Best Muskie Waters
October 05, 2017
Diehard muskie hunters dream of the next hot bite. Of course, each angler defines the parameters of his or her personal paradise. Some seek an honest shot at hitting the 50-inch markâ€”or higherâ€”while others long for lakes where boating half a dozen 40- to 45-inchers is within reason. For still others, it's all about the history, setting, predominant presentations, or other hallmarks of the destination.
Though interestâ€”and fishing pressureâ€”are growing on many waters, opportunities for enjoying the adventure of your choosing await on many waters.
In fact, there's far too much water to cover in a single season, let alone a lifetime, so we enlisted some of In-Fisherman's most devout muskie fans to share their thoughts on their best muskie waters.
Green Bay remains a red-hot option for anyone with an itch to mix it up with the fish of a lifetime. "It's without a doubt the best destination in Wisconsin for big fish, and arguably the best place in the States to take a 52- to 56-incher with tremendous weight for its length," says muskie legend Pete Maina, of Hayward, Wisconsin.
"To be sure, fishing pressure has increased on the bay, but fish numbers are still excellent and your odds of catching a 40- or 50-pounder rival those anywhere," he says. "The caveat is, the fish have gotten smart. They're pursued by a lot of experts and are not easily fooled. You need the right combination of weather, moon, and innovative tactics to light them up. But it's a world-class destination."
Maina notes that Green Bay muskies have a habit of prowling in wolf packs. "The fish tend to move in groups more than in inland fisheries," he explains. "You can cover a lot of dead water but once you find the fish, there's generally a bunch in the neighborhood. If you're lucky enough to be the first one to intercept a pod of fish moving into an area, you can do well."
A variety of tactics work. Given the size of its vegetated flats and offshore abyss, Maina advocates trolling to locate groups of fish before switching to casting. "Trolling is a good starting point," he says. "You can always slow down and show the fish something different to trigger more strikes. Don't overlook vertical jigging, either. It's especially deadly near the Fox River where channels are distinct, or anywhere fish are concentrated along a well-defined edge." He notes that a variety of weighted tubes and other soft plastics excel for jigging, as do Fuzzy Duzzits, which are one of his long-time favorites.
"The Fox River and other tributaries can be good early in the season," he adds. "Then lots of fish move out to open water in the bay and things get a little tougher. Around the beginning of August you start seeing fleets of muskies coming to weedy areas on the west side of the bay."
Maina notes that Wisconsin offers a variety of other stellar destinations. Indeed, the Department of Natural Resources reports the state is home to about 775 lakes and streams with thriving muskie populations. Determined to increase opportunities for trophy-size fish, the state recently enacted minimum-length and catch-and-release restrictions on some waters.
"Northern Wisconsin has been improving, and it's hard to pick just one lake to highlight," Maina says. "Fishing pressure seems less in the last decade, too. I think Green Bay and several Minnesota lakes have drawn some anglers who used to travel here. There's variety, too. We have lakes where you can shoot for the moon for a 50-incher, and some with lots of 42- to 48-inch fish."
If you're looking for an adventure on hallowed muskie waters, the historic Chippewa Flowage near Hayward is as good as it gets. In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw dubbed the "Big Chip" muskie fishing's Wailing Wall, where diehard pilgrims come to pay homage to the waters that yielded the world's biggest muskieâ€”the 69-pound 11-ounce, all-tackle record recognized by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. Maina likes the Chippewa Flowage, too, along with Whitefish, Round, and Lac Court Oreilles, to name a few standouts.
Big River Bruisers
Outside the Badger State, Maina points to the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers as top waterways to score a giant. "I don't know if they're the heaviest fish you'll ever catch, but the muskies in these rivers routinely stretch into the upper-50-inch range and even into the 60s," he says. "Every year guys like Marc Thorpe and Mike Lazarus catch at least one 58 or better, and we hear of fish topping 60 inches that are legit. In my book, these are still the places to catch the longest fish you'll see anywhere."
Maina says Eagle Lake, Ontario, is another personal favorite that's on the rise. The lake's fast-growing muskies reach trophy status fast, and fish into the 40-pound class and beyond are possible. But he reports an upswing in the number of muskies of all sizes. "I've fished Eagle for a long time, and in my opinion there are way more fish than there were 20 years ago," he says. "Right now it's not uncommon to boat five or six fish in a day. It didn't used to be that way."
Longtime In-Fisherman contributor and guide Jeff Gustafson offers additional venues north of the border. His number-one pick is in his backyard. "Lake of the Woods is incredible," he says. "It spans more than a million acres and is arguably the best muskie fishery in the world, offering both good numbers and chances for a giant."
I need no convincing. A few years ago, while on an ice fishing expedition with him and an In-Fisherman TV crew, I caught a 50-incher while jigging for perch there. That fish, witnessed by an Ontario game warden, beat the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame's ice-fishing release record by seven inches. Because it was incidentally taken out of season, however, record keepers declined to recognize the catch.
Gustafson says Lake of the Woods shines from the opener in late June through ice-up. "With over 14,000 islands and thousands of miles of shoreline, this lake has a lot of territory to explore," he says. "My best areas are around Big Narrows, Kenora, and the Nestor Falls area."
Legendary Lac Seul ranks second on his list. "While numbers are not as high as on Lake of the Woods, there are so many big fish caught every season at Lac Seul it's a must-fish location for those looking for a trophy. Anglers base out of Sioux Lookout, with several good resorts. Lac Seul is actually a reservoir, so it fishes a little differently than the natural lakes across Northwest Ontario. Current rolls through and sets fish up in predictable locations. Bring the usual for lures; casting blades works all summer and trolling cranks catches them in the fall."
Crow Lake, a smaller lake across Highway 71 from Lake of the Woods near Nestor Falls, is his third pick. "Crow, or Kakagi, is a super-clear trout lake with good numbers of muskies," Gustafson says. "Anglers looking for their first muskie should get lots of chances if they put in a day or two here. Muskies patrol deep weededges all summer and into September. Casting jerkbaits on these edges is a great way to catch them."
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer offers up provincial powerhouses a bit farther east. "Everyone's top picks I'm certain will be places like Lake of the Woods, Eagle, and Lac Seul in Northwest Ontario, but folks shouldn't neglect the many smaller and medium-size lakes in southern Ontario in the Haliburton Highlands and Kawartha Lakes regions," he says. "They're only a couple of hours north of Toronto, but the fishing can be spectacular for numbers of muskies in the high-teens to low 20-pound range, with occasional fish in the high 20-pound range. You can often catch 8, 9, or 10 muskies a day in places like Rice Lake, Buckhorn, and Pigeon.
"I grew up fishing a small lake in the Haliburton Highlands and I remember one 7-day period I put 44 muskies in the boat," he recalls. "And because I was at the family cottage, I didn't fish from dawn to dusk, but only for a few hours each day. The problem with Ontario is that it has such stellar big waters, smaller and medium-size fisheries are often overlooked. I love that kind of problem."
Like Maina, Pyzer highlights the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. "The Ottawa offers big-city amenities and world-class muskie fishing with outfits like John Anderson's Ottawa River Muskie Factory," he says. "Something else to consider: The next world-record muskie will come from the St. Lawrence River, on the border of New York and Ontario. Mark my words. I haven't had a chance to fish it yet, but from my sources, it's the place to be."
Pyzer says another sleeper is Lake Nipissing in northeastern Ontario, especially the western arm where the French River begins. "ChaudiÃ¨re Lodge is a five-star resort that offers muskie fishing in velvet," he says.
Finally, he taps the mighty Detroit River and Lake St. Clair for serious consideration. He recalls a trip with Guide Jon Bondy, out of Windsor, Ontario, which showed him the destination's potential first-hand. "My best day and a half ever was with Bondy a few years ago. In 15 hours, we hooked 15 muskies and put 11 in the boat with four over 40 pounds. It was amazing."
Guide Spencer Berman of Spencer's Angling Adventures in Michigan says the Lake St. Clair system is as good as ever and getting better. "We're reaping the rewards of the VHS virus that came through and thinned out the muskie population about 11 years ago," he says. "Our genetics are better than ever, the baitfish population is high, and our fishery keeps improving."
Last year, for example, Berman's clients boated 628 muskies, including 50 over 50 inches, in 160 days on the water. "Fall and spring conditions were tough," he adds. "In 2015 we boated 860 fish with 63 over 50 inches."
Trolling is a staple on St. Clair, but Berman prefers casting large rubber baits like Bulldawgs and Medussas. "Ninety percent of the time I'm throwing a Bulldawg," he says."Clients like the Medussa because it's a little lighter. It's all open-water fishing on St. Clair, no structure. We look for balls of baitfish, predominantly gizzard shad, and fish there."
Berman fishes the rivers when high winds or heavy seas keep him off the lake. "The St. Clair River is so cold early, it's a non-factor until mid-summer. "It offers a consistent bite, but not as many big fish as in the lake. The Detroit River is decent in early June, then tapers off in summer, and picks up again in fall."
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt also sings St. Clair's praises. "It's hard to imagine a more amazing muskie water than Lake St. Clair," he says. "It might not be as scenic as the Canadian Shield or northern Wisconsin, but for numbers of fishâ€”and a possible giantâ€” it's in my opinion unparalleled. So many fish from so many year-classes seem to swim in this system that on a given day it's feasible to hook over a dozen muskies, including tiny fish and 50-inchers. And depending on the season you can fish almost any way you likeâ€”trolling open water with Wiley Baits or your favorite crank, casting shallow vegetation, working rivers and current areas, sunken wrecks, and more.
"In a half dozen trips to St. Clair and the Detroit River," he says, "we've caught as many as 20 muskies in a day, averaging probably around 8 to 10 fish per 12-hour day. I've never seen so many muskies in a single large patch of vegetation as hereâ€”it's a muskie mecca."
Schmidt's go-to fishery is closer to home. "My favorite muskie water is also my home waterâ€”the Upper Mississippi River," he confides. "Scattered pockets of fish exist from Grand Rapids south to Little Falls. Except in moderately fished stretches near a few towns, most of the upper river stays quiet, allowing for lots of exploration and discovering spots and fish that probably haven't been touched. Feeder streams, fallen timber, and shallow, upstream sides of deep holes are potential hotspots. And don't overlook backwater bays early in the season."
"Northern Minnesota muskie fishing is as good as it's ever been, thanks to increasing catch-and-release," he says. "Leech Lake offers tons of opportunities, from shallow flats and large weedbeds to open-water trolling. There are a huge number of fish per acre. My favorite time to fish Leech is the Summer Period through September, when many fish are shallow and hunting."