Adrenaline junkies hoping to battle broad-shouldered pike and behemoth muskies have traditionally leaned on a legion of hard-bodied lures and super-size live baits to connect with their toothsome quarry.
But thanks to never-ending research and development from manufacturers like Berkley, savvy esox fans are today tapping a rising tide of deadly artificial softbaits to catch pike and muskies other presentations can't touch.
Joining the softbait revolution has its rewards. First off, they're infinitely easier to gather and store than delicate live bait—not to mention far more resilient to the rigors of casting and trolling.
Plus, in pressured fisheries across the continent, pike and muskies become conditioned to a steady stream of spoons, spinners and crankbaits parading through their underwater realms. These fish may turn up their noses at traditional hard lures, but even the most jaded dragons are suckers for the sensory allure of a properly presented softbait.
Best of all, Berkley offers a bounty of baits in shapes and sizes with strike-triggering scents and actions to provoke vicious attacks in virtually any fishing situation.
PowerBait — Brewed from ultra-pliable, PVC-based plastic, PowerBait is rich in scientifically proven flavors fish taste once they strike. It's ideal for fast-paced presentations where aggressive predators use sight and lateral line senses to stalk prey. It's also perfect for tipping lures to get fish to hang onto baits longer.
Gulp! — Water-based Gulp! floods the strike zone with powerful natural attractants, leaving a scent trail that draws predators to the bait. It works wonders on slow to medium retrieves and trolling speeds, but also excels in deadsticking applications or for boosting the appeal of traditional deadbaits fished on bottom.
Gulp! Alive! — Offers the same great scents and flavors of Gulp!, packaged in natural juices that constantly recharge the bait's attractants. It's worth noting that standard Gulp! can also be reinvigorated in Gulp! Alive! buckets, or in Gulp! Alive! Recharge! Liquid, which is available in 2- and 8-ounce bottles.
"Softbaits' uses for muskies and pike are limited only by your imagination," says world-renowned esox expert Pete Maina. "From solo presentations to combo rigs and teasers on conventional crankbaits, spoons and spinners, PowerBait, Gulp! and Gulp! Alive! baits are deadly weapons, especially in tough-bite conditions."
One of Maina's main softbait methods entails tipping a heavy-duty ½- to 1-ounce jighead with a large softbait. While sizeable softies such as 8-inch PowerBait Grubs are deadly, he notes that smaller "middle-of-the-road" baits, such as 6-inch Gulp! Grubs and 5-inch PowerBait Ripple Shads, yield a wider variety of bonus catches. "Big muskies and pike hit 'em, but so do trophy bass and walleyes."
Jigs are deadly anytime, but Maina says they're extremely handing when esox turn up their noses at faster moving presentations. He uses jigs for probing likely structure and cover with a broad spectrum of jigstrokes. "The classic sweep-and-drop is great, but I experiment with a little bit of everything, from quick, erratic moves to slow, steady swimming motion," he says.
Given his quarry's fiendishly sharp teeth, Maina's rigging often includes a 12-inch wire leader, though stout fluorocarbon such as Berkley Vanish and Pro Spec is a popular alternative. He frequently adds a 1/0 or 2/0 treble stinger hook toward the back of the bait, to boost hook-setting success.
Maina often taps Berkley's saltwater softbait lineup as well. "Pre-rigged PowerBait Eels are dynamite on pike, especially in spring when the fish are cruising warm sand bottoms," he says. "Cast them out, let ‘em hit bottom, and then use a twitch-drop retrieve that kicks up sediment."
Softbaits also excel when combined with other lures, such as doctoring large in-line spinners by removing the rear treble hook and adding a weighted swimbait hook, which acts as both a keel to keep the rig running true, and a pivot point allowing the softbait to work its magic.
For example, a 1/2-ounce inline spinner with a size 5 blade works well coupled with a 3/0, 1/4-ounce weighted swimbait hook, sweetened with a 4-inch Berkley PowerBait Hollow Belly Swimbait. Larger baits like the 6-inch PowerBait Slim Shad are also top combo options.
Maina also tips everything from spoons and spinnerbaits to hard-bodied crankbaits with a variety of softbaits. "I use PowerBait Double Tail Grubs a ton on spinners and spinnerbaits," he confides. He also sweetens the trebles of spoons and cranks with tail sections of various Gulp!, Gulp! Alive! and PowerBait! bodies. "Benefits include extra bulk, scent and flavor," he says. "Plus, the softbait keeps moving when the main lure pauses, adding subtle action that often pushes predators over the edge."
When tipping lures with softbait trailers, Maina advises to always check the bait's action at boatside before sending it into active duty. "Tippings can affect a lure's action, so it always pays to check how a doctored bait runs, and make adjustments in the size or location of the softbait as needed," he says.