Dan Dishaw vividly remembers his father, Curt, heading out to the river to slowly troll for top-water musky. He was hoping to catch a muskie that would feed his family for the upcoming week.
He used a multitude of different large wooden plugs, nothing like the variety one can get at a sporting goods store nowadays, but still, a sizeable collection. Still, He often turned to a lure that wasn’t sold in any store, a lure that was used when times were tough, when he didn’t have the money to buy a new muskie plug. It was the original “Bucktail” lure, simply the tail of a whitetail deer impaled on a big hook.
Nowadays, bucktails are in-line spinners with a skirt made out of deer hair, and they are still a staple of muskie angling. But before the trolling in-line spinnerbaits came along, there was the true bucktail lure. Many a muskie fell victim to those original bucktails, and Dishaw has the old black-and-white photos to prove it.
People who lived through the Great Depression knew that nothing should be wasted, that even a deer’s tail could be valuable. Don Lucas, a long-time muskie fishing guide, said that anglers of old used all sorts of things for muskie lures, including feathers, bones and even antlers. Lucas even had an old raccoon tail made into a lure that was used for muskies. “They used what they had” he said.
There are several ways to rig a deer tail as a lure. But the first thing to do is cut out the bone and let the tail dry. Then hooks can be stuck in the skin, and that can make a pretty good lure for trolling.
Another variation, one Curt Dishaw used to use, was more of a jig. He would attach a large treble hook to a wire leader and then tie on several large, red feathers to the leader. Over the top, he would tie on the deer hair, giving the lure several contrasting elements. The pulsing red feathers imitated blood in the water, and the deer hair surrounding it gave the lure all kinds of life-like movement. Deer hair flows in the water, even at rest it moves; giving a lure a life of its own.
If you troll in the slop with it, you want to go slow so it can drop down a little in the water column. When casting, you can retrieve fast or slow, even pausing and working it like a jerk bait. The lure is extremely versatile because it can be worked along deep transitional cover or in shallow, weedy areas.
If you want to spice things up, a number of things can be done to doctor the lure and make it even more attractive to a hungry muskie. In front of the bucktail, you can add a Colorado or a Willow blade for flash, or you may add some rattles so it gives off vibration, especially if you plan on trolling it at night, a deadly option.
This lure is naturally buoyant because deer hair is hollow. But if you want to work it deeper, simply add weight. Use trolling sinkers to get it down in the water while trolling. If you are casting, slide heavy bullet weight on the line ahead of the lure.
While deer tails are naturally attractive, you can dye or paint the hair different colors, including fluorescent.
You can paint the skin of the tail white, black or any other color that adds contrast or makes the lure seem more attractive.
Choice of hook: treble or single, depends on a variety of factors. Single hooks work better in weedy areas because they don’t snag on every cast. They are also easier to get out of a caught muskie, and fewer hooks mean less chance of hooking yourself when a 40 pound fish is thrashing in the bottom of the boat.
Large treble hooks, however, are the way to go when trolling because they add weight and also increase the chance for a solid hook set.
I tie enough bucktail lures each winter to last me the season, and I get all I need by simply asking my deer hunting friends to save them for me. Ask any butcher shop that processes deer in season, and you’ll probably be offered more tails than you can possibly use.
Here are some easy to follow steps for making your own original muskie bucktails
- STEP 1: Tie two wide-gap hooks to a heavy barrel swivel, using different lengths of heavy monofilament line.
- STEP 2: Impale the hook that’s closest to the swivel through the hide near, but not at the base, of the bucktail. Now impale the other “trailer” hook farther back in the tail. Finally, poke a very small hole through the base of the tail.
- STEP 3: To tie on the lure, first thread the main fishing line from the top down through the small hole in the tail to the swivel underneath. This prevents the bucktail from bunching up on the harness because the heavy barrel swivel won’t slip through the small hole in the tough buck hide.
To make sure everything stays in place, add a couple of drops of super glue at the hooks and also the swivel. When you set the hook on a big muskie, the glue connections break free and you get a solid straight-line connection to fight the fish.