Jul 10, 2014
The Wild West Musky Frontier
By: Ryan McMahon
As a teenager I cut my teeth musky fishing in western Wisconsin, most notably Polk County’s Bone Lake where my good friend, Jim, has a family cabin. As kids, we always loved casting for whatever we were after; whether it was bass, crappies, or pike we enjoyed the athleticism and coordination that it took to place a perfect cast under a dock or between two forking limbs on a downed tree. This eventually was paired with the desire to catch the biggest fish in the lake and now, about 16 years later, I find myself earning a living as a musky guide in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A lot of techniques, equipment, and even lakes have changed in the sport of musky fishing since I first started “chucking” the big stuff, but one thing that hasn’t wavered is the beauty and mystique of the quaint musky lakes that are inconspicuously dotted throughout western Wisconsin.
“Hidden Gems,” “Sleeper Lakes,” or even “Lake X” could be terms used to describe some of these waters. While others like Bone, Deer, and Yellow Lakes have had a reputation for quite some time as prime musky waters. At times these bigger more well-known lakes will even get some undeserved credit when anglers flash pictures of broad shouldered muskies from smaller, more unassuming, lakes that remain unnamed. We call this the “Trout Lake Effect” which originated from the classic musky book “Time on the Water” by Bill Gardner. However, even the larger lakes are somewhat off the beaten path and will only weigh in around a couple thousand acres of surface area. The smaller lakes may only top out at a couple hundred acres and can be very tough to find as some are not even documented as musky lakes.
The fact is, most of these bodies of water are managed or have been stocked with muskies at one time by the DNR and a fair amount of these lakes will see a decent success rate in natural reproduction from the lakes top predator. However, you will find the rare occasion where muskies will migrate from one body of water to the next via cricks or rivers. These are the lakes that might take a little more exploration to find as they are usually not listed by the DNR has having muskies. It’s lakes like this that usually have a low population density of muskies but can hold a few true monsters. I’m not sure what it is, maybe it’s my history in the area that brings out my adventurous inner-child, but I love taking a day to explore a couple of these small “sleeper” lakes. At first, my goal is simply to lay eyes on a musky. Once I’ve established their existence, there is an extreme determination ignited within me to conquer one of the lakes few resident muskellunge.
As mentioned earlier the musky world has changed tremendously since I was first introduced to it. With a strong stocking program in many fertile lakes throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Minnesota saw a virtual big fish explosion in the early 2000’s on up to present day. Recently, Lake St. Clair has been pulling many hardcore musky anglers from the upper Midwest to its musky filled, aqua colored, waters in Detroit. While areas in Northern Wisconsin, like Minocqua and Hayward, still remain well respected musky destinations, they are not attracting as many musky-exclusive anglers as they used to. The decrease in fishing pressure on the western Wisconsin lakes of Polk, Burnett, St. Croix, and Washburn counties is evident, per my personal assessment. It’s not uncommon for my boat to be the only one tossing musky tackle even on the area’s more popular lakes that were true musky destinations 15 to 20 years ago.
With most of these lakes located within an hour and a half from the Twin Cities area, they used to be fished a lot harder by Minnesota musky anglers. Now with a thriving musky population in well over a dozen lakes in the Twin Cities metro area there isn’t nearly the amount of fishing pressure that there used to be. Low fishing pressure coupled with the advancements in technology and equipment is a combination that should have any musky fishermen “licking their chops.”
The lakes themselves can vary but, for the most part, these majestic gems are only occupied by the people lucky enough to own property on them. These lakes are beautiful inside and out. Much of the lake bottoms in the area will be composed of sand and gravel which lead to nice lush weed beds on the break lines. If you happen to look up and enjoy your surroundings, which I often forget to do when hunting muskellunge, you’ll usually see towering white pines that were spared by the loggers years ago because of their proximity to the water. There will usually be a few mucky bays with lily pads and beaver huts that bleed into a lowland backdrop that disappears far beyond where your boat can travel. It’s these back bays that provide sound spawning grounds for muskies in the spring time and you’ll usually find my boat not far from them in the first few weeks of the season tossing glide baits or even top water lures on a warm evening.
Although some of the larger lakes will undoubtedly have their fair share of pleasure boaters on the summer weekends, you may only have to compete with loons and eagles during the week or in the fall when school is back in session.
As summer sets in, I prefer to fish on weekdays but the smaller lakes can have very low boat traffic even on busy July weekends. This time of year it is best to focus your efforts in low-light periods and even the middle of the night. One of the day-light goals may just be to locate a big fish by having it follow up one of your lures to the boat. Simply drop an icon or waypoint on your GPS or line up the spot with a landmark on shore and then return later under the cover of darkness. Most summertime muskies have a particular weakness for large, double bladed bucktails like Musky Mayhem’s Double Cowgirls once the sun goes down. I like to creep these baits along the outer weed edges, just fast enough to keep the blades spinning. This is a tried and true technique.
Another summertime pattern that we’ve found success in is a shallow, early morning bite. This bite can be at its best in the second half of summer when we experience cool, dry nights. The muskies will sneak up into the shallows at night when the skinny water drops a couple of degrees in temperature. I’ve had my best luck in sandy stretches with leafy cabbage patches casting small bucktails and top waters right at sunrise.
Fall will also bring some exciting fishing in western Wisconsin as we see the lakes enter a period of cooling and transition. Baitfish will start to ball up and muskies will strap on the feed bag. You will find muskies at their heaviest this time of year as they are looking for large slow moving meals. Large rubber baits like the Magnum Bulldawg from Musky Innovations and big twitchbaits like the Big Game 12” are a good bet in October and November. As the water cools down into the 50’s and 40’s, it might be live bait that gives you the best odds at fooling the lake’s biggest muskies. Running large, 12” to 18” suckers on quick strike harnesses under the boat, while you cast artificial baits at the outer weed edges, is almost a must in late fall. I prefer to use a Stealth Tackle quick strike rig with two trebles on suckers larger than 14” and a single treble on the suckers in the 12” range. With rods in holders, we will drag these jumbo sized minnows around with the clicker on and the bail open. When casting, you will always welcome a fish that eats your artificial bait away from the boat but, sometimes, it can be even more exciting to have one follow in your retrieve and then hear the clicker start screaming on the sucker rod shortly after.
While each lake may have its own idiosyncrasies, just about all of your classic seasonal musky tactics will work on these lakes to some degree. It’s just a matter of getting out there and, possibly, fishing two or three lakes a day until you find the “hot” lake. When the bite on a small lake shuts down, it can feel like the muskies have left the lake altogether, don’t let this discourage you. Keep working to find fish, even if it might mean trailering the boat to another lake.
These mysterious little gems in western Wisconsin may be overlooked by some, but it’s not for lack of fish or trophy potential. I feel at home when I’m on these lakes, they are peaceful and beautiful. Vivid images of their top predator haunt my memories from my early years of musky fishing. When I’m on these lakes, I’m trying to catch the biggest fish that swims; the queen of the lake. That is musky fishing at its simplest. It doesn’t matter if you’re the kid in the 12’ aluminum row boat or the guy with the $60k rig with all the bells and whistles, you are both in pursuit of the same fish.
Ryan McMahon is a professional musky guide that focuses on the waters of Minnesota and western Wisconsin. He has been featured on Keyes Outdoors Television Show and is a regular writer for Musky Hunter Magazine and Keyes Outdoors Online Magazine. To book a trip with Ryan, check out his website www.twincitiesmusky.com.