Minnesota's Muskie Madness

The key to successful muskie angling is more than just simple catch-and-release. Catching a fish over 3 feet long requires specialized handling skills.

The author's father shows off a fine muskie caught in Mille Lacs lake.
Photo by Ron Hustvedt.

Minnesota is 150 years old this year and not a day has gone by when there wasn't great muskie fishing to be had. Some old-timers may try to convince others that the good old days have come and gone, but that's not the case for the mighty muskie.

It's been 53 years since the heralded Leech Lake muskie rampage, when anywhere from 100 to 200 muskies were caught in a single week. Most of the fish weighed 20 to 30 pounds. In today's terms, these were mid- to upper 40-inch fish.

Not a bad week of fishing by most accounts, but it doesn't even compare with the rampages we routinely experience every year on numerous bodies of water around the state.

When the Minnesota Muskie Tournament Trail stopped at Mille Lacs last year for its annual two-day tournament, 60 anglers caught and registered 33 muskies longer than 40 inches, including seven that were 50 inches or longer.

"If you factor in the catches our guys made pre-fishing and after the tournament plus all the other muskie anglers on the lake those two days, and you might be seeing a bite that blows away the one from the past," said Paul Hartman, tournament director and coordinator of the Minnesota Muskie Guides Association.

The anglers that fish the Muskie Tournament Trail don't fish in tournaments for a living, but they are some of the best around. It could be argued that because they are so talented, it doesn't compare.

Let's examine the results of the state's largest muskie tournament that drew more than 700 anglers from all levels of experience in the muskie-fishing world.

The 2007 Frank Schneider Memorial Muskie Tournament registered a total of 95 muskies, all exceeding 40 inches and six measuring longer than 50 inches.

In 2006, the same number of anglers caught 107 muskies, nine longer than 50 inches. Each tournament taking place over three days (27 fishable hours) put the legendary rampage to shame.

Hartman was quick to point out that all the tournaments mentioned also include dozens, if not hundreds, of muskies ranging from 32 to 39 inches that were never registered.

"Those fish are caught and released without ever being officially counted, whereas 50 years ago, those fish were kept as well," he said.

The biggest difference between then and now is that nearly all fish caught 50 years ago were kept, while all the fish today are handled very carefully and released.

"Because we don't stack them on clotheslines anymore, it overshadows the fact that we have more and larger muskies today," Hartman said.

Muskies Inc. and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are given credit for this through their education and stocking programs. A massive stocking effort initiated in the early 1980s introduced muskies to dozens of lakes around the state where they'd never been and enhanced existing populations.

Some of those fish are the 55-plus-inchers you read about and see photos as they are being released. A few muskie anglers don't even handle the biggest fish, choosing to keep them in the water to avoid injuring the fish. Many of the big muskies are nearing the end of their lifespan, but the generations of muskies they have produced will keep things going for a while to come.

"I believe that we have a pretty good stocking program here and a lot of people consider Minnesota a destination for muskie fishing," said Jerry Younk, a DNR fisheries research biologist from the Bemidji office. Younk's efforts are primarily focused on Minnesota's muskie population and he recently completed a long-range muskie plan that is available on the DNR Web site. Any muskie fishing geek should find the report and read it for an interesting history of muskie stocking in Minnesota. Just to prove the initial point of this article, the original muskie plan written 25 years ago defined a trophy muskie as being over 40 inches long and exceeding 20 pounds.

The plan includes lists and maps showing which lakes have native populations, which ones have introduced populations and tiger muskie lakes. It calls for a number of initiatives for managing muskies over the next 12 years. One recommendation involves increasing the number of muskie waters by eight for a total of 98 pure-strain waters by 2020. These lakes will be spread out around the state, Younk said.

The simple fact that there are 98 pure-strain muskie waters around the state, plus an additional 21 lakes in the Twin Cities where tiger muskies have been stocked, makes for a long list of lakes to consider fishing.

These lakes are classified and structured by the DNR in a variety of ways, but anglers tend to have their own classification system. There are "tried-and-true" Minnesota muskie lakes, there are "sleeper" muskie lakes and there are "hidden" muskie lakes.

Muskie anglers are a unique bunch. Some are more than willing to share their favorite lakes, while others would rather cut out their tongues than reveal the name of a lake. Some post their favorite lakes and details of successful outings on Web sites such as FishingMinnesota.com, while others don't even tell their spouses or mothers what water body they were fishing.

"Fishermen by nature want to brag and the Internet is the greatest platform to do so -- your crowd is unlimited. It's unique to our sport, however, if a walleye or bass angler gets a hot bite, they milk it to the end and tell others, while muskie anglers seem to recognize that it's a recycled resource," Hartman said.

We consulted a variety of muskie guides, tournament officials and regular old anglers for their top recommendations of lakes in each category. Here's their breakdown:

TRIED AND TRUE
The largest category of lakes, Minnesota's tried-and-true muskie waters, are heavily fished by anglers after all sorts of species. Many of these lakes are popular walleye and bass-fishing destinations meaning there is plenty of pressure for parking spots at boat landings. The good news is there is no shortage of guides available to help you get started.

Lake Vermilion
One of the most picturesque lakes in the state, Lake Vermilion has become one of the crown jewels of Minnesota musk

ie fishing. Check the Web site or business card of most muskie guides around the state and they list Vermilion among the lakes they regularly fish.

Vermilion is truly a muskie angler's dream because there are so many locations to fish. Muskie Tom Wehler is one of the top guides on the lake and spends the entire open-water season fishing the lake. "The best thing to do is start out fishing the marker buoys and points that look good, but once you get to know the lake, better find your own spots and fish them," he said.

Wehler takes a rather relaxed approach to muskie fishing. Even though he's a fanatic, he maintains his common sense. "If it looks fishy, then fish it -- if it looks like another part of the lake where you had a follow or saw somebody else get bit, then fish it. Go shallow, go deep, throw topwaters, throw hair and throw lures that go deep," he said.

Because muskies are found throughout the lake, any boat landing that is convenient to an angler is a good place to start. Like other tried-and-true muskie lakes, it's just that simple.

Mille Lacs Lake
Known as the "Big Pond" to many, Mille Lacs is probably the most popular muskie lake in the state. With so much water to fish, combined with its proximity to the Twin Cities, this lake is a great day trip destination.

Hartman said it is his favorite lake and many anglers on FishingMinnesota.com posted similar comments.

The best way to approach Mille Lacs is to consider your boat and the wind conditions. If you have a boat that can take it all, then get on the side where the wind is blowing and use it to your advantage. If you have a boat that can't handle big waves, stick to the bays at the south end or the side where it's calm.

With a combination of weeds, rock, sand and mud, there are plenty of places to fish and muskies hang out throughout the entire lake. Walleye anglers catch them on the mudflats on fireball jigs, bass anglers catch them on the rocks with plastics, and muskie anglers catch them all over the place. Trolling can be a good way to get to know the lake and cover a lot of water.

Lake Bemidji
Lake Bemidji is a terrific lake to fish because it's way up north but has the city of Bemidji all along its shoreline. It's like being up north and in the Twin Cities at the same time with many amenities available from the water.

Oh, and Bemidji is full of big, fat muskies. That's a big part of the reason why the Professional Muskie Tournament Trail has named the lake as the location of the 2008 World Championship in October.

"It's a nice body of water that's not big enough for one of our normal-sized events but perfect for our championship," said PMTT director Tim Widlacki.

Bemidji-area fishing guide Bryan Sathre of Fathead Guide Service has seen plenty of muskies on the lake and said the lush cabbage beds are a great place to begin. The good news is these cabbage beds are found all around the lake. The bad news is that with so much good-looking cabbage, it's tough to figure out where to begin.

The area around the state park on the north end is a popular location as is the area on the northwest corner by the boat landing. The famed "Muskie Alley" is located along the lake's west side, north of the point that juts out from the college. Oh yeah, and you can catch them in the mid-lake structure as well.

Cass Lake
There are many more lakes to include in the tried-and-true category, but Cass is being included because many muskie fanatics think it holds the next state record.

Cass was home to a PMTT tournament last August where six fish longer than 4 feet were caught and released. The entire lake holds muskies, but one of the best places to begin fishing this lake is in Allen's Bay in the northwest corner.

Allen's Bay is smaller than the massive lake with plenty of structure, including vast weedlines, nice drop-offs and an abundance of shoreline cover. Anglers wanting the challenge of fishing the big lake could spend a week thoroughly working the shoreline breaks and points around Star Island and still feel like they didn't fish it enough.

There are numerous other places to look at, which is a good thing because if there's another boat where you want to fish, just cruise to a different location and come back later. The great thing about muskie fishing is because so many anglers run and gun, a spot doesn't stay occupied for long.

SLEEPER MUSKIE HOLES
There really is no such thing as a "hidden" muskie lake, mostly because the DNR has a listing of all lakes where fishable populations of muskies live. There are a few lakes, however, where muskies are either in short supply and not managed or where several fish were transplanted. These "hidden" lakes don't deserve mention because there are either so few fish in them or the fact that this scribe would go missing for writing about it.

Leech Lake
It hardly seems right to include Leech Lake in the list of sleepers, but with so much water out there, most anglers never work this lake like they could. Jeff Woodruff has run a guide service on Leech Lake for the past 30 years and said they are fishing many locations today that they never used to fish.

"Years back, people thought you needed to find weeds and rocks. Those are good places to fish, but you can catch them on the sand, on the breaks and over deep water -- it doesn't matter," Woodruff said.

There are numerous weedlines on Leech Lake, but in recent years, some have disappeared. Those weedflats you fished a decade ago could be missing, but Woodruff said he's seen weedbeds come back that were gone for 10 years. "If your spots lose their weeds, then you have to fish different and in a different area," he said.

Woodruff's secret is to continue changing baits, always have somebody in the boat with a topwater lure and everybody else with something different. Diversification is his key to success and until you find what works, keep throwing.

Lake Minnetonka
Most likely, this is another surprise "sleeper" lake, but it's here for the same reason as Leech -- plenty of water and too few anglers working the lake.

Similar to Vermilion, this metro lake is a series of interconnected bays with a wide variety of structures both in deep water and shallow. "Plus, it's cool to be on a body of water where you can have a nice dinner right on the lake, which is something you don't get many other places," Widlacki said.

Josh Borovsky is a muskie guide on Minnetonka who has plenty of experience on the entire lake. He said many anglers don't fish the high-quality locations to the best of their ability.

"I'll see boats get on a spot before me and I'll watch them for a bit to see how they work it -- you can tell right away if they know how to fish the spot or if they are just th

ere because it looks good," he said.

Being in the right location at the right time is only part of his equation. Knowing what to throw at the right time is the key between catching fish and not catching fish. One of the big "secrets" on Minnetonka is that with all the milfoil beds out there, the inside weed edge is an untapped resource.

FIND YOUR OWN LAKE
One of the best things anybody said about muskie fishing in Minnesota was in response to a posting I made on FishingMinnesota.com "What might be a sleeper to you could be renowned to a big group of other people," he said.

In the end, there are plenty of lakes around the state to wet a line this summer in hopes of catching a massive muskie. Muskie anglers go after different things when they are fishing, whether it is solitude, adrenaline, big fish, numerous fish or a straight-up challenge.

With 98 lakes identified and listed by the DNR, there is plenty of research to be done. Check the list and see if it fits your idea of a perfect muskie experience. Go to fishing Web sites for Minnesota and muskies and see what people are posting. As much as muskie anglers like to claim their ability to keep their mouth shut, in the end, they can't help themselves.

The key to successful muskie angling today and into the future is more than just simple catch-and-release. Catching a fish over 3 feet long, upwards of 5 feet, requires some specialized handling skills. Anglers should always support the body and if photographs are important, take them as fast as can be and gently get that fish back in the water so the next angler in line can have a shot.

Check out the WriteOutdoors Podcast to hear interviews with Ron and other muskie experts as well as other fishing topics.

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