Minnesota's Muskie Magic

The fish of 10,000 casts is a worthy adversary, and there are plenty of great spots to pursue it in the North Star State.

Minnesota's Muskie Magic

A number of lakes across the state offer realistic chances at muskies approaching 50 inches or even longer. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Muskie fishing is big in the North Star State.

According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), approximately 14 percent of Minnesota’s 1.4 million angler’s fish for muskies. It represents one of the fastest-growing activities for the state’s fishing enthusiasts.

This type of fishing usually involves specialized equipment — heavy rods, fast-retrieve baitcast reels, a big net, bucktails, jerkbaits and topwater lures. Hitting the water with a veteran guide or experienced muskie angler is highly recommended.

Muskie fishing opens in June, and action ramps up in summer. Muskies also eat a lot in the fall. In general, peak times for success are when the moon rises and sets. To get going on the right foot, here are some high-caliber waters to try and expert tips from locals who have cracked the muskie code for these areas.


ST. LOUIS RIVER TWIN PORTS

Four sorts of muskies prowl the St. Louis: the Leech Lake strain, the Wisconsin strain, the Leech-Wisconsin cross and the tiger muskie — a northern pike/muskie hybrid. The DNR did a great job creating a blue ribbon St. Louis River muskie fishery. Plentiful 38- to 43-inch and even 50-inch-plus muskies are obtainable. Now, the challenge is sustaining it. The DNR is pondering a supplemental stocking of 2,500 Leech Lake-strain muskies every other year starting this year.


“Angling opportunities amass for muskie hunters in [this] section of the St. Louis River,” says Dustin Carlson, guide at Northland Muskie Adventures. Diverse and productive muskie habitat exists from the harbor 12 miles upstream to the dam at the foothills of Jay Cooke Park. This stretch offers a mix of fast- and slow-moving current, deep river channels, secluded rock ledges, weedy vegetation, occasional sand and grassflats and wood. In its stained waters, muskies are more likely to crunch noisy, flashy topwater lures retrieved over and along the cover. Carlson’s pet lures are Bucher’s Top Raiders, Lake X Cannonball Juniors and beaver-imitating muskie lures.

June finds the muskies scrounging for food. Many will be cozy to the new cabbage greens within Pokegama, Kimballs Bay and Spirit Lake.

In July and August, Carlson showers his lures on top of flats outlining the river channel. In the fall, he concentrates his fishing on the heavily feeding muskies prowling the lower end of the river and meandering shoreline.

“Muskie sulk in the cover on top of the shelf,” Carlson says. “Aim the cast so lures land with an obvious splash tight to the weeds and stumps.”


All season muskies pursue their food in obscure places along the 35-foot-deep river channel. Beyond the Duluth-Superior Harbor, Lake Superior is also a go-to for muskies feasting on a smorgasbord of forage, such as herring, trout, smelt and whitefish. Trolling Supernatural MattLocks or HeadLocks in whitefish or cisco patterns erratically behind the boat gets the muskies to strike. Before putting the boat away, fish the season’s last bite. Muskies lap up 14- to 18-inch suckers impaled on a quick set rig positioned 10 feet down in the gentler current flowing over the 15- to 25-foot breaks.

LAKE VERMILION

Vermilion is well known for its 50-inch-plus, rapidly growing, Leech Lake-strain muskies. They feed on the lake’senormous amount of forage to attain their large size, and serious anglers take on the challenge of tempting them into biting.

June finds muskies close to the shallow cabbage humps and on top of the sand located in Everett, Pike, Black, Norwegian, Wolf, Van Riper and Daisy Bays. In July and August, anglers should look to the wave-washed 6- to 8-foot mid-lake humps, as well as skinny water weedy spots in Frazer Bay. Deepwater shade nudging the shallow perimeter of the mid-lake structures also gets Carlson’s attention.


“I fool the muskie throwing black double cowgirls and topwater lures along the shaded edges,” Carlson says.

Fall finds muskies gorging on ciscoes hovering in the shadows of the deeper 10- to 25-foot rocky reefs. Troll or cast crankbaits along the lip and crossways on the threshold of the dropoffs. Frequent fishing pressure converts muskies to followers. Wind or weather changes make them bite. Return to areas where they came up for a peak to seal the deal when this happens.

CASS LAKE

This nearly 16,000-acre lake in Beltrami and Cass counties falls within both the Chippewa National Forest and the Leech Lake Reservation. It is a prime north-central muskie hotspot.

Bob Ehli, a veteran Cass Lake muskie angler says Cass is “big water laden with every component muskie like. Boulders, shallow weeds, submerged islands, flats and dropoffs.”

In June, Bob pursues muskies in tight to the shallow greens of Allen’s Bay. He typically casts and retrieves perch-colored Reef Hawg jerkbaits. A lazy side-to-side motion brings them up for a look. The big boil behind the jerkbait chugging on top signals the next bite.

Through July and August, Ehli’s focus is on Cass lake’s vast flats on the east side — O’Neil’s Point, Buck Lake, Dead Man’s, east Cedar Island and Strawberry Point. The 6- to 7-foot dips in the sandflats are crammed with vegetation and home to big muskies. Black bucktails pulled over the top gets them to bite.

Mid-August through October, with warm days and cold nights, muskies are prowling Cass Lake’s east shore sprawl of cane reeds. Ehli slugs it out fan-casting Northland’s Bionic Bucktail spinnerbait. Ehli suggests snipping off the treble trailer for easier retrieval through the cover.

In September, the north side of Star Island and Wishbone Bar in front of Wishbone Resort mutually pop for muskies amidst the shallow weeds. Hurling topwater prop baits and Mepps Giant Killers gets them to snap.

In late-September, Pike Bay receives Ehli’s total attention.

“Muskies navigate the 15- to 18-foot breakline that flirts with the deep water of Boathouse Bar,” Ehli says. He adds that the muskies will be “dilly-dallying on the transition from cabbage greens to coontail weeds.” Toss or troll flashy chrome magnum Rapala’s for good results. Always fluctuate speeds to get muskies biting.

PELICAN LAKE

This 3,986-acre lake located in northwestern Otter Tail County is part of a chain of lakes near Pelican Rapids, and it offers some good muskie habitat and a stable muskie population.

“The Pelican Chain of Lakes provide a good opportunity for anglers looking to catch a muskellunge in Minnesota,” says Jim Wolters, Minnesota DNR area fisheries supervisor. “While the density of muskellunge is on the lower side of management goals, these lakes provide great shallow habitat for muskellunge to feed.”

Brett Waldera, an avid muskie chaser agrees. He believes a “well-balanced population of fish in the 30- to the mid-50-inch range,” exists in Pelican Lake.

In June, Waldera locates post-spawn muskies feeding on ciscoes over 40 to 60 feet of water. In the trailing weeks of June, muskies relocate to the fresh weeds along the weedlines. He catches them casting Bulldawgs or trolling 10- to 13-inch chrome crankbaits.

In July and August, Waldera probes a well-developed, cabbage-rimmed, deep-water 20-foot breakline. Wind and wave action will push the fish shallow into 5 to 6 feet of water on top. Waldera likes to cast bucktails to cover lots of area during this time.

Moving into September, he fishes vast, shallow 2- to 6-foot flats. Windy shores are always his friend for success.Later, in October and November, Waldera slowly trolls or drifts live suckers on a quick set rig — one 6 and the other 10 feet down on the 17-foot breaklines. He’ll also troll 10- to 15-inch chrome or silver minnow-imitation lures close to bottom in 22 to 25 feet.

LAKE MILTONA

Travis Nielsen, of Hookup Guide Service, likes Miltona for a good shot at a 50- to 55-inch muskie, and for its abundant number of 45- to 49-inch fish. The 5,724-acre lake is located near the towns of Leaf Valley and Miltona and is the largest recreational lake in Douglas County.

In June, Nielsen uses his side-scan technology to home in on the gullible muskies hanging around tightly packed cisco schools suspended over 30 to 70 feet of water. Nielsen recommends casting Bulldawgs and fishing a pull-pause retrieve back to the boat. Musky Innovations Shallow Invaders and Musky Mayhem Trolling Girls in the motor’s prop wash is Nielsen’s favorite presentation. Let the lure back for a bit before winding it forward, vary speed, making slow, deliberate turns, tantalizing the muskies to maul it.

The second week of June finds muskies eating small perch and northern pike on Miltona flats and the 18- to 21-foot border walls of cabbage. Pitch and retrieve Muskie Mayhem’s bright gold, copper-copper and rainbow-coloredbucktails lengthways beside the weedline outward.

Nielsen says “engaging the bucktails’ blades” is a must. Once the lure hits the water, he suggests immediately engaging the reel and letting the lure fall “on a taut line.” He says to give the rod a “sharp pop and slowly reel in the bucktail fast enough where the blades spin to reach the desired depth.”

From September to freeze-up, he suggests muskies are attracted to deep remaining green weedy rims. Chubby-profile rolling-action baits like Musky Innovations’ Shallow Swimming Dog trolled or retrieved fast or slow can bring muskie strikes.

Once a muskie follows a lure. Half the conquest is over. Trigger bites with a pause; then, follow up with the figure eight to close the deal if needed.

FOX LAKE

The roughly 1,000-acre Fox Lake located near Sherburn in southwestern Minnesota has the right mix of ingredients for muskies. In fact, it’s one of only two lake systems in the Windom fisheries management area that offer muskie-fishing opportunities. The lake has soft-spine forage, such as buffalo fish, sheepshead, northern pike; water depth; and plenty of salad — all attractive things to big muskies. The most recent population estimate by the DNR indicates there are 241 adult muskies over 30 inches, and during a 2017 survey, the average length of muskies sampled was 42 inches.

Nielsen’s major focus is pounding shorelines with lures that make a lot of noise in the downed wood along the shore. Fishing gets tough in late-June through August. He recommends returning and fishing from September until ice-up.

Muskies loiter around the schools of food centrally located in 12 to 18 feet of water. Nielsen uses side-scan technology to pinpoint the forage and the muskies. He catches them pulling Musky Innovations Shallow Invaders and Musky Mayhem Trolling Girls behind the boat.

Public access sites are located on the east side of the lake.

FRENCH LAKE

Another choice for southern Minnesota muskie chasers is French Lake, conveniently located close to Faribault. Almost 400 muskie fingerlings are stocked here annually, according to the DNR, and during a 2017 survey, the average length of muskies sampled by biologists was 41.3 inches.

In June, a good technique for French Lake can be casting over the groups of baitfish or forage suspended in the central basin with black bucktails. Late-June through August, the lake’s waters become green. Avoid pleasure boaters by fishing during the week. Nielsen says the best bet is fishing sunken islands, the southwest shoreline rimmed with greens and the bay by the silos.

September through November, muskies cruise the shore within a stone’s throw of the public launch access. Fish on top with propeller lures, or pitch bucktails to hook them.

A DNR-owned public access is available on the southeast corner of the lake. However, at times of low water, access can be tricky due to the shallowness of the surrounding area.

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