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A Musky Fly Fishing Starter Kit

by Tom Hazelton
photos by Tom Hazelton

Fly Fishing for MuskieOver the last few years, we’ve fished with and interrogated some of the top fly-rod musky experts, and here we’ve distilled their rigging down to some smooth-sipping starting points. These are the essential pieces of kit that will get you on the water, safely, so you can begin grinding away at your ten thousand casts.

We know you want to talk about the rod first. It’s the sexiest component of any new setup. But we’re going to work backwards, because everything that’s different about musky gear is different for one reason: to empower you to cast giant, heavy flies.

The Flies

Buy your first half-dozen musky flies. Tying them is fun, but there’s a lot more to it than “hair, feather, flash,” and it takes practice. Most of us have boxes full of B-team flies that don’t swim just right or are threadbare after being chomped by hammer-handle pike. This trial and error period can waste lots of hours and expensive materials. Not that you should never tie your own musky flies, but stack the deck in your favor and spend some time fishing with and studying pro-tied flies first.

What size? The real question is “how much fly can I cast?” In the words of O.G. musky guru Lucky Porter: “Even little ones will whack big shit, and big ones might need it to get their attention.” Ten to 12 inches is standard. Six flies will last you a season—you’ll probably end up fishing the same two or three favorites most of the time. Start with black and yellow, black and orange/red, black and chartreuse/orange (“firetiger”), and all black.  To round out the palette, toss in an extra-large tan and cream sucker pattern.

There are a lot folks out there selling musky flies these days—some are proven, some are not. Vet carefully and don’t go cheap. Ties from veteran musky feeder Brian Bergeson can be counted upon. When you place your order, tell him where you’re fishing and he can tailor the patterns to your local forage and water.  Also proven are the bigger musky offerings from Eli Berant. Look at his “Optimus Swine” and “B1G Foosa.”

Pro tip: flatten the barbs on all your hooks religiously. It’s not just better for the fish, but it’s also much safer for you—both when casting in the wind and when extracting from large, furious fish. When you want those hooks out, you want them to come out fast and easy.

The Leader

The formula: about three feet of stiff, heavy monofilament, and 12-18 inches of bite tippet. It sounds short, but it turns over big flies easy and makes figure-eights smooth. 

Fly Fishing for Muskie

Scientific Anglers recently released a line of pre-rigged toothy-fish leaders, and the Figure 8s are just right for musky fishing. They’re not cheap, but they’re hand-made in Michigan with premium components and will get you on the water with confidence and no knot-tying required.

Stick with wire for bite tippet. Fluorocarbon is expensive, bite-resistant but not bite-proof, and offers few advantages over wire under most conditions. A bite-off is a lost fly, a lost fish—maybe the fish of your life—and maybe even a dead fish. Just use wire. Our favorite is American Fishing Wire Surflon 7×7 nylon-coated stainless steel wire, in 40-pound test, camo brown. It’s soft and knots well, resists kinking and abrasion, and doesn’t rust. A single small spool will last a season or two.

Here’s a one-knot wonder-rig we learned from Wisconsin musky guide Chris Willen that allows you to loop-to-loop your pre-rigged flies to your leader in seconds:

  1. Tie a perfection loop on one end of 18 inches of your bite tippet wire. 
  2. Tie your fly onto the other end with another perfection loop.
  3. Loop (or nail knot) three feet of 40-50 pound mono to your fly line.
  4. On the end of that, tie a two-inch wide perfection loop.
  5. Pass the big mono loop through the small wire loop, then pass the fly through the big mono loop.  

It’s not the cleanest solution—lots of loops in your leader and wire in your fly box—but it’s reliable, easy to rig on the water, and cost-effective.

Pro tip for tightening perfection loops in stiff mono and wire: moisten all knots, and use the rounded end of your forceps/pliers as a T-handle through the loop.  

The Line

You need an authoritative sinking-head streamer line. For now, forget the floaters and intermediates.  The Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 25 Cold is our favorite for most conditions—400 grains for a 10-weight or 450 grains for an 11-weight.  It has a 25-foot sinking head that shoots after one false cast, turns over big flies with a cathartic “plop,” and keeps them 3-5 feet below the surface, right in the kill zone. Its braided core won’t coil up in the cold, and the running line is easy to manage even with stiff October fingers.

Pro tip: swallow your pride and get some of those spandex stripping guards. Cold and wet plus all-day streamer fishing equals raw fingers.

The Rod

A 10-weight is the minimum, and an 11 will toss bigger flies but is harder to find on the shelf. It doesn’t have to be expensive—in fact, the slower action of an entry-level rod can actually help ease the learning curve a bit. Casting a big fly and a heavy sinking line takes practice, and not the kind you can do on the lawn, so a softer rod can be more forgiving as you develop your own big-meat casting stroke.

The Orvis Clearwater and TFO BVK are both good affordable starter rods, though they are only available in 10-weight. The TFO Esox and Redington Predator Musky are both good 11-weight starters. If you want to jump right into a top-end musky stick, check out the one-piece Orvis H2 11-weight or the Clutch Tannik 450—either is an all-day laser beam with a 450-grain line, if you are on your game. If not, these super-fast actions can punish you.

 

Fly Fishing for MuskieNo matter what you get, make sure you send in your warranty card, because figure-eights in rocky rivers are tough on rod tips.

Pro tip: don’t go right from a 5-weight to a 10-weight. Spend some time with your 8-weight and a sinking line between trout season and musky season—this will help prevent chronic tendon and joint injuries. Not kidding.

The Reel

The old axiom “the reel is just there to hold your line” is especially true in musky fishing. They’re not runners, they’re fighters. You don’t need a high-end drag or an ultra-wide arbor. That said, you do want a forget-about-it reliable reel that can take the abuse of boat life without bending a rim or pinching your line, and that has enough heft to balance your heavy-duty rod. The Ross Reels CLA 6 was a standby, but they don’t make it any more—you might look at its successor, the Cimmaron II 9/10

Pro tip: check your reel seat tightness throughout the day. This kind of casting has a tendency to loosen things up more than, say, trout fishing, and a reel this big clunking on the boat deck—or your toes—is bound to break something.

The Tools

Forget about nippers: you need to cut wire and crush 6/0 hook barbs. Heavy-duty forceps like these from Montana Fly Co. work great, but don’t expect the cutter portion to last forever. Workable options are at the hardware store for a few bucks. While there, get a really long set of bent-tip needlenose pliers.

The pliers are for deep fly recovery, and for this you’ll also want a wire mouth spreader, unless you enjoy lacerations that bleed for hours. For really bad situations, a small bolt-cutter type tool can be used to cut hooks to save a fish or yourself from severe injury. But resist the temptation to get a Boga or other mechanical lip-grip: they can damage the musky’s relatively slender lower jaw far too easily. Google image search if you’re skeptical. It’s ugly.  

What really makes releasing muskies successful and safe for all parties is a big friendly net. Giant four-foot-deep musky nets are the standard in gear-fishing circles, but most of them are designed for giant boats with lots of storage. There are folding options, like the Stowmaster TS94IM, and they work very well. But they’re still very big, and very costly. Luckily for us, barbless two-hook flies are much easier and safer to extract than giant lures with two or three barbed trebles, so having a giant musky-specific super-net is not critical—but you still do need a solution that works in your boat and your budget. Make sure it is big enough to hold a four-foot fish and has small, slime-friendly netting that won’t split your new best friend’s fins.

Pro tip: put a lanyard on anything critical, and carry extras of cheap tools. You’ll be working on fish over the water and cold fingers drop tools.  

Now What?

So you’ve got the gear now. Where to start? A day on the water with a musky guide. This kind of fishing is different enough from anything else in fresh water that you’ll enjoy a major jump-start by paying a pro for a day. You’ll pick up a fistfull of cheat codes about how muskies think and act and eat and how to handle them when hooked and when in the net — and you’ll have someone reminding you to figure-eight after every cast and yelling at you when you trout set.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Northern Minnesota native Tom Hazelton fly fishes, writes, and photographs his way around the Upper Midwest, trying to stay above the 45th parallel. He also occasionally updates a blog that can found at www.voyageurpursuits.com.
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  • Poppy Cummins

    Nice informative article.

  • 7543

    I like a large arbor reel with a high rate of retrieve because a typical scenario for me is a fairly close-in hook up after a long toss and a fast, two-handed retrieve. Getting 70 or 80 feet of line off the deck and back on the spool, and getting the fish on the reel, makes getting the fish landed and released easier, imo.

    • Tom Hazelton

      For sure, there are times and places where that will make a difference. In our northern waters you generally aren’t casting that far, and don’t want to give the fish any line at all, no matter what, or you’ll lose it in timber or rocks. Of course, big lake fishing is a different story altogether. Also, I had a 42 go sideways in heavy current on me a couple weeks ago…

  • Jeffrey Carmichael

    Tom,
    This is such excellent info….where were you a few years back? Thanks for sharing all your wisdom….
    Jeff

    • Tom Hazelton

      Thanks Jeffrey. A few years back I was learning things the hard way.

      • Jeffrey Carmichael

        Just this past Sunday I lost a true monster musky in the only local lake that has these critters…got it on video but lost the fish at 4 1/2 minutes because the fly, a popper pulled loose! Still not over it….

  • Steve Root

    I appreciate the advice to buy flies…however I’ve NEVER bought a fly and like to tie my own. The problem I have is with hooksets. I strip set hard several times, I bend down the bards and sharpen the hooks and still can’t get decent penetration. Any suggestions for a good hook to try? I’ve been using big “salt water” style streamer hooks. I’m considering tying tube flies and hanging a smaller octopus style hook off the back. Thanks!

    • Tom Hazelton

      Well, I’m certainly no expert on fly design. But I would suggest scoping out the soft plastics aisle in your local fishing shop for the biggest worm hooks you can find. Look at the Gamakatsu “Heavy Cover.” You want as wide a gape as you can get, and smaller diameter wire seems to penetrate better. Also look at what are called “spinnerbait hooks.”

      That said, there’s no magic bullet. Other things that can sap hooksetting ability: really bulky flies with hooks buried in thick bucktail; some synthetic hair materials, foam popper bodies, etc. that really stick to a musky’s velcro-teeth — needs to slip for the hooks to grab; long casts and stretchy lines/leaders.

      The best thing you can do is get a nice, deep inhalation eat, and a fish that doesn’t want to let go. If you figure out how to guarantee that, let me know.

      • Steve Root

        Thanks Tom! Were thinking along the same lines. I have a better hooking percentage with topwaters tied on “Bass Bug” hooks, which have a wide gape and are made of thinner wire.

        And some times the fish just beat you. I used to fish Muskies with heavy conventional tackle. I’ve had fish grab Bucktaile…just hair and big sharp treble hooks….and after several minutes they just let go and swim away. That’s going to happen some times.

        Thanks for the tip on the “heavy Cover hooks!

        SR

    • Kevin

      The boys using pool cues for rods sometimes have trouble driving a hook home, so it’s a problem everyone has from time to time.

    • Luke

      It’s a fairly beefy hook (which means more surface area to drive into a fish), but I’ve had pretty good luck with Gamakatsu SL12s in 6/0. It’s a shorter shank hook, so what a friend of mine does is articulate a shorter – usually 28mm – shank in front of it. This puts the hook just a bit further back (increasing the odds that the fish doesn’t miss your hook) and also – I think – gives you better control on the fish by not having a super long shank in the fish’s mouth. We’ve found that tying 8-9″ Swine-like patterns (mentioned in the article) on this hook and shank combo works very well. A few perks to this hook are the slightly bent hook point, which I think increases the likelihood of the hook ending up closer to the edge of the fish’s mouth (i.e., easier to get out), and it’s awfully sharp. But not everything works for everybody!

      • Thanks Luke. I played with those SL12s back when I first started tying these, and mainly didn’t like how short they were — that was before shanks were on the scene. Good idea there! And sometimes I think the most important factor here is confidence in whatever you’re using. 90% of hookups are probably dependent on how the fish takes the fly. All this discussion is about is that remaining 10%.

  • TriStar

    Way do you build out of Mono? Why not 60# or even 100# fluoro
    ?

    • You could use fluoro, but there’s no real reason to, and it’s far more costly. 50# mono is generally stiff enough to deliver the fly, it’s easier to knot, and it’s more than strong enough. Fly line tensile strength is only around 30-40lbs, so extra strength in your leader gains you nothing.

  • bseagle

    Would like to see more pics of the boat 🙂

    • It’s not that special, but it is bright yellow. I’ll have to take some more pics. Stay tuned. Thanks!

  • Nice post..Fishing is my best hobby…