Wisconsin's Urban Muskies

If you have a few hours to kill, you can tangle with a toothy throwback to prehistoric times without traveling more than 100 miles from home. (July 2008)

This Madison muskie hit a big crankbait.
Photo by Pete Maina.

Muskie fishing in Wisconsin is huge, with a long history of capturing the imagination and desires of many anglers. Arguably, Wisconsin is the state with the most "muskie history" and certainly the state offering more individual lakes and rivers with viable muskie populations than any other. In recent decades, muskie fishing's range has spread tremendously and because of new fisheries created, proactive management and increasingly effective catch-and-release ethics, few would argue that we don't have better muskie fishing than at any time in history.

I believe the only feasible argument against that might be from those who enjoy the peace and tranquility of the experience. With increasing populations and bigger, better and faster equipment, fishing in general has become more supercharged. Many yearn for at least some fishing opportunities to be quieter and simpler, yet it's nice to have more convenient opportunities to fish.

Years ago, muskie fishing was mainly considered an "up north" thing. Today, some of the great, new success stories in muskie fishing's expansion involve some exceptional urban opportunities. Though historically an up north muskie state, Wisconsin is no exception to the urban opportunity trend. With help from area experts, let's take a look at some of the better urban areas, starting in the southeast.

MILWAUKEE
The Milwaukee metropolitan area, essentially encompassing four counties, is home to more than two million residents, and many are avid sportsmen. When these outdoors aficionados automatically point their trucks north toward the promised land of the fish of dreams, they may not realize they are leaving a lake that may arguably provide their best chance for a wallhanger muskie.

Pewaukee Lake was created in 1838 when a dam was constructed across the Pewaukee River, creating two distinct adjoining areas of the lake -- the deeper original western basin and the shallower eastern flats. Pewaukee Lake encompasses almost 2,500 acres and exactly when muskies were introduced is subject to debate, but one fact is irrefutable: They are thriving and providing exceptional angling opportunities. While many lakes are noted for producing high numbers of fish but few truly big fish, Pewaukee offers the best of both worlds. Every year, a number of 50-inch fish are reported, some weighing more than 40 pounds. The lake record is a 53-inch, 48-pound, 9-ounce giant landed by Joe Ehrhardt 30 years ago, but many lake veterans swear there are bigger ones still swimming.

The beauty of this metropolitan mecca is that varied highly productive angling methods may be employed throughout the seasons. For those who like to cast, the season kicks into high gear almost immediately after the season opener, typically peaking in the second or third week in June. Casting tactics and lure choices run the gamut and all will produce at times. In a typical season, anglers begin working bucktails, jerkbaits and crankbaits over newly emerging weeds in the shallow warming waters on the eastern side of the lake.

Some of the best catches are realized by those who work the shallow areas near Taylor's Bay using multiple live-bait lines and small sucker minnows. (If using this method, it should be emphasized to set the hook immediately upon a strike, to prevent swallowing.) By early June, the deep weed edges become well defined and working those edges with just about anything can produce exceptional action. It is not unheard of to see 10 to 15 fish active on a given weed edge if your timing is right.

Midsummer is when the trolling bite really kicks into gear and during this time, many of the largest fish of the year are caught. Concentrate efforts on the deeper western basin and be willing to put in your time to get some productive patterns down. The majority of successful trollers don't drag the larger crankbaits that are often effective on other bodies of water. Smaller is better here and the high population of undersized panfish, perch and perhaps baby carp may be the reason. Productive baits include small Bagleys, Ernies, Rapalas and Depth Raiders. Concentrate on water depths of 15 to 20 feet with lures running between 10 to 18 feet. Brightly colored baits are quite popular here and experimentation with different lures, running depths and colors may eventually provide the preferred patterns.

Lake residents claim the hottest dog days of summer may be the best times for multiple big-fish days. Be especially careful when landing and handling big fish when surface temperatures are very high. Try to minimize the time it takes to land a big fish and if you must take a photo, make it brief and get the fish back in the water. Make certain you have the proper release tools -- hook cutters, long needle-nose pliers and jaw spreaders.

In fall, cast the deep weed edges in 8 to 10 feet of water experimenting with a wide variety of lures from large soft plastics to smaller spinners. Try the weed edges from Taylor's Bay west through the Narrows in the east and the weed edges running from the county landing on the far west side of the lake to Cottage Island. Other popular big-fish spots are the Waukesha Beach and Rocky Point areas. Trail a sucker on a quick-strike rig and you'll up your odds considerably. In late fall, leave the weed edges and work hard-bottomed areas in 15- to 20-foot depths. Fishing large suckers or big plastic baits in deep water right up until the season closes will give you a shot at that fat 50-incher you've been dreaming about.

For more information, contact Smokey's Muskellunge Shop at (262) 691-9659 or visit online at www.smokeysmuskieshop.com, or call guide Dan Busch at (262) 691-7549.

MADISON
At a glance, casting for muskies may seem out of place within the shadow of the state capital. Being voted one of the nation's "best places to live" probably means there's more to Madison than a healthy economy -- part of it must be the muskie fishing.

Multi-species guide Lee Tauchen calls the five lakes totaling nearly 17,000 acres the Mad Chain. Tauchen, owner of Today's Angler Guide Service and maker of Lee Lures custom surface baits, has seen the chain develop into an exceptional fishery in the last 14 years. Aggressive muskie stocking programs, an active Muskies Incorporated chapter, good release ethics and a progressive 45-inch minimum size limit has made Capital City muskie fishing equal to almost anywhere in the state.

Although all five contain muskies, lakes Monona, Waubesa and Wingra hold the majority. Multiple fish days are often the rule, not the exception.

"We average about three fish a day here usually in the 40- to 46-inch range," Tauchen said. "Five-fish days are fairly common, and I've had up to 10 in one day."

Because of its southern location, spawning occurs earlier -- therefore the season opens earlier than in the northern part of the state. Muskie angling begins the first Saturday in May, a peak period on the chain.

Lake Wingra, the smallest and shallowest of the three, warms quickly, so shallow-water presentations like surface baits and bucktails produce.

Waubesa also yields good early-season results, especially during a warm spring. Activity increases during the second and third weeks of May, after the water has warmed this 2,000-acre lake. Eurasian milfoil emerges early on Waubesa, providing a great place to target spring muskies. The water is usually quite clear, so the best presentations seem to be twitched cranks, gliders and smaller bucktails.

Not long into the season, the lakes adopt the green color of algae blooms, making it one of the best times to target Madison muskies. Presentations should be switched slightly to larger bucktails and crankbaits, although surface baits may become deadly after the water reaches the upper 60-degree range. Once algae and weed growth have exploded on the smaller lakes, switch to 3,000-acre Lake Monona. Main lake weedlines are key zones here too.

Action on the chain remains consistent through June, although if water temperatures reach the high-70s and beyond, fishing suffers (likely a good thing, too, as high surface temps mean reduced survival rates when handling fish). If temperatures remain in the safe zone, fishing remains good. The ecosystem gets rolling with algae and suspended plankton in the water column, triggering the movement of the primary food source of panfish to suspend off and away from weedlines following the food. When the food is suspended in deep water, trolling becomes the best option. Local favorite baits would be Little Ernies, Rapalas, Super Shads and Spoonplugs. Starting at the weedlines, and working out to deeper water until baitfish are located is a great plan.

Once summer has passed and the water begins to cool, a shallow-water movement occurs sometime in September and usually lasts through mid-October. Working big bucktails like "Big Mamas" and topwaters like Lee Lures' "Water Choppers" inside the weedlines is effective.

Late fall fishing seems to be a feast-or-famine proposition, according to Tauchen. Water color is key. When the weeds start to die, heavy winds may keep the water dirty for weeks and fishing will be tough. Soft plastics and big cranks are most consistent. Consider the zone from the deepest weedline out to 30 feet for best results, keeping in mind that making bottom contact may be the key to success. Suckers fished vertically on quick-strike rigs are also very effective.

For more information on guiding services, contact Tauchen at (608) 444-2180.

GREEN BAY
Back in the 1960s, Green Bay was mainly known as the home of pro football's Green Bay Packers. That hasn't changed at all, but that bay has become well known for trophy muskies.

The sheer size of the bay is massive -- 520 square miles and that doesn't include the smaller bays like Sturgeon, Little Sturgeon, Riley, Sand and the Door Peninsula -- offering a wide variety of prime habitat for muskies and pike.

Muskies were first stocked in the bays in the 1970s by private muskie clubs. Now the Wisconsin DNR's ultimate goal is to produce a self-sustaining population of muskies in the bay. At first, Wisconsin strain muskies were planted into the Fox and Menominee rivers and Sturgeon Bay.

In 1989, Great Lakes spotted muskies were introduced to the stocking mix -- 30,000 fingerlings were planted in the Menominee River, the Lower Bay, Sturgeon Bay and the Fox River. As a result, the bay has become a trophy fishery of unknown and unlimited potential.

It has a huge and seemingly endless forage base for its muskies. Alewives, white perch, shiners, smelt, suckers, whitefish, gizzard shad, carp and yellow perch provide a wonderful predator buffet. With this all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, the growth rates are incredible. By the late 1980s, DNR officials observed muskies in the upper 30-pound class. In fact, in 2000, a 55-inch fish reportedly weighing 60 pounds was illegally taken from Sturgeon Bay by an ice-fisherman. Had it been taken legally, it would have been a state-record fish -- making it obvious early on that world-class fish can and will be produced from the bay.

Muskies may legally be pursued starting May 15 on the Menominee River. This is considered a boundary water and it is legal for Wisconsin and Michigan anglers to target muskies along the 2 1/2 miles of river from the dam to the bay. This water is also great for walleyes and smallmouths too. Many shallow bays warm quickly and attract casters, while the river channel gives trollers an opportunity too. As the season progresses, muskies move from the rivers and roam the endless frontier of the bay. With countless reefs, large weedbeds and weedy bays south from Oconto to the Lower Bay, summer muskies may be a needle in a haystack at times, yet places to concentrate are there. Volks, 2-Mile, Macos and the North and South reefs are all worth looking at, as are any structures.

Once fall rolls around, things really tend to "roll" in the bay. Fall movements of shad and whitefish are followed by hungry predators. Areas around the Fox River mouth seem to attract the most baitfish, and muskies aren't far behind. Muskies may be found from the mouth of the river to the dam at Voyager Park.

Casting in the river offers great potential; old pilings, riprap, and other shoreline structures are great ambush locations for muskies. Trolling the river channel, both on the break and right down the middle, with small to medium crankbaits is very effective too. Some of the nearby shallow flats outside the mouth also attract muskies. On flats, wide trolling spreads are the key for success, covering the most real estate, utilizing multiple rod holder and planer board systems. On these shallower flats, a simple yet effective pattern is running a variety of crankbaits 15 to 25 feet behind planer boards. The effort comes in continuing to try many different types, colors -- and trolling speeds -- searching for patterns as to what is triggering fish. Interestingly, one thing to consider is that wind blowing out of the river seems to render a tough bite. In addition, wind tends to be bad in general, as it further muddies the already muddy water of the lower bay, reducing visibility.

Because of the muskies' exceptional growth potential, the current size limit is 50 inches. Because significant numbers of fish in the 50- to 54-inch range have been harvested in recent years, bay anglers are hopeful that a recent push for the size limit to go to 54 inches, allowing these fish to reach their full size potential, will be in place by the time this article is read (please check regulations). Also, for more information and guiding on the bay, Rob Manthei and Jeff Wallace, both regular anglers on the bay, will have their captain's licenses to guide there this year. For more in

formation and to contact them, check their Web sites www.robmanthei.com and www.jeffwallaceguide.com.

Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com

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