Musky Fishing 101

Musky Fishing 101

(Fishing 101 Series)

Giant Musky at Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame

Welcome to My Bait Shop's Musky Fishing 101 (Fishing 101 Series).  Part of our new Fishing Tips section.  In this article we will discuss what you need to know before you go chase that fish of 10,000 casts.

Fishing is a time-honored tradition and in my part of the world (Wisconsin) there is nothing maybe more exciting than chasing the Apex Predator of them all, the Mighty Musky.  From the stories passed down through generations to visting the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin, giant muskies have endeared a place in fishing lore.  Musky Fishing 101 serves as an entry point for beginners, providing essential knowledge and skills to embark on this rewarding outdoor adventure.  Just be careful not to catch a fever, "Musky Fever" that is.


Introduction to the Might Muskellunge and Musky Fishing 101

The muskellunge, muskie or musky, is one of North America's most iconic freshwater game fish. Renowned for its aggressive strikes, powerful runs, and massive size, the musky is the ultimate challenge for anglers seeking trophy fish. In this introductory section, we'll delve into the fascinating world of musky fishing, exploring the fish's biology, behavior, and habitat.

Muskies are apex predators that inhabit the northern regions of the United States and Canada. They possess a distinctive appearance, with elongated bodies, broad heads, and a mouth full of sharp teeth. Muskies are known for their dark vertical bars along their sides, which provide effective camouflage in their natural environment. Understanding the anatomy and characteristics of muskies is essential for successful fishing.

Muskies inhabit a variety of freshwater environments, including lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and large impoundments. They are often found in areas with abundant cover, such as submerged vegetation, fallen trees, and rocky structures. Muskies have a wide distribution across North America, with populations in states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada.

Muskies are voracious predators that feed on a wide variety of prey, including fish, crayfish, frogs, and small mammals. They are ambush predators that rely on stealth and patience to ambush their prey. Muskies are most active during low-light periods, such as dawn and dusk, when they are more likely to be hunting.

Types of Muskies:

Exploring the Diverse Subspecies and Variations of Muskellunge

Muskellunge, often revered as the apex predator of freshwater ecosystems, boast a rich diversity across their range. While the species Esox masquinongy remains consistent, regional adaptations and hybridization have given rise to distinct subspecies and variations. 

Below is a photo showing some different variations of muskies followed by a more technical definition of some of the variations.  If you practice catch, photo and release you will find each individual muskie to actually be quite unique in its own right.

Musky Chart


Chart of some of the basic Musky variations.

Great Lakes Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy masquinongy):

Found within the expansive waters of the Great Lakes and their surrounding tributaries, the Great Lakes muskellunge reigns as one of the most iconic and sought-after subspecies. These giants are renowned for their imposing size, often reaching lengths exceeding 50 inches and weights surpassing 50 pounds. Inhabiting diverse habitats ranging from rocky shorelines to sprawling weed beds, they exhibit a penchant for ambushing prey with calculated precision.

Northern Wisconsin Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy lacustris):

Within the pristine waters of northern Wisconsin, particularly in revered fisheries like the Chippewa Flowage, the Northern Wisconsin muskellunge thrives. This subspecies boasts impressive size and abundance, flourishing amidst the fertile environs of Wisconsin's lakes and rivers. Feeding voraciously on a diverse diet of suckers, panfish, and juvenile muskies, these behemoths exemplify the apex predator status within their domain.

Canadian Shield Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy immaculatus):

Embraced by the rugged landscapes of the Canadian Shield, muskellunge populations exhibit unique adaptations to the pristine waters and rocky environs. Sporting dark coloration and robust physiques, these muskies thrive in clear, coldwater lakes and rivers. Feeding on a bounty of prey including whitefish, ciscoes, and perch, they epitomize the apex predator within the northern boreal realms.

St. Lawrence River Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy ohioensis):

Within the flowing currents of the St. Lawrence River and its labyrinth of tributaries, a distinct population of muskellunge roams. Exhibiting a penchant for migratory behavior, these muskies traverse vast distances between the main channel and shallow backwaters, where spawning and feeding opportunities abound. Coveted by anglers for their immense size and ferocious fighting spirit, they symbolize the epitome of musky pursuit in flowing waters.

Tiger Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy x lucius):

Among the diverse array of musky hybrids, the tiger muskellunge reigns supreme. Resulting from a cross between muskellunge and northern pike, these hybrids showcase a mesmerizing striped pattern reminiscent of their namesake, the tiger. Often introduced into lakes and reservoirs as a sport fish, tiger muskies provide anglers with exhilarating battles and ample excitement.

Leopard Muskellunge:

A lesser-known hybrid variation, the leopard muskellunge emerges from the crossbreeding of muskellunge and spotted muskie. Characterized by a unique pattern of spots and bars adorning their sides, these hybrids captivate with their striking appearance and aggressive demeanor. While less common than their tiger counterparts, leopard muskies offer anglers thrilling encounters and memorable fishing experiences.

Barred Muskellunge:

Barred muskellunge, also known as barred tiger muskies, arise from the intermingling of muskellunge and barred pike. Displaying a distinctive barred pattern along their flanks, these hybrids exude a sense of primal beauty and ferocity. Prized by anglers for their aggressive nature and striking aesthetics, barred muskies stand as testaments to the fascinating world of musky hybridization.

Silver Muskellunge:

Rare and enigmatic, silver muskellunge captivate with their shimmering scales and metallic blue hue. Found in clear, deep lakes and rivers, these muskies blend seamlessly with their aquatic environment, showcasing a level of camouflage unmatched by their counterparts. Highly coveted by anglers for their rarity and aesthetic appeal, silver muskies embody the allure of the unknown within the musky realm.

Gearing Up for Musky Fishing

Introduction to Musky Tackle

You probably already know this, but just in case, here's your warning... musky fishing is not a cheap hobby/pursuit/addiction.  It is not for the faint of heart when it comes time to pay the bill on some of the gear with some lures themselves being over $100 each.  However, it is one of the most rewarding types of fishing you will ever partake in. 

Now don't let the high prices of gear cause you to go cheap on baits, rods, reels and line. In the long run you are better off to make the initial investment to buy quality gear.  Now with that being said, quality gear doesn't have to be new, good used gear can be had for a fraction of the price if you know where to look.

Shameless plug...  Be sure to check out our Musky Shop and shop some of our used and vintage lures and other gear to save some money on your set up and pursuit.  We also have some lures you just won't find anywhere else.

Selecting the right gear is critical for musky fishing success. Musky tackle is heavy-duty and designed to handle the powerful strikes and vigorous fights associated with these formidable fish. In this chapter, we'll explore the essential components of musky tackle, including rods, reels, lines, leaders, and terminal tackle.

Baits and Lures
Muskies are opportunistic feeders that will strike a wide variety of baits and lures. Some of the most popular baits and lures for musky fishing, including large suckers, live baitfish, bucktails, crankbaits, jerkbaits, topwater lures, and soft plastic swimbaits. Experimentation with different baits and presentations is key to finding what works best on any given day.  Each is designed for specific conditions and responses. Understanding the variety and application of these lures is crucial for any angler aspiring to catch musky.

Types of Musky Lures and Basic Strategies:

Crankbaits: Designed to mimic small fish, crankbaits are a staple in musky fishing. They can be categorized into deep-diving, medium-diving, and shallow-diving, based on the depth they are designed to reach.

Crankbaits are effective for covering a lot of water quickly and are relatively easy to use. Use deep-diving crankbaits along drop-offs and mid-depth crankbaits over weed beds. 

Be sure not to overlook the value of having a wide variety of crankbaits including smaller sizes with you.  Some of my biggest muskies have come on what can be described as bass sized crankbaits.  (Lure Pictured Below:  Classic wooden Creek Chub Husky Pikie in Pikie Color)

Creek Chub Husky Pikie


Jerkbaits: These are lures that do not have a built-in action. Instead, the angler imparts the action by jerking the rod, making them erratic and unpredictable. Jerkbaits can be soft or hard-bodied.

Jerkbaits are ideal in colder water or when muskies are hesitant to bite. The erratic action can provoke strikes from otherwise inactive fish.  (Lure Pictured Below:  Classic wooden Suick Musky Thriller in All Black Color)

Suick Musky Thriller

Topwater Lures: These lures operate on the water's surface, creating splashes and noises to attract musky. They are most effective in calm, dawn, or dusk conditions.  

Topwater baits are best used in low-light conditions or over shallow, weedy areas. The surface disturbance can trigger aggressive strikes.  There are a big variety of effective topwater lures on the market, each with different strengths.  Getting a strike on a topwater bait is an unforgetful experience.  (Lure Pictured Below:  Vintage Cisco Kid Topper in Orange Coach Dog Color)

Cisco Kid Topper

Spinnerbaits / Buzzbaits: These lures have metal blades that spin, creating vibration and flash. They are excellent for weedy areas where other lures might snag.

Cast these lures into weedy areas or where the water is too shallow for other lures. The vibration and flash are irresistible to muskies hiding among vegetation.  Bucktails like the one pictured are some of the staples of musky fishing and are found in every tackle box in a variety of colors, sizes and brands.  (Lure Pictured Below:  Northland Tackle Bionic Bucktail)

Northland Tackle Bionic Bucktail

Soft Plastics: Comparatievely speaking, soft plastics are somewhat new to musky fishing.  They got their start in bass fishing but have proven very effective in larger sizes for muskies.  Mimicking various prey, soft plastics come in shapes like swimbaits, tubes, and grubs. They are versatile and can be rigged in many ways.

Versatile and effective year-round. Use larger sizes and vary the retrieval speed to mimic different types of prey.  Some of these come as large as one and two pounds.  (Lure Pictured Below:  Musky Innovations Bull Dawg)

Musky Innovations Bull Dawg

Glide Baits: A type of hard-bodied lure that moves side to side when retrieved, imitating an injured fish. They require a bit of skill to use effectively.

Use in clear water where visibility is high. The side-to-side action can entice muskies to leave cover and strike.  (Lure Pictured Below:  Manta River Runt Hang 10)

Manta River Runt Hang 10


Live Bait:  Live bait can be very effective for musky fishing with larger baits often being more effective, as they appeal to the musky's preference for a substantial meal. A general rule is to use bait that is 6 to 12 inches long, though the best size can depend on the musky size in your fishing area and the time of year. In colder months, muskies might prefer slightly smaller baits, as their metabolism slows down. 

The rigging method for live bait is pivotal for success. A common setup is the quick-strike rig, designed to hook muskies efficiently and minimize deep hooking, which is crucial for catch-and-release practices. This rig consists of two treble hooks attached to a wire leader, allowing one hook to be placed near the bait's head and the other near the tail. This setup ensures good hook coverage and allows for immediate hook sets, reducing the chance of the musky swallowing the bait.

Additional Lure Considerations:

Seasonal Adjustments: Change lure types and colors based on the season and water conditions. Bright colors in murky water and more natural colors in clear water are a general rule.  Be aware though that general rules are just that.  I have seen days where these general rules should be thrown out so be prepared to experiment.

Weather Considerations: Pay attention to weather changes. Topwater lures might be more effective on overcast days, while sunny conditions might call for deeper presentations.

Tactical Retrieval: Vary your retrieval speed and include pauses and jerks. Muskies often follow lures and strike when the action changes unexpectedly.

Musky Figure 8 Technique

Figure-Eight Technique: Always conclude your retrieve with a figure-eight motion near the boat. Many strikes occur at this moment, as muskies follow the lure right up to the boat.  Just be sure to hang onto the rod with the determination as you would throughout the rest of your retreive.  I've seen too many people "mail in" this portion of their cast and regret it later.

Rods and Reels

Musky Rods:

Among the most critical pieces of gear in your pursuit of muskies is the musky rod, a tool designed to meet the unique challenges of targeting one of freshwater's most challenging game fish. The selection of a musky rod is a balance of power, sensitivity, and durability, tailored to withstand the rigors of casting large lures and battling the powerful, explosive strikes of muskies.

Musky rods are typically long and heavy-duty, designed to cast large lures and handle the weight of big fish.  These fishing rods are distinctively robust and longer than your typical freshwater fishing rods, usually ranging from 7 to 9 feet in length. This length is not arbitrary; it facilitates the casting of large, heavy lures and provides the leverage needed to fight and land muskies, which can exceed 50 inches in length and weigh over 30 pounds. The power of a musky rod, or its resistance to bending, is typically rated as medium-heavy to extra-heavy, which is crucial for both casting heavy baits and exerting the control necessary during the fight.

Key Features of Musky Rods:

Material: Modern musky rods are primarily made from high-quality graphite or composite blends. Graphite offers a desirable balance of strength and sensitivity, allowing anglers to feel subtle takes and the lure's action in the water. Composite rods, which blend graphite with fiberglass, provide additional durability and a bit of extra flex, useful for specific techniques and lure presentations.

Action: The action of a musky rod describes where the rod flexes along its length when pressure is applied. Fast action rods, which bend near the tip, are prevalent for musky fishing because they offer excellent sensitivity and faster power for setting the hook. Moderate actions, bending more in the middle, are also used, especially for trolling where a bit more give can help absorb the initial strike and fight of the fish.

Handle: Handles on musky rods are longer than those found on standard fishing rods, providing the leverage needed for two-handed casting of heavy lures. They are typically made of cork or EVA foam, materials that offer a good grip, comfort during long days of casting, and durability in wet conditions.

Guides: The guides on a musky rod must be durable and designed to minimize line friction. High-quality rods use guides made from materials like silicon carbide (SiC) or titanium, which can handle the wear from heavy braided lines often used in musky fishing.

Choosing the right musky rod involves considering the angler's primary fishing techniques and preferred lures. For example, casting heavy plugs or soft plastics might require a stout, fast-action rod for precision and power, while trolling or using smaller, lighter lures could call for a rod with a bit more flex and a moderate action. The water body size, typical fish size, and personal casting style also influence the ideal rod length and power.


Musky Reels: 

Musky fishing reels are the cornerstone of an angler's gear when targeting the elusive muskellunge.  These reels must possess the strength, durability, and precision to handle not only the significant size and power of muskies but also the hefty lures commonly used in musky fishing. Given the demanding nature of musky angling, selecting the right reel is critical for both the performance and the enjoyment of the pursuit.

Musky reels are predominantly of two types: baitcasting and spinning, with baitcasting reels being the more popular choice among dedicated musky anglers. The preference for baitcasters is due to their superior line control, casting accuracy with heavy lures, and overall strength for fighting large fish.

Baitcasting Reels: These reels sit atop the rod, offering an ergonomic setup that allows for precise thumb control over the spool during the cast. High-quality baitcasting reels feature strong drag systems, durable gears, a comfortable handle, and a sufficient line capacity to handle the heavy, braided lines favored in musky fishing. Moreover, the best musky baitcasting reels incorporate a high gear ratio for quick retrieves, essential for certain lures and situations when speed is necessary to entice a follow or strike from a musky.

Spinning Reels: While less common, spinning reels are used in musky fishing, especially when employing lighter lures or when anglers prefer the casting ease of spinning setups. For musky fishing, large, heavy-duty spinning reels with high line capacity, strong drag systems, and robust construction are necessary to withstand the rigors of targeting such a formidable species.

When selecting a musky fishing reel, several features are paramount to ensure the reel can withstand the task at hand:

Drag System: A smooth, reliable drag system is crucial for musky fishing. The drag must be capable of handling the sudden, powerful runs of a hooked musky without failing or causing line breakage.

Gear Ratio: The gear ratio determines how many line inches are reeled in per handle turn. For muskies, a higher gear ratio (such as 6.3:1 or higher) is preferred for fast retrieves, enabling anglers to keep up with the fish's swift movements and aggressive attacks.

Line Capacity: Muskies require heavy, durable lines, often in the 30 to 80-pound test range. A reel's line capacity must be sufficient to accommodate these thicker lines, ensuring enough line is available for long casts and the inevitable long runs of a hooked musky.

Construction and Durability: Given the size and power of both the fish and the lures used in musky fishing, the reel's build quality is critical. Materials such as aluminum or reinforced composite offer the necessary strength and corrosion resistance, while ensuring the reel remains light enough for comfortable, all-day use.

Lastly you need to make sure your rods and reels are matched and balanced.  Matching musky fishing reels and rods is crucial for optimizing performance and ensuring a balanced, effective setup for targeting this apex predator. The synergy between rod and reel enhances casting accuracy, control during retrieval, and the overall handling of the gear, especially when using the heavy lures typical in musky fishing.

When pairing a reel with a rod, consider the weight and action of the rod alongside the reel's size, line capacity, and drag strength. For baitcasting setups choose a high-quality baitcasting reel with a robust drag system and sufficient line capacity for heavy braided lines. The reel should match the rod's weight class and action—typically medium-heavy to extra-heavy.

For spinning setups ensure the spinning reel is large and durable enough to manage the stress of musky fishing. It should complement a heavy-action spinning rod, offering a balanced feel that aids in the sensitivity and control needed for successful musky angling.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a harmonious balance where the rod and reel act as extensions of each other, providing the angler with the confidence and capability to pursue muskies effectively. 

Investing in a high-quality musky rods and reels can significantly enhance the fishing experience and success rate. A well-constructed rod and reel combination not only improves lure presentation and control during the fight but also withstands the demands of targeting such a formidable species, offering reliability season after season. Whether battling a trophy musky in a tense, close-quarters fight or casting large lures all day, the right musky rod and reel is an invaluable ally in the pursuit of this apex predator, blending the art of angling with the science of rod construction to meet the challenges of musky fishing head-on. 

Lines and Leaders

Selecting the right line and leader is a pivotal aspect of musky fishing, directly influencing not only the success of your casts and the handling of the lure but also your ability to land these formidable fish. I can tell you from personal experience, nobody wants to be the one that tells the story of the fish that got away due to a broken line or snapped leader. 

For musky lines, braided lines are often the go-to choice due to their superior strength, lack of stretch, and enhanced sensitivity. These qualities allow anglers to feel the lure's action and detect subtle strikes, crucial in musky fishing. A typical line strength for targeting muskies ranges from 50 to 80 pounds, providing the necessary durability to withstand the musky's powerful runs and sharp teeth.

Leaders are equally important, serving as the critical link between the lure and the line. Given muskies' notorious for their sharp teeth, a high-quality, abrasion-resistant leader is non-negotiable. Most musky anglers prefer leaders made from heavy-duty fluorocarbon or wire materials, with lengths varying from 9 to 12 inches to provide adequate protection. The choice between fluorocarbon and wire often depends on water clarity and lure type, with fluorocarbon being less visible in clear waters and wire offering unbeatable durability.

Terminal tackle such as large hooks, heavy-duty swivels, and wire leaders are also essential for rigging baits and lures.  In addition, you should have a selection of hook removers and wire cutters.



Musky Fishing Techniques

Casting and Retrieving:
Casting and retrieving large lures along weed edges, rocky points, and other structural features is a common approach for musky fishing. Anglers should target areas with ample cover and structure where muskies are likely to be hiding. Retrieval techniques such as twitching, jerking, and pausing can entice strikes from following muskies.  Be aware to pace yourself if you are new to musky fishing.  Casting heavy lures like this can take quite a toll on your wrists and forearms, especially if they are not conditioned for hours of this repetitive motion.  Consider investing in a wrist brace.

Trolling with large crankbaits or live bait rigs is another effective technique for covering water and locating active fish. Anglers can use planer boards, downriggers, or lead core line to target specific depths and locations where muskies are likely to be feeding. Speed, depth, and lure selection are critical factors to consider when trolling for muskies.

Figure-eighting, which we also covered above, is a technique where the angler makes a large, continuous figure-eight motion with the lure at the end of the retrieve. This technique is often used to trigger strikes from following muskies that are hesitant to commit to the lure. Mastering the figure-eight is essential for increasing strike opportunities and landing more muskies.

Musky Seasonal Patterns

In the spring, muskies are often found in shallow, weedy areas, where they spawn and feed aggressively after the long winter months. Anglers should focus on areas with emerging vegetation, shallow flats, and warming water temperatures. Baits and lures that imitate spawning forage such as suckers and crayfish are often effective during this time.

As temperatures rise in the summer, muskies may move to deeper, cooler waters or seek out thermally stratified areas. Anglers should target deep weed edges, rocky points, and offshore structure where muskies are likely to be holding. Trolling with large crankbaits or drifting with live bait rigs can be effective strategies for locating summer muskies.

In the fall, muskies become increasingly active as they feed voraciously in preparation for the winter months trying to put on weight. Anglers should focus on areas with abundant forage, such as baitfish schools and spawning grounds. Casting and retrieving large lures along weed edges and rocky structure can be productive during the fall musky season.

During the winter months, muskies may become less active and seek out deeper, slower-moving water where they can conserve energy. Ice fishing for muskies is a popular pursuit in northern regions, with anglers targeting areas with natural springs, deep holes, and submerged structure. Live bait rigs and jigging spoons are common choices for winter musky fishing.

Conservation and Ethics in Musky Fishing

Catch-and-Release Fishing:
Catch-and-release fishing is widely practiced among musky anglers to ensure the survival of these prized fish. Proper handling techniques, such as minimizing air exposure, using large landing nets, and supporting the fish's body during release, are crucial for reducing stress and increasing survival rates. Anglers should always prioritize the well-being of the fish and release them promptly and carefully.

Education on muskies will help you better understand how handle them, when to fish for them and how to properly release them.

Fishing Regulations:
Responsible musky fishing practices also involve adhering to fishing regulations and guidelines. Anglers should familiarize themselves with local fishing regulations, including catch limits, size restrictions, and fishing seasons. It's essential to respect fishing regulations and do your part to conserve musky populations for future generations to enjoy.

Environmental Stewardship:
Minimizing environmental impact and preserving musky habitat are essential aspects of responsible angling. Anglers should avoid littering, dispose of trash properly, and minimize disturbances to sensitive ecosystems. It is always a good practice to take out more trash from the water than you bring with you.

Participating in habitat restoration projects and supporting conservation organizations are excellent ways to give back to the environment and ensure the long-term health of musky populations.

Safety Considerations in Musky Fishing

Safety Gear:
Safety should always be a top priority when fishing for muskies. Anglers should wear appropriate safety gear, including sunglasses, gloves, and protective clothing, to minimize the risk of accidents and injuries. It's essential to protect yourself from the elements and be prepared for changing weather conditions when fishing for muskies.

Handling Techniques:
Handling muskies requires care and attention to avoid injury to both the angler and the fish. Muskies have sharp teeth and powerful jaws that can inflict serious injuries if mishandled. Anglers should use caution when handling muskies and employ proper handling techniques to minimize stress and ensure the fish's well-being.  It is always a good idea to have a proper selection of hook removers and wire cutters with you to help quickly and safely remove the hooks from a fish.  

In addition, it is imperative to have the proper nets, or boatside nets for proper handling of muskies.

Boat Safety:
If fishing from a boat, it's essential to prioritize boat safety and follow all safety regulations and guidelines. Ensure that your boat is equipped with essential safety equipment such as life jackets, navigation lights, and emergency signaling devices. Practice safe boating habits, including maintaining a safe speed, avoiding alcohol consumption, and staying aware of your surroundings at all times.

Lifelong Learning

Learning from Experienced Anglers:
Musky fishing is a lifelong pursuit that offers endless opportunities for learning and growth. Anglers should seek out knowledge and experience from experienced musky anglers, local guides, and fishing resources. Joining musky clubs, attending seminars, and participating in online forums are excellent ways to connect with the musky fishing community and expand your skills and understanding of the sport. (Note, if you have a club that you would like to be mentioned and listed here, please reach out and we would be happy to exchange links.)

Exploring New Waters:
Exploring new waters and fishing destinations is an essential aspect of musky fishing. Anglers should venture beyond familiar fishing spots and seek out new lakes, rivers, and reservoirs where muskies are abundant. Researching potential fishing destinations, studying maps, and talking to local anglers can help identify promising fishing locations and increase your chances of success.

Continual Improvement:
Mastering musky fishing requires dedication, perseverance, and a willingness to continually improve. Anglers should embrace the challenges and setbacks that come with musky fishing and view them as opportunities for growth. By continually refining your skills, experimenting with new techniques, and seeking out new fishing experiences, you can become a more proficient and successful musky angler over time.


Related Articles:  

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20 Vintage Creek Fishing Lures Worth A Fortune

Fish Weight Calculator:  Our very own Fish Weight Calculator at My Bait Shop.

Bait & Tackle 101:  Another article from our Fishing 101 Series in our Fishing Tips Library.

Fishing Tips Index:  The Index to all of our Fishing Tips articles.