How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Eagle River Chain Muskies

There probably isn't a water body easier to boat a muskie on than this northern Wisconsin chain of lakes. Find out for yourself, and take a youngster along! (August 2006)

By Ted Peck

Muskies seldom come easy, but your chances for at least "moving" Esox on the Eagle River Chain in Wisconsin's "top knot" are as good or better than anywhere else in our state.

There are only a few over-50-inch beasts cruising these dark flowage waters, with a low- to mid-40-inch fish a real possibility on any given day. The Eagle River Chain is certainly not the place to tangle with a fish that would make Louis Spray roll over in his grave. But if you're in the vacation mode and looking for a brief escape from obnoxious relatives -- or have a young angler seeking insight into the northwoods muskie mystique -- there is a legion of 30- to 40-inch muskies waiting in these mostly shallow 3,600 acres.

Until last summer, my nephew, Darrin Marcure, hadn't strayed far from the family farm and had never been on a road trip of several days' duration with his old Uncle Ted. Until last summer, Darrin had only tangled with a muskie on one occasion. His 40-incher came on a Lindy Tiger Tube on the fourth cast on a private lake. I always keep a Tiger Tube rigged and ready for that one quick shot a muskie can provide after rocking your world with an unexpected appearance, or as a "throwback" bait when a fishing partner has one of these "toothers" at least amused with a figure-8 maneuver.

Darrin's fish was just sunning in the back of a shallow bay in clear water on a late-spring morning. Not exactly a high-percentage scenario for hooking up. We hadn't even planned on going fishing that day, which started in pursuit of Darrin's first wild turkey. His 23-pound tom had a 10-inch beard and was flopping on the forest floor in plenty of time for Darrin to catch the school bus.

Fortunately, I convinced my sister that he would need to take the day off to chase these wily critters, thus hopefully rounding out an education that could never be fully realized in the confines of a classroom. By 10 a.m., the lad had achieved two major benchmarks on the road to manhood. I regret to this day not taking the young Turk to the big city to put another notch or two in his bat with purchase of what certainly would have been a winning lottery ticket. (Continued)

Now fast-forward several years to a sultry summer morning in Wisconsin's northwoods. Mist on the water. Loon talk in the air. Uncle Ted with one eye open and a belly full of prime rib from the Chanticleer Inn the night before.

"Buzzafubba!" screamed my young nephew, ripping his bucktail out of the water with much pointing and wild-eyed gesturing at the weed edge in Eagle Lake. I never saw this fish. No matter. Darrin's limited perception that muskie fishing was really no big deal was immediately and forever put to rest. He had finally seen the elephant and looked it in the eye, giving the old uncle ammunition to allegorically pin the boy's ears back at an appropriate time when this young buck feels like challenging the bull of the woods.

We never boated a single muskie in three days of hard fishing on this trip. But we saw fish every time the Lund left the dock. One blew up on a Tallywacker that was being burned in so I could pick up the Tiger Tube while Darrin was entertaining another fish with a figure-8 at boatside. This encounter sparked a more mature variation of "buzzafubba" tempered by years of close encounters of the Esox kind. Oh, those muskies! Toothed tormentors of the parasympathetic nervous system and so much more!

These fish were patrolling within 50 yards of where veteran guide George Langley said they would be -- just a long cast from where Eagle Lake necks down to enter Scattering Rice Lake to the east.

The Eagle River Chain is home to textbook-perfect weed edges that are a major source of muskie orientation throughout the fishing year because the water is so dark. Although hiring a good guide like George Langley will certainly shave numbers off that "fish of 10,000 casts" stuff, anybody who can't walk out of a sport shop without dropping at least $100 on lures can winnow their presentation to logically effective tactics in a very short time.

Because the water is dark, obnoxious fluorescent baits are a good place to start. The forage base is primarily perch, with a few suckers thrown into the mix. Smaller twitchbaits like the little Jake and smaller bucktails like the Mepps Muskie Killer and the venerable Wacker provide your shortest odds for a stretched string on these waters.

Although Langley's Eagle Sports Center has been recognized as one of the top 10 bait shops in the country, the knowledgeable staff won't cater to the bizarre propensity muskie anglers have for purchasing lures these fish certainly haven't seen. The muskie attack here is straightforward. One angler throws a black Mepps Muskie Killer bucktail with a fluorescent red blade, while another angler pitches some kind of topwater. The Tallywacker is a good place to start, especially on the more wind-sheltered waters of the Eagle River Chain.

For about $100, any Wisconsin resident over age 16 can live out their northwoods muskie guide fantasy with fair expectations of success on the Eagle River Chain. The c-note covers the cost of your guide license, a checked flannel shirt and a knife for your belt. Have your "clients" tie on the aforementioned baits as you keep the boat out of the weeds (Hint: There are a lot of channel markers and other buoys on this chain) while working on your grunting and gesturing skills.

Keep a plastic bag with a couple of 3-inch fluorescent twistertails in the pocket of your flannel shirt. If you don't "move" a muskie after an hour or so, impale one of the twistertails on a hook of the bucktail's treble hook while grunting and gesturing toward one of the chain's myriad boathouses or docks. Try to hide your surprise when a mid-30-inch fish comes boiling out of the wood and garwoofles your "client's" bucktail.

If you put in a fair amount of time on the water -- especially early in the morning, in the evening or when a storm is on the way -- an encounter with at least one muskie is almost a certainty.

Although muskies are predictably unpredictable, the dog days of August are a strong influence on fish behavior. This isn't really a "big-fish" time of year. But if you are of the opinion that you would rather not catch big muskies than not catch little muskies, Cranberry, Catfish and Eagle lakes are your best bet between now and the arrival of cooler weather in mid-September. All three of these lakes are also big enough for muskies to cruise out over deeper water and suspend during the warmer months. There are several sand humps in Catfish Lake that epitomize the kind of offshore cover some fish seek out to escape both boat traffic and summer's heat.

Lures like the Depth Raider and Ernie work well for these suspended midlake fish, especially perch-pattern baits with white bellies. A personal favorite is a big red head/white body Ernie that bears the toothmarks of several summer fish from the Eagle River Chain and Watersmeet Lake, which lies just west of the chain.

Therein lies the difference between some guy in a flannel shirt wearing a knife and a bona fide northwoods muskie guide. Book George Langley with the understanding that a confrontation with a large fish holds the potential for a considerable tip and you may find yourself rocketing west in George's maroon Tahoe on Highway 70 -- with an 18-foot green Ranger in tow.

Watersmeet sees considerably less boat traffic than lakes in the Eagle River Chain, which is something worth considering if you're on the water on a summer weekend. Part of this is because it is just off the beaten path. Another reason is the presence of stumpfields throughout the lake that will quickly find a poseur guide's lower unit.

Langley knows that these stumpfields can be muskie magnets. There are times -- even during summer's heat -- when muskies will relate to exceptionally shallow water. This is one reason why Langley always likes to see at least one of his clients throwing a topwater lure. More often than not, this will be an orange Tallywacker when fishing flowage waters. A bucktail is the other weapon Langley likes to start with on Watersmeet, probably an orange-bladed Rizzo Wiz. If the bucktail doesn't produce, this guide will have a 6-inch Jake in perch pattern ready to go, easing toward the weedline on the old riverbed that snakes through the lake.

One reason Watersmeet has such a reputation for giving up muskies is the variety of influences caused by the confluence of the Eagle and Wisconsin rivers, and both Mud and Rice creeks that enter the system here. Weeds are a major key when fishing any of these tributaries, with good weedbeds found at the mouths of both the Wisconsin River and Rice Creek. A fish hooked up in this exceptionally shallow water will either plow back into heavier cover or leave the water like a missile.

Besides holding the potential for fish in excess of 35 pounds, Watersmeet Lake is the home of the Eagle River Inn, another of this area's outstanding dining establishments. A chance for a multiple-muskie day is not the sole reason for wetting a line on Eagle Lake in the heart of the chain. Eagle Waters Supper Club is on this lake, offering what may be the best fish fry in the entire Midwest.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I pulled into Eagle Waters for the fish fry. We left Hanna Banana, my yellow Lab, behind in the truck. We parked between two other trucks with Labs of different colors and were greeted by two black Labs between the truck and the front door. One Lab left in a truck is a recipe for a bark fest. But if half the vehicles contain canine guardians that seem to develop a pack mentality, this circumstance is the natural order of things in the northwoods.

Eagle Waters, the Chanticleer and Hiawatha Supper Club on Duck Lake are three must-do dining experiences when visiting this part of the state, with the ideal time to dine about 7 p.m. This puts you back on the water at prime time for fishing, with the potential for an explosion only one cast away if you keep the 'Wacker in the water. You can't get away from the boats on the Eagle River Chain during the summer -- a fact of life that is easier to accept with a full belly and a beverage containing an olive or two.

It is nearly impossible to maintain cobra-like intensity on every single cast when fishing through a 12-hour day. Therein lies the beauty of the after-dinner bite on the Eagle River Chain. Just engage the auto-pilot on your big trolling motor and ease your way down the shoreline while targeting every boathouse, pier and shoreline structure with a cast or two. Wayward logs and stumps are also worth a shot, some of which have been in the water here since the flowage was first dammed up in the late 1800s.

Conventional wisdom may whisper that this is no way to fish for muskies. What self-respecting muskie would even think of chasing down a lure in the midst of a flotilla of personal watercraft, pontoon boats and inboard-powered pleasure boats? These muskies are acclimatized to all the hubbub. They don't seem to mind. In fact, tossing a bucktail or topwater in the wake of a passing boat has fooled more than one of these fish.

Labor Day is just around the corner. Tourists will be returning to Illinois. Maple trees and popples will soon be turning color. And the time will be at hand to get truly serious about muskie fishing.

Weeds are probably the single biggest key to muskie location throughout most of the season. Distinct weed edges with submergent weeds dropping sharply into deeper water are usually in place by June 1. Weeds have even more significance as autumn progresses, with remaining green weeds being true fish magnets well into October.

A sucker on a quick-strike rig should be part of your autumn attack plan on these waters. Many fish are either cruising at about the 12-foot breakline or are pulled out of remaining green weeds by a lure, only to feast on your offering of "meat" instead. This is also a time for pitching crankbaits and jerkbaits. After the second serious cold front of autumn has come and gone, fish cribs placed by the Headwater Chapter of Muskies Inc. and other organizations are also worth serious fishing efforts.

By Oct. 1, the Eagle River Chain is nothing like the Mardi Gras experience you'll find on this water in the summer. There is a singleness of purpose in boats you'll see out on the water in the fall. Most years, only a hearty few are out there when most folks have picked up the deer gun and orange coat. This is a great time to work the area between Picnic Point and The Flats on Cranberry while stopping to work the Slide Bar due north of the boat ramp on Meta Lake Road on the way out and on the way back -- if it isn't snowing too hard.

There are seldom many rigs parked at this ramp on Cranberry's southwest side, even during tourist season. This is a far cry from the ramp with all the amenities found at the T-Docks Landing on Yellow Birch Lake where the water skinnies down into the Eagle River.

The city of Eagle River turns back into a small northwoods town until snow comes and this burg becomes the Snowmobile Capital of the World. There's not much to do besides fish and bowhunt. Amusement is where you find it once the crowds go home. You may want to cruise past Eagle Sports on Wall Street. If there is a maroon Tahoe parked in front of the bait shop, call (715) 479-8804 and ask a stupid question like, "Are you open?" or go with a question like, "How much do your 2-pound suckers weigh?" For everything else, go to fishing@eaglesportscenter.com. If you want to look like a northwoods muskie guide, don that flannel shirt and strap on a knife. If you want to learn how a real northwoods muskie guide talks, give George Langley a call and ask a stupid question.

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