How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, July 09, 2007

In the spotlight: The muskie passion

Such a quality is, indeed, a virtue when trying to hit the muskie jackpot
Sunday, July 08, 2007

Howard Wagner with a muskie caught and released in the St. Lawrence Seaway. Muskies can be distinguished from northern pike by dark patterns over a light background on their flanks and seven or more sensory pores under their jaws.

By Deborah Weisberg
Uh oh, look how flat that lake is," said muskie guide Howard Wagner, as we approach a boat launch at Lake Arthur on a sunny June morning blanketed with heat. "Let's go and get a banana split until the storm front moves in."
Wagner is joking, since banana splits are always part of his post-fishing ritual, and he is seldom one to kowtow to poor conditions. With no wind to break up surface water, sunlight is penetrating deep and muskies are likely hiding in cover.
He parks his truck, launches his boat and sets up 11-foot trolling rods, clipping a big, heavy Roso Perch Pikie with tangerine belly to one and a jointed Minteer Pikie in White Flash to the other. Both bear the bite marks of many muskies.
"Look how that wiggles," he said, as he runs the Minteer through the clear, still water.
Bait fish show up in 7 feet on Wagner's depth-finder.
"That means the light penetration is 7 feet down, so we'll run our lures at 7, 8 feet," he said. "Water is 79, almost 80, degrees. My favorite temperature for muskies is 80 and above."

The water was that warm at Lake Arthur a month ago when Wagner put a client onto a 53-inch muskie, a size seldom seen on local lakes. If muskies are the "fish of a thousand casts," as the old axiom suggests, 50-plus-inchers are the fish of a lifetime, especially in Pennsylvania where the state record -- unbroken in 87 years -- is 59 inches.
"I've caught them 54 inches, and I've heard of other people catching 54-inchers, in Pennsylvania," Wagner said, "but I've never seen documented proof of one bigger."
Wagner applauds the tighter muskie regulations implemented this year (one a day, at least 40 inches), but would like to see the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission go a step further by imposing a 50-inch minimum or release-only restrictions on select lakes. The best prospects for special regulations would be the Allegheny and Pymatuning reservoirs, he says, where, "they had the biggest muskies in the state 30 years ago, but over-harvest reduced the sizes on both."
Size is everything to muskie hunters, who sacrifice steady action for the prospect of a huge catch.
"I'd say muskie guys average fish on one out of four trips, although on days you catch them you'll probably catch others," Wagner said. "Here's how to look at it: people spend $5 on a lottery ticket every day, day after day, and don't win. But they keep taking a shot at the jackpot."
Wagner has hit the jackpot several times, including one year in the early 1990s when he released seven muskies of 50-plus inches on Tamarack and Conneaut lakes and on the Ottawa River in Canada.
"Tamarack in those days was a well-kept secret," Wagner said. "That was before it was drained. It's still a good muskie lake, but more for numbers, not sizes. Conneaut has changed so much with all the development and boat traffic. It has more pike than muskies now and may never come back in terms of really big fish."
Although Wagner guides locally , his own fishing is focused on lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Ontario, which includes the St. Lawrence Seaway. "There's rumors that Great Lakes muskies are approaching 70 pounds," he said. "Of course, without a photo, a catch is just a rumor. I always have a camera with me."
Four years ago, he caught a 55-incher near Buffalo Harbor on Lake Erie's New York side, and five years ago landed a 52-pounder in the middle Allegheny River, wading on a January day.
"I don't like fishing in cold weather," he said, "but I catch a lot of big fish in winter."
October through December is the best time to catch trophy-sized muskies, while mid-June to mid-July is ideal for numbers.
"Water can never be too warm," Wagner said, "since it speeds up the muskies' metabolism and makes them feed more often."
His favorite summer waters include Tamarack, Edinboro, LeBoeuf and Keystone Power Dam. "I like Pymatuning in August," he said.

Wagner fished for trout as a kid, then moved to bass, walleye and pike -- a progression common among muskie anglers. It was on a trip to Canada with his Freeport neighbor, Ralph Jones of the now-defunct Jona Mar Lure Co., that Wagner got sold on muskies.
"I watched one pull Ralph half out of the boat and said, 'That's the kind of fish I want to catch,' " he said.
He became a student of the sport and eventually opened the Fish Education Center at his home in Fombell, Pa. He spends more than 100 days a year on the water.
"The more time you spend fishing, the better you become, although there's always a little bit of luck involved," he said. "I think some guys really do have luck on their side more than others. And you've got to have a gut feeling, a sixth sense, about where the fish are, even on lakes you've never been to."
His favorite all-around trolling lure is the Creek Chub, jointed or straight, in 8-10 inches.
"You can run them fast, they have a unique wobble, and they have a little flash off the front lip that mimics a shiner, " he said.
When the Creek Chub Co., went out of business, Wagner bought as many of their lures as he could find, although he says today's replicas are better -- the lip and the wire harness that runs the length of the bait are now typically stainless steel instead of nickel-plated brass.

At Lake Arthur, we're fishing shad and perch imitations to match the local forage, although the Ferris Yellow Belly Red Bar Perch doesn't represent anything and often works well at Arthur, Wagner says.
We target the lake's three main points and zigzag across the submerged road and railroad beds Wagner remembers from before the lake was created.
"There's the old Route 422 roadbed. See how flat it is?" Wagner said, pointing to his sonar screen. "Muskies like to lie on ditches on either side of that road. I do a lot of open-water trolling -- no bays -- since they suspend off the bottom on those structures."
We troll 4-6 mph and take a lot of turns, which makes the outside lure speed up and the inside lure move slower. It is often this change in direction, Wagner says, that triggers muskies to bite.
Wind and other boat traffic pick up a little during the day, putting enough chop on the water to boost oxygenation. Mid-afternoon, Wagner ties on his "save the best for last" lure, an 8-inch black Pikie. Still, we end our trip without even a hint of a toothy predator.
"I don't know if muskie fishing attracts people with patience and strong willpower or [if it] teaches you that, but you need both because you can go so long between strikes," he said. "I know trolling all day is boring to most people, but for muskie guys it's a mind-set. You know you're going to be out here for so many hours, so you get into a groove. And the last thing I worry about when I'm out here is what I will or won't catch."
(Anglers interested in more on muskies can call the Fish Education Center at 724-452-4464, or visit Muskies Inc. at www.muskiesinc.com and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission at www.fish.state.pa.us. )

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