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Taking On The Metro's Tiger Muskies

Taking On The Metro's Tiger Muskies

There are some tigers on the prowl in the Twin Cities area. But don't worry, because the muskie hunters are chasing them on these metro lakes!

The author prepares to release a beautiful tiger muskie.
Photo courtesy of Ron Hustvedt Jr.

There are some big tigers prowling Minnesota, and most of them are smack dab in the middle of the bustling Twin Cities. But these tigers aren't of the feline variety, but rather the finned persuasion, and they are being hunted.

"Minnesota has a world-class tiger fishery and nowhere else in the world can you find as many lakes with the potential for a trophy fish as you can here," said Paul Hartman, president of the Minnesota Muskie Guide Association.


When the Department of Natural Resources first stocked hybrids -- also known as tiger muskies -- in the early 1980s, they were looking to provide a fast-growing trophy fishery for metro anglers because of a depleted northern pike fishery. This hybrid, which is sterile, features dark vertical stripes on its side, hence the name tiger.


The DNR decided to go with tigers because they grow faster than pure-strain muskies, reach sizes larger than northern pike and are relatively easy to raise in a hatchery. The tiger is also very hearty and resilient to a variety of water conditions, noted Dirk Peterson, DNR Central Region fisheries manager for the DNR. Peterson's duties include overseeing the stocking program of tiger muskies, which is done exclusively within the seven-county metropolitan area. In most lakes, tigers are stocked every three years at a rate of one to two fish per littoral acre (the amount of a lake less than 15 feet of water).

Anglers who go after tigers know of the dual nature of the fish and can fish for them using a variety of techniques. Tigers that take after their northern pike fathers tend to like the cooler water. Tigers that take after their muskie mothers tend to roam the entire water column. Their size is more like the muskie while their willingness to bite is more like that of a northern. Choosing to hit closer to the splash of your cast rather than follow to the side of the boat means tigers tend to give more of a fight over a longer distance. Hartman has caught plenty of tigers and loves the spirit of their fight as well as their tendency for jumping.


Another feature of the tiger Hartman loves is that an angler can use heavy bass tackle instead of the massive tackle requirements pure-strain muskie generally require. "Tigers tend to like smaller lures, meaning you don't need a super heavy-duty rod and reel," he said. Leaders in the 50-pound-test range and a heavy-duty superline are also recommended.


Tony Grant is a tiger muskie guide who has almost exclusively fished the species the last 15 years. He was recently at the Extreme Muskie Expo in the Twin Cities speaking about tactics for catching tigers. Grant believes that big tigers go shallow in the heat of the summer seeking baitfish in the submerged cabbage. He admits that there are some good-sized fish out deep but that the big feeders are up shallow, especially in lowlight periods such as dusk and dawn as well as on cloudy days. Grant said tigers in the shallows tend to be caught the most on spinnerbaits and bucktails, but surface lures worked in a walk-the-dog approach are also effective. Lures in the 5- to 7-inch range matching the predominant baitfish of the lake are a good rule of thumb for these shallow fish.

Hartman said the shallows can be good for tigers, but that a quick examination of the record books show the biggest fish coming from the depths. Hartman uses similar methods, though he prefers to have his lure 10 to 12 feet below the surface. "Use a steady retrieve with occasional pulls to allow the bait to rise and fall. If they are shallower than that they'll go down to that depth, and if they are deeper they are more than willing to come up for it," he said.

For tigers at all depths, Hartman also likes going after them with a Stomper, which is a surface bait with a rotating tail. "I've caught 30 percent of my tigers on that lure at a variety of depths on most every lake I've fished," he said.

There are a total of 23 lakes in Minnesota where tigers are stocked, all of which are in the metro area. The lakes outlined in this article represent a cross-section of those lakes but are by no means the only ones with the potential for a trophy tiger. Each lake has the potential for producing a tiger over 40 inches and most have the potential to produce a new state record. A fast growth rate also means a shorter lifespan, and most of the trophies in a lake are younger than 8 years old. Just because a lake has been stocked for a long time does not mean it has the potential for producing a larger tiger. And the techniques described for each lake can easily be applied to other lakes, especially those with similar qualities.

So snap on your favorite bucktail and come on along for a muskie hunt!

LAKE ELMO

Listed first because it yielded the current state record of 34 pounds, 12 ounces, Lake Elmo is 206 acres of clear, deep water. It is the deepest lake in the metro area, and on a map looks more like a Canadian Shield lake than a prairie lake.

Josh Stevenson caught that record tiger in 1999 on a spinnerbait, and many claim he was actually bass fishing, though Stevenson reputes that claim. His experience with tigers, especially on Lake Elmo, is that they like deeper water that can be tough to reach with traditional muskie lures.

"Before that fish I'd caught a lot of tigers in Elmo, sometimes four or five a day, and what I found was that they preferred smaller lures," he said.

Elmo can be a difficult lake to fish, with limited weeds and sharp dropoffs. The contours of the lake are very bowl shaped and provide very little "traditional" fishing locations such as points and bars. The sunken timber in the southwestern bay can be good, as can the docks and floating diving platforms.

Ciscoes have been stocked in the lake by the DNR, and locating a school along the thermocline could mean finding a few tigers as well. Mike O'Brien of Joe's Sporting Goods in St. Paul said one way to get down deep for the big tigers in Elmo is using a large jig tipped with a muskie-sized plastic worm.

Stevenson usually begins by fishing the shallows and then works down to the deeper locations. The limited weedbeds can be good shallow-water locations to begin the search. His favorite lures are spinnerbaits, large-bodied crankbaits and jigging spoons. "Of those, my favorite is a Spoonplug because of its versatility and ability to work in shallow water as well as deep water," he said.

Stevenson now runs his own guiding service

and recently purchased Blue Ribbon Bait, which is located close to Lake Elmo on Century Avenue in Oakdale. He's changing the store from a traditional bait shop to almost exclusively a muskie shop, and is willing to point out his favorite spots on Elmo, as well as a few other east-metro lakes.

LAKE CALHOUN CHAIN

Not normally referred to as a "chain" of lakes, Cedar Lake, Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles are connected by two long, narrow channels. Located in the heart of Minneapolis, the shoreline of these lakes is mostly part of an expansive greenway complete with walking and biking paths. When working the shoreline, anglers need to be careful not to snag a passing bicyclist or rollerblader. Seriously.

The surroundings above water may be completely urban, but life underwater is some of the most prolific anywhere for tigers. During most of the 1990s, Lake Calhoun had the state-record tiger muskie, a 33-pound, 8-ounce beauty caught in 1991. The DNR treats each of these lakes separately rather than as a chain, and stocks each one on a three-year cycle. This translates to a chain of lakes that is stocked annually.

The lake receives heavy pressure, though most of it is from the shore. Most of these anglers seem to be going after the numerous bass or panfish, which along with perch, are among the main forage for tigers.

There are only two public accesses, one on Calhoun and the other on Isles. The only parking is on the street, so finding a spot large enough for a vehicle and trailer can mean a lot of driving or having to arrive early. There is also an electric motor-only regulation on all three lakes.

Calhoun contains the deepest and clearest water of all three lakes, and probably offers the best chance at both numbers and size of tigers. Pure-strain muskies were stocked in 1994 and the lake is home to some large northern pike, so don't be surprised if you catch one of these instead of a tiger. Cedar is very similar to Calhoun in clarity and depth, and can be considered the sleeper of the three lakes because it takes at least 20 minutes by electric motor from either access. Isles is the shallowest and murkiest of the lakes, though it has several deeper holes.


Located in the heart of Minneapolis, the shoreline of these lakes is mostly part of an expansive greenway complete with walking and biking paths. When working the shoreline, anglers need to be careful not to snag a passing bicyclist or rollerblader.
 

The presence of milfoil on each lake can make it tough to navigate the channels and the shallows, but the edges of the milfoil can make for some great fishing. Tigers like to sit in the milfoil along the deep edges as ambush sites for passing prey. Don't overlook the shallow edges of the milfoil, however, because they can hold fish, especially in lowlight periods or on cloudy days. Something to watch for are the periodic weed-clearing operations done by the city throughout the summer. A large machine churns through the channels as sections of each lake is cleared of milfoil from time to time, creating "clearcuts" for cruising fish. Try to use colors that mimic the forage found in the area you are fishing, which almost always includes perch.

The least pressured areas of each lake are the offshore humps and sunken islands that can be difficult to locate without electronics or a good lake map. Another spot that probably contains the next state record but is hardly ever fished are the deep-water basins of Calhoun and Cedar. Anglers hardly ever fish these areas most likely because they don't want to "waste" the battery power it requires to effectively work the area.

LAKE NOKOMIS

Another good tiger lake in the heart of Minneapolis is Lake Nokomis. This is where I caught my first-ever tiger muskie in 1999 and is the precise moment when I became a muskie addict. I caught the 41-inch fish in water shallower than my knees early in the morning. What makes my catch disconcerting to others is that I caught it within 50 feet of a large swimming beach. I instantly put them at ease, however, when I explained that I caught a 36-incher later that evening within the ropes of the beach.

The west end of the lake tends to be the most productive for tigers. Hartman said he knows of numerous catches over 25 pounds as well as a few over 30 pounds from Nokomis. The lake is filled with crappies that provide excellent forage for tigers, and finding the papermouths can often mean finding the muskies. Tigers are caught by anglers all over the lake and accidentally caught almost as much by shoreline anglers looking for a panfish, bass or walleye. When fishing the deep weed edges, use a spinnerbait, diving crankbait or jigging spoon. On the shallow weed edges and tops of the weeds, use a lure that will run just below the surface.

There is an electric motor-only regulation in place on Nokomis and better off-street parking than the other city lakes, though it is usually completely filled during any given day with sunshine or warmth in the summertime. Parking on the street is possible though equally difficult to find during the peak hours.

CRYSTAL LAKE(S)

There are two Crystal Lakes in the Twin Cities, and both have been stocked with tigers for more than 20 years. Hartman said both offer good fishing but the best-sized fish have come from the smaller lake in the north metro.

Located in Robbinsdale off Highway 81, Crystal hardly seems like the home of a trophy fishery due to its small size of 78 acres and pea-green-colored water. "If nothing else, the fact that four or five fish over 30 pounds have come from Crystal shows how hardy the tiger muskie is and how it can stand marginal water conditions," Hartman said.

The southern end of the lake has traditionally been better but a sunken island adjacent to deep water on the north side should not be overlooked. Because the water is so stained, brightly colored and flashy lures tend to be the best. Crystal is full of crappies and sunfish, providing an excellent forage base for tigers. The lake is also full of -- yes, this is true -- goldfish. Thus the reason why orange is one of the top colors on this lake. Apparently, a lot of goldfish get flushed down metro-area toilets.

The Crystal Lake of the south metro is located in Burnsville just south of County Road 42. This one is much larger, with clearer water, two islands and several deeper holes. There is a rocky 3-foot sunken island between the two main islands that can wreck a prop but also yield a nice tiger or two. The bays on the eastern, southern and western ends can be good for shallower fish. Deeper fish can be found along the northern shore and the northern end of Maple Island adjacent to the basin of the lake.

Both lakes have public launches with a fair amount of parking, though both tend to fill up on weekends. The launch on the northern version is off Crystal Lake Boulevard while the southern one's launch is off Crystal Lake Road.

CEDAR LAKE

In a state with more than 10,000 lakes, there are bound to be a few repeats in the name department. There's Crystal

and also Cedar. This Cedar Lake is located in the extreme southern metro off Highway 13 between New Prague and Prior Lake, and it deserves a separate mention partially because the other Cedar is part of a chain, but mostly because this one is an extremely productive tiger muskie lake.

Cedar has been stocked since 1984 and has shown tremendous growth rates, said Peterson. The lake is large at 779 acres but you won't find any water deeper than 11 or 12 feet. The lake has an aeration system that protects it from winterkill, and Hartman said at least one 30-pound fish has been caught along with numerous 25-pound fish. The lake has two public accesses, one on the northwestern end and the other on the eastern shore.

There is an expansive 11-foot hole in the middle of the lake that Hartman said seems to be the most productive spot. Because the lake is full of high numbers of perch, crappies and sunfish, the tigers tend to roam all over and can be caught most anywhere, especially when the water is cooler in the spring and fall.

One of Hartman's favorite approaches on Cedar is using a shallow-running, minnow-shaped crankbait that can run over the tops of the weeds. "I really like the Mann's Stretch Minus-One because the wobble and rattle it gives is hard for those tigers to pass up," he said.

LAKE PHALEN

Minneapolis is not the only big city with productive tiger muskie waters thanks to Lake Phalen in northern St. Paul. Phalen is completely surrounded by a public greenway and receives pressure similar to the Minneapolis lakes. Phalen has two main basins, with the northern one dropping to 90 feet and the southern one bottoming out at 53 feet.

The lake features excellent cover with both emergent and submergent weed growth. Pure-strain muskie anglers drool at the site of cabbage, and tiger muskie anglers are no different. Lucky for them, Phalen has some great cabbage beds. The lake has a healthy forage base of perch, sunfish and crappies that concentrate along the numerous shoreline points and around several storm drains that flow into the lake.

Stevenson said he likes to use a jigging spoon in 9 to 10 feet of water along the edges of the weeds. Hartman said another good technique is to find the depth of the thermocline and then follow it to where it runs into the bottom. There is a great trolling run in the southern basin along a dike around to the area near the beach.

There is only one public access on the lake on the north end off Frost Avenue. Parking is limited and difficult to find during the summer most any day of the week. There is some limited parking on the street as well. There is an electric motor-only regulation on Phalen.

WEAVER LAKE

The mere mention of Weaver Lake in this article will upset a few tiger muskie enthusiasts. Of the 23 lakes in the metro where tigers can be found, this is one of the most overlooked yet most productive tiger muskie lakes. Located in the northwestern metro in Maple Grove, the lake has one boat launch off Highway 101.

Hartman said Weaver Lake has produced a few fish over 30 pounds in recent years and has the potential to kick out more because of an excellent forage base of crappies and sunfish. Most of these can be found along the edges of the weeds in 10 to 20 feet of water, and the tigers are sure to be close behind. Schools of crappies can suspend all over, and if you are lucky enough to find one, do not pass by without working the area for tigers. Don't overlook the shallows near the beach on the southeastern end as well as the large flat along the northern and western shorelines.

NATURAL TIGERS

The best chance for catching tigers comes from stocked lakes but anglers also catch the naturally occurring ones in lakes where muskies and pike are prevalent. Because pike spawn early in the year and muskies spawn several weeks later, the chances of the two being in the same area with spawning on their mind is very rare. Still, it happens.

Chris Kavanaugh is the DNR's fisheries manager for the Grand Rapids area and has seen tigers on several lakes in the area while doing ice-out muskie assessments. "These fish are natural and not DNR-stocked," Kavanaugh confirmed. As a biologist, Kavanaugh said the presence of a spawning muskie and northern in the same area is called temporal isolation. "All it takes is one late-blooming northern and one precocious muskie to get together, one thing leads to another, and you have a tiger muskie," he said.

Some of these "accidental" tiger lakes include Moose near Grand Rapids, Spider, Deer, Vermilion and maybe even Leech.

Whether you go after the natural ones or the stocked ones, tigers are furious fighters that are more willing to bite than the elusive muskie, and offer a chance at a trophy on every cast. There is not a short supply of them, but finding one can prove to be time consuming. However, it's worth the effort when one is leaping into the air at the end of your line.

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