This Minnesota muskie fishing guide's secrets can help you bring more muskies to the net, regardless of where you fish.
Minnesota is famous for its muskellunge. Certainly, in the Lower 48 â€“ and maybe even across the continent â€“ there's no better place to pursue freshwater's top-rung predator.
If you're already a muskie fishing addict, you know the story. There's nothing like the hunt. And hunting is what it is like, with long hours of casting or trolling interspersed with brief flurries of intense action and heart-stopping thrills that may or may not pan out in the form of fish brought-to-net. Success is rare, even fleeting, but oh so sweet.
If you're feeling the muskie fever coming on, nobody will blame you. They'll welcome you to the club. There's more than a mystique around Minnesota muskie fishing. It's a brotherhood. Of course, nobody's going to share their secret rock pile, reef or weedy cabbage point with you. But they will share their insights, approaches, strategies and techniques, leaving it up to you to go to work and catch a fish.
Travis Frank is such a muskie fisherman. He also happens to be a fishing guide (Trophy Encounters Guide Service, www.trophyencounters.com) with a special affinity for muskies, and a talent for helping folks catch them. If you think muskie fishing is hard, try doing it day-in and day-out all summer long with anglers of varying fishing credentials in your boat and looking for success.
Frank was generous enough to share his muskie insights and approaches with Minnesota Game & Fish. His Minnesota-specific secrets will help you achieve the goals of your own personal muskie quest.
"I was 14 when I saw an In-Fisherman episode on muskie fishing," recalls Frank. "Fishing already consumed my life. Naturally, I got hooked on muskies."
Frank grew up in the west metro.
"This was the late 1990s," he points out. "Metro lakes like Minnetonka, and other lakes across the state, had been stocked in the late '80s. The muskies hadn't seen much pressure at all. They were catchable and good-sized â€“ into the mid-40-inch range.
"I read all I could. I watched all I could," he says. "It all pointed me in the wrong direction. A friend and I fished for a full year. We only had one follow to show for it. One follow. I was 15 years old.
"The next year, I stumbled upon a muskie â€“ actually caught one! It was a complete accident," Frank says. "It went against everything I had learned. I caught that fish in two feet of water. There was a pattern going on. We caught 20 fish that week."
What did Frank learn? He started thinking for himself, working harder and analyzing the fish. Using what made sense from the common wisdom of the day, but listening to his own fishing instincts as well. He also tried new things.
"Quite simply, I became a guide because we had all these muskies," Frank says. "A friend of my dad offered to pay me to take him, when he heard what we were catching. There wasn't a muskie craze then. Then I took more people. Through high school, my summer job was muskie guide.
"The fish were sort of dumb," he laughs. "But not anymore."
Dumb fish don't last forever. In the case of muskies, they don't get harvested and killed, which is a blessing and a part of the brotherhood's unwritten pact and code of ethics. But the fish sure get educated and evasive, the more baits they see and the more they are caught.
"Much of my fishing is done in the Metro," Frank says. "That's where I'm doing most of my muskie guiding too. I love the challenge of the fish, and I love outsmarting them in new places too."
Frank does get out to Minnesota's outstate classic muskie lakes too â€“ Mille Lacs, Leech, Vermilion, Lake of the Woods, others, and rivers too, such as the St. Croix.
"But the Metro is fished so hard â€“ those fish might see 50 lures a day â€“ that if you can catch a Metro muskie, that same challenge is going to be easier on those other, less pressured bodies of water."
Easier is a relative term, to be sure. But the point is clear: "What you learn muskie fishing on metro waters is going to put you way ahead of the game everywhere else in the state," Frank says.
"Fishing guides catch more fish not because they're better anglers, but because they do more fishing," Frank says. Success with muskies is especially tied to putting in time. "A good guide is out there every day, paying attention, taking notes, noticing what's going on when and where. Those are all practices any angler can take on.
"What I've learned over two decades is that the fish have seasonal patterns they follow every single year," Frank says. "Learn those patterns. It's amazing how habitual the fish are."
"All lakes are different in June," Frank says. "For example, Minnetonka is tough in June. The fish are all suspended out in the basin after the spawn, and you have to go trolling for them out in the middle of nowhere, over thousands and thousands of acres.
"But some lakes, especially to the north, are good in June, when their waters are just starting to warm up," he says.
Go to emerging weed beds to intercept fish migrating from spawning areas to open water suspension areas.
"When the water gets really warm, consider whether you should be fishing muskies or not in July in the Metro area," Frank says. "Water temperatures in the 80s are tough on stressed fish that are brought to the net.
"This doesn't seem to be as much of a factor up north," Frank continues, "I like Mille Lacs, Vermilion and other big waters at that time of year. These lakes don't heat up as much, and wind action keeps them mixed up and cooled too."
"August is surprisingly good, probably the best month of summer to fish muskies," Frank says. "The fish are super active. As the month goes on, nights keep getting longer and that allows the water to cool down more toward the 60s, a muskie's preferred temperature range.
"That triggers fish to come into the weedbeds from the open water."
Trolling or casting? "I let the fish dictate the approach," Frank answers. "If they're suspended out in the middle of the lake, you have to go trolling after them to cover water. If they're on structure, you have to cast to them."
When casting, play the wind right, Frank advises. "I work to keep my boat as far away from the fish as possible, or they'll spook."
For the most success, Frank says you need to hunt "spots": particular places where muskies hang out. "Once you find a spot, mark it," he says. "Muskies are never anywhere by accident. Whether you see a fish, or get a follow, or catch one, mark that spot. There's a reason that fish is there. And if one gets removed, another will take its place."
"Muskies don't feed all day and night long," Frank says. "They have windows of activity. These feeding windows are simple and specific: sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset." If you know where a fish is living, get out and cast over it at these times. Or be sure to be exploring for new fish for an hour either side of these times.
"Other factors can trigger a feeding window too," Frank adds. "These factors all involve a change â€“ a barometer change, a wind change, directionally, or velocity. Clouds to sun, or sun to clouds. Anything that triggers a change in water conditions can put muskies on the feed.
"And it's not just one fish," Frank says. "If one muskie is active, all the ones in the lake are."
"Keep your setup simple," Frank says. "An 8-foot heavy-action rod is good. The 8-foot length is good for making figure 8s near the boat.
"In your budget, spend more money on a better reel. You can get a good rod for a hundred bucks. A top-notch reel is more important," he says. Make it a baitcaster."
Line and terminal tackle? "Go with 80-pound to 100-pound braided line, and a high-quality, heavy leader" Frank says. "This isn't a finesse game at all. Don't lose a fish because of light line or an inferior leader.
"You also have to anticipate what you're going to do if you catch a fish," Frank says. "Have a large hoop net, hook cutters, and long-nosed pliers.
"Leave the fish in the net in the water while you work the hooks out," he says. "Only bring the fish out of the water when you're ready to snap a picture. Hold it horizontally, supporting both ends of the fish."
And don't lay that fish on a carpeted boat bottom, where its protective slime coating can be removed, causing infection.
"Lures should be simple too," Frank says. "Being there at the right time is more important than what you're fishing with.
"The number one lure every muskie angler should have is a black bucktail," Frank says. "It's the top muskie lure of all time and it still catches fish consistently. The Double Cow Girl by Muskie Mayhem, a Minnesota company, is about as good as you can get.
"For a second type of bait, a topwater prop bait is important to have," Frank says. "A Top Raider is one brand I like."
Third? "A soft rubber bait like a Bull Dawg is good to have. What's more important than the lure itself is how sharp the hooks are," he concludes.
"Always do a figure-8 at the boat at the end of every cast," Frank advises. "This accounts for half the fish that make it into my boat each year."
How you figure-8 is critical.
"Reel up to the leader," Frank says. "Just leave the full leader and lure dangling with no line. Jam the rod in the water. Do a sweeping figure-8. The lure will follow the rod tip up and down."
If you have too much line out the lure will just wallow there and the fish will drift away.
"But when a muskie sees that lure jump up or down as it follows the rod tip, that fish will smack it," he says, "just engulf it. Set the hook in the direction the fish is facing."
"Every serious muskie fisherman needs to keep a journal of some type," Frank says. "I have done it for over 10 years now. I can stay on a hot bite all season long because my journal tells me what was working when, last year, and muskies are creatures of habit and of patterns. They'll do the same thing every year at the same time.
"For instance," he says, "I caught the same muskie in 2004, 2006 and 2009 off the same little rockpile the size of a truck hood, within a few calendar days of the other years. The fish had very distinctive marks. It was 51 inches, 52 inches and 54 1/2 inches respectively, each time it was caught. My journal helped me to catch it three times. That's just one example. My journal has led me to countless fish."
Minnesota's muskie waters are well-known, open to all, and waiting there with fish. The trick to catching them is understanding muskies, patterning their year, and making the right presentation at a time likely to have active fish on the prowl.
"It's hard work," Frank says. "But worth it. Every minute of it."
Use his approaches to feel the thrill of a muskie engulfing your own bait this summer.