Muskie madness is an affliction that affects some anglers on a year round basis, with an increase in intensity during the summer months after the seasons open across the Midwest.
Symptoms vary among the afflicted, but the most obvious revelations are compulsive purchases of large baits and repeated calendar visits to re-calculate the number of days until opening day. Muskie anglers often wake up with an elevated heart rate on muskie weekends, but the symptoms are seldom fatal.
While many anglers venture north of the border to fish Canadian waters, some of the best muskie fishing anywhere is in Minnesota. The more high profile lakes are Lake of the Woods, Leech and Cass, but if you don't tell anyone else, I'll let you in on a secret spot.
Lake Mille Lacs has been long known for exceptional walleye catches, but the number of monster muskies in this fishery is probably the best kept secret in the country. This past summer I was fortunate to try my hand at Mille Lacs muskie, and was impressed with both numbers and size of the fish.
Although Mille Lacs is not a native muskie lake, the state's DNR stocking program has taken care of that oversight. In the late 60's and early 70's there were several plantings of 40 young, adult fish per year. There were sporadic stockings throughout the 70's, but in the 80's the DNR got serious, and their planting schedule included a drop of 10,000 fish. During the 90's the fishery really took off, and the growth rate has been phenomenal according to local experts. The lake's abundance of soft-ray fish such as the tullibee and lake sucker has been a major factor in this success story.
Dave Bentley, of Eddy's Lake Mille Lacs Resort, was my guide for this outing, and I could not have been better armed. Dave has won most of the tournaments worth competing in, and he's a veritable storehouse of knowledge about the muskies' habits and habitat. The muskie is widely known as the fish of a thousand casts, and as a result of our efforts I can readily attest that the moniker is apropos. Dave's tackle box looks like a showcase for oversized bucktails and top water behemoths, neatly racked by color and size.
I didn't want to catch just any muskie. I wanted to catch a monster. Dave looked at me with his trademark grin and said, "No problem." In short order he had his big Ranger backed into the water, and during the last week of August we set out to see what the lake had to offer.
A friend of mine was once a muskie guide in Canada. During one of his charters he buried a huge muskie harasser in the back of his client's head. With this in mind, and being unfamiliar with Dave's casting techniques, I carefully positioned myself when we reached our first fishing spot. My caution proved to be unfounded and I eventually stopped flinching with each cast.
Our first outing was beset with the fortunes (or misfortunes if you will) that often distress fishermen. We set out to a northern shoreline that had been very productive for Dave in recent months. Windy, overcast and fruitless would put it in a nutshell, but Dave would not be denied. This would only be a delay and not a "Problem." The next day we set out again with grit in our teeth. The weather looked better for an afternoon assault so we launched about 5:00 P.M.
We set up for a long drift over tall weed beds in a different bay, and it didn't take long to have our first follow. A fish in the mid-40 inch range followed Dave's lure and immediately the excitement level pegged off the meter. Dave quickly marked his Lowrance sonar, and we continued our drift, casting repeatedly back in the direction of the follow. No response was forthcoming, so we moved back upwind and started another drift that would parallel the first run.
While we drifted and continued to amass our total-cast tally, Dave shared some of his years of accumulated muskie wisdom. "During the early season I use smaller baits like the Mepps Muskie Killer, and the Terminator Titanium Spinnerbaits. Top-water baits like the Zara Spook and Jackpot work well also, but personally I prefer to use bucktails or spinnerbaits with a slow retrieve. For me, a slow retrieve has produced more big fish. Daredevles always produce, and spoons in firetiger with a silver or bronze back also work well in shallow water. On bluebird days, when the water is clear, top water baits work best," he said.
"Depending on ice-out and water temperature, as the water begins to warm, fish move deeper, but deep and shallow are relative terms for the muskie," Dave added. "When I say shallow we're talking about 1 to 3 feet of water. Deep water would be in the 5 to 9 foot range. As the season continues, and temperatures rise to the high 70's and low 80's, muskies move to the outer edges of bays and relate to structure in deeper water -usually around the 3rd week in June."
One of the fun aspects of casting for muskie is the distance you get with each toss. We were using heavy baits and casting forever. I was casting a large orange and black spinnerbait, and had my bait about half way back to the boat when the water began to boil. I immediately set the hook and started to negotiate, but only a few feet from the boat the hook came flying out of his huge jaws. The hook had not found its mark, because the fish had been holding it between its teeth. Following Dave's council, I inserted my rod into the water and began a frantic, slashing figure 8. The fish made one more short strike, and then he was gone. Fish always look bigger when they get away, but Dave and I both agreed that this fish was definitely in the mid-forty range. A nice fish, but I knew that there were bigger fish to be had. Dave's mounts in Eddy's resort were proof.
Although my shoulders and arms were beginning to show the signs of excessive "shot-put" casts, I continued with unabated enthusiasm. In a little over two hours I had a total of nine big fish follow the bait to the boat, and some even made short passes at the lure. But the total "caught-count" was one small northern and Dave landed that one.
We had been casting at such a fevered pitch that I had lost track and didn't know if I was nearing the fabled 1,000 cast mark, or for that matter, if I could make that many. Just when I had about given up hope, our efforts paid off. I reacted to a lunging strike with a ferocious hook-set. The battle was on.
Judging from the excessive bend in my rod, Dave predicted it was a big female. When the drag started singing, I let her make her first run unmolested and then started the long process of working her carefully to the boat. After repeated runs that paid out my hard won progress, the fish was at the boat. What a fish it was. At 50 inches it was only 2 inches short of a lake record. Total weight was 33 pounds. This was the fish I was looking for, and I laid my rod down for a rest somewhere short of 1,000 casts.
If you have big muskies on your mind and start to exhibit any of the aforementioned symptoms, you might want to try out Lake Mille Lacs. If you want a guided tour of the really big fish, give Dave Bentley a call. He certainly knows where the big fish are and how to catch them -"No Problem."
If he's not out fishing for muskie, most days you can find Dave at 320-532-3657.
Minnesota's muskie season opens June 6. Check out our Minnesota state pages for more in-depth information on the muskie, check out the Minnesota DNR web site as well.
Editor's Note: Luhr Jensen's Woodchopper is another great top water muskie lure. For a great muskie rod, try out Cabela's Fish Eagle IITM. The GMU764, is a 7'6" beauty that is ideal for casting big baits. Looking for a top quality reel at an affordable price? Check out Cabela's Megaroyal Plus 200. Its multi-disc drag system and high performance ball bearing system are top drawer, and an unbelievable price.