May 31, 2012
Most women can remember the details of their first kiss. Many men from my generation learned to suppress emotional displays from their fathers who still had vivid memories of World War II.
My dad was a Navy man, serving on destroyers in both Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He loved to hunt and fish, with frequent pilgrimages to the Wisconsin Northwoods playing a major role in my road to manhood.
We were fishing up on Fence Lake near Lac du Flambeau on a cool June morning exactly 50 years ago when something huge stopped my Suick dead in the water, bent that steel South Bend rod double and peeled half the black Dacron line from Dad's Pfleuger Summit baitcast reel before my jaw could close.
After considerable tussle, the fish was finally at the gunwale. The Old Guy whacked her with a small bat he carried for precisely that reason and hauled this leviathan into our small wooden boat.
The Old Guy announced we were going back to the resort, and quickly manned the oars. A small crowd gathered shortly after we reached the safe, sandy beach. The resort owner came trotting over with a scale. Several folks took photos. The fish seemed heavier than the 18 pounds indicated on the scale. Then Dad hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.
A half-century is like a day when it concerns a life-changing event like your first legal muskie.
Hundreds of anglers will experience this rite of passage in America's Dairyland this year. Getting to productive muskie water is no longer a daylong road trip on two-lane roads. Muskies swim within an hour's drive from your home anywhere in Wisconsin.
I have never been fond of joining the parade of boats on fisheries such as Pewaukee, Okauchee and Wingra. Even vast waters like Lac Vieux Desert and hidden venues like Van Vliet never see my Lund launched on a serious muskie mission on a weekend.
The tailwaters of the Petenwell flowage used to be a sure thing for tangling with a toother on opening weekend. Muskies still swim there between the foregathered boats.
My favorite Wisconsin muskie water is the wild and rocky Wisconsin River between Brokaw and Tomahawk. There is one remote boat launch where you need to hook a 4x4 truck to the 4x4 truck towing the boat when it is time to leave the water.
This spot is still worthy of a weekend visit. The 50-incher that swatted at a bucktail there my last time still haunts me.
My personal benchmark of 50 inches has yet to be achieved, although fish of those dimensions swim in all the aforementioned waters. This fish is only one cast away — once the matrix of location, presentation and timing is deciphered.
Catching a muskie just 1 ounce heavier than Louis Spray's 69-pound, 11-ounce monster is every angler's dream. According to the official record of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, this Chippewa Flowage fish caught in 1949 is still the top dog.
Bigger fish are swimming in tributaries of Green Bay right now. When water temperatures warm up just a little more, the fish will slide out of the Fox, Peshtigo, Oconto and Menominee rivers to cruise cabbage beds in the vastness of The Bay until September.
One September day — without precise rhyme or reason — many of these alpha predators will ease toward sand flats on the far south end of Green Bay where they will patrol until ice returns to the waters around Titletown.
Capt. Bret Alexander's clients hook up with at least a dozen 50-inch muskies every year. He's boated several just one walleye dinner shy of leaving Spray's record in the dust.
Last autumn Alexander's client Lee Weissgerber landed one of those fish of destiny, a 56 1/2-inch dreadnaught with a 28-inch girth, that Alexander estimated at 60 pounds.
"We were trolling big crankbaits along one of my most productive spots," Alexander recalls. "Lee said he wanted to hold on to one of the rods, so I tied on a big SuperShad behind a muskie bobber. He had only been pumping the rod for a few minutes when the water just exploded."
Green Bay's waters were exceptionally rough that day, with Alexander working hard to control his boat in the honest 4- to 6-foot waves. An able-bodied angler would struggle to keep his feet in seas of this magnitude. Weissgerber didn't have that option. He can only walk with the assistance of two canes.
Sunny days are often more productive than low-light periods on the often turbid waters at the south end of Green Bay, with fish activity generally increasing as seas grow rather than calming down.
A seaworthy boat is perhaps the most important component of a successful fishing trip for Great Lakes strain muskies on Green Bay. But smaller V-bottom watercraft are usually adequate when chasing muskies during the first several weeks of the season, which opens the third Saturday in May when many fish are still holding up in the tributaries.
Warming water temperatures in early June goad these fish into moving out into The Bay where Alexander says they follow the shoreline until encountering the first submergent cabbage weeds near confluence with a tributary.
"The concentration of muskies per surface-acre across the vastness of Green Bay is incredibly small," Alexander said, "but when you consider how many fish are relating to a weedbed, which may only be the size of a football field, it's easier to develop a positive muskie attitude."
Bucktails are Alexander's favorite weapon throughout the summer when muskies are relating to submergent weeds. "My favorite bait is a Double-8 with shiny gold blades," this veteran guide says. "I also like throwing Buchertails."
Purple is Alexander's go-to color when fishing out from the Menominee River where The Bay is much clearer than the turbid waters downstream from the Fox River at the far south end of Green Bay.
"Red/black and black/orange color combinations produce more action when visibility is less than 3 feet, with bigger blades triggering more strikes in turbid water."
Alexander says almost 50 percent of muskie strikes occur when an angler is executing the figure-8 maneuver in the clearer waters of the northern bay, with only about 20 percent of hook-ups coming at boatside in the stained waters farther south.
"Directional change is a major fish trigger when visibility is poor," he says. "A lot of strikes come about 8 to 10 feet from the boat as the angler completes a cast and the bait comes up in the water column."
This little change in bucktail behavior enraged Alexander's personal best muskie, a 57 1/2-inch giant with a girth of 30 inches, which inhaled a Buchertail one late June day two years ago.
"She's gotta be close to 70 pounds by now," Alexander smirks. "Every time I fish that weedbed my knees shake just a little bit."
This fish may be patrolling near Sturgeon Bay right now, but experience teaches it may be lurking in less than 4 feet of water 50 miles to the south when the faithful return to Lambeau field next fall.
"Last October we boated a 48 1/2-incher in University Bay — right downtown — which had been tagged in the spring five years earlier near Sturgeon Bay by the DNR," Alexander recalls. "This fish was 44 inches when the DNR pulled it out of a fyke net back then. Although growth rates in mature muskies vary with individual fish, it isn't much of a stretch to imagine that 57 1/2-incher at or beyond the World Record mark as we fish through 2012."
Word of the world-class muskie fishing at Green Bay's south end in late autumn is becoming common knowledge in the muskie fishing fraternity. Another destination with similar potential and less notoriety is hiding in the far northwest corner of the state in a 1,000-acre harbor at Superior where the St. Louis River meets the icy waters of that lake.
That is young Josh Tiegen's favorite muskie water. Tiegen plans on guiding there upon obtaining his captain's license, a prerequisite for guiding on all Great Lakes waters, Lake Winnebago and the Mississippi River.
Tiegen reports catching two 52-inch muskies on this mostly shallow, considerably stained fishery, with several more 50-inch fish to his credit. He usually launches the boat at the Loon's Foot Landing just off of Highway 2 in the city of Superior, throwing bright-colored bucktails, topwater baits and Bull Dawgs to tempt these Great Lakes-strain muskies.
When not doting over what may be the best prime rib in the state as chef at The Spot supper club on Buskey Bay Lake on the Pike Lake Chain near Iron River, Tiegen works as a guide on these ultra-clear waters, perhaps the best kept muskie secret in the North Country.
The Pike Chain was a popular getaway for sportsmen back in the 1920s when a one-lane sand road running south out of Iron River was the only access to Hall's Resort, now known as The Spot.
The remote orientation of the Pike Chain and invasion by rusty crayfish in the mid-1980s caused this tremendous water to fade from most folks' fishing radar over the past 25 years.
In the late 1990s the local lakes association placed 120 fish cribs in an attempt to correct the weed-ravaging efforts of the crayfish. This management tool and fact that bass had no trouble finding crayfish on the then-barren lake bottom set the stage for return of the Pike Chain as a viable fishery.
Weeds have returned to the Pike Chain, providing refuge for fish. Many of the cribs are still fish magnets as well, attracting everything from little perch to honking big muskies and northern pike.
Tiegen said he has about 50 of these structures plugged into his GPS as waypoints. There are few sharply breaking depth contours or large rocky structures for fish to relate to in these ultra-clear lakes, enhancing the role of cribs in likely fish locations.
"Black is probably the most consistent muskie-producing color on the Pike Chain," Tiegen says "One of my favorite baits is an old black Top Raider in need of some touch up paint. It has so many chomp marks in it the lure looks like a testing device for slip-joint pliers."
Topwater presentations can be very effective during periods of low light, according to this guide. Under most other conditions Tiegen likes to throw large deep-running lures like the Depth Raider and Ernie bait.
"Because of extreme water clarity, these fish simply don't spend much time cruising between the surface and 10 to 15 feet down," Tiegen says "Weed growth occurs in water 20 feet deep here. Big glidebaits like the Depth Raider in perch, sucker or black colors work best throughout the summer under most fishing conditions."
Lake Millicent has the clearest water of all the lakes in the chain. Tiegen says these 183 acres offer both the biggest muskies and toughest fishing on these six interconnected waters.
"During daylight hours, you need to fish down at least 20 feet to find any action on Millicent," Tiegen says "The exception to this rule is for the first hour after sunset when trolling a big Grandma or Jake bait can produce some thrilling results."
Access to Eagle and Flynn lakes at the south end of the chain can be difficult for those fishing from large boats due to the limited opening below the County H Bridge which separates 170-acre Eagle from the slightly larger Twin Bear Lake.
There is a private boat launch on Eagle, with access limited to patrons staying at Pine Point Resort. There are two public boat launches on the Pike Chain. One is located on the west side of 100-acre Buskey Bay Lake at the north end of the fishery. The other is near the middle of the chain, on the northeast corner of Twin Bear Lake.
No fish cribs have been placed in Eagle Lake because that part of the chain was not subjected to the rusty crayfish scourge back in the 1980s. Besides a healthy population of muskies, Eagle Lake is home to considerable numbers of pike, some of which exceed 20 pounds.
One of the most attractive aspects of fishing this northwest Wisconsin chain of lakes is the presence of loons, all of which have feathers. Those in fast boats with out-of-state registrations are noticeably absent.
Although a blacktop has replaced the one-lane sand road leading to this water, the ambience of the place is stuck in the 1960s, making the Pike Lake Chain a wonderful destination for folks who remember when a Suick was brand new technology.