By Jim Saric, Editor
We all dream of trophy muskies. For some of us the pursuit of giant muskies goes beyond a passion and becomes a borderline obsession. How else can you explain our colorful discussions about fish handling, size limits, photographs, tournaments, etc. The bottom line is we all care about muskies and want to protect our waters and our fisheries so that they can continue to produce trophy fish into the future. As musky hunters grow in numbers we naturally increase the amount of pressure on the existing waters. That simply means more fish are going to get caught. With muskies reaching 25 to 30 years of age in some northern waters, chances are that fish will get caught several times throughout its life. So, taking all the steps necessary to protect these fish so we can catch them again is pretty important.
And, it makes catching trophy muskies that much more difficult.
Many of us also dream of that secluded water where trophy muskies roam. The unknown frontier. Some call it chasing the “pot of musky gold at the end of the rainbow.” I like to think of it as pioneering. I remember my first trip to Lac Seul. My fishing partner, Tom Sullivan, and I were by no means one of the first to fish this lake for muskies, and in reality were probably three to four years too late. We arrived with great anticipation and on the first day on the water Tom caught a 53 1/2-incher! The fish had a giant head, big girth and was simply enormous. We were pretty pumped up, but as the trip wore on it became a nightmare.
There were several other musky boats fishing the same area. Near the end of the week we had been chasing a particular fish on a large cabbage point projecting off an island. We decided to hit it at dark and we watched the spot from a distance as we fished other spots. There was a boat on the spot and every time they appeared to leave and we moved anywhere within a couple blocks of the island, they started their engine and blocked off the spot. They obviously saw the musky. The next day we fished the spot once, and again tried to get on the spot that evening with no luck. The next night, our last night, in desperation we decided to get to the spot as soon as it was open that evening. We fished the spot around 5p.m. and the fish followed. We backed off the spot slightly and decided to eat our dinner just off the spot. We were going to give the fish a rest and then go back, but we didn’t want to lose the spot. Suddenly, from around the corner comes a boat that sees us sitting just off the spot. They zoom in and start fishing before we could even react. It was incredible. We were absolutely disgusted and couldn’t believe we drove 15 hours and traveled another five via houseboat to battle other anglers for spots. We didn’t get back on the spot that evening and we knew it was time to look elsewhere for other waters because we were “too late.”
Most of the waters we all fish were pioneered by someone. Over time, and in very little time I might add as a result of the Internet, waters are “discovered.” The masses flock to these waters and catch lots of fish. Fishing pressure eventually spreads the catches among anglers, the fish become spooky and more difficult to catch, and many musky anglers move to new waters. Over time the discovered water receives less pressure and for those who remain, fishing often appears to rebound again. In reality, it doesn’t rebound as the fish are still tough to catch, you just aren’t sharing as many fish between boats.
Understanding this cycle is paramount for those of you whose goal is to catch a trophy musky or find a new water you can pioneer and call your own. When it comes down to it if you want to catch a trophy musky, my best advice is that you shouldn’t be fishing with the masses. That doesn’t mean that you can’t catch trophy fish on such waters, its just that you might reach a point when fishing pressure may drive the luck factor into the success equation more than you think or want. Just consider how many musky anglers fish certain areas on Lake of the Woods. Every year I watch in amazement as I may see a particular spot get fished 10 to 15 times a day. Now that’s not just one spot. Today’s musky anglers are much more astute in their ability to read water, techniques, and boat control than the anglers of the past. So, good-looking spots get fished. You just never know if a big fish you raised on a spot was caught an hour after you left! Ever wonder why that big musky you saw on a particular spot never showed itself the rest of the trip? Fishing pressure and the simple fact that the fish was caught might be the answer.
I get asked a lot about what it takes to catch a trophy musky. I’ve been pretty fortunate in my pursuit of these fish, and my two recommendations are don’t fish with the masses and realize when it is time to leave. I have always tried to follow that philosophy. Whether it be fishing Wisconsin, Minnesota, Canada or any place else, I try to avoid the crowds. Now some of you may say you can’t do that on lots of waters. Definitely on some waters you can’t. So, the simple answer is to just not fish them — if you really want to catch a trophy. My approach is to fish waters, even if they have lower densities of musky populations, and not have to share them with others, than to fight it out in hopes that my presentation might be slightly better, or more likely I make a lucky decision and decide to fish spot A rather than spot B first on that particular day and catch a trophy fish.
Finding trophy waters and catching trophy fish is never easy. Pioneering can be frustrating and, at times, lonely. Yet the rewards can be incredible. I don’t think there is an easy way out when it comes to catching trophy muskies, but if you are interested, I think I can help you carve down to size some trophy waters with a strategy that might help you gain confidence and pioneer some new waters.
Trophy Waters & Spots
Selecting the right water is the first step. Musky Hunter has mentioned this in many previous articles but I can’t stress enough the importance of doing your research. Look for photos of 50-inch fish. This doesn’t mean a lot of photos. All you need to find are a couple photographs of 50-inch fish from a water you have never heard of before. Better yet, these fish came from a water you are sure most of the people you know have never heard of. Check the stocking reports for that water try to determine when those fish were stocked to see if there may be a few similar year classes of big fish in the water. Contact tackle shops, resorts, guides and taxidermists. Again, you are just looking for a little more confirmation. I have always felt the best news is when the resorts have a big musky or two caught by accident, but don’t really know much about them. They just happen to have a couple pictures. You really are doing your detective work to determine if it’s worth taking a trip. This leap of faith or how much information is required to make that journey to a new water is different for every person. Personally, for me it doesn’t take much. I have always felt that if I can confirm the fact that big muskies are being caught, but there aren’t a lot of individuals who know much about the musky fishing, that usually is a good sign and there are big muskies that can be caught, and it makes my hit list.
Before you actually make that trip try to get some dates for when the big fish were caught. Were the fish caught in summer or fall? If you can get information on a particular section of the lake, that’s pretty important too. I don’t worry too much about baits, but I always try to find that out as well in case there is some sort of idiosyncrasy that develops.
Now that you have decided when and where to go, you have to get into the exact areas and spots to fish. Many of these trophy waters are big. I am a big believer in the “fish bowl” effect — the bigger the bowl, the bigger the fish get. So, I think big water is the way to go if you want to increase your odds and find numbers of big muskies. I just don’t have a lot of confidence on many waters that are less than 5,000 acres in size producing many 50-inchers. Now for those who fish Wisconsin I many have just eliminated a large majority of the waters in the state. However, we all know those smaller waters still produce big muskies. But, the larger waters in the northern part of Wisconsin have produced the greatest number of big muskies over time. Unless you can uncover some gem among the many smaller waters, and believe me they still exist, stick with the larger lakes. But when I consider big water I am thinking about waters such as Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs or Georgian Bay. These waters are big and you need a starting point, because just knowing the name of the water may not help you much.
So, you have got to find some data on where to start. It may not be the spot you end up spending all your time, but it is a start. I rely on two general approaches for starting points on big, new waters. The first is a result of my research. If I have documented proof that a few 50-inch muskies came from a particular section of the lake, I’ll start there. I might assume that the biggest concentration of fish at that particular time of year exists in that area of the lake. The second starting point is based on an overview of the maps and taking a macroscopic look at the water. There are certain large scale changes in a lake that I look for to begin my trophy hunt. One of the first areas I look for on the map are large island clusters or a neckdown between two large sections. I am not talking about an island or two but literally hundreds of islands or a neckdown area that may be several miles long surrounded by two much larger open areas.
Let me give you an example. For many of you that have fished the popular Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods, take out your maps and look at that area when you view LOTW as a whole. What do you see? You will notice that to the south is Big Traverse bay. A large wide-open area. To the north and east toward Kenora is another large expanse of deep, open water. In between those two large expanses of water or big basins is a cluster of islands (several hundred) that is essentially a neckdown area with shallower water. On a macroscopic scale of LOTW this is just one area that sticks out as an obvious place to start your exploration. This is still a tremendous amount of water to fish, I think it is a classic example of how to use this macroscopic mapping approach, and how it can put you in the ballpark.
Using this same approach by looking at the entire map(s) of the water laid out on the floor, I look for narrows, island clusters, a large bend or turn in the shape of a lake or river system, a sudden widening or shallowing of the water, or a major river or two entering the system. All of these macroscopic features are potential bull’s-eyes to locate trophy muskies. You just have to start by taking in the big picture.
If you are lucky, your detective work and your map review might overlap and reveal that the trophy fish that you have researched have been caught in an area that “on paper” looks outstanding from a macroscopic perspective. This can give you tremendous confidence as to where to begin on paper. Now the hard part begins, which is actually getting to work and catching that trophy.
Fish For The “Biters”
Remember that you are fishing for active fish because these waters aren’t fished by the masses. Big waters also generally mean bigger populations. It may seem like they are few and far between, but when you find muskies in these waters they are usually big, concentrated in numbers and — most importantly — active. This is particularly true when fishing some big waters that don’t have real large populations. The majority of the fish may be in a particular section of the lake. So, don’t waste time finding that needle in a haystack. You need to take the mindset that if they are there they will bite. More often than not the muskies you will encounter on these waters will be active and shallow. So, you need to cover water and have confidence in your techniques. If you are in the right area and the spots look good, assume they will either hold an active musky. If the spot isn’t holding a fish, move on to the next. I’ll fish quickly but thoroughly, focusing on encountering active muskies. This may mean that your casting presentation can be relatively simple and focused on bucktail and topwater lures. After all, an active musky will either eat or chase down one of these two lures, and you can fish them quickly and cover water.
It may also be that big waters may have massive structures or cover that may just take too much time to cover with casting methods, so you’ll have to troll them first. A series of a dozen rocky points or a one-half mile long weed bed just takes too long to cast, as it will waste too much time. Trolling a lure by an active musky will again, most likely get a positive response.
However, while you troll the spot be aware of any significant projections or turns. Mark these locations and go back and cast them, as it may be the best way to pick apart tough-to-reach spots. Since you won’t have many anglers to talk with to share data and most likely those you encounter won’t be musky anglers, you have to have confidence in your techniques. Just focus on the fact that you are fishing for big, shallow, active muskies.
Now, the obvious exception to this approach is when fishing a “new” water that has been fished for years, but overall is being ignored by the masses. This would apply to many Wisconsin or similar waters that are slightly off the beaten path. These waters get fished every year and have been fished for years, but the fishing pressure is orders of magnitude less than that occurring on other nearby waters. The muskies in these waters may still be big and shallow, but since they have been pressured over time you more than likely can’t rely on the simple bucktail/topwater approach. It isn’t a bad place to start, but don’t forget to give your favorite jerkbaits and soft plastics a try. In fact, on these waters it is common to have a few follows from big muskies. That’s obviously the sign you are in the right place. However, you are going to have to refine your presentation to get them to bite. The good news about these waters is that they are smaller on a relative scale. So, you have smaller and generally fewer structural elements to refine your presentations. It doesn’t necessarily make the job of catching them any easier, it just reduces the number of options or places for the fish to hide.
When fishing for trophy fish, I gear everything for that task. Trophy trips are not judged by total numbers. My friends and I judge them by big muskies boated. To that end I use longer and heavier action rods such as the St. Croix 7-foot-6 and 8-foot Avids. I spool up with 80- or 100-pound Spiderwire Stealth and I fish with large lures. Along those lines I also use heavier gauge hooks and slightly larger hooks. The focus is on hooking and holding 50-inchers. Losing a 40-incher because the lure or hook is too large, isn’t a concern, because when the big fish strikes my tackle is best suited for that situation.
Bucktails are 7 inches and larger, crankbaits are all the standard size. Minnowbaits are almost exclusively of the 9- and 10-inch variety. Magnum Bull Dawgs and 8-inch jerkbaits are the norm. Again, I want a big lure with a large profile to get noticed by a big predator. These larger lures displace more water and get a musky’s attention much easier. If the fish are active, they will chase down these lures and eat them. Remember you may be fishing for muskies that aren’t being fished that often, so they are more curious by nature and tend to respond more aggressively. Take advantage of this situation and go large. I just can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure your tackle is beefed up to handle what you are ultimately pursuing. Even in the best waters opportunities are rare, and having slightly heavier equipment will go a long way to ensure you have a fish photo rather than a fish story!
When you do find that trophy water the euphoria is tough to describe. Your hard work has paid off and often it can change your entire perspective on musky fishing. It’s common to want to keep the information quiet, as you have worked so hard to finally find the pot of musky gold. Unfortunately, my next piece of advice may not be so pleasant. Enjoy it because it won’t last! As I said earlier no matter how hard you try to keep quiet, sooner or later the water will be fished by others. As the sport grows this progression will only occur faster. You’ll become instantly aware of the increased fishing pressure and the muskies will also let you know what is happening. More follows, missed strikes and overall tougher fishing are clear signals that times are changing.
Many of you that may have been fortunate enough to find a water with a “hot” bite have seen the changes over time. That’s why you have to be constantly looking, listening and researching. I have lists of lakes that I have not fished that still produce numerous trophy muskies today. The list continues to grow every year, and each year I hit a few more. Some get dropped from the list as they get discovered and get fished heavily. My point is that there are lots of these waters that still exist. More importantly, to be a successful trophy musky hunter, you have to know when to let go of the memories and move on. This is much easier said than done. You often have to leave a place where you have a decent chance of catching a trophy musky in the hope of finding another unknown water that may have better fishing. That means more research and more time learning another water. Not a simple task indeed. Yet, it is necessary if you want to consistently catch big muskies. I let my fishing log let me know when it is time to leave. Compare your catches over the years on your secret water and let the statistics speak for themselves. If you continue to catch big muskies, stick around. However, if the big musky catches decrease and turn to follows or other frustrations, it is clearly time to look elsewhere.
I believe catching a trophy musky is the most difficult accomplishment in freshwater fishing. I also don’t think it is a good idea to wildly chase down new waters without a solid base of information and ultimately taking the time to really learn a water. However, I have laid out an approach for researching new waters, and carving down those waters to size that has worked in the past and continues to work for me every season. If your goal is a trophy fish give this approach some thought, and try pioneering your way to a big musky this season.
Jim Saric is Editor of Musky Hunter magazine.