Ah, the elusive, annoying, and obsessive bane of many a fisherman: the muskie. A hard to find, extremely tricky and hard fighting freshwater fish, the muskie is notorious for “trolling” anglers hardheaded and obsessive enough to keep coming back to try to get lucky enough to hook one again.
Every fisherman knows that using the right bait is important with any fish, especially one as cantankerous as a muskellunge. And since Google apparently doesn’t understand the difference between a lure and bait, this article on the best bait for muskie needed to be written.
While the exact best live bait for muskie will vary based on common food sources in each body of water, the best artificial bait for muskellunge are Bondy Bait, Mid Medusas, and double bladed bucktails. The best live bait tends to be sucker minnows or large minnows with a live bobber rig.
So how do you figure out whether to use live bait or artificial? When do you decide to change it up going for these elusive monster-sized fish? Read on to find out everything you need to know about bait fishing for muskellunge!
Best Live Bait for Muskie
Most anglers choose artificial bait versus live bait when fishing for muskellunge. Part of the reason for this is ease. Obviously dealing with artificial bait/lures is much easier than actually having to handle live bait.
This is true normally, it’s even more so when dealing with musky. These fish are renown for being tricky, strange, and especially hard to catch, hook, and bring in.
That’s not even as a combination. That’s each one. Musky are insanely hard to get to bait. They are harder to hook. Then comes the fight that makes anglers willing to put up with the frustration, long unsuccessful outings, and the inevitable times where the muskie makes you look like an idiot.
Looking at the most common live bait for muskie brings up the same common choices:
- Sucker “minnows”
- Large minnow with bobber jigging set-up
No worms or leeches in this group!
Using Sucker Minnows
The term “minnow” can be a bit deceptive here, but you’re not hunting for small walleyes just barely big enough to keep and throw on the fire. You’re going after musky. The bigger, the better!
What You Need:
- Big-time treble hooks (our recommended ones are linked)
- A medium-heavy action fishing rod
- 8-12 inch suckers for bait
Each rigging should have at least two treble hooks set up to give the sucker freedom of movement while also putting your rig in a position to get a good solid hook when that giant muskie completely inhales your sucker.
Among the live bait rigs that are used to chase these elusive and trophy-sized fish, this setup is one of the absolute best.
Why use sucker minnows for musky?
The advantage here is the extra movement from live bait. For one, using suckers this size gets the attention of big musky, and that’s what you want. Why settle for a smaller musky when you can get the 20 or 30 pounders to come after your bait.
Or even a 10 pounder with the way these freshwater demons fight. The musky rig with the double treble hook gives you more of a chance of a good clean hook when the musky his the bait fish, and the freedom of movement from a real fish is always going to be more realistic than an artificial lure.
If you’re going with live bait and want a chance to really bring in that giant musky, especially in the waning days of autumn, then the sucker minnow set up is an extremely good choice.
The video below does a great job (towards the 9:45-9:50 mark) of showing exactly how to set up this rigging for musky fishing success.
Using Large Minnow & Bobber Setup
This is a more conventional setup that anglers who love jigging are going to be very familiar with this. In some cases the minnow jigging setup occurs without the bobber. This will depend on the rigging, angler preference, as well as what are common in the area.
Even here, minnows should not be the tiny things that you put on junior’s first fishing rod at a small local lake. You’re looking for big muskie, and big predators like muskie like larger bait.
That’s why the use of 8 or 12 inch suckers has been so effective. Because that’s just a nice little snack for a giant northern pike or muskie.
And let’s be honest: if you catch a 30 lb northern pike instead of a 30 lb muskie you’re not going to be heart broken by any stretch. That’s going to be an incredible fight and a very impressive fish if you manage to reel that monster into the net without the line snapping!
Either way, that’s a good day on the water (just don’t forget the heavy duty musky/northern net)!
Make sure your hook set up is solid enough to get ahold of a big fish, otherwise these riggings aren’t going to work out the way that you want them to.
Popular Live Bait Options for Pike & Musky
As the giants of the Essox family, northern pike and musky tend to have a pretty similar diet. The same bait that works well for big northern pike tends to be the same type of live bait that will get a musky’s attention.
Since you can’t put a hook through a living mouse or small duck, we’re going to keep this to actual bait fish that you can realistically use to try to haul in that monster Musky.
A good example of the most popular live bait options include:
- Yellow perch
Keep in mind that which ones are most common in an area can affect how effective they are. Giving a large Essox a familiar food source is a great way to make them more likely to smash into your live bait rigging.
Anything that gives you a slightly better chance at landing that elusive trophy is worth taking a shot at.
Best Artificial Bait for Muskie
Generally when going after musky the easiest way to keep you sanity is to look at potential live bait or animals that muskies might eat locally, and look at artificial bait that could work at killing muskies.
There are many long-time guides, or simply amazing young anglers, who have done plenty of muskie fishing and these are the most common artificial bait that come up again and again when talking about how to bring in those big musky.
Or to get these finnicky ornery fish to bite at anything at all.
The Original Bondy Bait
The original Bondy Bait is in high demand and can be hard to find when there are supply disruptions (hello 2020), but there are few artificial bait more beloved by musky anglers regardless of location, experience, water conditions, or other factors.
Many long time anglers swear up and down by this bait. If you’re on a true shoestring budget and can only use a handful of musky lures you’ll want a Bondy bait or two among that group.
Tried and true – there’s a reason this artificial bait is automatically associated with musky whenever anyone mentions it. A great option every time you’re looking for a great artificial musky bait.
These are lures that are shiny, stick out to any predator stalking for a good snack, and there’s a reason why these are among the most popular options for musky anglers.
The one off to the left is one of our favorites. Although hooking a musky is always a challenge, these seem to do a good job occasionally getting musky to follow up to the boat.
Anyone musky fishing knows the frustration of playing with a lure right by the bought as a big musky is close, is watching, is maybe interested but not quite willing to commit to biting yet.
Double bladed bucktails tend to get a lot more attention than single bladed in our experience (though this is limited compared to lifelong musky anglers) but there’s a reason that a lot of northern anglers talk about this artificial bait/lure.
These are artificial lures that focus on looking as much like the real bait fish as possible. Jointed to give more of a wiggle that big fish like, using rubber form more fluid movement, and with big hooks ready for when that big hit occurs, this is probably about as close to the live bait as you can get with something artificial.
Great examples of the type of Mid Medusa artificial bait include this or this. Either one of these types of artificial bait are fantastic options if you are interested in hunting down the big musky.
These very much mimic real fish bait in the area and give you a great shot at landing a big pike.
Muskie Artificial Bait Oddities
There are certain artificial lures, especially for bigger muskie, that are just, for a lack of a better word, “odd.” One thing we remember from the days of going on the high adventure trip to northern Ontario waters is noticing the mother that had 10 baby ducks at the beginning of the week but only four by the end.
That’s how you knew the big pike and muskie in that lake were hungry.
Once in a while you get really big artificial bait lures that mimic mice or small ducks, frogs, or even birds and these won’t get you a lot of hits but those types of artificial baits are made to get the attention of giant musky or pike.
If nothing else is getting results, going this direction might be worth considering just to see what you can bring up – especially in reedy or grassy areas.
Ask Local Guides
While it’s true that every local guide is going to have their favorites, sometimes you can get an idea of a theme that is developing. What kills at one lake in northern Wisconsin might not even be in the tackle box of guides in northern Minnesota boundary waters.
Each area is going to be a little bit different and it is never a bad idea to gets some inside information from the local guides, long-time anglers, and other professionals who know what’s going on in local waters.
Artificial Bait Vs. Live Bait: Which Is Better for Catching Muskie?
There’s going to be debate on this depending on who you talk to. There are plenty of example of muskie anglers who have caught their biggest fish on a completely random lure, while fishing for something else, or in some cases reeling in a throw back fish barely hooked that was then utterly inhaled by the bigger predator.
Because of the musky’s nature it can be hard to figure out what will work on any given day. Most anglers I talk to who frequently go after muskies tend to use artificial baits. They have their favorites, they know the technique to use with the bait, and then they don’t have to struggle with live bait.
That last point is a major reason why so many go with artificial bait. While sometimes the live sucker hook up can even be the best method on average for getting attention, the hassle of dealing with that might be enough to go the artificial route.
Especially if there is relatively little difference between the two.
Why Is Bait Better Than Lures for Muskie?
This depends all about the waters in the area, as well as the attitudes of the fish. There are those who swear by lures as opposed to bait, but if local guides are all hooking up the suckers with double treble hooks or are going with the artificial bait, there’s a reason for that.
If you’re used to using a certain bait you’re also going to know how to present that bait to musky to make it appealing and the techniques to get your best response.
Many of these artificial baits are designed to give more noise, more movement, and get the attention of big fish looking for a meal. Or to annoy them enough to make them attack out of spite.
Muskie Bait Fishing FAQ
Q: How hard is it to catch a musky with bait?
A: It doesn’t matter whether you’re using live bait, artificial bait, or your favorite lure. There’s a reason the muskie is known as “the fish of 10,000 casts.” You’re always going to be challenged to catch a musky no matter the situation, so do your best and enjoy!
Q: What is the best time to fish for muskie?
A: Fall is the best season for muskie fishing, when the air cools down as does the water. Early spring can mimic these conditions, as well, making that the second best time for musky fishing.
Q: What is a muskellunge’s favorite food?
A: Muskies mostly eat fish. Fish of multiple sizes make up the majority of the diet but this could also include mice/rats, small birds, and other small animals.
Q: Why do muskie have such a hard to catch reputation?
A: Because no other fish has the ability to outsmart, confuse, and outright vex an angler before putting up a fight that can snap the line or even break a lure in half. They’re known as the “Fish of 10,000 casts” for a reason.
Q: What type of live bait is best for muskies?
A: Really? After an entire article on the topic you’re really going to ask this? 🙂 Worms, insects, suckers, alewives, ciscos, bluegills, yellow perch, and other minnow fish.
Q: Does traditional bait work to catch muskie?
A: Muskies are known for being independent and odd so on any given day maybe, although big Essox like pike and musky tend to have very little interest in eating worms.
There’s a lot to learn when it comes to fishing for muskellunge like a pro with bait. When you’re dealing with a fish who is renowned for being hard to catch, it’s always going to take time to learn the best techniques and confirm you’ve got it down.
But if you use the top rated bait for muskies mentioned in this article, whether live or artificial, your musky fishing results are going to take off!