Fishermen spend countless hours throwing big lures in hopes of hooking a big muskie. Some go to bed at night dreaming of the sharp teeth that line a muskie’s jaw.
Others wake up the next morning finding themselves on Kinkaid Lake, pursuing the fish known as “the fish of 10,000 casts.”
It might, indeed, take several throws of your lure before you hook a muskie anywhere, but I’m betting it takes fewer casts to hook a muskie at Kincaid Lake in southern Illinois than anywhere else. And when you fish Kinkaid Lake for muskies, you’ll likely hook several of them in a single day.
Kincaid’s 2,750 surface acres mask one of the top muskie lakes in the country. Located off State Route 149, just 3 miles northwest of Murphrysboro in Jackson County, Kincaid annually produces plenty of muskies longer than 40 inches. The 2017 spring survey completed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources collected 112 muskies that topped out at 46.3 inches long.
But before you begin fishing, find a lake map and read the lake’s depth markings and contour lines for focusing your efforts to match the season. You’ll save yourself precious time for casting. Muskies are travelers, especially during spring when the water temperature increases during the day and falls again in the evening. During this period, pay special attention to areas where deep water is close to shallow water where muskies often feed in the warming shallows before returning to deep water to rest.
When the water temperature is right, muskies, like bass, hold tight to terrain differences and cover. Anything that looks different from the surrounding waters should be examined with your lure. Stumps, cattails, tumbled trees and the edges of a weedbed often hold fish. Late in the morning, water is often warmer along shorelines, where baitfish gather to spawn, and shallow water with vegetation, points; and visible weedlines is better than open, shallow water. Live, healthy and green vegetation holds muskies better than dead vegetation. Healthy weeds produce oxygen, which attracts baitfish, which attract muskies that often lurk along the inside or outside edge of the weeds, ready to ambush anything that swims by.
GETTING WARMED UP
No one likes taking a muskie on top more than me, and I’m likely to taunt spring muskies too early with a topwater lure before Kinkaid’s muskies grow aggressive enough to attack a topwater lure. The action gets hot when the water warms to near 60 degrees.
In the first few weeks of the season, when water temperatures are still rather cool, small crankbaits and bucktail spinners — “small” for muskies mean lures in the 6- to 8-inch range — can turn a fish. As temperatures warm up, slowly increase the size of the baits you are fishing. Large spinnerbaits, bucktails, jerkbaits, full-sized crankbaits and spoons are all good choices.
Muskies that follow a larger lure but don’t strike can often be enticed with a small swimbait on the next cast. One of the best among Kinkaid’s frequent anglers is a 51/2-inch Sucker Bait by LIVETARGET.
Mornings and evenings are the best times to throw your big lures. Cast ‘em for a while, then cast ‘em some more. Muskie fishing rewards persistence. Cover all the possible muskie hiding spots before moving to the next spot. Make multiple casts over really prime water, and don’t spend a lot of time switching lures.
And hold confidence in your lure choice. You likely won’t catch a muskie on a lure you don’t think is right for muskies.
TAKE ’EM ON TOP
Until you have tried fishing for and catching one on the surface, you won’t fully understand the excitement of muskie fishing on Kinkaid Lake. When the water explodes around your lure, your heart might just skip a beat or two.
Casting surface lures for Kinkaid’s springtime muskies means focusing your attention on shallow water. You could luck into a muskie throwing topwater lures anywhere on Kinkaid, but the best sites are found in shallow water — anything from the shoreline shallows to water 10 feet deep. Buzzard Point and Thompson Neck are especially good along the break-lines, and the stumps and laydowns. Choose topwater lures that produce a lot of sound but beware that the sound a lure produces can be effective at one site, while it delivers little action elsewhere. Try several lures — the Awaker and Jackpot by Poe’s, the Smity Scuttle Bug and the Smity Sputter Bug all catch muskies on this lake. You’ll know when you find the right one.
No matter which topwater lure you choose, plan under most conditions to retrieve it at medium speed. Muskies are aggressive enough to smash most any lure that mimics struggling prey, escaping prey or prey unaware that danger lurks nearby. When fishing is slow, consider changing your lure but also consider changing the speed of your retrieve — slower or faster — throughout the length of the retrieve; or produce faster and slower segments of your retrieve to create an “unexpected” change of speed in the lure that can draw a muskie’s attack.
When the wind is nigh, lures don’t need to be as “splashy” as at other times. Select lures that produce relatively light commotion and reduce the speed of the retrieve. Some of the lures that retrieve best at any speed include Mepps bucktail spinners, Husky Tail by Yakima and big Rapalas stickbaits.
If you choose a day for topwater fishing when a weather front is approaching, pay special attention to what is likely to be growing wind. Use it to drift noiselessly across Kinkaid’s large, shallow bays and the backside of Cochran Bay, which is loaded with stumps. Try large, inline spinners in black-and-gold patterns.
A change in weather also brings Kinkaid’s muskie fishermen to the big lake’s wind-blown islands and points, such as Raymond Neck. Just outside Levan Neck, an old roadbed extends almost to the opposite shore. Work the stumps and old, submerged foundations with loud lures below the surface, such as big jerkbaits from LIVETARGET. Increase your retrieval speed to improve the profile of the lures against the choppy surface.
Topwater action on the midnight shift also produces muskies at Kinkaid. The same areas that produce fish in daylight can be good spots at night. And check out the sandy, public swimming areas that are all but impossible to fish during the day. Once the water column calms down behind the swimmers, muskies often roam these sites for baitfish that move into the evening’s calmed waters that have warmed during the day.
Keep your hooks sharp to increase your hook-setting success on muskies. Carry a file in your tackle box for on-the-the-water touch-ups.
- The Figure 8 — At the end of each retrieve, with about a foot of line remaining between the rod tip and the lure, plunge the rod tip into the water and pull the lure in a large figure 8 pattern. Many fishermen say their biggest muskies are caught using the figure 8 motion. For sure, a boat-side strike on a figure 8 will be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your fishing life.
- Lure Color — When you are in doubt about what color lure to use, go for black. The dark silhouette of a black lure running through the water against the relatively light background of the sky is easy for a muskie to get a bead on. Black is also easy for anglers to see. Deviate only when the water is very muddy or stained, selecting the lure of your choice in any bright hue.
- Retrieve — One of the biggest mistakes a muskie angler can make is slowing down the retrieve of a lure when a fish is following it. Keep the retrieve speed steady or slightly speed up the retrieve to entice a strike. If the bait is near the boat and the fish has not yet hit the lure, be ready to run it in the figure 8 pattern at boat side until the fish strikes or swims away.
- Hook-Set — Do not set the hook on sight alone. When you see a big fish erupt under your lure or torpedo it, it is very easy to get excited and set the hook before the fish turns with it. Muskie’s are eating machines. Show some patience. Allow the muskie to hold the lure in its mouth before you set the hook.
IF YOU GO
Kinkaid Lake features 82 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 80 feet. Six public boat launches provide access, and a 3-mile-long no wake zone is in place at the northwest portion of the lake.
Muskies are stocked annually at Kinkaid and many are caught each year in excess of 40 inches. Anglers who report tagged fish to IDNR fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst (phone: 618-687-4546 or email: Shawn.Hirst@illinois.gov) will receive information on the history of that fish. If the tag number is covered with algae, simply remove the algae with your fingernail or a knife and record the tag number (five digits), the length of the fish and the date of the catch. IDNR requests that you do not remove the tag when you release the fish.
IDNR also encourages Kinkaid Lake anglers not to fish for muskies in the warmer summer months, when angling-related mortality is believed to be very high, especially for larger fish.