Basic Muskie Fishing by James Smith
Muskie, musky, muskellunge, etc. whatever you call it, it is the fish of 10,000 casts. I guarantee you they’ll wait you out. I told this to a friend on one of his first trips muskie fishing with me. An hour or so later I noticed his mouth moving and no voice. I asked him if he had had a follow and was talking to himself under his breath. “No,” he said, “just counting.” “It’s a joke I said,” I don’t think he was impressed.
Let me explain the different spellings. Muskie is predominately a Minnesota spelling, and Musky is the Wisconsin version. Depending on where you began fishing for muskies, that will be the way you spell it. There is no particularly “politically correct” way to spell it. Some magazines require their writers to use it only one way, others don’t care. Muskie Magazine was first published in Minnesota where Muskies, Inc was founded. On the other hand Musky Hunter Magazine was founded and is published in Wisconsin. So there you have it. According to Webster’s 10th Edition either spelling is correct and equally accepted.
Esocidae is the family of fish from which the muskellunge is a member. Along with the northern pike, amur pike from the United Kingdom, and an assortment of pickerel; chain, redfin, and grass. Within the family of muskellunge Esox masguinongy, there are distinct color variations, that kind of point to areas of the country. For example the “clear” muskie is generally found in northern Wisconsin. The “spotted” muskie is considered the Leech Lake strain from Minnesota. The “Barred” muskie appears to originate from the Ohio area. There is also a color variation called by some the “silver” muskie. Finally, there is the hybrid muskie. This is a cross between a northern pike father and a pure muskellunge mother. Generally this is a hatchery-reared fish, which a number of states use in their muskie stocking programs. However, this cross can and does happen in the wild. It is thought to occur in lakes where both northern pike and muskellunge frequent, and when there is a late spring. Normally the northern spawn first, a couple of weeks earlier than muskies. If there is a late spring they may be spawning together in the same areas. Muskies, Inc. has laminated charts to assist you in identifying your muskie.
Muskies are a game fish native to North America. Their distribution historically was limited to about 8 or 10 Midwestern and northeastern states and a couple of Canadian provinces. Within the last quarter century wildlife agencies have begun stocking true muskellunge and, in particular, hybrid muskies in their waters. Today thirty-five of the lower forty-eight states have active muskie stocking programs, many with record class muskies and fishable populations. As was mentioned above the muskie spawns a couple of weeks after the pike. Because of this the pike tend to reduce the number of muskie that survive. Being a couple of weeks older the young pike find muskie fry easy prey. Supplemental stocking by DNR agencies tends to maintain minimal levels of muskies in good waters. Studies show that for every 1,000 muskies stocked approximately 99 reach 30”, approximately 26 reach 40” and only 5 to 7 fish reach a 50” size. There are a couple of major factors that cause the muskie to be rare and difficult to catch. One is sheer numbers, or the lack thereof as previously mentioned.
Second is muskies are particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure. Further, increased fishing pressure, pollution, habitat alteration, and introduction of exotic species, all threaten our muskie populations. “Catch and release” which was the foundation block for Muskies Inc. has done a great deal to increase the numbers of muskies today. Gil Hamm’s fore sight in 1966 to espouse the catch and release philosophy may ultimately prove to be the salvation of this great sport fish.
Growth & Size
Without a doubt, “Big is Better”, when it comes to muskie fishing. Size limits within the various states are working to protect the harvest of smaller fish. Most minimum size limits begin around 36”. I know of no state with a minimum size limit less than 30” and in the better muskie states the minimum size limit is start at 44”, 46”, 54” etc. Many times certain lakes within the state will have varying size limits.
A young muskie hatched in April or May of the year will reach 7”-9” by fall. By the following spring that fish is in the 13” to 15” size. By their third year most have reached a 30” size. Hybrids can reach 50” by their sixth year. Muskies tend to grow long for their early years and then begin to fill (deepen). True muskies have been known to reach thirty years old. Hybrids, because of their rapid early growth, tend to achieve a maximum age of around 18 to 20 years.
The world record muskie is 69# 11 oz. The world record Hybrid is 51# 3 oz. When you see photos of these fish you’ll appreciate how deep these fish were. Most muskie fishermen consider a fish over 50” to be a wonderful trophy. A fish over 55” is considered a world-class trophy. I do not know of a certified/recorded muskie exceeding 64” in length. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. You’ll hear numerous stories of super fish weighing as much as 102#. A generally accepted basic formula to determine the weight of a muskie is: weight (lbs.) = (girth-in) x (girth-in) x (length-in) divided by 800. So a 50” muskie with a 30” girth would be 30”x 30” = 900 x 50” = 45,000 divided by 800 = 56.25#
Because the muskie is generally the largest fish in the lake, many believe that they sit at the top of the predator chain, eating all the other fish in the lake. Studies have shown that a muskie’s diet consists mainly of soft-rayed fish, i.e. suckers, minnows, carp, ciscos, and bullheads. In fact studies of muskie diets across North America confirm that 98% of the diet is comprised of fish. 30% were yellow perch and 8.4% were white suckers.
In a 1997 study of 1,092 muskellunge from 34 Wisconsin lakes only 6 walleye and 17 bass were found in the stomach of these muskies. Muskies are opportunistic feeders. They generally consume the most abundant prey species of adequate size. In most muskie waters this means yellow perch. It is important to understand this relationship when choosing artificial lures to pursue a muskie. You will also hear the adage, “Bigger lures mean Bigger fish.” A muskie can consume a fish nearly as large as one-half it’s own body size. To a 50” muskie a 20” sucker is just right. Muskies also prefer cylindrically shaped prey as opposed to wide flat-bodied fish.
Where to find them
Muskies are not just anywhere in the lake. Telemetry studies have shown muskies to have a definite “home range” within a body of water and seldom, except when spawning, leave their home range. In general, if you are fishing a particular location and have a “follow” mark that location and keep returning. Sooner or later you will get a “hook-up” and, hopefully, boat that fish or another who likes the spot you were fishing. Listen to stories told around the bait shops, watch where other muskie fishermen tend to concentrate their efforts. Mark those locations on your map. Soon you will have a number of “spots” to fish. Now, when you head out to fish, stop for a short while and hit each of those locations. We call it our “milk run”.
Muskies primarily identify with structure and weed beds. Weed beds are especially good. They provide cover and shade for a muskie. A muskie is a low light species. A muskie fisherman will refer to “cabbage” weeds. These are in fact, a family of broad-leaved pondweeds, Potamogeton richardsonii, is a broad leaf deep-water weed that makes excellent cover for muskies. On the other hand the Potamogeton crispus or Curled pondweed is a narrowleaf shallow water variety that is seldom productive. Other weeds such as Coontail in deep mats along a breakline will attract more fish than a thin layer of weeds on a flat bottom.
In bright or cold conditions the muskies will be right in the weeds. Pay attention to openings or pockets in the weed beds. Stop reeling your spoon or spinner bait and allow it to flutter down, keeping your line taut. Muskies lying in the weeds will dart out into that pocket to grab your lure as it sinks. Watch the surface of the lake whenever the water is flat-calm and note the emergent flowering tips of these weeds. Then fish the weed edges with crank baits, fish over the weed beds with bucktails, or fish the heaviest “slop” with weedless spoons or rubber jigs (Sluggo) rigged weedless. Slop refers generally to a mixture of lily pads and submerged vegetation, which provides good cover, but also shades the sun thus keeping the water cooler in that area.
Weed beds are very good all year long. In the late fall when the weeds are dying you need to locate the deeper weeds that are still green to find the better muskie fishing. Shore weeds such as Bulrushes and in some areas, wild rice are good especially in those areas where the weeds grow on a firm bottom in water as deep as five feet. Deep beds of bulrushes with an irregular margin offer open pockets that will hold muskies.
Next look for drop-offs or breaklines. This is where the bottom of the lake contour changes abruptly. This transition from a shallow area to deeper water is sure to hold muskies.You can locate these breaklines by reviewing the contour lines on your lake maps, by noting the change in water color on the surface (darker water color indicates deeper water, lighter water color is reflecting the bottom, shallower water.) and of course with your electronics (sonar). Sometimes you will be able to see a difference in the wave patterns from deeper water to shallow areas. Work around islands, reefs, bars, and stump areas to find dropoffs. Note land contours along the shore. These will give you hints about dropoffs and breaklines. Work these edges, casting to shallow from deep. Keep your boat into the deeper water. Cast or troll along the breakline, parallel with the edge. Muskies are an ambush fish. They tend to locate along these edges waiting for some innocent fish to come meandering by and ZAP! Gulp! Hopefully that was your lure.
Finally, we have a class of muskie holding areas called structure. Structure refers to underwater rock piles, bars, reefs, stump areas, etc. The same two factors that apply to weed beds apply to structure – size and variety. In most cases the larger the reef or bar the better it should be. The more varied it’s composition is the more hiding places there will be to hold muskies. By “varied” we are looking for large and small boulders, pockets, bends, variation in depth, rubble as opposed to sheer rock, crevice-filled rock slabs, etc. Another important feature is that anytime you can find this structure located close (next) to deeper water, you have an ideal location for muskies.
Narrows are great muskie areas, especially narrows with current running between two points. Standing timber, fallen trees, stumps or submerged logs are important structural elements and provide important cover for muskies. Stump fields are wonderful areas for muskies and miserable areas in which to catch them. You need heavy line and stiff rods in order to move or drive the fish out of the stumps and into an area where you’ll have a reasonable chance to land your fish. Isolated clumps of trees indicate an underwater hump, a prime muskie hideout. Timbered points that extend into an old river channel are good producers. Brushy flats alongside a creek channel or old river bottom make an excellent fishing area. Fish the outside edge where the contour drops into the deeper river channel.
When to fish for muskies
Anytime you can get on the water is a goodtime. Note I said a “goodtime”. One thing that is nice about muskie fishing you don’t normally have to get up before sunrise to be on the water at daybreak. Actually, the best time for muskies is the last hour of daylight. Remember muskies are a low light fish. They like dark, overcast, drizzly, cool days the best. Slight chop on the water, wind from the west, falling barometer, full moon….you’ve got it all now. If you look at the statistics you’ll see patterns emerging. In Muskies, Inc. we have a database of over 150,000 released muskies. This information is important to any muskie fisherman. Some muskie fishermen get paralyzed with statistics and won’t do anything without first consulting every possible almanac and reading every meter, graph, chart, etc. Phooey! Muskie fishing is a fun, entertaining, mostly relaxing, enjoyable passion. Being on the water is the most important part of the experience. That is why it is called fishing instead of catching.
Muskies tend to go on a feeding flurry during a falling barometer, just preceding a storm front. Cold fronts will turn muskies off after the front has passed. But, if you fish the later afternoon when the water temperature has peaked for the day, you have a good chance to hit a peak feeding time. Using smaller lures and slower retrieves will increase your chances. If the day is sunny and bright they will feed just before sunset, the last hour of daylight. Overcast windy days are much better than calm sunny ones.
If you look at the statistics 66% of the muskies are caught in less than ten (10 ‘) feet of water. 5’ to 8’ seems to be the most popular depth for muskies.
Muskies are most active in water temperatures between 55° and 72°. The peak fishing temperature is 68°. Trophy fishermen prefer water temperatures of 55°. When water temperatures are in the 60°-68° ranges use a slow retrieve.
This is a rather emotional topic for discussion. There are those who think moon phases are a religion and then there are the rest of the fishermen. There are charts galore, so if you “believe,” you’ll have a wealth of information with which to choose from. Suffice it to say that the biggest fish have generally been caught around the NEW moon followed by the FULL moon. The best days are the five days following the new moon and the four days following the full moon. Statistically the best two days are the day after the new moon and the forth day after the full moon. Night fishing under a full moon after it has risen, is not as productive as the early mornings. However, cloud cover during a full moon will keep the bite alive.
As you have seen there are many elements that go into muskie fishing. What it requires is for us to decide what elements or things are important in order to catch a big muskie. We must pick and choose those things that we think will work, this is why we look for “patterns”. A pattern is something that does or has worked. Establishing a pattern is doing something that changes what you have been doing unsuccessfully and provides you a path to success. There are many elements to successfully catching muskies, or any fish for that matter. Coordinating each of those elements and organizing them into a successful pattern is what the experienced muskie guide or fishermen does and is what you and I should do.
Look at the trends from the statistics compiled by Muskies, Inc. Look at the records from the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. You will begin to see things that have worked.
When we talk about seasonal patterns we are mostly looking at spring, summer and fall. These seasons can be further divided into varying segments that affect muskie movements. For example, most fishermen fish during the months of June, July and August. Thus, the most pressure, most fishermen, most catches. However, May and September are the best months for desirable water temperatures. October and into November are traditionally the best months for the big muskies.
Springtime means you are looking for south facing bays, as they will warm up sooner. Warm creek or river inlets will draw muskies. This is considered the post spawn time and is usually a tough time for muskies. Use small lures, the water will be cold 50° to 58° F. Then comes pre-summer, this is usually a sporadic or transition period. This is followed by a short two-week period around the middle of June. This is a hot time for the muskie bite. Around June 21st we begin the summer months. Fishing is best in the early mornings before 8:00 am and in the evenings after 6:00 pm. Getting into August we find cooler days and calmer waters. Then around late August to mid September turn over occurs.
Turn over is a brief period of chaos where water changes density as its temperature changes. The summer has warmed the surface water causing temperature stratification in the lake. Warm, less dense water on top and cooler denser water on the bottom. As fall comes upon the lake the surface water begins to cool. The colder water being denser descends to a shallow band of very cool water called the thermocline. Below the thermocline band is cool, stable water, temperature wise, which now is actually warmer than the cool water above the thermocline. Pretty soon this denser, heavier cold water above sinks causing the cool, stable, warmer, less dense water on the bottom to rise to the surface. Thus you have turnover.
On large bodies of water you may have turnover occurring in different parts of the same lake. Things like lake depth, high wind and changing weather conditions can affect the temperature stratification. Although you may as well stay at home and watch the fishing shows on cable during this period, rejoice in the fact that this is only a relatively short period and there are truly better days ahead. In fact the year’s best muskie fishing lies just ahead.By late September or early October as the water temperature hits 55° it is prime time muskie fishing. There is not a bad day until ice up or the season ends.
Proper handling & release techniques:
Land the fish quickly
Hold the fish firmly, but gently. Grasp the fish at the back of the head, just behind (not under) the gill covers. Do not hold a fish by the eyes-it can blind or kill them.
Use needlenose pliers to remove hooks. If your pliers have a side cutter, snip deeply imbedded hooks.
Cut the line if the fish is throat-hooked.
Don’t remove body slime.
Gently slide the fish into the water.
Release in shallow water, not over deep water.
Revive a tired fish by gently moving it back and forth in the water. The water moving through the gills will help in resuscitating the fish.
Only keep the fish out of the water for as long as you could hold your own breath.
Use barbless hooks (flatten bard with pliers or file down).
Use artificial lures only.
If using live suckers, always use a “quick strike rig” Never use single hook.
Clip one of the three treble hooks.
Use proper equipment so you can bring the fish in more quickly.
Don’t drop the fish in the boat.
Don’t net or handle a fish if you can leave it in the water.
Don’t release a fish that can’t right itself and bobs to the surface.
Any fish not of legal size must be released regardless of its condition.
Don’t place fish you plan to release on a stringer or in a live-well.
What is the future of muskie fishing?
Threatened and endangered species Act
Exotic species – milfoil, zebra mussels
Loss of spawning habitat-development
Spearing, both darkhouse and scuba
Inadequate size limits
Not recruiting enough youth fisher people
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