Dahlberg'™s Fantastic 5 Pike and Muskie Tips
May 05, 2014
No doubt Larry Dahlberg rides a different wave, casting to the farthest ends of the piscatorial galaxy. Lure inventor, world traveler, TV show host, he's spent a lifetime dreaming up ways to trip toothy triggers. Experiences with one species often inspire plans for others, too, the true mark of an angling master.
When he tweaks a lure with a certain twitch that fools a 20-pound peacock bass in Panama, he knows a similar approach might work for muskies. And drawing from years of bluewater marlin patrol, the former In-Fisherman staff member follows a parallel path to freshwater predators — employing speed and visual enticements for these pike and muskie tips.
Most seasons, Dahlberg, who began guiding at age-11, has a good handle on the locations of fish living in his home waters, which leaves time to focus on presentation. "I spend much of my time these days working through different retrieves, often targeting a specific big pike or muskie. Eventually, using just one or two different baits, I can get the fish to bite."
Decades ago, lacking lures capable of achieving certain maneuvers, the Minnesota-based angler began making his own. The Dahlberg Diver — a now classic pike and bass fly pattern — remains perhaps his best-known creation. It's a long, lightweight fly that's easy to cast and dives dramatically with each line strip, leaving behind an alluring bubble trail and the illusion of a sizable meal.
In recent years, he's teamed with River2Sea, designing several lures, such as the Clackin' Crayfish and Diver Frog. They represent a dramatic departure from traditional lure design, and require anglers to rethink the process of presentation.
So when I asked Dahlberg to reveal five tactical tips for predators, I knew we'd be drawing outside the lines; that the advice would surely be innovative, unfamiliar, and perhaps difficult for anglers to immediately put into practice. But I also knew the intel he revealed might prompt us to reconsider and perhaps revise some of the tactics we traditionally employ.
1 - The Magic Move
To move forward, it's often necessary to evoke the past, traveling back to bygone lures and techniques. When his guiding career began, Dahlberg was a fan of jerkbaits. Today, he points to the Eddie Bait, one of the classic early designs. Built in the 1950s by Hayward, Wisconsin, guide Ed Ostling, the Eddie was probably the first of the slide and glide style jerks, with relatives such as the Reef Hawg and more recently, Drifter Tackle's Hellhound and River2Sea's Wide Glide. What set the Eddie Bait apart, he says, was its construction of American rock maple, an extra dense wood that enabled the lure's spectacular side-to-side motion.
Early on, Dahlberg recognized the power of what he calls the "hypno-glider zigzag." "Fish have always been attracted to the basic glide-stop-glide retrieve," he says. "It's a superior move for getting fish to show themselves and follow. But when fish get wise, I go away from the regular glide-stop-glide motion to short, powerful down-strokes. Properly executed, this move makes the lure turn and jump nearly 180 degrees. The key to making the turn is generating enough velocity to make the bait boil on the surface."
Using an original Eddie Bait, or a Wide Glide slow-sink version — which Dahlberg designed to execute this maneuver — he begins by giving the rod an extra violent pop. Holding a stiff 9-foot rod straight up in the air, he can pick up a lot of line fast. He says the rod pop "shocks" the bait. "In between rips, give a bit of slack," he recommends. "This lets the bait 'escape,' maximizing glide distance on the next rip. With each subsequent rip, which I do with the rod tip down, I can get the Wide Glide to move 8 feet to either side. Within the space of a 20-foot retrieve, it's possible to move the bait more than 50 feet. That drives fish mad with desire.
"The whole thing's about cadence. As the bait slows and comes to a stop, it shimmies. Then, a quick, powerful jerk gives it a 'whoosh' on the turn that makes it boil and shoot off at 100 miles an hour in almost the opposite direction. Give it slack and let it glide until it stops. You can wait an instant or 15 seconds or more before giving it another pop to zig it back the other direction."
Dahlberg notes additional details: He uses 65- to 100-pound-test braid, and connects to a leader with the lightest swivel possible. A heavy swivel, he says, pulls the lure's nose down and reduces its appeal. To combat this, he often connects the braid to the wire leader with a Bimini Twist/double nail knot connection. He ties larger lures directly to the braid. He also removes tail feathers that come on some baits, which hamper glide distance. "Usually, those first two turns and long glides are the magic move. That's when fish react and throttle the bait."
2 - The Pile Driver
On recent trips to deep clear lakes in western Minnesota, Dahlberg, alongside guides Josh Stevenson and Jason Hammernick, discovered a miraculous move of another sort.
When pike and muskies position on deep weedlines — especially late in summer and into early fall — anglers often cast big spinnerbaits and work them through cover to extract active biters. But there's a problem: When a fish rises rapidly from the depths in hot pursuit, it often either totally misses the bait, or turns at the last instant and zips away. Further, if the fish doesn't snap before the lure reaches the boat, additional maneuvers such as a figure-8 rarely lead to strikes in these deep-to-shallow situations.
While he'd long recognized the power of a spinnerbait in these scenarios, he'd been disappointed in these baits' ability to trigger followers. He wanted something with flash, vibration and snag-resistance, but didn't want the lure to slowly helicopter on the fall — a move that often prompted disinterest in followers. In response, he devised and began to test a new lure style designed for fishing deep. The results were dramatic.
"Last September, fish were all over deep weedlines, down in 20 to 25 feet of water. We started throwing this strange double blade thing — basically a heavy leadhead with two spinnerbait arms jutting out of it — and just pounded the fish, catching six to ten muskies per day."
Resembling an old Shannon Twin Spinner, Dahlberg's creation sports an oversized 21â„2- to 3-ounce head and two short, recessed wire arms each holding a #6 willowleaf blade. Rather than slowly helicoptering on the fall, the bait plummeted headfirst, forcefully pulling the two streamlined blades behind.
"I like how it stays deep," he says. "You can hop it or do a straight medium retrieve — even in 20 feet of water. But the real key is what happens when fish follow it to the boat. Instead of going into a figure-8, you hit freespool and allow the bait to rapidly plummet toward bottom. The trigger lies in getting it to drop faster than the retrieve speed. When you do this, fish react by quickly turning tail and shooting downward in pursuit. With its head-down position, the hook is in ideal position to sting a striking fish. Right now, no one's making this bait, but it's incredibly deadly, and with a few simple tools, it's possible to build your own."
3 - Meet Mr. Whiggley
Ironically, the first design Dahlberg brought to River2Sea many years ago didn't go into production until recently. Today, he calls Mr. Whiggley "the best, most versatile bait for pike, muskies, stripers, and peacock bass I've ever used. It has a totally random action when twitched or fished stop-and-go. It works differently in the hands of each angler. When reeled fast, it has a realistic swimming action. And it can be fished at an almost infinite range of speeds, from a dead crawl to Mach-10."
Although he's hand-poured Whiggleys from 6 to 24 inches (he recently caught a giant tarpon on a 24-incher), the new River2Sea version is a 10½-inch soft swimmer that's just right for big pike and muskies. The lure sports a sliding, through-body wire harness connected to a single treble hook. "When something grabs a Whiggley, it gets stung by the single hook, minimizing damage. Meanwhile he bait slides up the line and out of toothy jaws and generally isn't damaged."
Dahlberg says that when he knows the location of an individual big fish, he often tries different Whiggley retrieves and nearly always, eventually, gets it to bite. "It's one of two lures I now throw nearly 90 percent of the time. This lure swims with a totally random, non-mechanical action that's unique. When you reel and stop, its tail uses stored energy to propel the lure and it glides off to the side. All I can say is, if you like to fish for big toothy fish, this lure might change your life."
4 - The Streamlined Sinker
Regardless of what he's casting or trolling, Dahlberg often likes to achieve different presentation depths. He'll work a Whiggley in 15 feet; troll a sucker at 30; or put a jerkbait into prime position along an 18-foot weed wall. Like other anglers, he's noticed that placing a single weight, such as a 1-ounce egg or keel sinker, on the line above a lure causes presentation problems.
"A ball of lead a foot or more ahead of a lure jumps around, yo-yo's, and pulls it in strange directions. I've found that by splicing short sections of leadline into the mainline, you can present lures much more naturally. You can put three feet of leadline ahead of a Suick and troll it deep. You can do the same thing with livebait, or you can even cast and work a bucktail at different depths. If you rig it right, the weighted line casts smoothly through the rod guides."
Using lead wire and a length of heavy-test, hollow-core braided line, Dahlberg creates the ultimate in-line sinker. He first pinches an opening in the braid, then inserts a section of lead into the hollow-core line. He then forms a loop on both ends of the line, which allows him to join the 2- to 3-foot lead "sinker" to his mainline and the terminal section of mainline to the lure.
Rigging requires practice and may not be for everyone. Yet the idea behind his in-line sinker is sensible. If nothing else, it prompts further thinking about presentation and the effects of various traditional sinker riggings. If you're a DIY'er willing to try it, check videos on splicing leadcore and hollow-core braid on YouTube.
For trolling, it's fairly simple to add short sections of leadcore ahead of lures or livebaits using blood knots or other connections. Those connections don't work well for casting because the knots don't flow smoothly through line guides.
"Done right, this is the ultimate system for weighting everything from swimbaits to cranks and blades. And it's the best way to put weight in front of a live sucker, and maintain a totally natural presentation."
5 - Go Fly a Kite
Moving to the business end of his sucker rig, Dahlberg uses his "magic hook," an oddball design that's accounted for an astounding number of fish. But first, to provide lift over vegetation and to get the bait away from the boat, he throws fish another curveball, adding kites and helium balloons to his rigging.
Kite rigging, which Dahlberg adopted from the marine scene, involves a kite off each side of the boat, both connected to an outrigger or a 12-foot rod placed in a holder. He prefers fishing kites from Aftco, which include line-release clips and other terminal tackle. To each kite, he often attaches a large helium balloon to keep the kite from crashing into the water when the boat stops, or during fish fights. He uses heavy-duty reusable balloons available through saltwater tackle suppliers.
He uses the system to run livebaits near the surface over shallow vegetation, as well as over deeper water, at 0 to 6 mph. Often, he runs baits high in the water column so he can watch the sucker get nervous and wild, and see the watery commotion of the strike itself. When a bite occurs, the line pulls from the kite release clip — similar to a planer board release — and he can battle the fish while the kite and balloon hover above.
The special hook rig, which functions like a saltwater floss rig, connects to the sucker without impaling it. Dahlberg takes a 6/0 to 8/0 octopus-style hook and solders a thin stainless wire loop onto the bend. To this, he attaches a short length of stranded wire via a small crimp. He then slides a second crimp onto the wire. Next, lightly grasping a live sucker, he runs the end of the wire through both of its nostrils. He feeds the wire back through the crimp and adjusts wire length (he prefers wire about one-third the length of the sucker). Finally, he secures the crimp with crimping pliers.
"When you troll a bait on this rig, it stays fresh and lively. It often gets more energetic the longer it swims around. Without hooks or weight in its face, the sucker can swim and react naturally. It tries to escape when a predator approaches, and that's the deadliest trigger of all.
"Imagine a muskie with the sucker turned and headed down its gullet. See where the hook ends up? Right in the corner of the beak, where it won't harm the fish. We've regularly converted over 70 percent of our bites with this rig. If you wait longer before setting, that number rises to 90 percent.
"I've had 6-day stretches when we've boated 48 to 50 muskies, with half a dozen over 50 inches. Those are staggering numbers. But they simply show what's possible. No question in my mind, if people fished with livebait and kites, from July 'til freeze-up, we'd see more big muskies caught than any time in history."