Musky Fly Fishing: The Set Up
For a fly angler used to fishing for trout, which is the majority of freshwater fly anglers in the United States, everything about musky fly fishing is going to feel foreign and probably a bit intimidating. The fish are huge and prone to frustrating moves like following your fly without eating it. The weather at prime time is frequently cold and windy. The flies are big and heavy and can seem pretty tough to cast if you are not used to them. And the group of anglers who regularly chase muskies can seem a bit like a secret society, with a language and tools that might not be familiar to even the most skilled trout fly angler.
Joining a forum of helpful musky fly addicts such as the Facebook Musky Fly Fishing group can really be a good place to start. There you will find a group happy to give you advice in getting set up. The problem you'll encounter, though, is that everybody has their own personal way of doing things. Ask about leaders, for instance, and you’ll get a bunch of replies with different recipes. Which to choose? It shouldn’t be this tough to get an easy and straight answer. Unfortunately, it can be. For instance, each of the three of us (Maxx, Josh and me) guiding for muskies at Eau Claire Anglers have our own personal way of making leaders. The same kind of personal specialization occurs with rods, reels, lines and just about everything used in this crazy activity.
What I’m about to suggest does not represent the only options and might not even represent the best possible options. This is quite simply a description of what I use to fish for muskies. I offer it as a place for you to start. I will say that this particular set up has put a whole bunch of muskies in the net and I feel confident that my equipment and tackle will work well day in and day out with big fish and under extreme conditions.
Caveat one: I’m a traditional fly caster when I fish for muskies. Some of the equipment below is not the right choice for the water loading style of casting. If you are interested in getting set up for water loading, I highly suggest this video as a place to start. Luke Swanson is an expert in this type of casting and his suggestions would be the ones I would follow.
Caveat two: As a guide, I get some of this stuff at a discount. However, I’m in a number of different guide programs and still have a wide range of choices from a number of manufacturers. I take my responsibility as a professional seriously. There is no discount large enough to convince me to fish with or recommend something inferior if better equipment could be had.
The rod is the obvious place to start. This is going to get a little long, but the rod is the most expensive piece of kit you will need and a good one will really make a difference. Josh, Maxx, and I fish almost exclusively with one piece musky fly rods made by The Chippewa River Custom Rod Company. I use the ten weight. Josh, who puts a bit more punch in his casts than I do, prefers the twelve. Of the rods I have used, this is the best suited to the job.
Let’s look at what a musky fly rod needs to do. First, a musky fly rod needs to deliver heavy, wind resistant flies efficiently hour after hour of casting. A good musky fly rod is going to feel light in the hand and have a light-feeling swing weight. It should be stiff enough to perform figure eights, but still flex deep into the rod while casting to properly load with big flies. And it needs to be durable. The two trouble areas with musky fly rods are at the ferrules and the guides. The big flies will often cause ferrules to come loose, resulting in cracked ferrules or completely broken rods. Tungsten impregnated sinking lines are abrasive and will eventually eat their way through most steel guides. The Chippewa River Custom Rod Company one piece rod meets these requirements very well.
Eliminating ferrules is a big deal. Ferrules add swing weight, create dead spots and can come loose. A rod without them should be lighter, smoother and more durable than rod with them. The Chippewa one piece rod is exactly that. The ten weight feels like an eight weight when I’m casting it. And I never have to worry about checking my ferrules to make sure they’re tight; there are none!
Most rod makers use stainless steel guides. They work really well under most conditions; however, musky fly fishing throws a wrench into the works. We use tungsten coated sinking lines and cast really big flies. To that combination add thousands of casts and the result is that the line chews its way through guides, eventually leading the tip top to become a razor blade. If you haven’t checked it lately, you can be in for a very ugly surprise when the line gets cut clean through on the fish of a lifetime. Unfortunately, I have seen this happen. Tears were shed. The Chippewa rod has ceramic guides all the way from the stripping guide to the tip top. Problem solved. By the way, other rod makers, like The Whuff Rod Company, use titanium guides which also solve the problem (remember this if you need a four piece rod!).
Lastly, I would point out the handle. I was initially skeptical of the rubber grip on this rod, but after using it, I like it. It feels solid and is comfortable all day. Plus it just seems to be exactly the right size for my hands. The extended fighting butt works really well for figure eights and is long enoug that the line doesn’t get wrapped around nearly as easily as it does on shorter “tangling” butts.
Of course, there is a downside to this rod: portability. You aren’t going to have an easy time getting a nine foot rod on an airplane, and depending on your vehicle, you might have difficulty even driving it to the river. Chippewa River Custom Rods makes a four piece version of this rod, but with that you will lose some of the advantages and may want to consider all the other options (see Whuff Rods above). Luckily for me, a one piece rod fits in both my vehicle and boat, so this is the musky rod I use.
A musky reel needs to hold line and not break. You will rarely encounter a fish that takes any line off the reel and you won’t ever have one put you in your backing; big runs are just not a musky forte. If the drag isn’t the smoothest in the world, it really isn’t going to ever be an issue. I use Redington Behemoth reels on most of my musky rods. These are beefy reels, which is good because they do take a beating in my boat. The 7-8 size balances the Chippewa River rod nicely. The 9-10 seems a little too big. The only reason I can think of for buying an expensive reel for musky fishing is if you want it to do double duty in the salt, but I would bet that the Behemoth would be fine for the occasional trip to the flats.
This should have been number two on the list because the line is more important than the reel in musky fishing. There are three criteria that I consider important in a musky line: castability, handling, and durability. Every line I have fished represents some kind of compromise between these three traits.
My choice for fly line for musky fishing has been the Cortland Compact. This line shoots nicely, handles well in all but very cold conditions, and is more durable than any other musky fly line I have fished. The issue of durability is a big one for musky anglers. We strip the entire line back on every cast and it ends up on the floor of boats where it is repeatedly stepped on and abused. This has been the weak link for most of the lines I have tried and it is a real selling point for the Cortland. These lines simply last far longer than their competitors. I give this line a slight demerit for becoming stiff and getting a memory when it is cold. See the Pike Musky line discussed below as a possible update to this issue.
I have been using the 350grain 9/10 on my Chippewa River rod and it works well (remember to put a large fly soaked in water on when you test lines. The extra weight really makes a difference!).
Sink rate is a topic that needs to be discussed. In the Cortland line, I primarily use two different sink rates: Sink 9 (nine inches per second) and Intermediate (one inch per second). The Sink 9 is my most frequently used line. In the late spring and summer, I might be fishing shallower water than I do in the fall, but I generally use a pretty fast retrieve and the Sink 9 gets it down to the level it needs to be and the quick retrieve keeps it off the bottom. In the fall, I’m fishing deep and slow and the fast sink rate is perfect then as well. The Intermediate is great for fishing topwater. That little bit of sink helps a musky popper get some bite to really make a disturbance.
Important! Sink rate has nothing to do with grain weight! A 400 grain floating line weighs the same as a 400 grain sinking line.
It has been my experience that the biggest reason people have issues with getting hung up on the bottom is slack in the line after a cast. If a cast has too much slack, the line continues to sink while the angler strips to get caught up and a saggy belly forms (different from the saggy belly currently forming on me from too many Kwik Trip sandwiches) that is significantly lower than the fly. If this is happening to you, you can fish a slower sink rate line (Sink 6 or 3), but once your casts are arriving with little to no slack, you will probably want to go to a faster sink rate.
Special note: Cortland has come out with a new Pike Musky line that uses a similar coating to the Compact, but has a braided mono core, which they say will eliminate the cold weather handling issues. If so, that would make it a fantastic musky line. I haven’t actually had a chance to use it yet, so I can’t offer an opinion, but I’m looking forward to giving it a try.
Oh, boy... This is the area with the largest variation in personal preference. Mono or flouro leader? Steel or flouro tippet? Snaps or knots? Swivel? Confusing, isn’t it?
First of all, take a deep breath and realize that as long as you have some variation of the following, you will probably be fine. A musky leader for a sinking line should be relatively short (3-5 feet), needs a stiff and somewhat heavy leader, a bite proof tippet, and a secure means of attaching the fly. The whole set-up should have a breaking strength of at least 25#. If you have a leader that meets those criteria, it will get the job done.
I like to keep things as absolutely simple as I can. Because my leaders are easy to make, I can make them quickly and can put a new one on each rod at the start of every fishing day.
I start by tying a perfection loop in the end of a 3 foot piece of 40# Maxima Chameleon. I use this because the water in my neck of the woods is stained root beer color and the Chameleon disappears in it. If I fished in gin clear water, I would probably use fluorocarbon. I attach the other end to an 18” piece of 26# American Fishing Wire 7X7 Micro Supreme wire. I like the black version of this, but the camo is probably fine. I use a double surgeon’s knot for this attachment. It is one of, if not the, strongest line to line knots there is, with very close to a 100% knot strength. And it is probably the simplest fishing knot of all to tie. Pull the hell out of this knot to make sure it’s tight and it won’t fail. To that I attach a size 1 VMC Crankbait Snap. These snaps are pretty close to bombproof, conventional gear users swear by them, and I haven’t seen one come open. I use a five wrap clinch knot for this attachment. The snap allows plenty of fly action just like a loop knot, so a tight knot like a clinch works well here. Just make sure to put something in the snap that allows you to pull and really get a tight knot. I don’t bother with a swivel. Mono to wire to snap to fly. Simple.
Let me explain why I use 26# wire. First of all, fish just aren’t going to bite through it. So that worry is eliminated. Second, 26# makes it just a little less strong than the core of most fly lines, which are generally 35#. If I snag in deep water and have to break something, I would sure rather it be my easily replaceable leader than my expensive fly line.
I use a net instead of a cradle and I like a big one with rubber coated mesh. Once a musky is netted, a really big net acts like a live well and the fish can breathe, recover and chill without harm while angler high-fiving and tool-readying happens. I like to just let the fish hangout until it seems happy before putting it through the hook removal and photo taking process. I use a Frabill Stowmaster 94” net. It folds in half and I like it, but sometimes sand gets on the handle and makes it a little sticky to open.
This is musky fishing and you need heavy duty tools. I buy mine at the hardware store.
You will need a set of long reach needle nose pliers. I like ones with a spring to hold them open until you squeeze. These from Masterforce work great. The cutter works well with wire and heavy mono too, by the way.
You will also want a diagonal cutter. If a fish is hooked in a bad place like the rakers, sometimes it is just the best move to cut the hook rather than risk pulling it out. Make sure yours has a long enough handle. The cutters on your needle nose pliers might not be strong enough and messing around is exactly what you are trying to avoid.
A jaw spreader can really be a lifesaver for fish. There are times when they just won’t open their big mouths or keep them open long enough for you to see and do what needs to be done. I’ve tried the ones with the flat ends that don’t poke holes in fish mouths, but they have a tendency to fall out. In my mind it is better to do a little bit of damage and be able to get the fish unhooked and in the water quickly than it is to risk killing a fish by fumbling around with a tool that keeps popping out.
Lastly, you will want a diamond hook hone. I have this one from Loon and it works great. When in doubt, whip it out, and sharpen that hook.
I want to conclude by reiterating that this is how I’m set up and what I’m using for musky tackle and tools right now. A year from now, this list will probably be different as I try something new and decide to change. There are a host of other options and ways of doing things in this game. I hope this list gives you a place to start and allows you to feel confident as you begin the long, frustrating, wonderful, infuriating and magical journey that is musky fly fishing. All the best!