Minnesota's Top Spots for Muskies
September 30, 2010
Stocked muskies have taken well to many lakes across our state. The experts will be targeting these waters this season.
Photo by Pete Maina
By Noel Vick
Naysayers view them as alien and troublesome, like Eurasian milfoil and zebra mussels. It's true that, like the aforementioned exotics, muskies are introduced into lakes, but not with malicious intent. Rather, great efforts and calculations go into the selection of lakes where muskie populations get launched.
Once they're in, though, they're in. Forget about turning back the hands of time. These mighty fish are too dogged, too voracious and too powerful. The top of the food chain is theirs to mediate, and they rule with an iron jaw. Fortunately, too, these brawny predators have taken well to Minnesota's lakes. They thrive, cultivating unbelievable opportunities for strong-nerved anglers.
Minnesota is studded with well-stocked and well-managed muskie lakes. No longer do you have to drive cross-country to test your wherewithal against one either. In fact, beyond their native northern range - Lake of the Woods, the Upper Mississippi River system, small lakes near Grand Rapids and Park Rapids, and the Rainy, Big Fork, Little Fork, St. Croix and Mississippi rivers - muskies have been planted in 50-some supplementary bodies of water.
Your odds of coming face to maw are ever improving. And after consulting with a few masters in the art of pursuing Esox masquinongy, I assembled the following destinations for your pleasure.
LAKE MINNETONKA Few muskie maniacs understand the ways of their prey like Matt Thompson of "EPSN Outdoors." He gets inside their heads and pretends to be one, mentally.
This dedication puts him on bunches of potential lakes, too. And over the past few years, not many places have stimulated Thompson like the metro's Lake Minnetonka.
"It's good from opening day until freeze," says Thompson, who shares his wisdom on a regular basis with customers at Thorne Bros. Fishing Specialties in Fridley (763-572-3782). "There are so many year-classes present. One spot will be full of 33- to 38-inch fish, while another holds muskies in the low- to mid-40s."
Big-fish spots, though, are exclusive. Big fish rarely coexist with lesser fish and aren't as abundant, which is conventional lake biology. Thompson does attest, though, that Minnetonka carries ample numbers of muskies in the short 50s and long 40s.
Minnetonka is widely known for its troubles with Eurasian milfoil. Skiers and lollygaggers loathe the gunk. Bassers who understand it secretly worship it. Most muskie advocates aren't quite sure what to make of the alien weed. That is, except for Thompson.
Transitions are what he looks for - milfoil to sand, milfoil to coontail, etc. It's like clockwork, he says. But any combination of broadleaf cabbage and milfoil shoots to the top of the charts.
How deep to fish is a matter of debate.
"I like to position the boat in 11 or 12 feet and cast inside," says Thompson. "But there are guys who consistently catch fish in 2 and 3 feet of water. Other guys stick in 20 feet of water and deeper. What I've found to be important, though, no matter how deep you fish, is that if a spot looks good, it probably is. So fish it."
Thompson is fond of weedier sections from Lafayette Bay east to Grays Bay, especially the greenery in Wayzata Bay. Other locations to consider are Spirit Island, Brackett's Point, Little Horseshoe Reef, Ferguson's Point, Cedar Point and Diamond Reef.
Tactically, Minnetonka lends itself to myriad presentations. But forced to choose, Thompson wouldn't leave the landing without his beloved Poe's Jackpot topwater and Phantom gliding jerkbait.
For information on lodging and guiding, contact the Wayzata Chamber of Commerce at (952) 473-9595 or visit www.wayzatachamber.com online.
WHITE BEAR LAKE "Big fish" are the first words Thompson utters when asked about 2,416-acre White Bear Lake. "Inch for inch, they carry more pounds than muskies in most lakes."
Thompson says that clearwater lakes like White Bear are notorious for nurturing thick muskies. "They hold larger and greasier forage, like ciscoes and lake suckers." He adds that White Bear muskies also eat a share of bullheads.
Like Minnetonka, White Bear sports lush crops of broadleaf, too. So Thompson probes the cabbage, but also likes deep beds of coontail, which are frequent beyond shoreline-oriented milfoil pastures.
Specifically, he earmarks the 12- to 15-foot scale around Manitou Island. Here, gorgeous cabbage appears across thickets of milfoil. Other hotspots include Half Moon Bar, Ordway's Bar, the massive peninsula on the east shore, and anywhere else you can find verdant and deep vegetation. Weedy swaths are particularly bountiful, too, if rock and or gravel is associated.
When beating the brush, Thompson says the surest lure in the box is a black/silver crappie-looking spinnerbait built by CJ's. He also fishes Musky Mania Burts, which are diving jerkbaits. Subdued walleye- and sucker-type patterns are proven, but if realism isn't bringing any boils, Thompson shocks 'em with Chartreuse Tiger. He says many of the newer prism or holographic finishes are effective in clearwater conditions, too.
Since 1990, the Department of Natural Resources has been juicing White Bear with both pure-strain and hybrid (tiger) muskies. Interestingly, though, net samplings reveal few fish and relatively small ones, too. But that statistical data doesn't faze muskie purists. They know better. The truth is in the catch. Likely, White Bear's clear and deep composition is what keeps muskies free of the meshing and subsequent tabulation.
To investigate the possibilities of lodging near the lake, contact the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce at (651) 429-8593 or online at www.whitebearchamber.com.
MILLE LACS The beans were spilled several years ago. This once covert muskie fishery is now widely renowned for its alligator-jawed progeny. Walleyes no longer stand alone. Serious muskie hounds come from all corners of the Earth to sample its 130,000-some acres and check to see if the bark has bite.
But in truth, despite its coffee-shop-talk popularity, Thompson says a
lot of anglers fear its size. They think their boats are too small and the whitecaps too immense. So, as a result, the majority of the folks casting for muskies are piloting modified aircraft carriers. It doesn't need to be that way, though. According to Thompson, Mille Lacs doesn't discriminate against the size of one's boat, so long as the captain employs common sense.
"All you need to do is drive up on Highway 169, stop at Eddy's (Lake Mille Lacs Resort), walk out to the docks, and check the wind and waves," said Thompson. "If it's calm, stay and fish the south end. If it's blowing and waves are crashing in, jump back in the truck and go to the north end of the lake."
Stopping at Eddy's (1-800-657-4704) is wise from an information standpoint, too. Ask for Dave Bentley, a celebrated Mille Lacs muskie guide, and you'll soon learn what's popping and where.
Thompson describes Mille Lacs' muskies as "huge," averaging 40 to 42 inches, with many pushing the tape to 50 inches and beyond. In fact, Thompson knows of two "state-record" fish that were caught and released. Neither was verified via scale, but Thompson trusts the anglers and has seen the pictures.
Down south, Thompson first gears up for the weeds. Cove Bay, Wahkon Bay, Isle Bay and Vineland Bay are trimmed with muskie-infested cabbage. From those acclaimed lairs, he next gets rocky and hits Hawksbill Reef, Shaw's Reef, Spirit Island, Anderson's Reef, Indian Point and Rocky Reef. And those, friends, are just some of the possibilities.
On the north shore from Garrison east to Malmo are literally miles of fishable weeds. In as little as 2 to 8 feet of water, Thompson will batter the bank while glassing for "bundles of firewood lying in the sand."
As good as the north end can be, though, Thompson views the fish as finicky.
"They've seen everything," he says with a sigh. "Those fish can be tough. But under the right conditions, like a barometric change, major or minor feeding period, or big change in wind direction, they can really turn on."
What to use? Thompson hurls everything from topwaters to bucktails and spinnerbaits to jerkbaits. Give 'em the groceries and eventually they'll settle on something, he believes.
His personal best, by the way, is a 51-inch 30-some-pounder, which, not surprisingly, was released.
If you plan to fish Mille Lacs, explore your options by contacting the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council at 1-888-350-2692 or www.millelacs.com.
To receive hands-on training from muskie specialists, including Matt Thompson, consider enrolling in the Mike James Memorial Strictly Muskie Ph.D. Fishing Course and Wilderness Walleye & Pike Adventure Fishing School. Details are available at www.simplyfishing.com.
CEDAR LAKE "Sleepers" are scant these days. There are too many anglers with the know-how and the will to travel for unexplored lakes to exist. But in muskiedom, 1,769-acre Cedar Lake in Aitkin County is nearly obscure. It pales in the shadows of massive Mille Lacs, and that's OK with Jason Hamernick of Muskie Breath Guide Service, (651) 730-2021.
He guides a whole bunch on Mille Lacs, but keeps Cedar in his back pocket for monsoon-like days or when the bite's just off on the Big Pond.
Cedar, Hamernick says, features a distinct outside weedline that forms in 15 to 18 feet of water. Obviously, it's a clear lake, but unexpectedly, Hamernick fishes the "prop wash," and the muskies treat him like the Pied Piper. Cedar is a "numbers" rather than a "size" lake, too, but action is action, especially when rollers are crashing the beaches on Mille Lacs.
ELK LAKE Buried in Itasca State Park north of Park Rapids is a sweet little 271-acre lake known as Elk. It's connected to and eclipsed by larger and legendary Lake Itasca. But for muskie anglers willing to sacrifice surface acreage for surprise packages, this is the venue.
Noted multi-species guide Brian Brosdahl doesn't mind plopping his boat down on Elk's humble surfaces, either. He's too well acquainted with the muskies within. "They're fat fish," he says. "Must be from chewing on all those ciscoes."
Despite its petite frame, Elk reaches some pretty impressive depths, sinking to 97 feet in one spot and 69 in another. The banks are quite steep, too, and they form the basis for Brosdahl's attack. He simply tracks along shoreline vegetation while casting a white/cisco Northland Bionic Bucktail Spinner. Trolling works, too.
If the shoreline format fails, which is rare, he sprays baits across the two humps off the west shore. Both sport dandy vegetation. As a last resort, the channel and boat landing area sometimes holds a few fish.
Brosdahl does admit that Elk sees a bit of pressure on the weekends, though, both by anglers and recreationists. So he suggests weekday sojourns.
Learn more about the area and lodging possibilities by contacting the Park Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-247-0054 or online at www.parkrapids.com.
BABY LAKE What's bigger than a Mann and a Kid? A Baby? That's right - Longville's Baby Lake outsurfaces neighboring Kid Lake and Mann Lake. But more significantly, 750-acre Baby Lake is one of north-central Minnesota's hottest muskie fisheries.
Brosdahl calls Baby a "fun lake" and says that "most fisherman will see fish, and if they do, the catch ratio is pretty good. Baby isn't what I consider a trophy lake, but there are some whoppers, 50-inchers. What you can expect, though, are good healthy fish in the 30s."
During the morning hours, Brosdahl assaults weeded points and humps in around 6 feet of water. Later in the day the productive range switches to 12 to 20 feet, but it turns back inside at dusk.
In the morning and evening he throws topwaters, like a Poe's Jackpot, and runs a Rapala Super Shad during the in-between hours when fish are deeper.
Brosdahl is particularly fond of Baby's north end. Muskies will camp all around the big island, as well as around the pair of pushups off its southeast tip.
The Longville Area Chamber of Commerce will be able to hook you up with lodging. They can be reached at 1-800-756-7583 or online at www.longville.com.
LAKE ANDRUSIA Beltrami County's Lake Andrusia, like Baby, is stocked and managed for walleyes, but it holds its own as a muskie rookery nonetheless.
Brosdahl takes satisfactio
n in probing lakes that are known for their stinginess - lack of muskies in this case - because oftentimes such waters harbor the evilest beasts.
Andrusia, at 1,510 acres, is fertile and somewhat devoid of offshore structure, which is common among lakes in the Mississippi River drainage. But for what it lacks in humps and bumps, Andrusia more than compensates for in shoreline shelves.
When "stealing" from the shelves, Brosdahl starts on the north end and works his way south along the east shore. The shelves are rife with vegetation, too, and weeds in the 4- to 10-foot window seem to house the most activity.
Fish also frolic at the Mississippi River inlet on the south end, as well as between the two opposing points - southeast to northwest - at midlake. That entire center section contains Andrusia's best deep structure, too.
Trollers will have a field day on Andrusia as well. Shoreline runs are long and straight. But when you stumble upon thick and vibrant foliage, Brosdahl says to put on the breaks and strafe the greens.
The city of Cass Lake is the nearest major municipality to Andrusia. Call 1-800-756-7583 for information or visit their Web site, located at www.casslake.com.
ST. CROIX RIVER I apologize, but there was no other choice. The St. Croix - of course, being a river not a lake - simply had to make the list. It's too intriguing and productive to leave out.
Maverick Bucktails' lure designer Scott King agrees. He slides his sleek glass boat into the St. Croix more than any other body of water - actually, more than all others combined.
The Croix, he says, doesn't get pounded too hard for muskies, despite its suburban existence. For one, it's a river not a lake, and most folks don't associate moving water with muskies. The other reason why anglers might avoid it is the difficulty factor. Fish don't, if you'll pardon the expression, jump in the boat there.
King says weeds and current breaks are the keys to locating fish, though. So from Stillwater downstream to the mouth of the Kinnickinnic River, he scouts for greens and areas where sandbars and rock formations curb the flow. Most of the Croix's vegetation grows over shallow, current-starved flats in 6 feet of water and less. By midsummer, weeds will reach the surface, too, so visual identification is possible.
Lure selection is hugely important as well. The Croix's stained water demands sufficient flash and thump. At sunup and sundown, King chucks topwaters, but he prefers big-bladed and colorful Maverick Bucktails during the day.
Historically, King's average catches have spanned in the high 30s, intermixed with plenty of longer fish too.
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There are many other great muskie waters across our state, but these are the ones to target this season.
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