September 30, 2010
Let's face it, a muskie is a muskie no matter where you catch it. So why not give these downstate waters a shot?
By Ted Peck
The perpetual hum of traffic certainly doesn't have the same appeal as mystic loon music common on Wisconsin's north-country waters. But all aesthetics are forgotten when a big muskie decides to rock your world when you are fishing a southern Wisconsin lake.
Here's a look at some of our best muskie options downstate when it's finally time to quit sharpening hooks and hit the water.
THE GREEN LAKES Our state's deepest inland lake and its "little brother" just down the road have long-standing reputations as muskie fisheries.
Both true and hybrid muskies swim in 466-acre Little Green Lake, with a good representation of 40-inch-plus fish cruising here. Right now most of Little Green's muskie biomass is prowling between the 13-foot breakline and shallower weedy flats that are tremendous early-season muskie magnets. Little Green warms much quicker than Big Green Lake, with weeds - especially on the lake's north side - a good place to start casting bucktails and twitchbaits when the season opens.
On Big Green Lake the need to target shallower water is even more pronounced. Although Big Green is a much larger body of water, muskie anglers can write off its deeper reaches pretty much all season. Shallower waters - with the accent on weeds and wood - is where you want to fish now.
When Memorial Day ushers in the official arrival of summer, both of these Green Lake County waters become a tourist mecca. The next several weeks offer both the best muskie action and aesthetically pleasing environment that is more laid back than you'll find in the Madison lakes or waters of Waukesha County.
Contacts: Radtke Bait & Tackle, (920) 398-2620; guide Mike Norton, (920) 295-3617; Green Lake Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-253-7354.
Photo by Pete Maina
THE MADISON CHAIN These natural lakes that surround our capitol city are full of muskies, with these fish seeing only moderate pressure on all waters except tiny Lake Wingra in the shadow of the Vilas Park Zoo. A few years back these sheltered waters produced its first known 50-inch muskie, with several more fish of these dimensions finding hooks since then. Wingra's size makes it possible to probe almost all potential muskie haunts with just a couple hours of casting.
If you keep a bait in the water, seeing a muskie is almost certain, with a great population of mid-30-inch fish present per surface acre and larger fish in the system. However, even smaller "toothers" are well educated in the ways of muskie anglers, with virtually every fish making several visits to the cradle net by the time they reach 40 inches.
Fish on the fertile Waubesa often thrill you right at the boat, with a good game plan both now and again in October simply following the 12-foot weed contour, working a bucktail over the submergent weedtops. The best muskie lure on the Madison Chain is a purple-tailed Mepps Giant Killer.
The weedflats out down from the railroad tracks at Waubesa's north end usually hold active fish, with the creek channel edges attracting fish on the move from the trestle out several hundred yards into the lake.
Later in the season, the deep edges of the hump out from the Green Lantern attract muskies, as does the steep break out from Rockford Heights at the north end of the little island out from the Babcock Park boat ramp. It takes several hours to probe the deep weed edge between the Babcock Park and Goodland Park boat launches, with fish liable to be anywhere along this drift right now. Once serious summer arrives look for holes in the weed growth that may indicate the presence of springs in shallow water. Several are fish magnets year-round.
Most muskies hooked on Lake Kegonsa come while folks are chasing other species around the midlake rockpile, the long-tapering edge out from Sugarbush Point or the deep weedline between Quam Point and Colladay Point where muskies dog movements of this lake's perch population all summer long.
The bigger lakes - Monona and Mendota - tend to produce larger fish. Depending on water temperatures come opening day the best place on the entire chain might be out from the warmwater discharge off of John Nolan Drive on Monona. Two years ago the weather kept lakes from warming, and muskies were stacked here literally like cordwood. From one vantage point, guide Ron Barefield and I could watch over 20 muskies in all sizes. These fish were simply sunning themselves, with the only hope for hooking up being a lure like the Lindy Tiger Tube. This giant tube jig is a good "throwback" bait to keep rigged and ready when sight-fishing pensive muskies.
Once spring sunshine moderates water temperatures these fish fan out to cruise points and developing weed edges, with the big weedbed out from the channel that connects Monona to Mendota, and points and edges out from Squaw Bay both good spots to probe.
Mendota has a lot of humps and bars in these nearly 10,000 acres. Dunn's Bar, Commodore Bar, weed edges out from the Governor's mansion, the good edge out from the Tenney Park locks, the deep break out from Picnic Point, edges of Second Point - just too much water for a single day's fishing.
Besides a solid muskie population, Mendota holds many pike of respectable dimensions thanks to a 40-inch size limit in place for this Esox species. Although northerns are about as welcome to serious muskie anglers as sheephead at a walleye tournament, "snake" or "hammerhandle" aren't among the top 10 names these big greenies are called on Mendota.
Contacts: Madison Chamber of Commerce, (608) 256-8348; guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
WAUKESHA COUNTY LAKES Waukesha County is the epicenter of southern Wisconsin muskie fishing, with those who follow statistics able to make a good argument that Pewaukee Lake is our state's absolute best muskie lake. Okauchee Lake holds its own as a top muskie producer as well, even when included with legendary northwoods waters. Lac La Belle, Fowler and Oconomowoc lakes also hold good numbers of muskies, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Sue Beyler, with over 100 other lakes in the county holding other species to attract anglers.
An exceptional forage base and slightly longer growing season are two reasons why Pewaukee's muskies chart well above their counterparts elsewhere in the state regarding growth rates. DNR statistics indicate Pewaukee's muskies continue to grow w
ell after reaching the 34-inch legal size as well, with these waters giving up fish over 50 inches every year.
Pewaukee is sort of like the Madison area's Wingra on a much larger scale regarding fishing pressure. Right now and again after Labor Day you might be able to visit these waters and not have to wait in line at boat ramps located on both ends of the lake. During the summer months you simply take your place in line, casting your best stuff at prime habitat and dragging a sucker on a quick-strike rig behind the boat.
Okauchee is about half the size of Pewaukee at 1,200 acres, with two good launch facilities on the south side of the lake. There is plenty of structure in this multi-species lake, with panfish and walleyes both holding the key to muskie location. The easiest fishing is just a couple weeks away as bluegills move close to shore to spawn, with muskies nearby dogging their every move. This is a great place to throw that Lindy Tiger Tube, with a hopping retrieve just out from those moon-crater bluegill beds. A 3/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap in bluegill pattern with heavier hooks and split rings is another productive option.
Conventional wisdom says your shortest odds of getting hooked up are at dawn, dusk and ahead of an approaching weather system - using beefed up bass tackle rather than classic muskie gear. Okauchee muskies aren't impressed with "big wood." Go buy a 6-inch Jake, Tiger Tube, Hawg Wobbler and Mepps Giant Killer with a purple-hair tail and you can call yourself a serious muskie angler on this lake.
Contacts: Smokey's Bait Shop, (262) 691-0360; Dick Smith's Live Bait & Tackle, (262) 646-2218.
GREEN BAY The best way to catch muskies from the city of Green Bay north to the Menominee River is to first head out in pursuit of smallmouth bass or walleyes. With so much surface acreage in the vastness of Green Bay there is no wonder the Great Lakes spotted-strain and hybrid muskies swimming here are seen as a low-density population by the DNR.
"The muskie population is experiencing slow but steady growth in Green Bay," said DNR biologist Terry Lychwick. "Anglers have some success targeting muskies in the tributaries in the spring and shallows come fall, but these fish are pretty much a 'bonus' species at other times of year."
Stocking efforts are centered around reefs in southern Green Bay and in two major tributaries - the lower Fox River and Menominee at Marinette. The predator-prey relationship is a major key on getting hooked up on these fish. Big muskies are caught every spring and fall by walleye anglers in the seven miles of Fox River between the De Pere Dam and its confluence with Green Bay. If there is a short route to hooking up it's found in trolling large stick baits behind planer boards, especially out from the Fort Howard paper plant. You might also find fish following walleyes out on Geano's Reef.
Door County's shoreline is also worth probing for muskies, especially in the fall. There is a whopping beast of a fish swimming somewhere between Sawyer Harbor and the Sturgeon Bay end of Potawatomi State Park right now. Have you ever seen a 38-inch northern pike with a big bite taken out of its side? I have. Muskies also make an appearance in the Sturgeon Bay ship canal on a regular basis, especially along the channel edges where there are weeds that hold perch. Another high-percentage spot - especially in the fall - is south of Sturgeon Bay around Henderson Point.
The run of Menominee River between the Hattie Street Dam and this stained river's entry into Green Bay also holds fish, with best chances for getting hooked up in the spring and fall. Tributaries offer your highest odds for success on muskies in this system, especially when the tribs are seeing a migrational influx of prey species.
Fire-tiger and chartreuse hues work well in the rivers and south end of Green Bay, with silver/blue and black/silver color schemes more productive in the clear waters of the Door Peninsula. If I had to choose one lure to throw in waters of Door County for muskies it would be a large black tandem spinnerbait with orange blades and a white fliptail trailer, with a blue/silver Depth Raider or Ernie a close second choice.
Contacts: Bob's Bait & Tackle, 1-800-447-2312; Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, (920) 437-8704; Door County Chamber of Commerce, (920) 743-4456.
YELLOWSTONE LAKE This old manmade lake in northeast Lafayette County gets almost no attention from muskie anglers, in spite of the fact that these 400 acres are stocked regularly by the DNR at the rate of two fish per surface acre.
Muskies in Yellowstone don't follow rules of classic Esox behavior. Mid-afternoon and midmorning on a sunny day are the best times to be on the water that is somewhere between stained and downright muddy.
Since visibility is so poor, predators have learned to feed by methods other than sight, making loud, vibrating lures in obnoxious fluorescent hues the obvious choice. One of the best all-around weapons here is the basser's buzzbait - especially one with some kind of clacker.
If you're a muskie nut who gets almost as big a thrill out of "moving" a fish as hooking up, Yellowstone isn't for you. But if you're one of those folks who thrives on having the living daylights scared out of you at boatside, head for this state park lake, targeting timber and coves, and the shoreline along the dam. Be prepared to tangle with a 50-incher.
Contact: Yellowstone Lake State Park, (608) 935-2315.
TWIN VALLEY LAKE Twin Valley Lake is only 150 acres, nestled in the hills of Governor Dodge State Park in southwestern Wisconsin. These clear waters are a great place to get a youngster "hooked" on muskie fishing, with a lot of mid-30-inch pike and muskies cruising the shoreline.
With so many critters competing for food, not many fish reach the 40-inch minimum keeper length required for both species. However, the competition for food throws the old adage about these fish taking 10,000 casts to hook up goes right out the window.
Contact: Governor Dodge State Park, (608) 935-2315.
SILVER LAKE Come summer it is tough to cast between all the boats on this 500-acre recreational lake in Kenosha County south of Highway 50. But until Memorial Day and after Labor Day, Silver is a great place to get hooked up with muskies running from 30 to 38 inches in length.
Weeds are a major key to fish location here, with active fish often suspending off of the deep weedline. Probing obvious cover with a lure that can effectively cover the entire water column like Tom Fuller's SpitFire or an Amma Bamma is a better strategy than just pitching a bucktail willy-nilly at the shoreline. But if that is what you decide to do, try a black bucktail with an orange blade.
Silver Lake is literally a place you want to save for a rainy day, espe
cially once summer arrives. The lake is served by two excellent boat launches.
Contacts: Kenosha Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau, 1-800-654-7309; Jalensky's Sport & Marine, (262) 654-2260.
RANDOM LAKE Muskies turn on early in this shallow Sheboygan County lake, with half of it's 209 acres less than 4 feet deep. The shallow nature of this water and good shad forage base makes a big white spinnerbait a good choice, both in the shallows and bumping into this lake's considerable structure. Weeds are also present and well developed early in the season, with the east and south shores having considerable weed growth.
Contact: Riverfront Bait & Tackle, (920) 458-4406.
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Sure we all love going up to the northwoods, but why not enjoy some great muskie fishing close to home?
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