September 30, 2010
We have shallow lakes and deep lakes that fit some anglers' descriptions of perfect muskie waters. But it doesn't do you any good if you don't know how to fish them! (August 2007)
Janesville's Don Herr caught and released this 44-inch muskie on Big Tomahawk Lake during the 2002 World Muskie Hunt.
To some anglers, classic muskie water is a shallow, stained lake with scattered cabbage beds, bars that rise to within a few feet of the surface and an abundance of forage in the form of suckers or perch. To other anglers, classic Esox waters are deep, clear lakes with steep dropoffs, few weeds and a forage base of ciscoes.
These two profiles describe very different lakes, with very different challenges and opportunities. Muskies inhabit them both, but to catch "toothers" consistently on each, you must adapt your fishing style to the water at hand, and often to the time of year.
Here is a look at a handful of Wisconsin lakes that fit each description, and how you should go about fishing them.
The typical shallow muskie lake has enough structure in 10 feet of water or less to hold both muskies and forage species. Many shallow lakes are manmade stump-studded flowages, with subtle depth changes along old river channels and boggy shorelines broken by frequent bays and inlets. Muskies are likely to be anywhere they can find good cover and food. Cast bucktails, topwaters and other shallow-running lures over weedflats, bars and channels, and you can expect jarring strikes at any time.
Bayfield County's Lake Namekagon, at 3,200 acres, consists of four lake basins connected by channels, with a dam on the west side and an outlet to the Namekagon River. Although the lake drops to 50 feet in places, much of it is shallow. The muskies here are generally found in 4 to 8 feet of water, where structure in the form of bars, weedbeds and an irregular shoreline abounds.
Guide Bruce Shumway said there is always a quiet place to fish here because the lake has so many bays and points. Most of its 44-mile shoreline is bordered by good weedbeds, so muskies can be anywhere. And regardless of wind direction, you can almost always find a good drift.
"Sometimes muskies here want wood, and sometimes they want hair," said Shumway, who has designed several effective muskie lures, including the Bootail and Funky Chicken.
Shumway usually starts fishing big jerkbaits in June while concentrating on the shallow bays of Garden Lake that warm early and sport the first weedbeds. Later, he switches to smaller jerkbaits, twitchbaits and bucktails. By midsummer, topwaters and shallow-running buzzbaits are hot. In the fall, big jerkbaits work great, and live suckers on quick-strike rigs catch fish. Color and sound make a difference in this stained water. Go with bright orange, chartreuse and other high-visibility colors, and noisy surface baits of any color.
Numerous resorts -- including the classy Lakewoods -- serve the lake, and there are several public landings.
Contacts: Cable Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-533-7454, or www.cable4fun.com; Shumway Guide Service, (715) 798-3441, or www.shumwaysmusky.com.
Lac Vieux Desert
Located on the border of Wisconsin's Vilas County and Upper Michigan's Gogebic County, Lac Vieux Desert covers some 4,300 acres of prime muskie water. Stained and fertile with vast weedbeds, this lake is full of big perch and walleyes, which serve to fatten up the big predators here. Lac Vieux Desert has produced pure muskies over 40 pounds, and world-record tiger muskies topping 50 pounds.
The season here opens on the first Saturday in May -- one of the features of being a border lake -- and action remains good all season long. Small spinnerbaits are good in early May. Later, shallow-running crankbaits and twitchbaits work well over the weedtops. In midsummer, work deep weed edges with bigger bucktails, or toss noisy topwaters at night.
George Langley of Eagle Sports Center in Eagle River said row-trolling can be an effective technique here, as long as you stick to baits that run shallow enough to avoid fouling in weeds.
Contact: Vilas County Advertising Department, (715) 479-3648, or www.co.vilas.wi.us; Eagle Sports Center, (715) 479-8804, or www.eaglesportscenter.com.
Lost Land & Teal Lakes
Known as the "quiet lakes," Lost Land (1,300 acres) and Teal (1,050 acres) in Sawyer County are often considered as one flowage because there is a navigable channel connecting them. Similar in size, depth and other characteristics, both are fertile, stained and weedy. Fishing pressure and boat traffic are light on both lakes because a local ordinance prohibits water-skiing, and it limits all boats to 10 mph.
These are good "action" lakes, with fish up to 25 pounds or so, but few really big trophies. Dick Thearin, who operates Northland Lodge on Lost Land, said the muskie action is good all season long.
Lost Land is a little clearer than Teal, so its weeds grow to a greater depth. In summer, it becomes one vast weedbed. Start the season with small bucktails and twitchbaits. On bright days, try bright colors, and switch to neutral colors on overcast days. Topwaters can be great over deep weeds on bright, sunny days. When fishing big weedflats, concentrate on places where cabbage and coontail meet, and other transitions like edges and dropoffs.
Teal's darker water means you should fish shallower, and there is more structure here in the form of rocky bars and humps. Try the weedy bays in spring and offshore humps in summer. Teal is especially good in late summer and early fall when muskies move into shallower coontail patches.
Contacts: Northland Lodge, (715) 462-3379, www.northlandlodge.net; Happy Hooker Bait & Tackle, (715) 462-3984, www.haywardlakes.com/happyhooker.
Madison's Lake Wingra has a muskie problem -- there are just too darned many of them! If you know a youngster or a friend who just wants to catch a muskie, this is the lake to take him or her.
At only 345 acres, Wingra is the baby of the Madison Chain. It is also fairly shallow, with a ma
ximum depth of 21 feet. By early summer, Wingra becomes choked with weeds, but you can fish over the weedtops and in open pockets within the weeds.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Kurt Welke said the lake has at least four adult muskies per acre, which is about four times what a good Esox lake should have.
"We'd like to see fish with a little more heft for their length," said Welke, who has reduced stocking numbers to try to get the population back down to a more manageable two per acre.
Trolling is legal here, and one strange but effective technique is to speed-troll a bucktail or shallow-running crankbait right in the prop wash. Conventional casting of spinnerbaits, topwaters and bucktails also produces. I have yet to fish the lake without at least seeing a fish.
The city of Madison operates a landing in Wingra Park on the north shore. A city ordinance limits boats to slow no-wake speeds, and no motors are permitted on weekends, so you won't have a lot of interference from pleasure boaters, despite the urban setting.
Contact: D&S Bait, Tackle & Archery, (608) 241-4225, or www.dsbait.com.
It's harder to find a strictly deep lake in Wisconsin because most deep lakes have at least some shallow structure. Most deep muskie lakes, however, have clear water, limited vegetation, sharp dropoffs, a definite summer thermocline and a good population of ciscoes. Almost all are natural lakes, and most are located in the northwoods. They tend to harbor fewer but larger muskies, which hang out over deep structure or suspend in the middle of the lake where they can pick off a meal of ciscoes whenever they feel like it.
Such a lake is not as easy to fish as a shallow lake where you can cast to visible weeds or stumps and have a hope of seeing a fish. On deep lakes, you rely on maps, electronics and plenty of luck to locate fish. Catching them is another matter. Jigging heavy blade baits is one trick that works. Trolling deep-diving crankbaits, where legal, is another. Row-trolling for suspended fish is a third.
Middle & Upper Eau Claire Lakes
Although he fished all over our state, legendary outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie built a cabin on Middle Eau Claire Lake in Bayfield County. MacQuarrie probably did more duck hunting here than muskie fishing, but he no doubt knew of the 70-pounder caught by Robert Malo here in 1954. That fish would have been recognized as the official world record, but it was not weighed on a certified scale. Today's muskie hunters are not as careless!
Each lake covers just less than 1,000 acres. Upper Eau Claire's clear water and sheer dropoffs make it a challenge to fish. Most anglers ignore the deep-water muskies and simply work the weedflats in the big bay at the southwest end or the hump that comes up out of 20 feet just north of the large peninsula that juts out from the west shore.
Middle Eau Claire's more gradual dropoffs are easier to fish, and you can always fall back on the mid-lake hump that you can find even without electronics. The southeast bay has good weeds and holds some muskies most of the season.
Motor trolling is legal here, and trolling deep-diving crankbaits like a Depth Raider or Bagley is one way to reach the deep fish. A more effective way, especially in fall, is to locate schools of ciscoes and jig above them with blade baits like a Cicada or Bruce Shumway's Fuzzy Duzzit.
Fishing a blade bait is easy, even if it is a little monotonous. Drop it to the desired depth, pump it up, let it flutter back down, and slam home the hooks if you feel it stop. When you jig a 1/2-ounce lure 35 feet down in 50 feet of water and it suddenly stops dead, there is a split-second when you say, "Rats, snag." Then you snap to reality, "No, that's a fish!" This technique is lethal in fall when ciscoes bunch up before spawning and muskies feed voraciously before shutting down for the winter.
Contact: Jim's Bait, (715) 795-3150, or www.eauclairelakes.com/www.jimsbaitnconveniencestore.htm.
At over 3,800 acres, Trout Lake is one of Wisconsin's largest muskie waters, and one of the toughest to fish. Trout yields 40-pounders each season, and there are likely bigger fish here. Some folks even think a new world record is finning here.
Deep and clear, Trout consists of two basins, known locally as North Lake and South Lake. North has a few weedbeds that produce muskies in the spring on bucktails. Most of the lake is over 20 feet deep, however, and most big muskies skedaddle to deep water by early summer, where they patrol the thermocline for suspended schools of ciscoes.
Some anglers get down to these fish by row-trolling with deep-diving crankbaits. A row-troller is a specialized boat, usually made of wood, that one angler can row comfortably. With your rods secured in holders, you simply row at a steady pace and hope a fish grabs your crankbait. If not, your arms and abs get a good workout. The steep dropoff along the east side of North Lake is one good spot to row-troll. Another is a similar stretch of steep drops on the east shore of South Lake.
Contact: Boulder Junction Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-GO MUSKY, or www.boulderjct.org.
If you are looking for a real challenge, head for 3,054-acre Round Lake in Sawyer County and try to catch a muskie in a half-day of fishing. Deep, clear and infertile, Round is one of the toughest lakes to fish, according to Hayward-area guide Pete Maina. But Maina is one of the few anglers who regularly catch fish over 30 pounds here. He may not admit it, but a substantial number of the trophy muskies you see on the cover of this magazine were caught by Maina or his guided clients on Round Lake.
"I work the weedbeds and shallow structure early in the season," Maina said. "But by summer, I'm out over deep water looking for suspended fish."
The lake's deepwater gravel bars, like Sandy and Dugans, produce muskies in summer. Maina likes heavy bucktails, such as a Mepps Muskie Killer, or a 3/4-ounce jig tipped with a live sucker. Maina also fishes for muskies at night here in the summer when he uses topwaters right on top of shallow, rocky bars, and crankbaits and bucktails over deep water. In fall, he jigs a Fuzzy Duzzit with a 3-inch minnow on the back treble.
Round is one lake where the nastier the weather, the better the fishing is because of the high visibility during fair weather. Motor trolling is legal here, but you will need deep divers or wire line to get down to the fish.
Contact: Hayward Chamber of Commerce, (715) 634-8662, or www.haywardareachamber.com.
At 3,392 acres, "Big Tom" --
as the local folks call it -- is an imposing lake to master. This is the site of the annual World Muskie Hunt, along with sister lakes Minocqua and Kawaguesaga. They offer anglers a formidable challenge to newcomer and veteran alike. Most of Tomahawk Lake is over 20 feet deep, and there is an abundance of structure, both deep and mid-depth. That makes it hard to decide where to even start fishing.
My first venture out on Big Tom was during the 2002 World Muskie Hunt, which is an invitational event. Participants can compete only once, after which they may return as a "past hunter." I was fishing with Don Herr, who caught a 44-incher on a Herr-Tail bucktail over a deep-water bar. It turned out to be the biggest fish of the tournament that year, netting Herr a trophy and a replica mount by ace taxidermist Joe Fittante of Antigo.
A year later, I returned as a past hunter and was roped into guiding when another guide couldn't make it. In two days of fishing Big Tom, "Kawa" and Minocqua, my anglers landed two short fish -- which kept the skunk out of my boat, but I didn't really earn the guide's jacket they gave me.
Russ Smith, guide and designer of Smity Baits, said deep-diving crankbaits work well here from July through November when muskies feed on ciscoes. Row-trolling with live suckers is another popular technique, but don't let them swallow the hook!
Three good landings serve the lake, and Big Tom is also accessible via a channel from Lake Minocqua. If you go alone, take a good lake map. There is plenty of competition on the Minocqua Chain from other anglers, and a good deal of recreational boat traffic all summer long.
Contact: Minocqua Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-44-NORTH, or www.minocqua.org.
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There are at least a dozen other waters I wish we had room to explore here, including shallow gems such as Palmer and Tenderfoot, and most of the Eagle River Chain and the Three Lakes Chain. Among the deep lakes we had to skip are Grindstone, Plum, Star and North Twin. Then there are the lakes that defy classification, having both shallow and deep basins, such as Upper and Lower Buckatabon lakes and Pewaukee Lake. To top it off, there is the Chippewa Flowage, which deserves a book of its own.
If you learned anything here, I hope it's that you'll find muskies both shallow and deep, and that conditions and the type of lake should dictate your approach. Match those well and you'll find yourself in a lot more grip-and-grin photo opportunities this season.
Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com