No fish swimming in fresh water is surrounded by more lore and superstition than the elusive muskellunge. This fish captivates, intimidates and infects many anglers with what is commonly known as “Muskie Fever.” Those who choose to succumb to The Chase soon learn that this brutal and tedious pursuit is more of a lifestyle than a sport.
If you want to better understand the mind and motivation of the weary yet dedicated muskie angler, accompany him to the waters where these giants lurk, and with the first encounter you will understand. When that 4-foot-long shadow aggressively follows a Hellhound only to change directions and violently crush the bait before your eyes, the words will escape you as utter shock sets in.
Once you dance with a fish of this magnitude, all else becomes, well, bait.
Muskies are at the top of the food chain in any freshwater fishery, and because of that simple fact, their numbers are not high, thus making them a challenge not only to locate but to entice into eating your presentation. Knowing where muskies prowl and what the forage base is, and being willing to put in many intense hours per fish is the key to being successful on Iowa’s muskie waters.
“We try to maintain a population of approximately one adult muskie per 7-10 surface acres in the Iowa Great Lakes,” says Spirit Lake Fisheries Management Biologist Mike Hawkins. “We need to make sure management of one species doesn’t conflict with the objectives for other species. This density seems to produce a quality muskie fishery while maintaining great numbers of other sport fish.”
“We have ongoing long-term research on the Iowa Great Lakes that includes tagging fish captured in netting surveys,” Hawkins explained. “After tagging, we put the muskies back into the population and wait to recover data from these marked fish in the future. Information gathered gives us a better understanding of survival, mortality, abundance and age and growth characteristics of these populations. Muskies do not naturally reproduce in our lakes, so their long-term survival is dependent upon angler catch-and-release practices, as well as a solid stocking program. Iowa’s stocking program is supported by extensive data, allowing us to maintain population levels that produce a quality fishery.
“A number of different rearing techniques have been assessed, and we have found a combination that works extremely well. We stock fish that are hatched at the Spirit Lake Hatchery that are initially raised on pelleted food until they are 4 inches long. They are then switched over to a minnow diet. In October, they are transferred to the Rathbun Hatchery, where they are kept on the minnow diet over the winter. In the spring, they are stocked around the state in our current muskie lakes.”
“We have found that this method produces a much higher survival rate once these fish are released. They’re typically in the 10- to 11-inch range and (are) very capable of successful feeding,” Hawkins said. “In our Iowa muskie waters, we have documented up to 40 percent of these stocked fish making it to age 4 (or approximately 30 inches). That level of survival allows us to stock relatively low numbers of fish on an every-other-year basis and still reach our objectives with good consistency. Since muskies are a long-lived fish, it takes many years to build a trophy fishery. For example, on average, it takes 16 years for a female muskie to reach 50 inches in the Iowa Great Lakes. We’ve caught fish up to 20 years old. Interestingly, a 20-year-old male muskie will only reach about 41 inches.”
Big Creek Lake
This lake is located in Polk County and has been an issue of hot debate among local muskie anglers and biologists. The lake formally held the state-record muskie, but after multiple years of wet springs and high waters, the fishing became more difficult than it should have been. Numerous accomplished anglers logged several thousand hours on this lake over a couple of summers with very little to show. It was theorized that fish were going over the spillway during high water and ending up in Saylorville Lake.
Iowa DNR fisheries biologist Ben Dodd listened to these anglers and collected data that suggested muskies might be leaving the lake via the spillway. He began working on a solution that was beneficial and cost-effective.
“We worked with the (U.S. Army) Corp of Engineers at Saylorville to erect a chain-link fence in front of the spillway to help prevent adult fish of several species from leaving the Big Creek system,” Dodd explained. “This will require a bit of maintenance, but it will hopefully allow us to get a better handle on the mortality rate of muskies in the lake. Currently, it is difficult to recommend how many fish to stock when we don’t know how many fish are leaving the system over the spillway.
“Data that we collected during the spring of 2007 indicated a low muskie density in the lake. Therefore, we elected to increase our stocking rate over the next couple of years. We have historically stocked 900 fish every other year but stocked 1,450 12- to 14-inch muskies in 2008 and 1,100 in 2009, as we will now begin stocking Big Creek in odd years,” Dodd continued. “The next stocking will be during the spring of 2011 and will likely be back down to 900 fish . . . We are also optimistic that after a few years this fishery will come back strong and begin to produce the kind of muskie fishing anglers can expect and desire.”
WHERE TO GO
During his years of fishing Iowa, Trachy Crail has come to understand how to consistently beat muskies during the month of May. He has graciously shared some of his favorite bait selections and likely lake locations where he knows these giant fish lurk.
Iowa Great Lakes
Big Spirit (Dickinson County)”I recommend focusing on Anglers Bay,” Crail said. “Spend time throwing spinnerbaits, Suicks and Wade’s Wobblers near the emergent vegetation, but try to fish the obvious submerged weed edge.”
West & East Okoboji (Dickinson County)”I have contacted many fish where Spirit dumps into East Okoboji,” Crail explained. “There is a lot of current here, and muskies are current-oriented fish. I also have done well near Park’s Marina on the south end of the lake near the submerged weeds. Again, bucktails and spinnerbaits are a good choice, but do not rule out Hellhounds, Mantas and Phantoms.”
On West Okoboji, Crail fishes Miller’s Bay and into Little Miller’s Bay but also spends some time in Little Emmerson’s Bay. Crail recommends trying a topwater presentation, as these are often overlooked on this lake and can produce fish.
Brushy Creek Lak
e (Webster County)”I have fished Brushy Creek extensively, and catching fish later in the summer can be quite difficult,” Crail continued. “May is a great month to be successful on this lake, but you will need to focus on the shallower bays on the north end of the lake. Also, make a few casts along the face of the dam. If water is flowing over the spillway, muskies will often stage near that current. On this lake, I prefer slower-moving glide baits like Phantoms in a firetiger pattern and 8-inch Jakes.”
Three Mile Lake (Union County)”I have done well in the bay just north of the main boat ramp,” Crail said. “Fish near the beach and along the jetties. There are several small duck and goose nesting islands on the north end of the lake that have produced results. This is a great top-water lake. I prefer Jackpots for that presentation. I have also done well along the face of the dam throwing an assortment of baits like spinnerbaits, glide baits and Jakes. Bright colors like firetiger, clown and orange have been very effective for me.”
Pleasant Creek Lake (Linn County)This lake has some huge fish in it and Crail says they can be tough to catch, but most often they are very fat, as this lake has a large population of gizzard shad. This is also the lake where the Weagle was invented, so that is a great option when fishing here. Fish can be found along the dam and in the arm to the north of the swimming beach. Focus on the standing timber, as muskies stage near that cover. There is also a sunken hump just southwest of the dam that has routinely produced fish.
Clear Lake (Cerro Gordo County)”There are a lot of opportunities to catch quality muskies on this lake in north-central Iowa, but the difficult part is identifying the fish-holding structure. Clear Lake is basically a shallow bowl with little fishable shoreline,” Crail explained. “You can count on contacting fish near any of the emergent reeds that are on the north and west side of the lake. Also focus on the rocky structure on the northeast side of the island; there is a nice breakline there that usually holds fish.”
Crail likes big spinnerbaits, bucktails and glide baits when fishing Clear Lake; he also mentioned the outlet area and Hy-Vee Reef on the east side of the lake can be very productive spots.
LAKE MACBRIDE & LAKE SUGEMA
(Johnson & Van Buren Counties)Both of these lakes have recently implemented muskie programs. MacBride is several years from having a fishable population, and Sugema is beginning to report fish near the 40-inch mark. Keep these lakes in the back of your mind for future destinations.
Muskies are extremely delicate and will quickly die if mishandled. Muskies are stocked in Iowa as a trophy pursuit, so over-harvest can easily affect the population.
I strongly urge you to release all the muskies that make it into your net, as the future of the fishery depends on ample and quality catch-and-release practices. Keep the fish in the net and in the water until you are ready to measure and photograph your catch. Lift the fish horizontally, as vertical hoisting can advance delayed mortality. Take a quick photo or two, and put her back in the water in a minute or less. There might not be a bigger challenge in freshwater fishing, but there is no bigger accomplishment than watching her swim away to fight another day!