Is there such a thing as easy fishing for Wisconsin muskies? The author has some answers.
By Ted Peck
There are 104 fish species swimming in the Upper Mississippi where I work as a fulltime guide. Ironically, Wisconsin’s state fish — the muskie — is not commonly caught, even though it swims in a half-dozen of Old Man River’s tributaries.
In a half-century of fishing the Mississippi I have caught just two muskies. One was about 24 inches. The other one was small. In that time frame I’ve only heard of a half-dozen 40-inch-class muskies caught from Pool 7 south.
With muskies almost common in the St. Croix, Rock, Wisconsin River and several more tribs on the west side of the Mississippi, the lack of alpha-toother action is an enigma wrapped in mystery.
Even the most intense pondering won’t put a muskie in the boat on the Mississippi. Hooking up means traveling inland during the limited time when working on the Mississippi is not practical, usually due to flooding.
Butternut Lake in Price County is a favorite destination when time is an issue. That pristine water has incredible numbers of 30- to 40-inch fish. The St. Croix rod factory is less than a 10-minute drive away from the boat launch. If I stay overnight at comfy Timber Breeze Resort, I can leave my boat in the water, get a great meal, feed my muskie desires, and head home.
There is no “sure thing” in muskie fishing.
The muskie has been called “the fish of 10,000 casts” because many of those who pursue this beast with a passion insist on beating the water to froth with casts when this alpha predator really isn’t interested in dancing.
One proven muskie-catching strategy is casting promising water like a main-lake point, submerged bar, or outside weed edge hoping to “move” a fish with plans to return to the spot at prime time and cast with more intensity in hopes of hooking up.
Throwing big wood or even a bucktail at midday on a clear lake under sunny skies quickly becomes work — with as much chance for success as having a trophy buck walk under your tree under the same conditions outside of the rut.
Consistently hooking up requires perpetual concentration. After a couple of hours of heaving casts every 30 seconds, concentration fades, even in the most rabid muskie fanatic.
Experience teaches the value of concentrating on other fish or on a burger and cold drink until the skies cloud up with an approaching front, the sun begins to ease over the horizon, the moon comes up, or that two-hour window in the morning before the sun becomes a factor again.
If you really want to catch a muskie, be on the water and concentrate at those times when muskie activity is most likely.
Targeting waters with a solid population and good year-class representation of muskies also does serious mathematical damage to that “fish of 10,000 casts” theory.
Given these time and location restraints, Butternut Lake, Lake Wingra in Dane County, Cranberry Lake on the Eagle River chain, and tailwaters of any Wisconsin River system dam would be my picks if a tussle with Esox masquinongy was at the top of my hierarchy of needs.
Several top Wisconsin muskie guides agree with these choices. Those special individuals who work fulltime at this craft have several common denominators. One is ego. Top guides believe if there was just one muskie swimming in a lake, they could catch it with a reasonable amount of effort.
Guiding another person into hooking up takes the game to a higher level. Then there is the gratification carrot of a good tip for a hard job done well.
In researching this article, I contacted guides around the state posing this question: “If a client approached you with the promise of a $500 tip for producing a hook-up with a mid-30-inch muskie, where would you go and what would you have them throw?”
Guide Jesse Quale works the water in central Wisconsin. His response to the question was spontaneous, “Castle Rock, Petenwell or Lake Redstone.” Of those three choices, tiny Redstone is a sleeper.
Water there has a substantial algae bloom by mid-June, making a small topwater lure like the Cannonball an obvious choice. Redstone has a number of offshore fish cribs and natural wood structure, in addition to a weed edge bite.
Since visibility is limited, the “prime time” window is essentially wide open. In fact, noon on a sunny day offers a better chance at success than dawn with a front moving in. — especially if the water is calm enough to work a topwater lure correctly.
This manmade Sauk County lake is just greater than 600 acres, making it possible to target just about every high-percentage spot in a couple of hours.
Dane County’s Lake Wingra is only about half the size of Redstone, with limited structure and few obvious muskie habitats. Veteran guide Ron Barefield said he would drop the MinnKota right at the boat ramp and have the client cast a small purple or black/orange bucktail along the outside weed edge, saying there is an excellent chance the landing net would be wet “within 300 yards headed either direction.”
George Langley has been guiding the Eagle River chain for decades. This series of lakes and the river that runs through them is arguably Wisconsin’s very best muskie water. That’s especially true when it comes to numbers of willing fish.
Langley said he would probably launch his boat on Catfish Lake and have clients throw a small bucktail and a surface lure like the Tallywacker. The ’Wacker, like the Globe or Surf Roller, has a propeller blade near the front end of the lure, unlike a Top Raider, which has a blade in the stern.
Each of those lures produces a different sound dynamic and level of effectiveness, depending on the degree of chop — or lack of it — on the water’s surface. In water that is dead flat calm I’ve found a surface bait that produces less commotion, like the Cisco Kid Topper, is more likely to provoke a muskie response.
Most guides agree that having at least one client constantly throwing some configuration of a topwater lure is a productive tactic, especially in June.
Guide and frequent muskie tournament winner Phil Schweik has a black Suick tied on a rod at all times. The venerable Suick is primarily a glidebait, but can be very effective with an animated retrieve on the surface.
Schweik’s pick for the easiest muskie lake in the state is Cranberry Lake in the Eagle River chain, preferably on a rainy day. Or nearby Catfish if conditions are sunny. If he’s not throwing a Suick, Schweik is likely tossing a green blade/black bucktail under ideal conditions on Catfish Lake and the ever-popular orange blade/black bucktail on Cranberry Lake when raingear is a good idea.
Under any sky conditions, Schweik’s boat is more likely to be found on riverine sections of the Eagle River chain than on one of the lakes. He is a master at sniffing out muskies in moving water — especially on Wisconsin River flowages around Stevens Point where he is known far and wide as the Sultan of DuBay.
Flowages and tailwater stretches of Wisconsin’s namesake river represent some of our state’s “easiest” muskie fishing. Even with all the muskie options offered in the Wisconsin River system, picking the easiest of the easy is a straightforward choice: the run of river between Merrill and Brokaw.
Guide Kurt Shultz is king of this shallow, rocky neck of the Wisconsin River chasing ’skis with small bucktails out of a jet-drive john boat — the ideal fishing platform for this sometimes-wild water.
Jason Stewart has carved out an even smaller niche among the muskie fraternity, specializing in fly-fishing out of a MacKenzie drift boat on the swirling, rapid tumult on the West Fork of the Chippewa River.
Sometime this month I hope to check out Amnicon Lake in Douglas County with guide Josh Teigen. Teigen spends most of his time on either Chequemegon Bay or the Pike Lake chain, sneaking off to 426-acre Amnicon with a select few special clients or on the rare day when he can go “fun fishing” in need of personal fulfillment that can only be met by unhooking a bucktail from a muskie’s lips.
Douglas County and Amnicon Lake aren’t even on the radar for most serious Wisconsin muskie anglers and the legion of casual muskie enthusiasts drawn to the traditional northwoods meccas of Minocqua, Hayward and Eagle River.
Guide Rob Manthei has a well-deserved reputation for putting clients on toothy fish in this neck of the woods, choosing Wildcat Lake from dozens of top muskie waters in Vilas County as the easiest place to hook up.
Manthei’s weapons of choice on these 305 acres in June are a small Jake bait or Baby Shallow Raider.
A large segment of Wisconsin’s fishing population lives in the heavily pressured southeast corner of the state, where Pewaukee Lake has been a premier muskie destination for almost a half-century.
Guide Lynn Niklasch lives just a couple of miles from Pewaukee. If traffic is light, he can be on the water there in less than 90 minutes. In June, Niklasch said he will briefly join the boat parade out from obvious spots like Rocky Point and the Narrows before probing more “secluded” water along the 12-foot contour just a short cast away from weeds on the lake’s east side.
Muskies swimming in Pewaukee and other productive southeastern waters are educated in the ways of fishers and their lures. Niklasch finds success going against conventional wisdom by throwing smaller lures like a No. 5 fire tiger Mepps with a gold blade.
Muskies seldom come easy on any water in Wisconsin, simply because they get a vote in when and what they want to eat. Odds of success are greatly enhanced by being on the water at prime time and concentrating on every single cast from the time the lure hits the water through every twitch and nuance of the mandatory figure-eight maneuver.
You’ll catch more muskies by paying close attention to 200 casts rather than by whining about sore arms and back after making 10,000 without hooking up.