When most people think of muskie fishing in our state, they tend to think of the northwoods. But there are plenty of muskies downstate, too. Give these waters a try.
By Ted Peck
The muskie is Wisconsin's state fish for essentially two reasons. No other piscator has done more for our economy than Esox masquinongy, a major drawing card for northwoods coffers for decades.
But thanks to serious work by many muskie clubs, there are plenty of "toothers" swimming downstate these days, too. And when somebody lands a whopper, the news quickly resonates through our state - especially when the fish comes out of heavily pressured downstate waters.
But there is much more to muskie fishing than hooking up and being fortunate enough to lead a big muskie to boatside for a quick photo and careful release. The other reason the primary impetus behind "state fish" designation lies in the visual nature of this critter. Unlike sightings of Elvis or Sasquatch, muskie sightings are something you can experience on a daily basis here - provided you spend time on the water, of course. Even a 40-incher that charges a bucktail hard to the boat only to put on the brakes and slowly skulk out of sight has a way of haunting your thoughts for days after the encounter.
Imagine 22 muskies within casting distance, all visible pretty much from one vantage point. Some were 30-inchers, some were 4 feet long - all just finning and sunning in less than 5 feet of water. Guide Ron Barefield showed me this spectacle shortly after opening day last May on Madison's Lake Monona, where the fish were gathered in the warmest water they could find. After about a bazillion casts, a 36-incher finally gernipped a No. 5 Mepps purple bucktail - the weapon of choice on the Madison Chain. With all the lakes in this state, you don't need three guesses to figure out where this writer will be on the first Saturday in May. Those northwoods toothers can wait until summer gets here.
There are plenty of muskies within an hour's drive of 80 percent of Wisconsin's population. Here's a look at your best bets downstate.
Photo by Mike Bleech
MADISON CHAIN Lake Wingra, in the shadow of the Henry Vilas Zoo, can be fished in just a couple of hours. Muskies here have seen every lure in every color, but sooner or later, they've gotta eat. And there are good numbers of upper-30- to lower-40-inch fish present.
Wingra offers your shortest odds in seeing a muskie on the Madison Chain, with fertile Waubesa at the south end of this chain of natural lakes offering the best chances for hooking up. And both Monona and Mendota hold the greatest potential for producing a wallhanger. The dishpan-shaped Kegonsa has fish, too, with your high-percentage spots around the big midlake rockpile and off of the long tapering point off of Sugarbush.
If you just want to catch a muskie, target the south end of Waubesa along the 10-foot weedline out from the Goodland Park launch, or launch at Babcock Park and work the weeds north once you get through the channel to the main lake.
Bigger fish on Mendota relate to developing weed edges right now, taking up station on the lake's many bars near deeper water by about June 1. Weeds are also the key on Monona, especially early in the season. There is a beautiful weedbed right out from where the Yahara River joins this lake with Mendota, which is home to a mid-50-inch fish. Just because she swam away with a 7-inch purple Berkley Power Worm once doesn't mean she'll do it again.
Minnow twitch baits work well here right now. But if there is one go-to lure for muskies on the Madison Chain, it's a No. 5 Mepps with purple hair from now until darn near freeze-up - especially after the second major cold front of fall, when they jump all over this bait when you cast the 10-foot weed contour.
CONTACTS: Madison Chamber of Commerce, (608) 256-8348; guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
PEWAUKEE LAKE From a purely statistical standpoint, this 2,400-acre Waukesha County lake is probably the best muskie fishery in the entire state.
Muskie growth here exceeds state averages, with a mean average of 37 inches for adult females and 33 inches for adult males. Pewaukee also leads state averages in adult muskies per surface acre at .52, with the very best Class A northwoods counterparts checking in at about .33.
Big fish are here as well, with some approaching 50 inches caught and released by both anglers and Department of Natural Resources survey crews just about every year. These statistics aren't lost on Wisconsin's muskie fraternity, with Pewaukee on the short list of fishing destinations by Esox "hooks" living within 100 miles of this metro Milwaukee lake.
Pewaukee muskies probably see as much pressure per surface acre as the fish swimming in Madison's Lake Wingra. This crown jewel out of more than 100 Waukesha County lakes is easy to figure out.
Essentially, the east end is one big shallow weedflat with a couple of rocky bars, an island and a good transition area off of Rocky Point. Since shallower water warms more quickly, the east end is a likely spot for kicking off opening day. Get in line with the flotilla of boats drifting and casting Taylor's Bay. Or head to the deeper west end where working deep weed edges really pays off once serious summer arrives.
There is so much pressure here on opening weekend that once you launch at Naga-Waukee County Park on the west end and motor toward the closest weed edge, the weeds will be well developed by the time the parade of boats lets you make the first cast about June 10. But it's all a matter of perspective. If you're comfortable with cruising down Interstate 94 during the evening rush hour, boat traffic and fishing pressure aren't all that bad. With a couple of Burts, a couple of Ernies, a Top Raider and a Crazy Crawler, you're a serious player in the big-fish lottery. And like the lottery, you aren't in it alone.
CONTACTS: Smokey's Bait Shop, (262) 691-0360, in the town of Pewaukee on Park Avenue, or Smokey's, (262) 691-9659, near the public boat launch.
OKAUCHEE LAKE This Waukesha County muskie water only has about half the fishing pressure of nearby Pewaukee. But then, at 1,200 acres, it's only half as large.
Structure-wise, Okauchee is a pretty neat lake - a lot of humps, steep breaks, transition zones, and nice weeds with good weed edges. If there is a major key to success here, it lies in thinking like a bass angler.
On opening day, all you need here are three lures - a Jake, a small bucktail and a Lindy Tiger Tube, probably the best "throwback" bait out there, once you move a fish.
No need to change baits once summer arrives, or fall for that matter. Muskies here know what muskie lures are. If you downsize and dress like a bass or walleye angler, you'll catch more fish. Better yet, pretend to be a panfish angler, especially right now. Muskies are hanging close to the panfish that are moving close to shore in preparation for spawning.
CONTACT: Dick Smith's Live Bait & Tackle, (262) 646-2218.
GREEN BAY With a good seven months or so before the Packers get to the playoffs again, folks who live near Titletown have time to concentrate on fishing the lower bay and the Fox River up to the De Pere Dam some seven miles and seven bridges away.
Although the Fox is very polluted and will likely remain so until the Bears win another Super Bowl, the fishery here is one of the best in the Midwest. Big walleyes that move up the river every spring and fall are no longer a secret. Neither is the smallmouth bass population, which is replacing freshwater drum as the critter most likely to stretch your string in these off-colored waters. And then there are the Great Lakes-strain spotted muskies - still a surprise, but not so much by mistake anymore.
Like the walleyes, muskies tend to move up into the Fox both spring and fall. If we have a cool spring this year like we did in 2002, the fish may still be hanging here in fair numbers by the opener in late May.
The key to fishing for muskies in the Fox River lies in following the forage that tends to relate to bridges and structure nearby, and several discharge points that enter the lake.
Probably the most exciting spot in the entire system is fishing the discharge across from the boat ramp at the river's confluence with Green Bay. When the presence of birds indicates shad are stacked here, fishing is a multi-species operation. You're liable to catch everything from sheepshead to salmon, white bass to walleyes - and the Grand Dragon of All Predators, the muskie.
By mid-June these fish slide out into the vastness of Green Bay, where you can still find success around the islands. Leave the natural stuff in the tackle box. Using obnoxious fluorescent colors is the only way to go.
October and November are the best months to fish. When muskies come in from the bay they are very fat, and you'll have an honest shot at hooking up with a 50-incher somewhere between the power-plant discharge at the mouth and at the De Pere Dam.
CONTACTS: Guide Brian Bliske, (920) 429-0934; Bob's Bait & Tackle, 1-800-447-2312.
TWO SOUTHWEST JEWELS Get an hour west of Madison and the landscape takes on a definite riverine quality that is driven by the mighty Mississippi. Two state park lakes in Lafayette and Iowa counties get very little attention from muskie anglers. But both are definitely worth a serious look if you happen to be over on the hills and hollows hunting morel mushrooms this month.
Yellowstone Lake in the state park of the same name is near the headwaters of the Pecatonica River, which flows southeast for about 70 miles before joining the Rock River south of Beloit for an eventual union with the Mississippi River.
This northeast Lafayette County lake is an old one, perpetually troubled with siltation, and better known as a haven for bullheads and carp than a muskie fishery - even though the DNR regularly stocks these 455 acres at the rate of two muskies per acre.
As is the case in many drainage lakes, many of the smaller fish get washed over the dam and into the river, where the tailwater action can be unbelievable. But if you're looking for something bigger than mid-30-inch fish, probe the timber and coves of Yellowstone Lake.
On Yellowstone, you won't see her coming. But fish over 50 inches that seldom see a muskie bait are swimming in Yellowstone's off-colored waters. Savvy anglers say if you could pick just one lure to throw here it would be a topwater bait retrieved at a steady, predictable pace. Buzzbaits are a good choice. Yellowstone's muskies have adapted to feeding by vibration more than sight. This is one lake where hitting the water at noon on a sunny day works to your advantage. Be aware that Yellowstone enforces catch-and-release of all game fish.
Waters in 150-acre Twin Valley Lake are decidedly clearer, with this scenic water providing a terrific backdrop to Governor Dodge State Park. A 40-inch size limit is in effect for both northern pike and muskies swimming here, with most fish hooked below legal size. However, if you're looking for a place for a youngster to tangle with a mid-30-inch toother, there is no better place to get the string stretched.
If you had to pick just one lure to throw on these waters, an orange/black Jake is pretty hard to beat. An encounter with two pike and muskies here this time last year left one of my favorite Jakes looking like it had been dropped down a garbage disposal.
CONTACTS: Governor Dodge State Park, (608) 935-2315; Yellowstone Lake State Park, (608) 523-4427.
LITTLE GREEN LAKE The smaller of two waters that are Green Lake County namesakes has had a muskie-producing reputation for over 30 years. Both pure and hybrid strains of muskies swim in these 466 acres, with good numbers of fat upper-40-inch fish present.
Think of Little Green as a donut, ringed by a shallow flat, that slides into about 13 feet of water with a 28-foot hole in the middle. Right now almost every muskie is working the shallow-water edges of the donut, particularly those places that hold some weeds that grow quickly once the lake begins to warm.
The hottest bait here right now may be a Mepps Black Fury Giant Killer bucktail, with a Lindy Tiger Tube in copper hues ready to go if a fish moves but doesn't want to eat.
Both Big and Little Green lakes see phenomenal recreational use once the weather gets nice. Get out there during the week between now and Memorial Day for a quality fishing experience.
There are three free and several private boat launches on the lake, with plenty of lodging and dining amenities nearby.
CONTACT: Radtke Bait & Tackle, (920) 398-2620.
DELAVAN LAKE This Walworth County lake also sees incredible recreational use once Memorial Day arrives.
According to DNR biologist Doug Welch, muskies receive very little species-specific angling pressure on Delavan, which gets stocked with advanced muskie fingerlings on a regular basis.
On opening day you want to target the shallows off of Willow Point and Brown's Channel, and the steep, rocky breakline out from Cedar Point. Motor trolling is permitted and is a great way to get hooked up, especially during late autumn. Right now a combination of stick baits and small bucktails - or better yet, a live sucker - is your best bet.
CONTACTS: Delavan Chamber of Commerce, (262) 728-5095; Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150.
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So before you head north this summer, get a little practice in on these downstate waters. The muskies are out there!
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