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Muskie Fishing

Muskie Fishing
By Terry Jennings, Fish Hatcheries Supervisor, Iowa DNR

A Brief History of Muskie in Iowa

Throughout fishing history the muskellunge has been a trophy fish that is highly prized by any fisherman that is fortunate enough to land one. This species is native to many of the upper midwestern states and the central Canadian provinces. Until the 1960’s muskie had been reported from only a few scattered locations around Iowa. At that time the decision was made by the Commission that muskellunge would make a positive contribution to angling in this state and had a high potential as a trophy fish for our fishermen, although it was realized that it would never become a “bread and butter” fish like catfish or crappie.

In 1960, 80 muskies, about 10-inches in length, were released into Clear Lake and West Lake Okoboji from the Decorah Trout Hatchery, where they had been reared from fry. Since that initial stocking muskie have been stocked in Spirit Lake, Big Creek Lake, and Rathbun Reservoir. They also inhabit East Lake Okoboji because of its common waters with the west lake.

muskie fishing

(Photo Credit: sankax)

Tiger muskie, which is a cultured hybridization of the female northern pike and male muskellunge, were initially introduced into Iowa waters in 1978. Because these fish are crossbred, they are sterile and incapable of reproducing. Yet the cultured offspring exhibits extraordinary hybrid vigor and grows much more rapidly than either parent, reaching trophy class size in a very short span of time. They are also more easily caught than purebred muskie. All of these attributes make this hybrid very desirable for stocking a trophy fish into waters that do not have the habitat conducive to the purebreds. Tiger muskie have been released in more than 20 Iowa man-made lakes and reservoirs. In water stocked with tiger muskie the rate is one fingerling fish for each 4 acres of surface area. A list of lakes that contain muskie and tiger muskie can be obtained at any Commission office.

When and Where to Fish

Like all species of fish certain periods of the year are more productive than others for fishing. The basis for this fact is that fish, particularly the predatory species, are more active during different seasons, and increased activity usually improves fishing success. Experience has shown that muskie and tiger muskie are most likely caught when the water temperature nears 70 degrees F. In the northern part of the state this usually coincides with late June or early July and again in late September or early October. Water temperature in the southern part of the state is at this level about two weeks earlier in the spring and about the same in autumn.

The best time of the day to fish, when muskie are most active, is in the early morning between daybreak and 1 1/2 hours after sunrise and in the late evening between one hour before sunset and darkness. Keep in mind that these time periods are usually the most productive. This is not to say that muskie can not be caught in other periods of the year or hours of the day. If for some reason you can not fish during the best periods but still want to catch a trophy muskie — go fishing.

Now that the lake and time of year to go muskie hunting has been selected, the next consideration is to determine what locations in the lake are most likely to contain fish. Muskie are not scattered at random in a lake, and only the best habitats will contain the fish. In fact, poor habitat probably contains no muskie at all. Prior to arriving to fish, the best suggestion is to obtain a topographic map which will locate water depths and indicate the location of different types of bottom structure. Study the map, looking especially for 8 to 20 foot contours near drop-offs. This depth is most likely to have submergent vegetation beds, particularly in the natural lakes. Most muskie fishermen theorize that the fish spend much of their time in deep water but move into shallow, weedy areas to forage. Thus, the chances of catching a muskie are greatest.

If possible, before you wet a line, thoroughly scout the lake with a depth finder to sound out sites that you have targeted on the map as most promising. Reconnaissance of a lake prior to fishing will also reveal at what depth the weedline occurs, and you will want to spend most of your time fishing along the vegetation beds, especially in natural lakes. This activity will also allow you to look for irregular points of vegetaton that extend out into the lake. Pay particular attention to places where the weeds come within 5 or 6 feet of the water surface. If you locate a large weed-free hole within the mass of vegetation — mark it for fishing. All of these sites are excellent places to begin your quest for a trophy muskie or tiger muskie.

Most of the tiger muskie fishing occurs in man-made lakes. Weedy areas in the lake will also hold fish, but do not ignore brushy structures that extend into the lake from the shoreline or that were inundated when the lake was flooded. Sharp drop-offs adjacent to deep water will contain tiger muskie. Rock rip-rap armoring along the dam face or prominent land points are also productive locations for these fish. In general, look for locations where you might catch largemouth bass; chances are good that it will also hold tiger muskies.

Water clarity varies markedly in our man-made lakes between individual lakes and within seasons. Keep this in mind when deciding where to fish for tiger muskie. As a rule you should fish the shallower waters as they become more turbid. Muskies are rather secretive and reclusive in their behavior and they infrequently inhabit waters where they will be visible.

Angling Techniques

There are two methods most often used to fish for muskie — trolling and casting. Among the muskie fishing fraternity there seems to be no clear cut consensus of opinion as to which method may be superior. Both have distinct advantages and disadvantages. The best recommendation is probably to do what you feel most confident and comfortable with — or use both.

While a muskie fisherman can cover much more area and put the lure near more fish by trolling, the precision of lure or bait presentation is considerably less with this method. Muskies follow most lures before they strike, and it is nearly impossible to see what follows and take enticing actions while trolling. Fish that are following a lure that has been cast are easily detected, and once located, they can be fished for in subsequent trips as well.

The main disadvantage of casting for muskie mainly is that it is hard work and tiring; muskie have been called the fish of ten thousand casts. Anyone that has fished for these trophies will quickly verify that truer words were never uttered.

Tackle Selection

Fishing tackle and equipment used for muskie are some of the most specialized available for angling, mostly because of the size of this noble beast. Whether you troll or cast, the rod and reel that most muskie fishermen prefer is a heavy duty graphite model bait-casting rod, from 5 to 5 1/2 feet in length, fitted with a matched and balanced reel that has a star-drag brake. Graphite material is preferred over others because it is lighter in weight, a factor which causes less fatigue, and it is far more sensitive than other types of rods. If the cost is a concern, fiberglass is less expensive and will, of course, catch muskie. One of the better suggestions is to purchase a high quality reel — muskies are fierce fighters and have been known to completely strip the gears of poorly made reels before getting away. The reel should have a retrieve ratio of at least 5:1, because the lure is usually retrieved as fast as the angler can crank.

Most muskie enthusiasts fill their reel with monofilament or braided dacron line of 20 to 40 pound-test. Color does not seem to be important. The line must be fitted with a solid steel leader with a sure-lock clasp. Leader length is an individual choice; some fishermen use 6-inch leaders while others swear by 18-inch leaders. A steel leader is essential because both muskie and tiger muskie have razor sharp teeth and many sharp bones around their mouth and jaws that can cut or fray the line while fighting.

Lure Selection

Lures for muskie fishing fall into three basic types — crank-baits, spinner-baits and jerk-baits (see Chapter 15 for an example of these lures). There are many different models and colors available in most tackle shops and mail order houses that specialize in fishing equipment.

Crank-baits come in a wide variety, but all are fitted with a metal or plastic lip-spoon that causes them to dive to a depth of 10 or 12 feet during the retrieve. The lures are large, 7 to 10 inches in length, and weigh up to 2 1/2 ounces. Lure color is important, but no color is effective all the time. It is very important for an angler to know what the fish are consuming for forage and then use a lure color that resembles that prey.

Crank-baits are astonishingly easy for a novice muskie fisherman to learn proper presentation. They are equally effective for fishing by either trolling or casting. The method used in trolling is simply to locate the lure about 100 feet behind the boat at a speed of about 7 or 8 miles per hour, which will place the lure at about its maximum depth. Some fishermen adhere closely to the philosophy that you can troll too slowly for muskie — but not too fast. Using a depth finder while trolling has definite advantages for locating submerged weed lines and then trolling just along the outside edge.

Crank-baits are equally simple lures to use for casting. The best technique is to find a likely spot, let the boat drift with the prevailing wind or move it slowly with an electric trolling motor, and cast the lure as far as possible using a steady retrieve, reeling as fast as you can.

One common trick of muskie anglers is at the end of a retrieve: before the lure is removed from the water, perform a “figure 8” motion with about 3 to 4 feet of line between the lure and the rod tip. Execute this motion at the end of all casts or trolling runs. Often muskies are caught right beside the boat after following the lure and striking only when there is a sudden change in the speed or direction of the lure.

Spinner-baits consist of a metal spinner, either in a single or tandem configuration, followed by a series of weights that are attached to either one or two treble hooks that are partially hidden with hair or soft plastic body dressings. They come in many colors and patterns.

The spinner acts as a fish attractor and is usually highly polished or finished in a fluorescent paint. The hook-hair portion of the lure serves as the body, and they are dyed in dull colors that simulate natural food items. Some fishermen attach soft plastic body dressings to spinner baits which add color and incease the action of the lure.

Spinner-baits are good lures for both trolling and casting. The method used for fishing with these lures is similar to those with crank-baits, except spinner-baits sink and the retrieve must be delayed for enough time to allow the lure to achieve the correct fishing depth. First-time muskie fishermen should make crank-baits and spinners their lures of choice. These lures are easy to use because a high degree of manual skill is not required to make the proper presentation to a fish.

Jerk-baits are constructed of wood and imitate a bait-fish that has been injured and is distressed. The name for them is derived from the method used in the retrieve. The lure floats on the surface until it is retrieved; then it dives sharply and darts side-to-side. Some jerk-baits have a metal tail that can be adjusted by bending it to change the action. Otherwise it is the fisherman that must supply a great deal of the erratic action. Jerk-baits come in a variety of colors and styles, but no pattern is superior at all times.

Since these lures do not dive as deeply as crank-baits, they are best for fishing shallow water, especially over submerged vegetation or other structures that are near the surface. They are usually fished in 6 to 8 feet of depth. These lures are used only by casting. A cast is made as far as possible, while the retrieve is made in a rapid fashion, jerking the lure in a zig-zag motion. It is a very physical and tiring way to fish and not one for a novice.

Bait Selection

In some localities, in the traditional northern muskie range, live bait, particularly large suckers, are used for muskie fishing. However, in Iowa live bait is seldom the choice, and for this reason the method is not included in this article.

Catch and Release

Muskie are not, nor will they ever be, an abundant game fish in this state. Avid muskie fishermen, those individuals that fish regularly for these trophies, realize this fact. They are also very aware that true trophy fish, those exceeding 30 pounds in size, are even more rare. For this reason most muskie fishermen are staunch advocates of a fish-for-fun philosophy and release unharmed the fish that they catch, except for exceptionally large specimens. One muskie fishing club recently reported with pride that of the 150 muskies that fish club members landed in one season, 148 were released.

*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.


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