“There’s just something special about tigers — they are a ton of fun to catch,” said Josh Stevenson, owner of Blue Ribbon Bait in St. Paul and current state record holder of the biggest tiger.
Tiger muskie fishing, to be specific.
“You can’t beat tiger muskies for the size of a muskie and the aggressiveness of a northern pike; they make you a better fisherman, and if you want to catch big ones on a consistent basis, you can’t fish inside the box,” he said.
Stevenson definitely knows what he’s talking about and not just because he holds the state record. He pursues a lot of species throughout the year but tiger muskie fishing is still his favorite.
“They are a unique fish that force you to change it up. You can’t just fish them like you would a muskie, they have that northern pike blood in them and that keeps it interesting.”
For those who don’t know, the tiger muskie is another term for a hybrid muskie that is a blend of a northern pike and a muskellunge. To be specific, it is the result of a male northern pike and a female muskie. The combination produces a fish with striking characteristics — no pun intended. Tigers get their name from the tiger-like stripes that adorn their sides.
While these tigers can occur naturally, the vast majority of them are stocked by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources within the Twin Cities metro area. The DNR began stocking tiger muskies in the Twin Cities in the early 1980s to create a fast-growing trophy fishery for big esox.
Throughout that time, the DNR has tinkered with the amount of tigers they stocked and increased the number of lakes that are stocked. After a 2006 statewide stocking of muskies, the DNR is looking to make some adjustments to the tiger program.
“This has been a successful program for large Esox style fish in the metro because tiger muskies are not as challenging to catch as pure-strain muskies, so less skilled anglers can go local and catch fish,” said Dave McCormack, assistant regional manager at the DNR’s central region fisheries office.
“Our goal with fine-tuning the program is to make it more successful with the lakes where tiger muskies have done well and would be destination lakes for people to seek out locally,” he added.
Complete details on the plan are outlined elsewhere in this article and more information, including the opportunity for public input, can be found on the DNR Web site.
The metro tiger muskie population is truly world class. Nowhere else in the world can an angler pursue tiger muskies ranging from 8 pounds on up to 20 pounds within the shadows of either downtown and in the broader metro area.
Several of the 21 tiger muskie lakes in the Twin Cities stand out among the crowd as the best locations to fish. Before heading to any of these destinations, bear in mind that the tiger muskie is a sterile fish. It is impossible for one of them to naturally reproduce and so the population exists only from stocking efforts. Catch-and-release is required for fish under 40 inches and highly recommended for those fish measuring more than 40.
The long-term success of tiger muskies is up to anglers who take care of the fishery and are extra careful with the fish they catch. These toothy critters act mean and look mean, but they require delicate handling.
So where exactly are the best metro area lakes for catching a tiger? Check these lakes, in no particular order, and then go and fish one that’s not listed just to see.
CEDAR LAKE – SCOTT COUNTY
Considered the best lake in the west metro by many tiger muskie anglers, Cedar Lake is not your typical muskie lake by any stretch of the imagination. On the map, there’s not much to see underwater with a maximum depth of 12 feet throughout the 780-acre basin. There are a lot of weeds, there are rockpiles scattered throughout the lake, and there are numerous points.
The most productive area tends to be in and around the expansive basin bottoming out at 11-feet deep in the middle of the lake. The lake is full of perch, crappie and bluegills that roam throughout the lake, so be prepared to cover water. Cedar is best in the spring and fall once the water temperatures are a tad cooler.
Cedar has been stocked since 1984 and has demonstrated tremendous growth rates, McCormack said. It is outfitted with an aeration system protecting it from winterkill, meaning there are numerous year-classes available. Cedar has yielded tiger muskies greater than 30 pounds, and lots of 25-pound-plus fish are caught throughout the summer.
Located off Highway 13 between New Prague and Prior Lake, Cedar has two boat accesses, one on the northwestern end and the other on the eastern shore.
LAKE ELMO – WASHINGTON COUNTY
Switching over to the east side of town, Lake Elmo is the one that yielded the current state-record tiger muskie of 34 pounds, 12 ounces back in 1999. Elmo might only be 206 acres but there’s a lot of water by volume because it is the deepest lake in the metro.
The water is clear, deep and the lake features a healthy forage base that includes tulibee — a species usually found in cool waters of the north. On those deep lakes of the north the pike tend to run deeper, and the same holds true of these hybrids on Lake Elmo.
“You can’t deny they are half northern pike so you have to work hard and troll far down and keep it right there,” Stevenson said. He caught his state-record tiger muskie in 1999 by slow-rolling a spinnerbait along the dropoff in pursuit of the big tiger.
“One thing about tigers is that they like smaller lures,” he said. “You can catch them on big muskie tackle, but they also like lures normally reserved for bass.”
Even though Elmo is a smaller lake, it does not possess a lot of the typical locations. The weeds are limited, the dropoffs are sharp and the contours are very bowl-like. There are plenty of docks and floating diving platforms as well as some flooded timber in a southwestern bay. Stevenson said he fishes the shallows from time to time now, but the concentration of his time is along the sharp break between 20 and 25 feet deep.
Lures that get down deep and can maintain their depth are his preferred baits. Lures such as spoonplugs and the Rapala DT series fit that bill.
“A lot of really big fish are caught on small lures, and there are a lot of good baits out there that you can use,” he said.
GERVAIS LAKE – RAMSEY COUNTY
This 236-acre lake in Little Canada hardly seems like a trophy fishery but it is a fantastic lake for perch, pike, bass and panfish. It’s also arguably the best lake in the metro right now for catching a tiger muskie.
“Gervais produces some very good numbers and we get notes from anglers that have caught quality fish on this lake,” said Jerry Johnson, east metro fisheries supervisor.
A commercial fisherman this past February was netting carp and caught a few tiger muskies. Most were in the high 30-inch range, but among the fish was a 46-inch tiger muskie. That fish is presumably still swimming right now.
Gervais has a little something for everybody going after tigers. For those traditional muskie anglers who like working shallow shoreline structures, there’s plenty of it on this little lake. For those nontraditional tiger muskie anglers who work smaller lures on deepwater structure, there’s plenty of it as well.
“What makes that lake so good is that it’s not fished very heavily at all and it has a great forage base with all those game fish in there, plus all the suckers and carp,” Stevenson said.
Follow the different forage species of fish and the tigers are sure to be lurking nearby, he added.
There are two county accesses for Gervais with one located near the swimming beach on the southwest shore and the other through Spoon Lake, which is connected to Gervais by a channel. The water of Gervais is stained with only a 3-foot clarity reading, and so bright colors and lures that make noise are often the best tickets to success.
MINNEAPOLIS CHAIN – HENNEPIN COUNTY
Minneapolis has several lakes that connect to one another but the premiere ones that earn the distinction of being called the “Minneapolis Chain” include Calhoun, Isles and Cedar. Located in southwestern Minneapolis within plain sight of downtown, these three lakes are surrounded by public land and walking paths, making them a boatless angler’s dream.
“Shoreline anglers can have a great time walking around Calhoun and casting both the inside weed edge and reaching that sharp break that’s often very near shore,” said Ronald David.
Calhoun gets down pretty deep and looks like a northwoods lake on a contour map with plenty of sharp breaks, deepwater structure and mid-lake structure. “There’s much more than what meets the eye out there for the angler willing to explore,” David advised.
While there are two accesses on Calhoun, the lake is often free of fishing boats. Matt Johnson is a metro fishing guide and angling expert from Thorne Brothers Baitshop. He thinks anglers don’t fish the lake very much because they are a bit lazy.
“You can’t use a gas-powered engine on Calhoun, so I think that keeps a lot of anglers away, even though electric motors are fine,” he said.
Anglers can work the entire lake using their trolling motor, or launch on the northwest side and work that area, and then drive to the south launch and work that side of the lake. There’s so much structure out there that a long run from one area to the next is not even a good option.
One of the biggest challenges with the Minneapolis Chain is contending with the Eurasian water milfoil that grows thick throughout the lake. A key tip to remember is that fishing the weed edges is great, both shallow and deep.
“The weeds go down quite deep on this clear lake, and so reaching that outside edge from shore is tough,” David said. “But there are a lot of tigers cruising the shallows from 6 feet and shallower, where there aren’t many weeds and the tigers are in those locations during low-light periods.”
Electric motoring into Isles to the north, and Cedar to the northwest, is definitely worth it if the channel isn’t clogged with milfoil. Non-motorized watercraft such as kayaks or canoes also work great for getting into these connected lakes, each with different structure and opportunities for a tiger. Isles is shallower and murkier, while Cedar is smaller and much less pressured from the shoreline and lake, making it a good sleeper lake.
Parking can be the biggest challenge for anglers, and so arriving early or being willing to walk a distance from the landing is a must. The parking is on the street, meaning you must compete with everybody walking, sailing, biking and rollerblading around the lake for space. Finding a parking spot big enough to include a boat trailer only complicates the issue. Still, the fishing is worth it.
LAKE NOKOMIS – HENNEPIN COUNTY
Also located in the heart of Minneapolis, Nokomis remains my favorite tiger muskie lake to this day. That’s because I caught my first tiger there and my biggest. Something I like to freak Lake Nokomis lovers with is the story of the 20-pound tiger that I caught and released, all within 50 feet of the swimming beach. I also enjoy telling them about the tiger muskies that “shark” through the shallows early in the morning.
The water of Nokomis is stained, there are thick stands of milfoil lining the lake, and it’s a typical Minneapolis lake surrounded by walking paths and parkland. In other words, a lot of people visit the lake but hardly anybody fishes it hardcore.
Anglers fish from the shore or by wading the shallows, but some mid-lake structure is worth fishing from a boat. That means going after fish that have not seen a lot of different lures. Nokomis does not get very deep but there are some deeper weed edges and dropoffs not clearly marked on the maps, so use your electronics and don’t believe every map you own.
As with the Minneapolis Chain, only electric motors are allowed. At least Nokomis is easy to fish around without running the risk of draining the battery too hard!