August 09, 2021
By Cory Schmidt
As recently as the early 1980s, Ontario’s crown jewel of a freshwater fishery—that maze of islands known to the Ojibwe as Pikwedina Sagainan—still represented unexplored, largely unknown muskie water. In the centuries since French explorers and Indian tribes roamed its rocky islands, dramatic changes have reshaped Lake of the Woods. Yet to marvel at the seemingly unspoiled Precambrian surroundings, you’d be hard-pressed to believe it.
“I caught my first muskie in 1965,” recalls Doug Johnson, legendary Lake of the Woods muskie guide. “But it wasn’t until a few years later when a new road went through to the Northwest Angle that I started fishing them hardcore. I met up with Dick Pearson, who’d accompany me on exploratory trips well before GPS made things easy. We’d throw a spare can of gas in the boat and fish our way out into the lake until the gauge hit empty. Then we’d fill it back up and make our way home.”
Now 80, Johnson still maintains a little cabin on the Northwest Angle portion of the lake, from which he bases muskie operations, June through October. “I guided until I was 72,” he says. “Now, I don’t go after them with so much fire as in those earlier days. But I still do lots of banker’s-hours expeditions, and still catch my share of fish.”
Once a full-time biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Johnson remains sharp as a tack, both about the fish he’s boated and the baits he prefers to sling. To date, his tally reads as impressive as any stat-sheet in the sport: one fish at 56 inches, four 54s, twenty-five 53s, and forty-five 52s, along with too many 50- and 51-inchers to count.
“There’s still no other lake I’d rather fish for muskies,” he says. “It seems like we see a few more boats on good spots every year. But there’s always the next great spot waiting to be found. And there’s still plenty of big old fish swimming around to keep things interesting.” Yet, beneath the surface, Johnson and others believe change is brewing.
If you’ve fished Lake of the Woods anytime during the past decade, rusty crayfish would’ve been impossible to overlook. Native to the Ohio River basin, invasive rusties have spread into the northern U.S., as well as into portions of Ontario. Beyond the species’ affinity for multiplying and displacing native crayfish, rusty crayfish can decimate aquatic vegetation, leading to other problems. On Lake of the Woods, you can’t step near any shoreline without observing shells, claws, or live rusty crayfish. They make raccoons, otters, and seagulls happy. But anglers feel anguish for the little crustaceans, which have eaten their way through entire beds of pondweed—beautiful cabbage beds relished by muskie hunters.
“Rusty crayfish have been in the lake since the 1960s,” says legendary muskie angler Dick Pearson, who also keeps a cabin on the lake. “They’ve now spread as far north and west as they can go and are expanding south into the rest of the lake, devastating weedbeds as they go.”
“There’s almost no cabbage left, particularly in the Northwest Angle,” he says. “As the vegetation has disappeared, muskies have redistributed among less habitat. You see more anglers concentrated on fewer, high percentage spots—mostly rock. But that’s something we can adapt to. What’s most alarming is I think the crayfish are eliminating a lot of spawning habitat. We’re seeing fewer and fewer small muskies every year.”
Beyond his own observations, Johnson cites catch data compiled by Red Wing Lodge, located on Sabaskong Bay. “Since 1987, the folks at Red Wing have kept records of every muskie caught by their guests,” Johnson says. “The number of small muskies, particularly those under 35 inches, has decreased during the past several years. I’m seeing the same trend with the sizes of fish I’m catching. I don’t see many 25- to 35-inchers anymore.
“It’s probably too early to make judgments about poor year-classes and young muskies. But given what we know about the loss of vegetation and potential spawning habitat, it could become a big issue in the years to come. Rusty crayfish in most lakes have boom-and-bust cycles. Problem is, on the Woods, the population has only continued to boom, year after year.
“Perhaps soon to be of equal or greater concern is the presence of the spiny water flea,” Pearson says. First discovered in the Lake of the Woods in 2007, Pearson and others worry about the species’ potential impact on native zooplankton, forage on which many young-of-the-year fish depend, including newly hatched muskies.
While both the Minnesota DNR and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) are studying the consequences of invasive species in Lake of the Woods, neither have gone on record about any adverse effects. Time will tell, but perhaps given the lake’s massive size and biological diversity, nature will balance itself out, as it sometimes does. Muskies Beyond the Woods
Meanwhile, the muskie population in Lake of the Woods remains so robust that it’s still possible to discover big fish where you’ve never seen them before. And if that’s not enough options, you’ve got Eagle, Wabigoon, Pipestone, Kakagi, Dryberry, the Indian Chain, and countless smaller waters within an a few hours drive. Lac Seul’s catch-and-release regulation helps it retain perhaps more gargantuan fish than any other lake in Ontario.
Dozens of fantastic muskie fisheries across Ontario make an easy case for it being the most prodigious muskie province. In-Fisherman Field Editor and Kenora, Ontario, resident Gord Pyzer casts plenty of big baits on Lake of the Woods, but he also is excited to fish some the province’s other waters. “Folks should never forget about 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 fishing can be spectacular for numbers of muskies in the mid- to high-teens, with occasional fish in the high 20-pound range.
Two other spots Pyzer loves are the Ottawa and Detroit rivers. “Both fisheries offer big-city amenities nearby and great fishing for world-class muskies,” he says. “The best day-and-a-half of muskie fishing I’ve ever experienced was with guide Jon Bondy a few years ago. In 15 hours we hooked 15 muskies and put 11 in the boat with 4 over 40 pounds.”
Pyzer says Lake Nippissing is a sleeper. “Lake Nipissing in Northeast Ontario, especially the western arm where the French River begins. What a fishery. Stay at Chaudière Lodge for a five-star experience that offers muskie fishing in velvet.”
Old School is the New Cool
Returning to the Woods, Johnson and Pearson still experience plenty of incredible days on the water to keep them casting, most every day of the season. Yet while trending lures come and go, the modest yet mighty jerkbait has endured.
A lot of anglers haven’t clipped one to their leader since roughly 1985. If you ask Johnson, Pearson, and younger anglers like Jeremy Smith, however, the Suick and Bobby Bait remain two of the all-time great muskie lures that have never stopped producing fish in over 70 years.
“I still throw a Suick,” Johnson says. “On Lake of the Woods, I don’t have to worry about weeds anymore, but a Suick still shakes big fish loose when a double-10 blade won’t. When weeds were so prevalent, you’d never catch a muskie off a fallen tree. Now that the cabbage is gone, certain trees have become key spots that seem to hold a muskie or two every time you visit it.”
“I work a Suick in one of three ways,” Pearson says. “In clear water, I give it fairly long pulls, then pause. It’s sort of a mini sweep of the rod. Don’t forget to pause. Pauses can be one of the keys to provoking strikes with this bait.
“In shallow water, I think shorter pulls and pumps—especially in weeds—get fish more jazzed up. Pump-pause. Pump-pause. My friend Mark Windels cranks it up a notch—and he’s a master with a Suick. Whap-whap-whap. Make short fast pulls with a brief pause between each sequence. Do this right, and muskies eat you up.
“A third retrieve works best in the evening. Pump the Suick 12 to 14 inches. Pause until it breaks the surface, then pump it again. Fish sometimes like to eat it right on top.
“With all these approaches, working a Suick is a feel thing. And it takes practice. Pump—feel the lure with your hands and rod tip as it swims and dives. Feel the line as the lure rises. It’s a subtle swimming-diving-rising action that lots of anglers today don’t understand. But it’s always clicked with muskies.”
An hour boat ride down the lake from Pearson and Johnson, my friend Don Schwartz, who owns a cabin near Sioux Narrows, remains a fan of the classic Bobbie Bait. Schwartz also relies on “Bobbie Sue,” a self-made lure with a more pronounced diving head than the original, and which swims deeper with a nose-down kickback action between jerks. He picked up his jerkbaiting craft from Johnson and Pearson and has become a master in his own right.
Schwartz works jerkbaits on big-water structure—extended points, saddles, and reefs near deep, open water. But he often finds that muskies can be so spread out in late August into September that no probable-looking spot goes unfished. As such, he’s taken big muskies from secondary points in smaller bays as well as off fallen pines on otherwise nondescript shorelines—especially if current is available.
Using long, evenly spaced downward rod pulls to get the bait diving quickly, he pauses briefly once it reaches 8 feet or so, before commencing his retrieve. When a follower appears, it’s a matter of reacting to the fish with the right counterpunches—the right combination of pops, pulls, and pauses. When you get the dance just right, the water erupts.
Lest you think vegetation is out of the equation, Jeremy Smith, a talented muskie man who relishes his jerkbaits, works the waters of Eagle Lake and Lac Seul. Smith, co-host of Lindner’s Angling Edge TV, has rediscovered the Suick’s appeal to muskies in pondweed.
“I think the fish are in vegetation all season long,” he says. “And I love going after them with a 10-inch Suick or a Rapala Super Shad Rap. There’s something magic about an extra-buoyant bait in vegetation. The deal is purposefully hanging the bait in cover and getting it to back up and out. When so many other anglers are burning bucktails and topwaters right over the tops, I can get right down to the fish in those 6- to 10-foot depths where the best cabbage takes root. Lots of fish just watch those fast-moving baits cruise by. But with a Suick, I can dig down into the stuff where they live.
“I make short casts, visually picking out lanes through which I can work the bait. I use shorter pulls to make the nose dive down and don’t let the bait rise too much. When the nose hits a stalk, I lightly pull on the rod to move the cabbage a little. I’m pretty sure this is the movement that compels a muskie to swim over and find out what caused the plant to move, because it’s exactly what happens when a preyfish flees the area. If the lure doesn’t shake free on the initial pull, give it one snap, which is when it often gets eaten.”
Around Windsor, Ontario, Captain Jon Bondy of Bondy Bait fame offers timely advice for fishing the Detroit and St. Clair rivers and beyond, including the Ottawa River. “All across the province, we’re setting records for high water,” he says. “We have a lot of shallow, 4- to 5-foot flats around here. Usually, by early June, the weeds are already at the surface. By midsummer, the fish vacate this sloppy stuff. But starting last year, we had an extra foot of water
For Bondy, the high water also yielded an historic topwater bite. “I got to fish some prototype surface baits I’m working on, and they worked great” he says. “The Lake X Fat Bastard was another good topwater lure. And we caught a lot of fish on the Bondy Royal Orba, pulling it fast over flats.
“You could fish shallow-diving cranks, like the Bondy Prophet, or blades, but when muskies are going on topwater, why would you want to. The only exceptions occur on sunny days. After the sun gets high in the sky, I go out and jig deep water with Bondy Baits. But on cloudy days I fish topwaters all day."
While working deep river channels, necked-down areas between lake basins, or other current areas is far from a new fad, it’s still an emerging pattern in many locales. Lake of the Woods guide Heinrich Bier, who works the waters around Sioux Narrows and into Whitefish Bay, says he’s experienced exceptional bites with a Red October Monster Tube and Boo Tube. “I fish them in any situation where you’d normally work a Bulldawg or Medussa,” he says. “They’re much more durable, versatile, and you don’t miss fish often with it. The new Boo Tube has flashabou and a blade in the back for extra vibration. I’ve caught a lot of fish on it, both retrieving over shallow water and jigging in deep current where you’d normally fish a Bondy Bait.”
Over the past decade, Bier and other frequent Lake of the Woods anglers have noted another trend of a more troubling sort. “Commercial and tribal netting on Lake of the Woods goes back a long time,” Bier says. “But four years ago, I noticed a major increase in nets. The problem isn’t that netting is occurring. It’s that there seems to be no transparent data or quota systems set up by any governing agency. It’s ‘monitored’ by OMNR, but there’s little authority or policing going on. No science that governs how many pounds or which species can be targeted.”
The result, say Bier, In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, and Matt Rydberg, owner of Crawford’s Camp in Sioux Narrows, is a largely unmanaged commercial fishery where nets are left unmarked, unattended, or abandoned. On one smaller southern Ontario lake Schwartz and I have fished over the years, the lake trout and muskie fisheries have virtually collapsed, a victim of unchecked tribal netting.
In the Sioux Narrows community, Rydberg has been a vocal opponent of unchecked netting, which has reportedly caused numerous accidents and close-calls from boats colliding with unmarked nets, or nets merely marked with clear plastic water bottles.
Rydberg has shared his thoughts in several well-reasoned letters to the OMNR: “The economic value of Lake of the Woods in North America is in excess of $125 million per year, with 75 major tourist resorts on the lake. The sport fishery is so important and provides so many social and economic benefits that between 1979 and 1985, the Ontario government bought out the non-native commercial fisheries on the lake. This move brought Lake of the Woods back to world-class status after decades of commercial fishing.
“To be clear, this is not subsistence fishing, as most of the First Nation members in our area place their nets for food, store what they need in freezers, and then retire for the year.
“A loophole appeared in the system when a local (Kenora) fish plant was granted a multispecies quota in order to produce and sell fish cakes, ‘walleye wings,’ and other freshwater fish products. The plant has taken advantage of the rights of First Nations, encouraging them to supply the plant, year-round, with walleye and whitefish. While quotas on total pounds allowed per year are apparently in place, no one will reveal these numbers. And because enforcement is seemingly absent, actual amounts of harvested fish are unknown.
“As a result, walleye and whitefish numbers have appeared to drop dramatically. And the bycatch, fish killed in nets and left to rot, is devastating and a clear violation of fish and game waste laws.” (Rydberg has assembled a large collection of photographs exhibiting abandoned nets with rotting trout, whitefish, walleyes, pike, bass, and muskies.)
In a June 7 response to Rydberg’s letters, OMNR district manager Brian Kilgour wrote: “Lake of the Woods has a long-standing history of supporting a viable commercial fishery. There are several active, licensed commercial fisheries on Lake of the Woods, and these licenses contain species quotas. OMNR does not issue any quotas, authorizations, or regulate the fish processing plant.”
Rydberg and others have repeatedly asked OMNR officials to provide data on the multispecies quotas, and to date, no response has been offered beyond the general statements given by Kilgour. “Because there is little to no enforcement or oversight,” Rydberg says, “I believe it puts OMNR in an impossible situation, relative to quota numbers or any reporting thereof.”
Pyzer, who worked for years to foster the previous government buyout of commercial fishing and the renaissance of the fishery, echoes the sentiments of a friend and fellow, now-retired Ontario biologist: “I hope we didn’t spend a lifetime on Lake of the Woods working in vain.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an astute multispecies angler and writer for all In-Fisherman publications.