How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Minnesota's Muskie Madness

Sure, there are wallhanger walleyes and trophy bass in our state, but muskies eat those species for snacks! Why don't you jump on this tackle-busting bandwagon? (July 2006)

By Ron Hustvedt Jr.

Walleyes may be the mainstay of Minnesota fishing, but thousands of anglers are now setting aside that "light tackle" to try their luck at some real gear-busting muskie fishing.

Once considered a fringe species pursued by only a few wide-eyed crazies, the addiction known as muskie fishing has really caught on in recent years here in Minnesota. Thanks to stocking programs initiated by the Department of Natural Resources and Muskies Inc., our muskie population is ever expanding and providing anglers with numerous opportunities to catch these toothy critters.

"If you count both native and introduced muskie lakes, there are 85 pure-strain lakes in the state and 105 lakes if you include those metro lakes with stocked hybrids," said Jerry Younk, the DNR's muskie research biologist.

That's a lot of water, and narrowing it down to the top dozen or so lakes is no easy task. Luckily, there is some hard-core data, thanks to Muskies Inc. "Lunge Log" is a database of information about all the details of muskie catches registered by Muskies Inc. members. We've crunched the numbers, and 13 lakes emerged from among the masses as Minnesota's best muskie waters.

For the purposes of this article, only catches in 2004 and 2005 were examined in order to keep it current. With a total of 4,153 muskies over 40 inches registered in those years, there's plenty of data to go by. With only a few exceptions, the vast majority of trophies over 50 inches came from the lakes on this list.

LAKE VERMILION
Vermilion had a total of 613 fish over 40 inches registered in the last two years, including nine over 54 inches.

Vermilion is filled with bays, channels, islands and points, and is very different from the big east end to the west. The east end has more water, fewer weeds, more rocks, more wind and less boat traffic than the west end, though both are great for fishing.

Duane Williams is the DNR's large-lake specialist for Vermilion, and he said they are currently in the middle of a two-year assessment of muskies in the lake.

"We did the east side in the spring of 2004 and the average length was 44.6 inches, with 14.9 percent over 50 inches," Williams said.

Tom Wehler, otherwise known as "Musky Tom," is a guide on Vermilion who has seen the lake go from barely a blip on the radar screen to a major destination. Pinpointing a location on a lake with 12 public launches on 40,000 acres is daunting, but Wehler is like a Zen master when he says, "Wherever you are, there you fish. I always tell people not to make muskie fishing any tougher than it has to be. If a spot looks fishy, then fish it."

Working points and weeds is the best way to start, and once you find muskies, look for similar looking areas. Eventually you can connect the dots and keep working each spot. "There might not be one on a spot now, but there probably will be later," Wehler said.

Buoys marking shallow rocks and humps around the lake are fished hard for a variety of species. Wehler said there are more humps that are not marked, and anglers who stumble upon one of these should fish it hard.

Wehler throws many bucktails throughout the summer, and color can change depending on the conditions. Wehler said keep it simple most of the time, but don't be afraid to try something weird if they aren't biting or following.

"Jerkbaits and topwater lures also work very well, and don't just try topwater fishing at night," he said.

Additional information on Lake Vermilion can be found at www. muskytomguideservice.com. Lodging and area information can be found at www.lakevermilionresorts.com or by calling 1-800-648-5897.

MILLE LACS
As if you needed another reason to fish Mille Lacs, the lake with something for everyone. It's a distant second to Vermilion with "only" 478 muskies on the list, though that's 100 more than third place.

Fish on this heavily pressured lake are no strangers to a large selection of lures. This could be why the muskies have a reputation for being followers. Many anglers, this author included, seem to have more heart-pounding follows on Mille Lacs than any other lake.

Almost every muskie expert consulted for this article had some advice for Mille Lacs muskies. The good news is that their collective knowledge showed that a wide variety of tactics work in many locations. Translation: This lake is loaded with muskies. Of all the locations mentioned, the sharp breakline along the north end, the bays on the west end and the bays on the south end were the top spots.

Al Pederson of WoodsNWater Guide Service said the muskie bite tends to move around the lake as the season progresses.

"I'll start out on the south end in Cove Bay in June, move up by Vineland in July and then by August the best action is on the north end," Pederson said.

There are a dozen accesses around this 132,000-acre body of water, and each one will get you close to the muskie action.

"From the Fourth of July until the lake freezes over, Mille Lacs is an absolute sheer dynamo place to fish," said Tim Edinger, a Brainerd-area guide for Walleye Dan's Guide Service.

The Vineland area is one of Edinger's favorite locations, especially in July and August. Emerging cabbage beds are great locations for throwing bucktails or slowly retrieved deep-diving crankbaits. Once the weeds thicken up, Edinger divides his time between the inside weed edge with topwaters and the deep weedline with bucktails.

"Never give up on anything, and see what the fish are going for that day," he said. "If the action is slow, keep switching it up."

Additional information can be found online at www.millelacs.com or by calling 1-888-350-2692.

DETROIT LAKE
First stocked in 1989, Detroit's muskie population is strong, as indicated with 378 fish on the list. Only 3,000 acres in size makes it more manageable than the top two lakes. Four boat launches line the shoreline of Detroit Lake.

"I've had my best luck on this lake throwing black and silver as well as red and yellow spinnerbaits," said Brian Kaiser of Musky 101 Guide Service and creator of Kaistertail lures.

In the summer, the deep weedlines are a great place to fish, especially along the numerous weedflats and underwater points surrounded by deeper water.

Being adjacent to the city of Detroit Lakes also makes it a popular recreational destination. Kaiser said waiting until sundown is a great idea, especially with topwater lures.

Additional information can be found at www.visitdetroitlakes.com or by calling 1-800-542-3992. Also go to www.kaisertail.com.

LAKE MINNETONKA
Big water and heavy recreational use has defined each of the top three lakes, and that trend continues when you're on this metro lake. However, Minnetonka has 219 muskies on the list, though most Esox anglers think the lake is still underfished.

"There are fish all over that lake and some tend to stick shallow, while others spend most of their time in deep water," said Steve Jonesi, a fishing guide and employee of the famed Thorne Brothers in Fridley.

Jonesi's advice is basically to find a weedline and start fishing, and that includes the shallow side as well as the deep side.

"I think a lot of anglers focus only on the deep side on Minnetonka, while the inside weedline, especially where there are cabbage weeds, can be just as good," he said.

Muskies on Minnetonka tend to go more for brighter colors like lime, chartreuse, orange and hot red, though natural colors will work as well, especially in the fall. This angler tends to stick with the lower lake east of Big Island into Wayzata Bay, although follows have occurred all over the lake.

Additional information can be found at www.minnetonkaoutdoors.com.

LAKE MILTONA
With 211 muskies on the list, Miltona is close to Minnetonka in ranking, though significantly smaller in size and has less boat traffic. Miltona is located north of Alexandria.

Brad Hoppe runs Musky Mayhem Guide Service and is also the new owner of Eagle Tail Lures.

"Obviously, I throw many bucktails like Showgirls and double cowgirls, but it's also tough to beat for crankbaits and topwaters," he said.

Brighter colors tend to work best on Miltona, Hoppe said, with greens, reds, oranges and fluorescent colors being the best.

"The best fishing seems to be during the day, though some people have had limited luck at night," he added.

The Miltona flats in the middle of the lake are a great location. There is plenty of fishable water, and there are cabbage beds running from 2 to 25 feet of water.

"If you can find some of the few rocky areas adjacent to weeds, then fish it," said Hoppe. "Otherwise, anywhere you find crisp green cabbage is good."

Additional information on the Alexandria area can be found at www.alexandriamn.com or by calling 1-800-235-9441. Hoppe can be contacted at www.muskymayhem.com.

LAKE PLANTAGENET
Located just south of Bemidji in the heart of Minnesota's muskie country, Plantagenet is a tremendous muskie fishery, with 174 Esox on the list. As a father, teacher, owner of Custom Silk Screening and employee of Gander Mountain, one would think that Bryan Sathre never has time to guide fishing clients.

"I keep busy, but there's always time to do some fishing, and Plantaganette is a great one," Sathre said.

Sathre is a guide with First Choice Guide Service and said he always begins fishing for muskies along the reeds on the northwest corner adjacent to deep water.

"I love throwing bucktails up there, especially an orange and black one with a gold blade," he said. Once the summer heat is on, Sathre recommended fishing the midlake structure.

Additional information on the Bemidji area can be found at www.visitbemidji.com or at www.firstchoiceguide.com.

LAKE INDEPENDENCE
This is one of the Twin Cities metro's oldest and most well-known muskie lakes, but it still puts up plenty of numbers, as witnessed by coming in seventh on the list with 166 fish. The lake is heavily used in the summer, but it has a number of trophies that make battling the crowds worth it.

Al Pederson of Woods-N-Water Guide Service fishes the lake right after the muskie opener and said the shoreline south of the YMCA island is a great spot throughout the summer. Green and orange are his favorite colors, with Suicks and topwater presentations tending to yield the most fish.

For additional information, go to www.woodsnwaterguide.com or contact the West Hennepin Chamber of Commerce at www.whcc-mn.org.

LEECH LAKE
The waters of Leech Lake are famous for "toother" fishing. There are many strains of muskies in the world, but almost every Minnesota lake is stocked with the Leech Lake-strain because it is hearty and has a tremendous growth rate. Leech has "only" 162 fish on the list, but is still one of the premier lakes to fish for muskies in our state.

"There are some big muskies in the lake, and some really wide-open areas to fish for them," said Gary Trimble of the Leech Lake Guide Coalition.

Trimble has guided on Leech for 35 years and has a 55-inch fish to his credit. He caught that fish in 2000, and it's possibly still swimming today because he released it.

"There are some big areas on Leech where you can fish for several hours and have good luck, but still not totally know the area," he said.

The best spots to begin fishing are Walker Bay and the nearby Goose Flats. As long as the wind isn't blowing too hard, Trimble said Portage Bay is a great spot and there's a good chance the crowds won't be as thick.

"If you only fish a few spots and put in your time, you'll see something and probably catch something as well," Trimble said.

Additional information on Leech Lake can be found online at www.leechlakeguides.com or by calling 1-800-735-3297.

CASS LAKE
The toughest part about making this list is that there are too many great muskie lakes. It's hard to imagine that Cass just barely cracked the top 10 with 142 fish, but it is home to some tremendous muskies, and possibly Minnesota's next state record.

Brian Jones grew up walleye fishing on Cass. He became addic ted to muskies after his first catch.

"In the last five years, there have been two muskies caught on Cass over 58 inches, and I've personally seen some that big with tremendous girth to them," Jones said.

Jones is the owner of First Choice Guide Service of Cass Lake and said anglers inexperienced on Cass should begin in Allen's Bay, which is like a lake itself.

"As a general rule of thumb, fish the cabbage weeds and the breaklines with walk-the-dog lures and small bucktails," he said.

More seasoned Cass anglers can venture out onto the big water and fish along the depths for the monsters roaming around.

"It's basically 26,000 acres of cabbage, rocks and deep water, which is all you need for producing some monster fish," Jones said.

For more information, go to www.casslake.com or call the Cass Lake Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-356-8615.

LAKE BEMIDJI
Any lake with a section known as "Muskie Alley" has to be a good one to fish. Lake Bemidji, located right in town, is a muskie factory that is known for kicking out fish of tremendous size. With four fish over 55 inches in the last decade and 135 on the list for the last two years, it's a lake not to overlook.

Sathre is no stranger to this lake, having fished it for the first time when he attended Bemidji State University right on the lake.

"The west side of the lake from Cameron Bar up to the northwestern corner is known as Muskie Alley, and it gets tons of pressure, but there's a reason why," Sathre said.

"The secret with Bemidji is to find the fresh cabbage, but don't be afraid to fish the midlake humps like Grassy Island and Rock Pile Bar," he continued. "Most people just don't fish those spots in the summer, which is a big mistake."

Bucktails are his chosen lure, though adding a white 4-inch twistertail to the back hook provides an extra flavor the muskies on Bemidji can't resist.

Additional information on the Bemidji area can be found online at www.visitbemidji.com and also at www.firstchoiceguide.com.

LAKE ALEXANDER
Just south of Brainerd along the border of Fort Ripley, Alexander is a high-quality muskie lake with 122 fish on the list. It's odd in that it requires a finesse approach to really get on the best muskie locations.

"The spots tend to be smaller and the dropoffs so sharp, boat control is critical to keep your bait in the fish-producing zone," Edinger said.

"Points and shoreline stretches with significant cabbage growth are what you are looking for, and it's tough to beat a bucktail in these areas," Edinger said. His top spots include the north end as well as the area around Soldier's Island.

"This is also a great lake for night-fishing during the full moon, and I love making a quick run to Alexander when I know a storm is approaching because the fish just turn on," he added.

Additional information can be found at www.littlefallsmn.com or by calling 1-800-325-5916.

MOOSE LAKE
Just northeast of Deer River, Moose Lake has 119 fish on the list and a reputation for being very friendly to muskie rookies and first-time visitors.

"There's great midlake structure, tons of cabbage and bulrushes, and for a lake of this size, it does not receive a lot of pressure," said Jim Doyle of Musky Connection Guide Service.

Doyle has caught some big muskies in the lake, including one over 54 inches two years ago.

"Downsized lures tend to work the best on Moose, with bucktails and minnow baits working best early on, and jerkbaits and bigger topwaters later in the season," he said.

There is a lot of midlake structure that is thoroughly fished, but Doyle said the big secret is finding the spots not on most maps.

Additional information can be found at www.minnesota-muskie.com or by calling the Deer River Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-701-2226.

LAKE OF THE WOODS
It's a lake worth mentioning only because part of this behemoth is in Minnesota and it could be the location of the next world-record muskie. The trouble is, most of the great fishing is found in Canadian waters.

"If you go to the Northwest Angle, there is good muskie fishing within a few miles," said Chuck Leach of Lake Charter's Guide Service. "One of the best times is in July when the fish move out of the bays and points to the reefs in open water.

"Bucktails are my favorite, and as far as color goes, any color works as long as it is black," he joked.

Additional information can be found at www.lakeofthewoodsmn. com, at www.lakecharter.com/muskie or by calling 1-800-382-FISH.

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