8-Cam muskies: why do muskies follow? Are following fish feeding fish?
Flash forward two years after these initial video adventures, as chronicled in the 2008 In-Fisherman Pike & Muskie Guide and on In-Fisherman Television. Schwartz realizes that filming fish reactions to trolled lures is but part of the puzzle. His next step is filming boatside antics of fish that follow lures to the boat. Why do muskies follow? Are following fish feeding fish? But more than anything, he wants to learn new and better ways to trigger muskies following a lure as the angler Figure-8s.
By the end of 2009, Schwartz has countless hours of boatside underwater footage. "One of the most rewarding parts of filming," he says, "is that after a long day on the water I go back to my cabin and watch home movies. If I catch a fish I can view the whole drama as it plays out underwater."
It's fun. I felt the rush the first time we captured an underwater strike together. We relived the moment on TV a dozen times. It was an exhilarating new dimension to fishing. Sometimes, Schwartz has to remind himself that the main motivation for doing this is all about better understanding muskies.
Capturing them on film underwater isn't without its trials. It took a lot of time and money to devise a Figure-8 camera that works. Rather than explaining his 8-cam setup, I suggest watching the DVD that resulted. Muskie-fishing legend Dick Pearson calls the underwater footage on Muskie Intervention, "Incredible." I doubt you will disagree.
Among the revelations was that almost every day the underwater camera showed following fish that weren't seen from above. Usually, these fish would swim in at least two feet beneath the lure, some of them appearing aggressive, some not. Often, when the lure made the L-turn at the boat--a maneuver Schwartz executes religiously, even when he doesn't see a fish--the ghost muskie would match the move, slinking away as the lure exited the water.
Schwartz remembers seeing a ghost follower for the first time. "I was fast-forwarding the footage for about 10 minutes, without seeing anything more than my lure continuously entering the camera's view. I almost missed it at first. A log shape appeared a few feet below my lure, tracking it pretty closely. I rewound the tape and watched as I pulled the lure away. I found myself hollering at the TV, 'No. No! No!'"
Three more times that trip the same thing happened. Schwartz: "Maybe I had to start fishing with the mentality that every cast could pick up a following muskie that I wouldn't necessarily see? In stained and dark water, in particular, I always end every cast with at least an L-shaped turn while I'm looking as deep as possible into the water trying to see a following fish. Still, is it practical to do protracted Figure-8s after every cast just in case a fish is following too deep to see? Maybe it's practical on high-percentage spots? It's a problem I still haven't resolved. But I spend a lot more time now looking deep below my lure before pulling it from the water. And many times I go around at least once after an L-turn, hoping a following fish might reveal itself.
"After I saw all these ghost followers on the footage, I started doing a lot more up-and-down depth changes with my lure during Figure-8s. I start into my usual 8, continue through a few turns and then dip the rod all the way to the reel. On the next straightaway, I pull the tip up rapidly, giving the illusion of a bait fleeing toward the surface.
"When any aquatic predator pursues preyfish high in the water column, the first thing most baitfish do is to sprint upward and sometimes completely through the surface. We see this play out on the water all the time--a few minnows flick and splash on top, followed by a boil."
Using spinners like the Northland Boobie Trap in-line and his own hand-tied Little Darlas, Schwartz went to work on the muskies. "The up-and-down rod moves require more effort--you really have to get on your knees with a 7.5- to 9-foot rod and use some upper body strength. I tried it on a few hotter fish, and they responded favorably. Then I started experimenting on a few low-and-slow followers, taking the bait down to their level, and speeding it back toward the top. Occasionally, the blades would flip on the surface. I'm not sure if this helped, but the second time I did the deep-to-shallow move on one of these reluctant fish, she ate, right at the top of the straightaway."
Depth changes are one more dimensional shift in the way a lure travels during the Figure-8. By watching many following muskies underwater, Schwartz notes that depth changes help to keep fish interested. But any change can be good: a change in speed, in direction, in cadence, in depth. Speed is a trigger, too, but often it's the increase in speed that brings the strike.
Eights and Ovals
Changes in lure movement also bring up a point that's fundamental to the entire Figure-8 experience. "I don't want to leave the impression that it's best to get too radical with boatside maneuvers," Schwartz says. "The last thing you want to do is start whipping your bait in every direction. Sharp turns are bad. Performed correctly, though, change-up moves can boost the power of your Figure-8s."
One question anglers often have is whether to use an actual Figure-8 or just a big wide oval. Both maneuvers can work. Brainerd, Minnesota-area guide Tim Anderson is a proponent of boatside ovals. "Even with a longer rod, a higher percentage of fish lose interest with all the corners of the 8," he says. "When I switched to a big smooth oval, my percentages went way up. Which is why if you're in my boat, I scream--Big circle!--anytime I see a fish after a lure."
Is Anderson's approach contrary to Schwartz's belief in direction and speed changes? "When I first started muskie fishing, my friend, legendary guide Doug Johnson gave me a valuable piece of advice," Schwartz says. "He told me to speed up in straightaways and slow down just a bit in the turns, which should always be wide and smooth. If you're lucky enough to bring in a 50-incher, it probably isn't going to stay in the 8 if you're doing little basketball-sized loops. You have to go big and wide in the turns--keep the lure in front of the fish's head as much as possible. Then turn and burn in the stretch. Most of the fish I see--both from above surface as well as below water on the footage--respond favorably to accelerations in speed, even if they don't always bite."
Which brings us back to the oval versus 8 debate. Schwartz is comfortable with Anderson's "big circle" assessment, yet feels there are too many positives associated with the classic 8 to trade it for the big circle. "I can keep fish more interested in the 8 than I can with an oval. A Figure-8 offers more of the right types of lure moves. In a wide arching double loop, I have more opportunity to move the lure on different planes--speed, depth and direction. I can drag the bait down in one straightaway; do a deep wide turn; then speed up while pulling the lure toward the surface.
"Another trick that works with a bucktail or a crankbait is to give twitches in the straightaway, then pop the rod forward for a jolt of speed. While watching the footage I noticed that these little twitches seemed to be the key move that got several fish to eat right in front of the lens."
Schwartz says that muskies often differ in the way they follow lures. Many of them don't follow all the way through the turn; they anticipate where the lure's going, run wide in the turn, then contort their bodies and gain an angle on the bait as it proceeds into the next straightaway. So they're taking a shortcut to the lure instead of overtaking it from behind. It reminds you of a skilled defensive back in football who uses a pursuit angle to make a tackle. The only time muskies seem to do this is when they're setting up to crush a lure.
Schwartz says that the trouble with absolutes and muskies--even when they give themselves away on a camera--is that whenever you think you're on to something, along comes a non-conformist fish. Doug Johnson often chides, "Guess the muskies didn't get that memo." He's right, and after viewing and reviewing boatside footage multiple times, Schwartz wonders about the intent of some following fish.
"If I told you that muskies often fail to eat your lure because they don't associate it with food," he says, "what would you say?"
Schwartz calls what some fish do territorial swatting. "Some following fish--maybe half or more--are just trying to move the lure out of an area," he says. "These fish take wicked snout swats at the bait, usually from a distance of 1 to as much as 4 feet. You often don't notice these swats from above the surface. As they near a lure, these muskies might also make quick jaw snaps at the bait--but they rarely touch it.
"Again, the intent isn't to eat, or even to injure or wound. When a muskie wants to eat, it usually gets the job done. This isn't that. Feeding fish also flare their gills when they strike. I've never seen swatting fish flare gills.
"When I see a muskie that's doing these snaps and swats--these are the fish that give off that familiar 'I'm not here to bite' vibe--it's going to be difficult to get it to bite. Some of these fish can still be caught though. Just keep things smooth and fluid, maybe throw in a twitch or two in the straightaways. If the fish starts to sink away, take the lure down as deep as you can, and move through a few more 8s. If you're using a big jig, or a Bull Dawg-type lure, freespooling the lure straight to the bottom sometimes works."
Schwartz loves these fish he's watched on camera for hundreds of hours. "They're incredible creatures and they do amazing things," he says. Once last summer, with his 8-Cam in place, Schwartz heard an odd clanking on the side of his boat. Looking down, a 42-inch muskie was thrashing and biting the Aqua-Vu camera head, which resembles a real fish. "It made me think of a buddy who always dangles a sucker on a short line off a second rod while he's casting. He catches quite a few muskies on this rod--fish he brings in on the 8.
"The video clip is hilarious," he says. "All you see is a missile, a head-banging collision, and darkness followed by the obvious outline of a muskie's inner jaw, and the picture shaking as the muskie worries the camera head like dog rattling a bone."
BY CORY SCHMIDT WITH DON SCHWARTZ *
* Cory Schmidt is an In-Fisherman Field Editor. Don Schwartz, Elroy, Wisconsin, also designs muskie lures. The DVD that resulted from his recent underwater filming, entitled Muskie Intervention, can be found at getyourhogon.com.
RELATED ARTICLE: Mastering the 8
To increase your boatside conversions, Don Schwartz makes these suggestions:
Jerkbaits: If a muskie follows a jerkbait like a Bobbie when you're making short hard twitches, don't abandon those movements when you get to the boat. Keep doing the twitches intermittently throughout your boatside routine. That's what piqued her interest to begin with. I keep slow twitching, right into the turn--this is where a fish often tags a jerkbait.
Minnowbaits: You can work these baits either fast like a bucktail or with slow twitches like a jerkbait. Stay consistent. If the fish follows on twitches, keep twitching--often all the way through the Figure-8. If she follows on a fast retrieve, maintain that speed.
Surface Lures: I get more fish to bite by taking the lure down as it nears the boat. I make slow turns and speed up in the straightaways. I also alternate moving the bait up and down--usually down on the straightaway and up in the turn.
Bucktails: As soon as you spot a fish on the retrieve, speed up. This can trigger a strike before you reach the boat. Once in the 8, just keep things nice and smooth--speed up in the straight stretches, and slow down fractionally on the turn. Keep the turn big and wide. If the fish won't commit, give the bait a little twitch or two.
Repeatability: Do the Figure-8 the same way every time. If you're right handed, move the bait left to right on the initial turn.
Sharpen hooks: The problem of dull hooks is magnified at close distance when a fish might well get a good grip on the lure and you might not remember to pull the lure back into the fish instead of pulling up and away.
Long Rods: Use 8- to 9-foot rods, which get the lure out away from the boat, as well as deeper. Long sticks also ease wide turns while the extra length allows adding more speed in the straightaways.
PHOTO // TOPWATER MEDIA PRODUCTIONS