The follows are what get you. One second you’re watching your bait gurgling toward the boat. The next you’re staring behind it at the outline of a fish that’s large enough to maim the family dog. The strike, should it come (it often doesn’t), is spectacular, and the resulting battle can be dogged and brutal. But no other fish speeds toward, glides behind, or hangs beneath a lure with such seemingly evil intent as a muskie.
Of course, anyone content to simply watch fish should be tending aquariums, not taking up space in a boat. Thankfully, that often repeated adage about muskies-that they’re the “Fish of 10,000 Casts”-has been proved to be highly exaggerated. Catching them requires time, but if it took the legions of modern fishermen that many attempts to hook a keeper, rotator cuff surgeons would work out of bait-and-tackle shops. These days, it takes about 20 hours for a decent muskie angler on a good lake to boat a legal fish-still a huge commitment compared to the amount of time it takes to catch a trout or a bass. But a savvy muskie hunter can lower that figure significantly. I know a few guys who, given five days on prime water, fully expect to boat a 30-pounder and catch several lesser fish en route.
Terry Moulton is one of them, though he’d likely never admit it. Once a successful accountant, Moulton chucked the 9-to-5 routine two decades ago to open Mouldy’s Archery & Tackle (715-723-3607) in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, a sports shop catering to muskie aficionados and bowhunters. Besides chasing muskies all his life, Moulton has designed several popular lures, including the Hawg Wobbler and the Topper Stopper, each of which has accounted for hundreds of trophy fish.
Ironically, Moulton’s accounting background has allowed him to find the key to catching huge muskies. He recognizes muskie hunting as a numbers game, which means exerting the greatest effort when conditions are prime. “Perhaps the best thing a fisherman can do to reduce the hours between fish is to focus on two seasons,” he says. “Here in Wisconsin, we get an excellent bite right away in early summer, usually starting in mid-June and lasting until about July 10. Water temps are warming [BRACKET “muskies are most active in 65- to 70-degree water”], there’s new weed growth, the females are recovered from the spawn, and young baitfish are active.
“The second spike in activity comes in early fall. Any time from late August on, the days shorten, the waters cool, and muskies begin to concentrate. Plus, fish are simply heavier then, and your chances of getting a big one are very good. This bite usually lasts through September. If I had just one month to fish-” Moulton stops short, clearly disturbed by the notion of fishing for muskies only 30 days a year.
Weather is another influence. “I tell everyone that the best time to catch a huge muskie is just before a tornado,” Moulton says. He’s only half joking; his biggest fish was caught in the hours preceding a bona fide Wisconsin twister. “I do pay attention to weather reports, and if there’s a front approaching, I’m on the water, particularly if we’ve had an extended period of hot, dry weather. A cloudy day or a wind that puts a chop on the water can also make it happen. These are predator fish that feel more comfortable under cover.”
Locating muskies is all about identifying habitat. “If I had to create an ideal spot, it would be a large bed of cabbage that ends just below the surface. That allows me to work not only the edges, but the top. Most big fish will orient toward weedbeds adjacent to deep water. And of course, any time you can add other structure, like islands, points, or timber, you increase your odds. Muskies are ambush predators that wait near structure for food to come to them.”
The Night Bite
Sometimes, Moulton adds, darkness is the coover a muskie craves. “Night fishing can be excellent during that window between the early-summer and fall bites,” he notes. “The key to doing it well, of course, is knowing the water intimately. Then you keep everything safe and simple; the boat deck is clean, you wear a headlamp, and you bring a partner. I like a dark surface bait that shows up well against the night sky. When a strike comes it’s often close to the boat, so have your drag set light or there won’t be a fight. Just a big pop when that fish takes your lure.
“The other thing about night fishing is to not set the hook on sound alone. Muskies make a big ruckus chasing a topwater at night, but wait until you feel them take the lure. I take out people every year who hear a slashing blowup behind the lure and yank it out of the water before the fish can hit it.”
Having seen the graphite replicas of trophy muskies lining the walls of Moulton’s shop-and having caught a few monsters myself-I can sympathize with the reaction. Having a 30-plus-pound fish attack a lure just a few feet away from your boat can shatter the nerves of even the most composed fisherman.
Where to Go Top Muskie Waters
Muskie fishing used to be limited to a handful of specific regions, but aggressive stocking and management programs have broadened opportunities. The following is a list of some of the best waters, with a guide or a local tackle shop for each water. Contact each state’s fish and game department for season and license information:
Oneida and Vilas Counties
Muskie fishing’s epicenter has at least 350 lakes in a two-county area. For sheer breadth of opportunity-from a rookie looking for his first “legal” to a hunter after a hawg-there may be no better place in the world. Contact: Roger Sabota, C&R Guide Service, 715-369-2283.
This is arguably America’s premier state for trophy muskies, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to choose the top water. But the success of Minnesota’s stocking program can be traced to Leech Lake¿¿¿strain fish, so Leech gets the nod for tradition if nothing else. Contact: Reed’s Sports Shop, 800-346-0019.
Lake St. Clair
Trolling is the key to finding fish on this 200,000-acre lake on Detroit’s doorstep, where it’s possible to boat a dozen fish in an eight-hour day. Catch rates for legal (44-inch) fish average one per six hours, making St. Clair a true muskie factory, thanks to management efforts and a catch-and-release mentality fostered by the Michigan-Ontario Muskie Club (810-725-7237). Contact: Lakeside Fishing Shop, 586-777-7003.
Piedmont and Salt Fork Lakes
The Buckeye State has had a fine stocking program since 1982. Ohio’s Huskie Muskie Club (web.tusco.net/ohiohuskiemuskieclub), which recognizes fish over 42 inches, is full of entries from these two lakes. Contact: Muskie Tutor Guide Service, 740-439-0429; www.users.clover.net/muskyman.
Cave Run Lake
The Licking River already held muskies when it was dammed to form this 8,300-acre reservoir. Now, ideal habitat and a sound stocking program have made Cave Run not only one of the country’s hotspots but also one of the few waters that allow year-round fishing. Contact: Cave Run Muskie Guide Service, 800-452-1600.
At 17 miles long and 13,000 acres, this is big water that produces equally big fish. Like Michigan’s St. Clair, trolling is tops here if you have the equipment. Look for the largest fish suspended over deep dropoffs. Contact: Western New York Guide Service, 716-969-9059; www.wnyguideservice.com.