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The Muskie Top-Water Retrieve

by Robert Tomes
illustrations by Chris Armstrong
Properly fishing a muskie popper requires casts modified for big, wind-resistant bugs and aggressive use of the rod tip and the strip. But the rewards can be unlike any other in warmwater fly fishing.
Fly fishing for Muskie

The basic elements of the muskie sweep-and-strip top-water retrieve: Start by making a cast and assuming the predator pose with a lowered rod tip. As the fly lands, immediately get control of your line by placing it under your index finger and stripping tight to the fly (Figure 1). Watch for signs of fish activity and, with a firm grip on the line behind your index finger, begin retrieving the fly by forcefully sweeping the rod sideways at the same time you apply a fast, 12- to 24-inch or longer strip (Figure 2). After each sweep-and-strip, immediately recover any slack line and reposition the rod the next retrieve (Figure 3).

The Muskie Sweep-and-Strip Top-Water Retrieve

CATCHING A MUSKIE on a top-water fly is one of the most exciting and visually intoxicating events in all of fly fishing. Although I’ve fished around the world for many different and exotic species, for me nothing compares to the sight of a large muskie aggressively pushing a V-wake while following my popper across the surface, kicking up water with splashes of its tail, or blasting it from below and jumping sky-high with my fly sticking out of its mouth.

As nerve-wracking as this fishing can be, it’s also a productive way to fly fish for muskies under the right conditions and with the right techniques. One of main the reasons it’s effective is the muskie’s shallow water and surface-feeding orientation through much of the peak warm water season. Depending on water temperatures and regulations where you fish, the top water popper can also be used with confidence as early as March and as late as November.

Fly fishing for Muskie

he sweep-and-strip retrieve triggers muskies to hit by creating a very loud and visible boil on the surface of the water.

The popper is also the only type of fly that produces a significant level of noise, commotion, and fish-attracting vibration almost on par with some conventional muskie top-water baits. This added attraction has resulted in many of my biggest fish each year.

A top-water fly is an excellent choice for searching the water, especially in stained or low-light conditions where a streamer might not be as visible or effective. Before you try top-water fishing for muskies, however, you should know that this is also one of the more difficult techniques to master. It requires a steady hand, a keen ear, and a practiced eye.

Poppers for Muskie

A muskie popper in action: The explosive boil of a muskie popper is the key to attracting fish and making them strike. photo by Paul Melchior.

To understand better how to fish a top-water fly for muskies, it’s worth taking a look at the wide range of muskie surface lures to see how they move through the water and what they sound like. Although there are dozens on the market, the most effective lures incorporate various combinations of side-to-side or “walk-the-dog” wobble. Some even have fore-and-aft propeller blades, or arms that kick and sputter water leaving a defined bubble trail as the bait moves along the surface. Some surface baits are meant to crawl slowly in calmer water. Others work best at faster speeds. Both conventional surface lures and top water poppers trigger muskies to strike with an irresistible combination of noise, vibration, action, and speed.

Because I enjoy fishing poppers, I always keep a rod rigged with a top-water fly to use when conditions are right — or as a backup fly in case of a follow. A top-water fly can be just the ticket for a fish that refuses a streamer. Keeping an extra rod rigged and dedicated for this purpose makes switching to a popper quick and efficient. I also enjoy throwing a top-water fly simply for a change of pace since it requires a different casting stroke and retrieve technique. It’s just plain fun to cast a top-water fly and watch as it pops and gurgles all the way back to the boat. You can almost imagine it crying “Help me! Help me!” as it struggles across the surface.

If you’ve fished a popper for bass you are well on your way to understanding what it takes to fish on top for muskies. Many of the same surface retrieves that work for bass also work for muskies, only on a much larger scale. There are, however, several notable differences in the technique, timing, and energy required to cast and pop the fly.

Fly fishing for MuskieMany anglers have difficulty casting and turning over a large, air-resistant popper. By slowing down the cast and extending the stroke to open the loop, most should be able to achieve the minimal distances required. Adding a short but firm haul on your back and forward casts also helps increase line speed and distance with a large popper. They are not for distance casting. When fishing any large, wind-resistant fly, take the time to position the boat within reasonable range of your target before you cast.

How you retrieve a top-water fly for muskies is the most critical part of this equation. A typical bass popper or diver requires a relatively fast but short strip of the line to make it move, gurgle, and pop as intended. A muskie popper, on the other hand, displaces far more water as it moves across the surface. This necessitates the combined — and very aggressive — use of the rod tip and the strip to achieve a loud and steady pop throughout the entire retrieve.

Top-Water Fly Problems and Solutions

Problem: Fly skips on the surface when I try to pop.

Solution: After you cast, let the fly settle in the water, lower your rod tip so it’s touching the water, and strip in any slack line before beginning your sweep-and-strip retrieve. Always make sure the fly is upright and facing forward toward the rod tip before the first pop. In extremely windy or wavy conditions, slow down the pace of the retrieve and apply the sweep-and-strip between each ripple or wave.

Problem: Fly twists on the surface when I pop, twisting my fly line and leader.

Solution: Check your wire, knots, and the fly for any damage or weeds. Kinks in the wire, large knots, or even a nick in a hard-body popper can make the fly turn and roll as you retrieve. After repeated casting — or a fish —the body of the fly may become detached from the hook causing it to roll during the retrieve. Flies with trailer hooks also tend to roll if attached with a stiff wire connection that has been bent and is no longer in line with the fly.

Problem: Fly doesn’t make a large and loud enough pop.

Solution: This common problem is usually caused by not waiting long enough for the fly to settle in the water between pops or not having the rod tip low enough and your tight line before popping. If you’ve got any slack, pop too soon, or are at the wrong angle, the fly cannot capture enough water in the head to make any noise or push water. Wait for the fly to settle, lower your rod tip so it’s touching the water, strip in your slack, and then begin your sweep-and-strip retrieve. Tip: This problem may also be caused by a dirty line sinking the fly or a damaged head. Clean your line regularly and check the fly for signs of wear and tear, replacing if necessary.

Problem: Line slaps loudly on the surface when I sweep-and-strip, making an unnatural noise.

Solution: “Line slap” is a common problem with topwater flies caused by too much slack. You can easily eliminate most of this unwanted noise by keeping the rod tip low to the water and always stripping line tight before each sweep and strip. Holding the rod tip underwater also helps to avoid noise and slack, but tends to pull the fly too deep reducing the noise level of each pop.

Problem: Fly is difficult to pick up off the water.

Solution: A large top-water fly with a concave face

can be difficult to pick up off the water, especially at longer distances. Before beginning your back cast, eliminate any slack line, and raise the rod slowly, lifting most of the line and leader off the surface first. Once the rod is at the 11 o’clock position, cock the wrist back and apply a short but powerful single haul to finally lift the fly off the water for the back cast.

Other Top-Water Retrieve Considerations

When using the sweep-and-strip top-water technique, it’s important to make every pop count — but especially the first one. If you try to pop the fly too soon after it lands, more often than not it simply skips quietly over the surface or comes flying back at the boat, risking injury and wasting a perfectly good cast. In most situations, it’s best to make the initial pop as large and loud as possible by keeping the rod tip low on the water, eliminating any slack, and making sure the fly is sitting upright before your begin your retrieve.

It is also important that you begin each retrieve using a slow and steady rhythm much like a conventional top-water muskie lure. For whatever reason, muskies prefer a moderately paced, steady, and uninterrupted pop, pop, pop rhythm that leaves a distinct bubble trail as opposed to working it back very slowly with a distinctive pause. Resting the fly for long periods and letting the rings completely disappear between pops as is common with a bass bug is not normally the most effective approach.

If you’re not getting any action with the fast-paced, steady retrieve rhythm, try the slower one-pop-at-a-time technique. It can’t hurt and you just might catch a fish. I’ve taken fish this way but typically they’re located on a small piece structure I know holds one good fish. One or two pops is all it takes. Whatever happens, if a fish is following, always pick up speed gradually and/or change direction with the rod tip to trigger a strike.

The most critical thing about top-water fishing for muskies is achieving the proper speed and noise throughout the entire retrieve. This may sound relatively simple but it is actually dependant on many things including the type and shape of fly, water conditions, and even your leader. Under most conditions I choose a large deer-hair or hard closed-cell foam-body popper with a deep, concave face. Of the two fly types, the hard foam-body popper definitely pushes the most water and makes the loudest possible sounds with a fly rod. In my experience, muskie poppers that consistently create the lowest frequency, loudest “blurp” noises are usually much better at attracting muskies than a higher frequency, softer pop. Watch and listen to your fly during each retrieve to make sure you’re achieving the right commotion with every cast.

In calm water, making the fly move, pop, and gurgle properly is usually not an issue. When the wind is causing wave movement on the surface — often prime conditions for top water — the popper will still work just fine but you’ve got to wait a moment between waves or the fly will skip with each sweep and strip. In rougher conditions, it’s also a good idea to use the largest and loudest top-water fly you can cast to draw the fish’s attention.

Whenever you use a top-water fly, I suggest using a lighter, thinner, wire shock tippet of 15- to 20-pound-test to avoid weighing down the head of the fly and deadening the action. You should also use a heavy, stiff-butt, monofilament leader of six to eight feet with at least 20-pound-test tippet, to facilitate turnover and prevent the fly from falling to one side as it lands. Abrasion-resistant fluorocarbon is not recommended for top-water muskie flies: It sinks faster than nylon monofilament, dulling action during the retrieve.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Chicago-based fly fishing writer, speaker and MidCurrent contributor Robert Tomes has spent a lifetime chasing the fish of 10,000 casts across the US and Canada. His groundbreaking Muskie on the Fly (Wild River Press, 2008, www.muskieontheflybook.com) remains the definitive work on the subject. His two new books, 25 Best Places to Fly Fish for Pike and 25 Best Places to Fly Fish for Muskie are scheduled for release by Stonefly Press in early 2014 (www.stoneflypress.com).  This article is excerpted from Muskie on the Fly (Masters on the Fly series) (Wild River Press, October 2008, 283 pages). Article copyright © 2008 by Robert S. Tomes.
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