How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Attack of the Muskies

Muskellunge are secretive, mysterious, a little scary, and very difficult to catch. But thanks to smart management and new lure technology, there’s never been a better time to hit the water. Just keep your hands in the boat.
by Dave Scroppo

Not too long ago, it was far easier to have muskies on the brain than on the boat. I’ll never forget the dozen giant muskie lures that appeared under the Christmas tree when I was 11 but that didn’t hook a fish until I was old enough to legally drink. A few years later I begged my father for a muskie fishing trip to Canada, where, in an entire week, I glimpsed just one of the damn things.

Fast-forward 20 years later—stateside no less—to a violet nightfall in northern Minnesota. The lake is quiet, but phantoms are stirring beneath the surface as the three of us hurl huge lures into the remains of the day. At any moment, a 4-foot-long finned projectile is apt to ghost the boat, stalking us in the shadowy half-light. That’s what muskies do: They track behind a lure, checking it out, before fading away…or attacking.

My friend Jeremy Smith, casting from the bow, has already had a visitor, a 40-something-incher. Five minutes later I’ve got my own apparition. The fish is huge, serpentine and surreptitious, twisting like smoke, chasing a foot-long hunk called a Squirrelly Tail Jake before it waves its tail and vanishes into the twilight. Next up is Jeremy’s friend, Jeff Andersen, a north-woods beat cop, who has his own close encounter with a fish of similar dimensions and detachment.

In the not so recent past, three follows in the span of half an hour would have been cause for serious rejoicing. But considering that the day before the three of us had boated nearly 90 pounds of muskie—a 44-, a 46-, and a 50-incher with a 26-inch girth that pushed 40 pounds—it really wasn’t all that extraordinary. Not these days, anyway, and certainly not to Smith, who before yesterday’s trip had caught 30 muskies—two of them over 50 inches—in 2004. Andersen landed 25 muskies in the same time frame.

The Muskie Renaissance
Times have changed since the daunting, dispiriting days in which it was commonly accepted that an angler had to make 10,000 casts for every muskie landed. Foremost among the reasons is the existence of more muskies than ever. According to a northern Minnesota fisheries biologist, there are an estimated 500 to 1,000 adults in the neighborhood of 40 inches in a single 6,000-acre lake in his territory, up from a mere fraction of that decades ago. Contributing to the upswing are two factors: the prevailing ethic of catch-and-release and copious stocking.

In Minnesota, the muskie renaissance is traced to shrewd and aggressive stocking pioneered by former Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Bob Strand, who started cultivating eggs from Leech Lake muskies in the early 1970s, finding that they survived better than other strains when stocked elsewhere. One reason: Leech Lake muskies evolved with northern pike, avoiding predation when hatched, somehow coexisting and flourishing. In the early ’80s, fish with Leech Lake genetics were stocked in lakes statewide. Some of these fish have grown to 4 feet and beyond.

“A 50-inch muskie in this area is not a big thing anymore,” says Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the MDNR’s Bemidji Area. “One fish that size, per season, used to be the talk of the town. This year we had a 50-incher about every week.”

Stocking has spread the wealth to states outside the upper Midwest, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, and to the realm below the Mason-Dixon Line. Among quality southern fisheries are Missouri’s Lake Pomme de Terre, an 8,000-acre reservoir created in 1961 and stocked way back in 1966, and the emerging muskie milieus of Kentucky’s Cave Run and Green River Lakes.

Better fishing can also be credited to innovations in tackle combined with decades’ worth of hard-won wisdom. Bucktail spinners, for instance, with their rotating blades and pulsating skirts, have long been awesome muskie baits. Modifying these lures with silicone skirts provides both a new look and better hydrodynamics for faster retrieves that convert lookers into hookers (see “The Modern Muskie Arsenal,” opposite).

Still, it’s not just what you throw but where you throw it. GPS and electronic mapping give you the potential to mark spots that hold muskies when they roll out of the depths to feed. In the clear water of spring, you can look at a 2-mile-long sunken island that comes within 10 feet of the surface and, scouting with polarized sunglasses, spot individual rocks or logs or weed patches that will draw fish later in the year. Mark them with a waypoint or icon.

Improved terminal tackle has also helped make muskie a household word. SpiderWire superline, for example, which debuted in 1994, is thin, tough, no-stretch braided line ideal for setting hooks into bony mouths. In particular, 100-pound SpiderWire Stealth casts well, and it has forced Dacron line into obsolescence.

I still use cablelike wire leaders left over from my formative years of muskie fishing. Smith and many other muskie hunters are going with a couple of feet of 100-pound Berkley Big Game to provide not only a modicum of stretch at the end of no-stretch superline, but also flexibility and forgiveness should a muskie roll in the line and leader. Furthermore, a muskie’s stiletto teeth simply can’t slice it.

Even in the best of times, muskies are rare and capricious, capable of bringing extreme joy and severe pathos. But if I ever have children, I know what I’m going to get them for Christmas when they’re 11.

The Modern Muskie Arsenal
A couple of decades ago, muskie lure options numbered in the dozens. Today, an angler has hundreds of choices. But it’s more important to make sure that you’re carrying all categories of lures instead of every lure made. Here are the basics:

Smith’s choices of topwater lures include the Hi-Fin Creeper, with its flapping metal wings that rile the surface for rousing strikes, and the Ty Sennett Pacemaker, a clattering propeller bait that can be worked faster than all the others. Its oversize brass, rather than aluminum, propeller smacks on a wire form and tail treble for more sound. Smith’s Pacemaker (right) is shredded with tooth marks. 8-inch model, $24; 91/2-inch, $27;

The buoyant, wooden, sapling-thick Suick is the classic muskie jerkbait. The standard version is perfect for use over shallow weeds, and weighted models will get you deeper over rocks. Rip, pause; rip, pause; and wait for the explosion. 9-inch model, $12.50; 10-inch, $14; weighted 10-inch, $15.50; 715-623-7883;

The Musky Innovations Bull Dawg is a gaudy, foot-long bastardization with lead in the head and a tail that twirls with the slightest movement. It can be cast and reeled, jerked, twitched, or trolled. “As long as you’ve got the thing in the water, you’ve got a chance of getting smoked,” says Smith. 12-inch, $15; 920-565-7631;

The latest, greatest innovation is the spinner with a silicone skirt. Get a high-speed reel with a large spool to winch in line fast, and you can get that spinner humming at warp speed—the faster the better—and “bulging” under the surface. Some muskie nuts swear by a 2-inch Berkley Power Bait plastic on the rear hook, however inconsequential it may seem. Shown here is Musky Mania Tackle’s Lilly Tail. $9.50; 419-662-3933;

Fudally’s Hawg Spin dwarfs standard dimensions (remember the SATs? Tweety is to Big Bird as bass spinnerbait is to Fudally’s spinnerbait). It has twin Colorado blades, a bullet head, and feather dressing. Put a bass trailer hook on the main hook to dress with a shad tail for added flash, and replace the back treble with a long-shank version with a wider gap for better sticking power. $13; 320-245-5494;

Smith favors two twitch baits: the Squirrelly Tail Jake, with its tail made of soft plastic; and the 13-inch-long Grandma Classic. Sure, you could reel this monster straight in, but you’re going to get more hits by pumping, ripping, and pausing. The Grandma is huge and incredibly tiring to fish with. $30; 724-932-2631

Today’s Top Muskie Fisheries
Lake of the Woods, Minnesota/Ontario Anglers can average 20 to 30 fish in the course of a week at 1-million-plus-acre LOW, although few will go well into the 40-inch range. Sabaskong and Monument Bays, as well as the Big Narrows area, bloom with green, stained water that makes their inhabitants more extroverted. Whitefish Bay, on the other hand, is clear, deep trout water, making for more irascible muskies, some of them well past the 50-pound mark. For the U.S. side, contact Lake of the Woods Tourism: 800-382-3474; For Ontario, Lake of the Woods Vacation Area:

Leech Lake, Minnesota More than 40,000 acres, with all sorts of serpentine coves and adjacent big water, light up in the summer when the wind blows, sending the muskies out of Portage and Sucker Bays onto main-lake weeds and rocks, most notably when water temperatures peak from mid-July into August. Most fish reach into the 40-inch range, with a few topping 50. Contact the Leech Lake Guide Coalition for a listing of guides: Reed’s Sporting Goods: 800-346-0019;

Lake St. Clair, Michigan/Ontario St. Clair is thronged with silvery Great Lakes–strain muskies. Here, because of the big water, trolling with large baits at high speeds (sometimes 5 mph) in the prop wash on steep channel edges will produce up to a dozen hookups, sometimes more, in a single day. Contact Travel Michigan: 888-784-7328;

Northern Wisconsin Trolling is banned on Wisconsin’s 356 Class A muskie waters, so sunrise-to-sunset casting marathons are the norm on waters surrounding the muskie hamlets of Boulder Junction, Eagle River, Hayward, Rhinelander, and St. Germain, among others. Contact Boulder Junction Chamber of Commerce: 800-466-8759; Eagle River Chamber of Commerce: 800-359-6315; St. Germain Chamber of Commerce: 800-727-7203;

Cave Run and Green River Lakes, Kentucky Muskies well into the 40-inch range get out on the points, well back in the hollows, and over the brush in a pair of reservoirs stocked cheek by gill—Green River to the west, Cave Run to the east. The warmer winters down here mean that it’s possible to catch a muskie every single month of the year. Contact Southern Kentucky Vacations: 800-225-8747;


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