Hybrid Tiger Muskies
Author: Skip Knowles
Finally, a freshwater fish that is bigger than fishermen's lies.
Hybrid tiger muskies are a fish with a fierce name, but they can back it up. A fish that can be seen on both sides of a canoe when it swims underneath, tigers are leaving a deep impressions on angler's imaginations in their wake.
Tiger muskies, like muskellunge, have long been lauded as the fish of a thousand casts, but for some reason, tigers in some waters seem to be anything but. This super-sized crossbreed kept mama muskie's outrageous size, and papa pike's low IQ and agressiveness. Fish of a thousand casts? Not quite.
Sure, it's possible to cast all day and not hit a fish. But three and even five fish days happen at places such as Pineview Reservoir in northern Utah, where anybody who can drag a plug behind a boat can hook one. And it only takes one of these fish to make an impression that can become an obsession.
Northwest steelhead guide Rob Endsley decided to come slumming with me and cast for non-searun fish a few years ago in June. On that day, the fish of a thousand casts became the fish of a couple of a casts.
Everything was wrong. We had murdered the trout on the Green River for a few days, and had only an hour or two to try for tigers at Pineview before he caught his plane to Seattle.
Instead of sight-fishing to muskies in weedy areas I knew well, the lake had dropped over 50 feet and we could not launch the drift boat, the only boat I had. Worse, it was midday, so we were forced to launch on a featureless sand beach that was abuzz with ski boats and spurting jet-fleas dueling with criss-crossed wakes under glaring sun. Some days are just like this, I told myself.
We rowed down the shoreline with little hope, pitching perch pattern crankbaits and jigs along sandy shores, not the type weeds and structure we wanted to fish. Rowing to what looked like a point, we decided to anchor along a dropoff in 15 feet of water, a depth I thought may hold fish with all the sun and boat traffic.
On his second cast, Rob cast once or twice and suddenly his 9-foot Loomis bucked over, stayed down, and started lurching. Sixty yards of 12 pound test line peeled quietly off the Shimano Calcutta. A tiger beefier than any I'd caught blasted around the boat, leapt completely into the air again and again, and finally played out at boatside.
I could not believe we'd been lucky enough to get him into such a fish on such a short trip. He carefully released the 15-20 pound, three-foot long tiger.
Then he did it again. Just one or two casts later. This new fish charged all the way to shore, about 60 yards, and scattered a group of onlookers wading along the beach like frightened mullet before a charging tarpon. Even civilians know the tiger's reputation for teeth, it seems. It took about 10 minutes to subdue the fish, another whopper. Just as Rob had it at boatside, the leader popped.
This is when you are glad you are fishing with a pro.
The fish started fading into the depths, my prize perch pattern Hot Lips visible in it's jaw. Rob leaned over the side of the boat, shot one of his giant Frisbee-sized hands into the water, and grabbed this toothy three-foot dragon of a fish by the tail. With one smooth motion, he swooped into the boat tail-first, catching the fish's fore-end with his left hand, all ready for a photo.
Two whoppers. Thirty minutes. Still plenty of time for Rob to catch the plane. Yeah, I thought, some days are just like that.
I went to Utah state fish biologist Kent Sorenson, or "Sorno" as he's known by friends, for an explanation of our ridiculous luck. The Pineview fishery was reaching a zenith that not even he could have foreseen when he stocked the lake with the fish 10 years earlier. Monster eating machines, these voracious northern pike/muskellunge hybrids commonly grow to 40 pounds and 4 1/2 feet long. Because they are naturally sterile, they are planted in lakes to control panfish populations.
That's what Sorno had in mind when he stocked them. He figured a few hardcore anglers would become cult-like slaves to the muskie mystique, casting endlessly in the mind-numbing cool dawn in hopes of a follow. Instead he was shocked when the fish did so well many folks were hooking them, and they actually were not too tough to catch. Wade fishers were even hooking them from shore, and fly fishers were landing them, too.
Tigers inhabit a northern band across the top of the United States, averaging two to three states deep from the Canadian border south. Roughly, from the south end of the great lakes states west to Oregon. The hybrid occurs naturally, but is much more prevalent artificially due to stocking. They will be stocked in more waters, no doubt, by the time you read this.
The world record is a giant 54-incher taken on July 16, 1919, by John Knobla, according to www.toothycritters.com, a tiger muskie devoted site. Knobla hooked the giant while casting a "Skinner Spinner" in the Lac Vieux Desert, located in both Michigan and Wisconsin. It is listed as the state record in Michigan at 51 lbs. 7 oz.. This fish was initally considered the record muskellunge until it was re-identified as a hybrid ten years later.
The Pineview fishery slowed somewhat after locals figured out how to massacre the big fish using semi-dead perch (only dead is legal), but the state finally put an end to that recently by banning anyone from using a piece of meat cannot be bigger than one square inch.
"Now it's back to people skilled enough to catch them on lures," says Mickey Anderson at Fish Tech Anglers. "Lots of people were using 'pretty much dead perch', pitching them to those big fish." And far too many people were killing their catch, a shame in a trophy fishery where the fish are doing biological good and are incapable of natural reproduction.
Numbers are still down a bit at Pineview but the killing spree is over, Anderson says, and there are still plenty of fish of every year class in the lake. People in rocky mountain states tend to want to kill the first tiger they catch because it is almost always their biggest fish ever. And most of the fish are well earned. Tiger fishing, like deer hunting, consists of hours of boredom with seconds of madness mixed in.
Muskies fight like they hunt; in short, violent outbursts. They are ambushers, a super-predator best thought of as a freshwater barracuda. They fight just like their saltwater brethren. Anglers hook one and are overwhelmed by a short but powerful run, ripping power, a few amazing leaps...then the fish comes in like a tired log. You know, like a walleye.
HEAD ABOVE WATER
They are a fish that is bigger than life, and have an aura of mystique surrounding them. In muskellunge fishing, just seeing a big fish is considered a great day. In tiger fishing, seeing them is expected. And you just might see one that appears with its head out of the water, trying to spot you first. Unlike either of their parent subspecies, tigers exhibit one bizarre behavior. I have witnessed it twice out of maybe six tiger fishing trips. They stick their head out of the water -- completely out of the water -- and cruise in a serpentine pattern as far as 60 yards with their backs showing like some sort of Loch Ness look-a-like.
It is a spooky, surreal thing to see, because they exhibit no shyness like most fish. I once spotted one a hundred yards away, it's white opaque chin like a cobra head sticking out of the water. Only when it cruised by sideways did I recognize what it was, and cast to it with no success. Such behavior only adds to their mystique. Biologists like Sorenson have no clue what the spy-hopping behavior is for, but Sorno likes to imagine the fish are looking for jet skis.
Another baffling thing about tigers is their love of wild weather. Most fish get a headache and sulk with barometer fluctuations; tigers get turned on. These fish love storms. "The best day I had was when a storm rolled through," Anderson said. "It's opposite behavior from most fish. Pressure drops and other fish hide, but tigers go on the prowl. We had eight takes, hooked four, only landed one. All right as the storm front left." Anderson looked like a genius, because he took NBA player Greg Ostertag on that trip.
Anderson likes tiger fishing for one reason--size. Big fish. A spoiled veteran pike hunter who has fished the wilds of Canada and landed two 40-inch pike on the surface, Anderson likens tiger fishing to a slow day of pike fishing. Their fierceness sure livens the lives of many anglers seeking others species, though.
In the tropics, it's routine for anglers to pull in baitfish or smaller grunts and snappers until they start getting "cut up" by barracudas. It starts happening wherever tigers are introduced, too, a wild experience for freshwater anglers. People hauling in perch or crappie may suddenly find their panfish ripping off line, boiling south at 20 miles per hour, their ultralight rod noodled flat over. Other times, people may be catching perch and crappie the fishing will just die. That means a tiger has moved in.
Spring is magic in tiger country. The first warming of waters pulls the fish up into the topwater zone, where they are visible, hungry, and have not seen lures in a while. By mid-summer they are deep and sulky except when storms run the ski boats off.
The first time I ran into a tiger muskie, like most first-timers' tangles with a tiger, it was accidental. Three years ago, I launched a canoe at Pineview trying to find spawning crappie, figuring tigers would be way too much of a long shot for canoe fishing, and I wanted to get my friend into numbers of fish.
We barely pulled from shore, when I cast a small black plastic jig (a Berkley Power Leech pattern) beside a stump, hoping for bass. I saw the line twitch, thought that was odd, and reeled in the slack to find I was snagged. Then the line went slack! I could see the mono turn toward me in a 'U' shape and coming straight at the canoe.
A fish as long as my leg cruised indifferently under the canoe, looking much like a muscular barracuda. I could not believe my eyes. I reeled furiously and the line went tight again. The rod lurched over and the transom of the canoe swung rapidly toward the deeper water where this log-with-teeth was headed. Then the line popped. A tiger muskie, just like that. What a fluke, but how cool, I thought.
We eased downshore, and I cast a small crappie jig under a float next. The float bobbed and I set the hook. Snag. Then the snag yanked back and I saw a two-foot long greenish metallic flash. The jigged pulled out of the fish's mouth and flew forward, plopping down. Then another small tiger muskie bit it and popped off.
At this point, using years of fishing savvy, I managed to figure out all by myself that they were really biting. And the crappie must be hiding for their lives. We quickly caught and released a nine or 10 pounder on a black leech.
A storm hit. The barometer dove, and a waves blew us off the lake. It cleared an hour later, and I pulled out a big rod rigged with 30 pound fluorocarbon leader, a Gamakatsu wide gap hook and a soft plastic jerk bait that I had brought in case we ever did see a tiger muskie. What followed was a melee of getting towed around in the canoe by smallish 5 to 10 pound muskies around flooded willows. It was the hottest topwater action I have ever seen in freshwater, with tigers torpedoing the surface lure clear up to their lateral line. We had 12 hits by the end of the day and landed four of them.
No big ones, and perhaps that is why they were so aggressive. The longest were maybe 24 inches, but it was unforgettable. Even while waiting out the storm, I rose one from a flooded willow patch on the jerk bait. It nipped the lure twice, but I will never forget the site of that huge fish (it was probably a 15 pounder) circling the lure, my heart in my throat, as it's erect fins and tail stuck out of the water with big spots showing. The storm connection seems to be a big deal in the west, at least.
One of the biggest tigers ever boated at Pineview struck during a storm. Lure promoter Steve Keene of Newport Beach, Calif., chased Pineview's monsters for years, trying to hook a record to promote the expensive, gigantic, AC Plugs. His fish was big alright, at 48 inches long and 21 3/4 inches in girth, and hit during a storm with blowing whitewater. Keene told me the fish tore his boat up, biting and chewing on rod handles.
Keene complained he deserved the state record because his fish was a few inches longer and looked thicker than the state record fish, but was five pounds lighter. State officials were irritated that he was claiming he had beaten a record he was not even close to. Sorenson caught and released what would have been a fly-fishing world-record tiger (at the time), a 37-incher, on May 7, 1998, but shot a photo and released it. He doesn't like the whole ego-fest of record fish hunters. As a biologist, he simply sees muskies as a management tool that can provide an adrenalized thrill for those lucky enough to hook one. And what a tool they are.
Pineview's puny perch and panfish problem was terrible. Runty perch, teeny crappie and cracker-sized bluegill needed a big bad predator to chop their numbers down and so size would increase.
It worked: panfish here doubled in size, with crappie up to 13 inches and perch up to 12. Tigers took out the trash, too, cutting into carp populations. Carp and sucker minnows are like choice finger-food for tigers, and the less of them are around the more quality food for gamefish.
Tigers are better than muskellunge and northern pike for panfish control because they are sterile and biologists can easily control their numbers. Pike cut the panfish down quickly, but then like stripers wipe out the prey base completely and spawn unchecked, often going on to stunt just like the panfish.
It was a delightful surprise they proved so catchable in Utah. In the Midwest, a follow is considered a fish. In Utah it's such good fishing, skilled fly anglers have a reasonable shot at a tiger, and many have been caught. Lance Egan of Fish Tech in Salt Lake City caught one last year on a perch pattern fly while wading from shore.
Baby tigers grow at a rate of two to three inches per month, topping out at roughly the size of the Utah record, a 53-inch monster of 40-plus pounds, caught and released in November a few years back by Ray Johnson. They crunch wooden plugs, clamp down on spinnerbaits and submarine surface baits clear up to their lateral line.
One of the most exciting aspects of the fish is their willingness to hit lures not meant for them. Anglers unprepared to combat a huge fish hook them probably as frequently as tiger fishermen, as my leech and crappie jig experience shows. I hooked three or for more that day on regular old curly tail grubs, hoping to lip hook them, but they always cut the line.
They strike in a violent ambush, fight like bulldogs, leap like tarpon...but the biggest thing about tigers to most anglers is their size. Their sheer bulk is breathtaking when they pull out of the weeds and shadow a lure. Even a modest 12 to 20 pounder leaves a permanently etched imprint in an angler's head. Their dental work is equally awesome. Biologists say they don't bite people in a defensive manner, but don't want to roll those dice.
John Bray of Layton caught tiger fever after years of gentile fly fishing for fish he now sees as bait-size. He almost caught his first tiger when it freight-trained his Rapala, nearly pulling the rod out of his grip. He lost that fish, and another hit and he fought it to he boat, and grabbed the line. The fish then leaped forward and chomped on to the metal frame of his little pontoon and chewed like a dog on it inches from his leg. Bray had an armored glove and grabbed the fish, pulling it off the boat and finally releasing it. Or vice versa. The fish left him awestruck.
Convention holds "go big or stay home" when it comes to lure size for tiger muskie fishing. And biologists will confirm that the pike-family of predators typically chase baitfish one-third their length. But tigers seem to hit plenty of small baits, too, and I wonder if there isn't a conspiracy to sell huge, expensive lures.
Heavy tackle in the 20 pound test range is needed to turn these monsters before they get into brush, but if they can be isolated on an open water point, like Endsley and I did, there is no reason to go too heavy. But be ready for the giant. Most fish I caught could be taken on 10 to 15 pound line, but if I ever hooked a 40 pounder from my canoe with that gear, I wouldn't stand a chance.
The most effective way to catch them is trolling large plugs, but I hate this method. It's boring, for one thing, and you miss the feel of the huge strike, which is the best part of tiger fishing. That and the follows. I prefer prospecting with small rubber baits, crankbaits and topwater jerk baits. Most anglers use a minnow-imitating plug, such as a Husky Jerk and jointed Rapalas. Most also use steel leaders. I don't. Perch pattern suspended jerkbaits are excellent, too, and many fish are taken on spinnerbaits.
Fly fishers should go with a 50-pound butt and 30-pound tippet with a nylon braided stainless leader.
Catch and release is imperfect, and the fish need to be left in the water, not netted. Wear a glove, use some long handled pliers. Grab the base of the tail so the fish can't propel itself forward.
When the fringe fins on a tiger are turning red, the fish is stressed and dying. I have seen people heft them into boats, wrap them in towels to hold them, and drop them with a smack on the gunwhale. The fish eventually goes back in the water, and the well-meaning anglers stand up and whoop and high-five, seeming to believe they did some good deed.
Skilled anglers almost always release muskies--they want to see that big fish chase their bait again--and most that are killed for trophy mounting are wasted when anglers learn it costs $500 to stuff one.