May 24, 2018
Big water equals big fish. There's truth to this statement when it comes to fish at the top end of the size spectrum. The three best big-water producers of giant muskies are Green Bay, Lake St. Clair, and the Ottawa River/St. Lawrence River systems. Anglers have a legitimate shot at a 50- to 56-inch muskie nearly any day of the season there and it's possible a record fish swims in at least two of these fisheries.
These vast waters could take a lifetime for a casual angler to decipher. By calling upon some premier guides, the learning curve can be accelerated tremendously. They're on the water daily, year after year. They observe patterns and quickly make adjustments that wouldn't be generally apparent.
Green Bay is the hottest fishery right now. Thirty years ago, no one was talking about Green Bay muskies because they were virtually non-existent. Green Bay's historic muskie population had been decimated by commercial fishing, habitat loss, and pollution.
Beginning in 1989, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) began to reintroduce Great Lakes spotted muskies into Lake Michigan. The project has been a huge success. Over the last several decades, the stocking program has expanded, stretching up the eastern shore to Sturgeon Bay, which begs the question whether "Bay" fish are establishing ranges within Lake Michigan itself. While stocking originally focused on lower Green Bay and the Fox River, WDNR now stocks the western shore from the mouth of the Fox River to the Menominee River.
As the range of Green Bay muskies expands, veteran Captain Bret Alexander breaks down the seasonal patterns and changing techniques on this waterway. He takes his craft seriously, putting in the effort each day, working with other talented guides such as Kyle Tokarski, Stephen Boulden, and Jay Stephan. That group caught and released more than 100 muskies over 50 inches last season, with most fish coming during a 90-day period. "Due to its massive size," he says, "the name of the game on Green Bay is eliminating unproductive water, following seasonal migrations of fish, and finding baitfish that concentrate muskies. Finding the first fish of the day often is the key to success. Muskies group up here. The first fish often is followed by three or four more, especially if other boats don't surround you and push fish off the spot."
River mouths and large shallow flats adjacent to spawning sites offer dark-bottom areas that warm quickly and attract preyfish, such as suckers and drum. Muskies hold in these areas for several weeks recuperating from the spawn. They're susceptible to a range of techniques, including slow-rolling spinnerbaits, casting single-bladed bucktails, and twitching jerkbaits. To avoid the daytime crowds of opening week, try night-fishing with topwater lures for a new level of excitement. Slow, steady retrieves are the ticket after dark.
In years with a cold spring, muskies may remain paired up in rivers or spawning along shoreline vegetation. These fish are susceptible to fly-fishing and softbaits with more natural gliding and swimming action. In clear water, make long casts to wary fish and be prepared for noncommittal following fish.
As the river and near-shore waters warm, postspawn muskies scatter over deeper water in search of food. This transition period can be a tough time to find muskies. Watch your electronics to find warmer water, pods of baitfish, and scattered muskies. Trolling shad-style lures around baitfish schools often works well for fish away from structure. Diving birds, as well as wind and current seams, suggest areas to explore in early summer.
As vegetation becomes established in midsummer, muskies vacate deeper haunts and occupy thick weedflats. Here they take advantage of abundant perch and other preyfish. Alexander generally has most prominent weed patches on the Bay marked in his Humminbird graphs.
Standard tactics of casting large double-bladed bucktails and big rubber baits rule. Success comes in the form of studying changes in water temperature, clarity, current, and forage supply in various areas and making the right call on where to set up during prime moon phases. Alexander favors Spanky bucktails, and a large percentage of his fish go for black, green, or red color schemes. He favors Magnum Bull Dawgs and Double Dawgs from early summer through the end of the season.
By late summer, muskies move out and slowly work down into the lower Bay, concentrating along the edge of structural elements. Casting is still an option, but Alexander favors trolling to maximize the odds for multiple big fish. He generally trolls between 3.2 and 3.8 mph, but may adjust due to changes in water clarity and temperature, and weather conditions. He runs spreads of Rapala Super Shad Raps and Spanky Hairball Blades.
Lake St. Clair
For numbers of 40-inch plus muskies, no fishery can compare with Lake St. Clair. Here, Captain Jason Quintano operates Fin and Grin Muskie Charters with a 30-foot Model 299 Baha Sportfish cruiser that comfortably accommodates five anglers during trolling trips and a 24-foot Skeeter ZX24V for smaller groups who prefer to cast. In the last eight years, he's guided clients to over 6,000 muskies, with 390 of those 50 inches or bigger. Last year's total was 48 muskies over 50 inches, which he says was an "off' year due to high water on Lake Huron that kept St. Clair's temperatures atypically cool.
Quintano grew up fishing the lake and can attest to the changes there during the last two decades. "As a kid growing up and fishing the lake with my dad, the water quality and clarity were less than ideal. The vegetation was minimal and muskies primarily fed on perch, which yielded lean muskies."
In the last 20 years, several changes have boosted trophy muskie fishing on St. Clair. First was the arrival of zebra mussels in 1998, followed by quagga mussels. These water filterers increased water clarity, which allowed for greater light penetration into deeper water and more vegetation throughout the lake. Not long after, St. Clair was hit by the VHS virus, which was thought to have killed nearly half of the lake's muskies. This negative event had a corresponding positive effect by thinning out weaker fish, leaving a population of muskies with a more disease-resistant gene pool. At the same time, St. Clair was benefiting from mild winters and a boom in shad. Fewer muskies and a lake full of protein-rich preyfish has allowed St. Clair muskies to grow bigger and heavier than ever.
Quintano also credits better conservation practices for the increase in big fish. "I recall growing up with the local fishing derbies being a parade of dead muskies," he says. "Not only has catch-and-release caught on, but anglers are handling fish better. The respected trolling charters now have holding tanks onboard where muskies are placed after being caught and allowed to revive prior to release."
To break down seasonal patterns, he suggests that anglers bear in mind that the lake is essentially a dishpan flat between two major rivers — the St. Clair to the north and the Detroit to the south. The massive volume of this 260,000-acre fishery is entirely refreshed with water from Lake Huron every 4 to 7 days. Accordingly, water temperature, current, and forage are keys to success throughout the season.
Beginning early in June, he typically finds the warmest water and postspawn muskies with a hardy appetite shallow. He uses a mix of smaller bucktails for casting and trolling 6-inch Ziggie baits. He avoids spooking fish by using a mast-and-board system to spread lures out from the boat.
Bucking the trend toward braided line, he trolls 40-pound-test Hi-Seas monofilament. His large boat and 12-line trolling spread make it impractical to slow the boat while landing fish. The stretch of mono helps keep more fish hooked on a short leash at boatside.
"By mid-summer, big muskies have vacated the shallows and feed on schools of gizzard shad in the middle of the lake," he says. "With stable weather and good water conditions in July and August, we can home in on pockets of warm water and mid-lake shad schools to pull multiple 50-inch fish. I generally troll at 3.6 to 3.8 mph, but bump it up as high as 4.1 mph if the water's clear. Slow down in stained water and after cold fronts."
Quintano mixes lures in his trolling spread, but makes certain that 10-inch Supernatural Headlocks and Mattlocks are in the mix. He also likes 8-inch Ziggies and Spanky lures during summer and refers to Loke Lures as "the best bait ever on Lake St. Clair. They have a hunting side-to-side action that our muskies go nuts over. Most guys run their baits in the top third of the water column, but I spread lures at all different depths, even 6 inches off bottom. Plenty of my largest fish come on deep rods."
As the water cools in fall, shad and muskies return to the river mouths. The areas around the Thames, Ruscom, Puce, and Belle rivers are good areas to cast large rubber baits like Bull Dawgs, Medussas, and Shadzillas.
Ottawa & St. Lawrence Rivers
The Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers are renowned for producing world-record-caliber muskies. Captain Marc Thorpe has an intimate knowledge of these vast systems and often trailers his boat hours between launch sites to give clients the best chance to catch their dream fish. Last year he had 44 muskies over 50 inches, including seven between 55 and 57, slightly less than 2016 due to high water and spring flooding.
The Ottawa/St. Lawrence system has produced more muskies over 50 pounds than any other fishery. If your goal is to target a record fish, consider paying a visit. But due to the immense size of these waterways and their changeable nature, there's no substitute for time on the water here.
To locate muskies, Thorpe looks at current, water temperature, vegetation, structural elements, prey species and more. During spring, that means looking shallow, sometimes just a couple feet of water where old vegetation and dark-bottom areas result in warmer water. Here bucktails work well, along with Heli-Dawgs. On days with moderate chop, topwaters can be used to draw strikes from fish that fail to react to subsurface lures.
During high-water years, Thorpe finds that vegetation is often delayed or reduced, which can concentrate big fish in small areas of coontail or cabbage that can be fished more precisely. As water warms into the 70°F-range, muskies generally move out into the 5- to 10-foot range where newly emerged vegetation becomes established. During this period and through most of the summer, he relies on big rubber baits, including Magnum Bull Dawgs, Red October Tubes, or Shadzillas, with bucktails as a backup casting lure. For trolling, he favors large baits like Legend Perch Baits, Grandmas, Believers, and Wiley Musky Kings Jointed while focusing on current edges off structure.
Thorpe suggests not focusing on graphing bait schools, but instead looking for signs of life on electronics. "Look for suckers, walleyes, and perch grouped together, along with baitfish," he says. Such a balanced community attracts muskies and makes them more catchable.
By fall, he finds big muskies are more scattered with some shallow, good numbers suspended over deep water, and others on bottom. For shallow suspended fish, he pulls shallow runners far behind the boat, but may add one in the prop wash as well. To target fish on bottom, he uses large trolling lures that reach the right depth and makes repeated passes at slightly different angles to trigger less-active fish.
For trophy seekers, Green Bay, Lake St. Clair, and the Ottawa/St. Lawrence River systems are the premier muskie waters of North America. By applying the lessons shared by these big-water muskie masters, anglers can find themselves battling their own record catch.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan pursues muskies throughout the Great Lakes region and beyond. He contributes to all In-Fisherman publications. Guide contacts: Bret Alexander, 920/851-4214, alexandersportfishing.com; Jason Quintano, 586/350-0934, finsandgrinsmuskiecharters.com; Marc Thorpe, 450/433-4784, marcshorpeguiding.com.