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Solving Minnesota Muskie Fishing

Solving Minnesota Muskie Fishing
Photo by Pete Maina

My home in the Twin Cities west metro is also my fishing headquarters. Every aspect of my arsenal is always ready to go. Therefore, I can pull the trigger on a muskie-fishing trip at the drop of a hat. All that remains is to decide when and where I will go. During summer I make those decisions based on the best ways to overcome problems caused by weather, fishing pressure, and boating traffic.

Being in the right place at the right time is the first and most important step in successful muskie fishing. Unfortunately, most fishermen who pursue muskies in Minnesota have little time to spend on the water. Capitalizing on that time becomes even more important. Every minute and every dollar have become much more valuable during the tough economic times of late, so making time and money count as much as possible is more important than ever.

I make my limited time and money count as much as possible by choosing very carefully when and where I fish. Identifying problems and obstacles that will be encountered before leaving home, and having a solid coherent game plan for overcoming them will help. It's important to make the best use of time on the water, allow for a better overall experience on the water, and greatly increase the chances of tying into that sought-after Minnesota trophy muskie.

Information on summertime muskie fishing in Minnesota usually only mentions high activity levels in muskies, ferocious strikes, and tactics for how best to capitalize on this stellar opportunity. However, I seldom encounter anything that states how brief action-packed periods actually can be, and how they can go cold just as quickly as they begin. It is rare to hear mention of the problems that are encountered with summertime Minnesota muskie fishing, although they most certainly exist.

Minnesota weather can be a problem. The rapidly changing nature of Minnesota's climate means that weather conditions can change by the month, week, and even by the day. Extreme deviations from average temperatures are also common during summer. Those deviations can make peak bites tough to predict, but a little research goes a long way. Gathering lake information, paying close attention to weather forecasts, and tracking down surface temperatures on individual bodies of water are crucial.

We reside in an era of modern communication, which includes multiple Internet forums with many anglers sharing valuable and accurate information, including current surface temperatures on specific bodies of water. Many anglers are tightlipped about where the fish are biting, but the same anglers will often divulge a water temperature without batting an eye. A solid physical fact about a certain body of water is infinitely more valuable than a rumor about where the fish are biting.

A hot bite all too often is over by the time the word gets out, hence the saying, "You should have been here yesterday!" Water temperatures are more valuable because they help predict the hot bite before it happens. For instance, if it was the first week of July and I knew that Leech Lake was at 70 degrees and that a warming trend was forecast for the area, I would be confident that Leech Lake would hit summer peak during that weather trend. Proper planning and foresight is the key.

Summer peak occurs early in the summer, and is a short window marked by excellent action for nearly all game fish, muskies included. The summer peak usually occurs at water temperatures of 71 to 76 degrees. Summer peak is brief, lasting as little as a few days and usually no longer than two weeks, but it is also the most ideal time to fish for muskies during the first part of summer.

Different lakes hit summer peak at different times, based on their individual characteristics and latitude. A shallow lake will warm and hit summer peak faster than a deep lake. A lake in the southern part of Minnesota will warm and hit summer peak more rapidly than a lake in the north. Therefore, a shallow southern lake usually will hit summer peak first, while a deep northern lake will hit last. However, lake makeup usually trumps latitude, as a shallow lake to the north warms faster than a deep lake in the south.

The only problem with summer peak is predicting when it occurs. In southern Minnesota, during a summer of average temperature, summer peak has come and gone on many waters by the time July rolls around. Exceptions to that are large deep bodies of water such as Lake Minnetonka, Lake Waconia, and White Bear Lake. Those lakes typically hit an excellent summer peak bite during the first week of July. After that, the summer peak moves farther north and to colder bodies of water. Some large lakes to the far north, such as Vermilion often have summer peak action through the third week of July. During the first three weeks of July, a summer peak bite can usually be found somewhere in the state.

Paying close attention to long-term summer weather trends is crucial, because they dictate the rate at which a lake is progressing toward, through, and beyond certain stages — such as summer peak. Above-average temperatures cause summer peak to occur sooner and be briefer, due to the rapid rise in water temperature. Extended periods of normal and below-normal temperatures cause water to warm slowly, thus it takes longer to reach a more extended summer peak. However, when the weather is too cool, there is little steady progression in water temperature, the summer peak is not well defined, and a noticeable hot bite is more elusive.

Summer peak gives way to the "dog days" of summer, which are marked by high water temperatures, alga blooms, and often by marginal fishing. If the summer is exceedingly hot, water temperatures may reach as high as the mid- to upper 80s on some waters. That is a problem, because muskies begin to stress at 80 degrees. In southern Minnesota, lakes that warm to very high temperatures and develop heavy algae blooms often have very skinny muskies at the end of a brutal summer. Activity levels needed to capture prey can actually put their lives in danger under such conditions. Muskies are forced to ride it out as best they can, and that often means getting skinnier.

Josh Stevenson, pro guide, owner of Blue Ribbon Bait & Tackle, and holder of the Minnesota record for tiger muskie, has several recommendations for those who fish muskies in the Twin Cities metro area. Stevenson agrees that the tough fishing begins at water temperatures of about 80 degrees, but adds that muskies really shut down during hot spells that cause rapid increases in water temperature. Josh recommends working around those problems by choosing lakes with deep water that stay cooler and remain more stable in the face extended periods of hot weather. Stevenson also divulges that Lake Phalen, a local tiger muskie lake, is one such water body that harbors good summer fishing action.

Lee Tauchen, pro guide and co-host of the Big Fish 365 television show, says that fertile lakes with higher algae bloom rates see a drop in muskie action at 77 to 78 degrees. However, he makes the distinction that deeper lakes with clearer water can have good action at 80 degrees. Tauchen, a staunch steward to the muskie resource, adds that muskies in those deep, clear lakes also swim away much stronger on the release, indicating lack of environmental stress.

Tauchen says limiting the time a muskie is out of the water in hot weather is crucial to a successful release, as summertime over-handling is the main cause of angler-related mortality in muskies. Keep muskies in the net to unhook them, and remove them from the water for no more than 10 to 20 seconds for photographs and measurements. If muskies are still very slow to swim away on the release, it may be wise to halt fishing until conditions change. Successful catch-and-release is critical to the future of muskie fisheries.

During the dog days, there are cooler windows I look for in which muskies can safely feed, such as very early in the morning and during a few days of cool, cloudy weather. Coolwater tributaries and shoreline springs will attract muskies. They can be hard to find, but streams containing trout fisheries as identified in the regulation booklet will have cool water. During a seiche tide, which may be caused by strong, steady and prolonged winds from one direction, cooler water wells up into the shallows from the depths on the upwind end of a lake and muskies move in to feed. Good waters to try in the dead of summer are the lower St. Louis River, Lake Vermilion, and the lakes of the Grand Rapids and Bemidji areas.

In lakes with pelagic and/or suspending forage such as ciscoes, whitefish, perch, bluegills, and/or crappies, the muskies will suspend and feed in open water adjacent to main-lake structure 5 to 25 feet below the surface. Try various depth contours just off of key structural elements. Look for muskies acquiring lures from all directions.

Algae blooms are a problem because they reduce water clarity to just about nothing. Muskies prefer to use both sound and sight to feed, but will settle for sound in a pinch. When water turns pea-soup green, effective lures include noisy spinners and topwaters that the muskies can home in on using their lateral line sense. Often, in the warm water, a fast retrieve triggers the highest number of strikes, which can be explosive!

The problems of dog-days angling ends in mid- to late August. Nights cool and water temperatures drop back into a tolerable range. At 76 degrees — the same temperature at which summer peak ended — muskies become much more active, especially on waters where temperatures went well into the 80s. In fact, the worse the heat of summer, the better the cool-down bite will be. Muskies often feed heavily then, and so fishing action can be great.

If the cool-down coincides with an algae bloom die-off, the trigger to feed can be very strong. Take note of lakes that are "bloomed out" and keep an eye on them. In late summer when the photoperiod shortens, the bloom clears up. Hitting a lake two or three days after the bloom clears can be deadly.

Most Minnesota muskie waters are popular booming fisheries, and there are now more muskie fishermen than ever before. July and August are the most popular months for muskie anglers on Minnesota waters. Therefore, it is easy to understand why so many are chasing the dream then.

Muskies are tough fish to catch, and the sheer numbers of fishermen out there don't make the goal of the individual any easier to attain. The effects of fishing pressure on muskies are real. Anglers these days have easy access to accurate information regarding muskie location and habits, and the learning curve is short even for the novice. Most everyone knows where the muskies are and so the onslaught of boats and lures is overwhelming at times.

Compounding the matter of angling pressure is recreational boat traffic. Pontooners, water skiers, wake boarders, and the guy with the cigar boat on an 800-acre lake don't make things any easier. Fortunately, there are ways to work around all of those problems.

Tauchen recommends night-fishing to combat the problems of hot water, recreational traffic, and fishing pressure. Large double-bladed spinners are very productive and popular for night-fishing, but he also advises not to forget about crankbaits, big-profile soft plastics, and surface lures. Tauchen, owner of Lee Lures, has been producing high-quality surface baits for years and knows well the deadly nature of surface lures at night. On spinners, Tauchen recommends pinching down the barbs on the rear hook for the safety of the muskies as they tend to inhale the baits under the cover of darkness. The cooler air and water at night also aids in successful releases.

My favorite way to combat problems of all kinds is to get up very early and have my first cast in the water about half an hour before the sky ever starts to get light. Most anglers are not early risers, and an even smaller percentage of pleasure boaters are ever up before 10 a.m. Overnight, the muskies get a chance to "reset," free of most pressure and sun-scorched water. Come morning, they often set up to feed on a prime spot. I like to sneak in quietly and show them the first lure of the day. Never underestimate the power of getting there first.

In the metro area, Stevenson recommends fishing numerous trolling-motor-only lakes for tiger and true muskies. These lakes have little fishing pressure and even less recreational traffic, aside from the stray sailboat. Lakes that allow no use of gas motors always offer a peaceful experience on the water, and the muskie action can be fantastic. Again, Lake Phalen falls into that category, making it an all around summer gem.

Excellent muskie fishing can be had throughout the summer in Minnesota by planning for problems before you run headfirst into them out on the water. One more problem to plan for is the heat and sun of summer. Use sun block, wear light protective clothing, and drink plenty of water. Severe sunburn and heat stroke are no joke.

Stay safe, prepare for the long haul, and catch a Minnesota monster.

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