-0 or 7-2. This is all well and good, and you should decide this based on your height and any personal preferences.
However, the fact remains, you need this specific rod action to accommodate the rest of the lures in your tackle box not already discussed.
Considering most of these are bound to be larger lures are in the 3- to 6-ounce range, the rod cannot mirror the action of the 7-foot-6 we just discussed. Instead, it has to have a bit more backbone with less tip action to handle the sheer weight of these larger lures. At the same time, it should also be less rigid, less stout than the previously discussed 6-foot-9, whose stoutness is primarily needed to work jerkbait-style lures.
It should have that perfect amount of bend or “give” that allows you to fight a big fish with more control. Keeping a tight line and consistent pressure on a big one after the hookset is the key here. Larger 3- to 6-ounce lures usually have larger treble hooks, as well. This means a thicker gauge metal on each hook with a larger barb surface area. All of this adds up to the need for more power in the hookset, yet solid consistent pressure once the hooks are driven home. A rod of at least seven feet in the medium heavy action will provide this for sure.
My personal favorite in this category has always been St. Croix’s Premier 7-2 medium heavy. This is an exceptional all around rod fully capable of casting 1 1/2-ounce bucktails as well as a 6-ounce swimbait. It’s definitely not a substitute for the 6-9 for jerkbait fishing, but if push came to shove, it could do the job. But, man is this a good crankbait stick. Great for working deep divers over rock humps and along weed edges. Great for trolling deep divers along rock walls in the fall, too. A top choice for many straight retrieve topwater lures.
Speaking of topwater lures, a rod that is a bit slower on the hookset is preferred here. You actually do not want to be that fast on the hookset on any topwater strike. While I occasionally use the 6-9 heavy for topwaters, I miss more fish with it simply because the rod responds too fast. If you have quick, jumpy, boxer-like reflexes, you’re going miss way too many muskies with a 6-9 heavy but will not happen as often with a slower-tapered medium heavy rod. The additional length combined with the action will result in a slower response on the hookset.
Swimbaits, the newest musky lure category, are large soft plastic lures that can weigh as much as six ounces or more. It takes a big rod to throw these lugs. After they hit the water, a slow steady retrieve with perhaps an occasional stop-go crank action will usually attract some musky movement. So quick, jerkbait-like rod responses are generally not necessary. But a long sweeping hookset with consistent pressure is critical to hookups. A longer rod of at least seven feet combined with a medium heavy action will provide this.
So there you have it. The three must-have rods as I see them. I hope I have helped you make rod choice a bit easier for future musky trips. Of course, you can always add more to accommodate special situations, but these three will more than do the job for you for most musky hunts.
Individual preferences still rule here, however. If you fish out of a small boat, or are of smaller stature, slightly shorter rod actions might be more to your liking. Conversely, real tall anglers might want these actions a bit longer. Fishing off raised casting platforms, common to most of the better musky boats today, might also dictate a slightly longer rod, particularly if you are taller.
However, I like these rod lengths and actions just as I described them. Most of the time I have these three must-have rods all up on the deck — right alongside me at all times. While I might have additional rods in the boat to accommodate special techniques such as jig fishing, I make a living with these three rods day in and day out. You are welcome to check it out for yourself at anytime.
Watch my TV show more closely. Look at what’s on my deck. The three must-have rods are always within grasp rigged with a favorite bait to handle any situation I might encounter on that day of musky hunting. I never leave the dock without them.
Hall of Fame angler Joe Bucher is the Editor Emeritus for Musky Hunter Magazine and one the most highly recognized multi-species fishing and hunting authorities in the outdoor business trade. Joe is the host of Fishing with Joe Bucher TV show which has been on the air for over 20 years. For more information on Joe please visit his website at www.joebucher.com