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Rattle Your Way to Spring Success

Tony Grant
Published November 13, 2001

Muskie fever hot on your brain you contemplate your next spring trip to southern muskie waters. When you get there, the high waters, rain, and muddy conditions have you reevaluating your decision to use your vacation days on some early season muskie fishing in Kentucky. You remember the stories we have all heard about how someone s spring trip to a southern muskie hot spot was spoiled by extremely high water. Having heard these stories quite often in my travels to shows, tournaments and seminars across muskie country, I have always looked for methods to overcome these conditions to help my clients boat muskie which would somewhat relieve them of their muskie fever.

Early in my guiding career, I found this time of year was the toughest to get on a pattern, as heavy rains almost always foiled our efforts to consistently boat fish. Fortunately, about five years ago, I came across the miracle cure. The bass style rattling bait. Most hard-core muskie fanatics seem to turn their heads at such non-traditional if not wimpy muskie baits. Whether water levels are rising or falling, these baits are our most consistent producers during our pre-spawn, spawn and post spawn periods. In the last five years, our clients have boated over 250 muskies using this extremely successful rattling spring tactic. Although multiple fish days are very common, the only draw back to this method is that it isn t a trophy-producing tactic. Most of the fish we boat are 34 to 38 inches with 1 of 10 measuring over 40 inches. However, boating four to six muskies in a day happens more often with rattling lures than any other bait I ve ever heard of. For example, two years ago in late March, David Christian local guide and one of the first to perfect this technique with his clients set out to fish a bulging Cave Run Lake. Heavy rains had pushed the lake to 12 feet over summer pool. This technique boated eight legal muskies for two extremely happy clients.

How the miracle bait came about
My ego wishes I could take credit for the founding of this tactic, but I can t. Here s how we came across this method. In 1995 as owner of Cave Run Muskie Guide Service, I ran four or five guides during our busy seasons. One early April day, Bill Burns, local bass and muskie guide was showing to avid muskie clients some of the Cave s smallmouth bass for me at the time, he told David Christian and myself that his clients had boated three muskies. Our first question of course was, On what? . Bill, known as one of the most successful bass anglers around finally gave up his secret a gold ounce Rattletrap. Bill went on to inform us that all three fish had come off shallow flats. If you ve been to Cave Run you know that about the only thing flat around here is the bottom of a Mason jar of moonshine. Areas that we call flats are just the small heads of hollows commonly known as hollers around these parts. In fact, most all of our flats have a somewhat tapered drop. Bill added that his father, who was one of the first guides on Cave Run after its impoundment, always had good luck in the spring using Rattletraps, Rattlin Shad and other similar baits. Using small baits in the spring was no secret to us, but using Rattle baits had never been a proven tactic.

The following day, David called me just before I met my client for the fishing part of a muskie-turkey combo hunt, to inform me of three fish his clients boated that morning on the Rattletraps Bill had given him. After rifling through my bass tackle box, I headed out to meet my client. With only five hours to produce and only one chrome Rattletrap and a red off-brand lipless rattling crankbait my confidence level was no way near that of David s. However, I soon found it wasn t color that day, but the rattle. My client boated a pair of muskies measuring 34 and 36 inches. I was a believer. The next day after a 60-mile round-trip to Walmart, I hit the water on my own to further test my newly purchased Rattletraps. The first three muskies I boated where sub legals so I changed to a ounce and proceeded to land fish measuring 35, 37, and 38 inches. I determined that the ounce was the choice of smaller fish. I photographed six fish on the floor of my boat that day. I had found my spring miracle bait.

The miracle bait must be applied to the right location, bait speed and water temperatures
David and I quickly shared this valuable information with our other guides. At first, not all my fellow guides found this pattern to be quite as productive. They had to find where to apply these baits. The traps weren t working on points, around lay-downs or standing timber. The key factor was shallow flats near spawning areas. Knowing your water becomes very important here. Muskies rarely follow these baits to the boat. Therefore, locating fish can be very tough. In fact, I can only recall a couple of fish taken on the figure eight using these techniques. The most productive flats seemed to be those of a soft mucky bottom covered with last year s leaves. Even the smallest flats seem to hold fish.

As the days went on, we found that to steadily produce, another ingredient must be added, speed. Several days of dredging up leaves during the retrieve made us speed up our lures, which provoked even more strikes. A fast retrieve was essential for rattling up consistent spring success. Reels with slower gear ratios didn t have near the amount of strikes. It also took a couple of years to narrow down the exact time to apply this method.

As a group of guides working together, we all keep very detailed records, which we share with one another. After numerous hours of non-productive casting, we found that our water temperature needed to reach 45 degrees before we applied this tactic. The action continues until the water warms to 65 degrees. We also found that as the surface temperature warms into the 60 62 degree range, you should increase the size of your Rattletrap to a 1ounce. Since schools of larger shad seem to be predominant over the smaller variety seen at cooler temperatures, this made sense. Always looking for that extra edge, I purchased some Supertraps only to find that this presentation must have been more than our spring muskies wanted to chew. I ve fished them many hours only to boat a single muskie. Still all of our guides weren t being as consistent.

After reviewing our records, we found that line size was a key factor that we could not leave out. Our statistics proved that a smaller diameter line increased productivity. I spool up with PowerPro 30 lb test with 8 lb diameter using a 35-pound snap less leader directly connected to a split ring. This lighter rig seems to give our baits a tighter wiggle and yields a louder rattle. Fear of a muskie breaking you off in the Cave s enormous amount of wood is not a factor here, as most all of the flats have little or no standing or laydown timber. Presenting your baits with lighter bass rods adds even more excitement in playing the fish to the boat. The Lamiglas Certified Pro XFT 764 is an excellent choice for this application; this longer rod makes long distance cast easier needed while targeting the backs of shallow coves.
The final factor to consider is color. Color selection can be very difficult during this period. It makes sense to use bright orange or chartreuse, which is always a good choice on muddy southern waters. Other times a coin toss sometimes determines my selection. I then change colors often until a pattern is established. After our success here on Cave Run, we were excited to try this method on other muskie waters.

Not only in the south
This miracle bait has been very successful on all of Kentucky s muskie fisheries during high water levels as well as normal pool. This tactic is no longer a secret tactic used by a handful of guides. It is now the preferred method of spring muskie hunting in the south. In my travels during the past few years, I ve found that this method works all across muskie country when applied in the right areas during the right water temperatures. My good friend and tournament partner, Don Pfieffer, put these tactics to work on two different Wisconsin Chains and had great success in producing some fast spring action for clients during all types of conditions this past year. While participating in the Professional Muskie Tournament Trail (PMTT) event on Chatauqua Lake in New York, I met a muskie hunter that had been producing there using the same tactics. In June, with unusually warm water temps we boated 2 smaller muskies and found this tactic deadly for Northern Pike on the Chippewa Flowage. During the PMTT s Invitational on Lake Kinkaid I was amazed at the numerous flats that would be terrific spots for some spring rattling success.

We all know that there are no miracle baits in the reality of muskie fishing, but this tactic generates the most awesome spring action I ve ever run across. Too bad it only lasts four to seven weeks. In talking about this method with other muskie anglers one question usually comes up, What is the rattling bait imitating to drive these muskies into a feeding frenzy? . I don t want to put a dark cloud on such a bright spot in my muskie fishing success so I don t have an opinion (probably a first). Several opinions I have heard are the first activity of our crawdads, quick movements of our shad population in and out of the flats, and the swift movements of small bass battling for bed selection. For whatever reason, these rattling baits drive muskies crazy. I m just glad to have the confidence these baits give me during a very tough time on the high waters of the south.