Researching Trophy Muskie Fisheries
September 09, 2013
In this electronic age, eyes and ears are everywhere. Minutes after a noteworthy event occurs, texts, tweets, postings, emails, and video clips broadcast across an array of media. We're all connected in an impersonal and less connected sort of way. Through this change in social networking, our group of friends has gone from a handful of people entrusted with the most sacred of fishing information, to hundreds of online "friends" with whom we may share information.
On the muskie scene, this means access to more fishing information than ever. Happenings across the lake and around the globe arrive instantly on our computer, smartphone, or other mobile device. We've gained instant access to information, but lost the ability to independently verify all this streaming data.
Downsides to the Modern Day
For all the good info the Internet has provided, we're still exposed to hoaxes that go "viral" before they can be debunked. The moral remains — don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Credible intel on sleeper muskie fisheries may not be as common as mug shots of Lindsay Lohan, but it's available for those willing to dig.
That information gets out so quickly can be a negative as well as a positive. With a couple of "posts," a small fishery can become overwhelmed. Anyone can watch the muskie boards and see which fisheries are hot. When lakes Vermillion and Mille Lacs start pumping out mid-50-inch fish, you see more trailers at the accesses. If muskie guides start buying real estate along Lake St. Clair, you can bet the fishery's on fire and that you'll have plenty of company there. The trick becomes discovering some not-so-famous locations with an ignored population of giants, or finding fish in non-traditional locations on major fisheries.
Most of this research is no longer about gathering data. It's now a game of assessing the intel. For savvy anglers, this isn't a new concept. Fishing tales have been told for generations, around campfires, in bait shops, or local watering holes. Stories abound of an uncle's co-worker's brother who fought a 70-pound muskie off Liar's Point for 3 hours only to have it not fit into a Frabill Big Kahuna Net and finally bite through 300-pound cable. The key becomes deciphering fact from fiction and the varying degrees of gray between.
Apart from the impersonal Internet, a great first step in finding a new fishery is establishing a close network of fishing friends. Trusted people with lots of experience are invaluable sources of information. Hardcore muskie anglers, including guides and weekend warriors, are the best collaborators when looking to refine locations on big bodies of water. But during the initial stages of research, don't limit your sources only to muskie fishermen. Walleye, bass, and even panfish anglers have frequent encounters with muskies and can be an untapped source of information.
After hearing of a muskie's assault on a walleye, probe with deeper follow-up questions. Instead of rolling your eyes, ask the location of the encounter. Water depth? Try to decipher the true size of the muskie. The tape measure typically gets stretched, so temper your excitement when arms get stretched to full extension. How about time of day and previous attacks? Seeing many scars on other fish? It need not turn into a water-boarding session, but every bit of factual information can be a gem.
One of the best parts of networking with non-muskie fishermen is that these anglers often fish non-traditional muskie areas. Their spots may have fallen off the radar of the muskie crowd. This can include lakes not frequented by the muskie circuit or depth ranges and sections of lakes that aren't usually the focus of muskie anglers. Most experienced anglers know the difference between a 50-inch caliber fish and a sub-40-incher. This information is much more valuable than tracking down your uncle's co-worker's brother. Muskie clubs are a great source of information from both members and guest speakers.
By establishing a network that also includes serious muskie anglers, it becomes possible to divide the reconnaissance work and cover more water. Spots can be double-checked. Over the course of a season, several anglers can track where large fish have been raised and under what conditions, and share their observations. Anglers fish differently, so a potential spot is given multiple opportunities to produce at least a good sighting.
Compare it to a cold-war search for an enemy submarine. A detailed map of the proposed hunting grounds is tacked on the wall and studied. Possible locations of the target are circled and checked on the water. Countless casts are like mines placed throughout the area. The target occasionally slips up and lets its presence be known by surfacing on a lure or lurking deep beneath the boat on a figure-8. Pins mark those areas on the map and are revisited on each successive mission. Areas with no observations are eliminated. The target area shrinks. More Xs appear on the map and the anticipation of an explosive encounter grows.
Fishery Agency Data
One of the most reliable and accessible sources of muskie information is DNR stocking and netting data. This information may be posted online at agency websites. Or you can contact regional offices and biologists. Records are kept on a lake by lake basis, typically dating back many years. The size and strain of muskies stocked often are noted, along with stocking locations.
Each element provides clues on the potential of a fishery to produce trophy fish. Stocking 8-inch fingerlings or 15-inchers can make difference in survival. The strain of fish also can influence growth rates and top-end size. You may also find growth rate charts for various lakes. With this information you can project how many years it takes to grow a 50-inch fish and it may provide clues to the density of big fish. Many states also sponsor master angler programs, recognizing muskie catches over a minimum size. Compile and study this information as well.
Stocking locations are an overlooked piece of the puzzle. On large fisheries, this information can point the way to new muskie hotspots. Lake Michigan's Green Bay is an example. During the early years, most muskies were stocked in the southern portion of the bay and in the Fox River. Angling pressure and success centered in this area as well. After 2005, however, the Wisconsin DNR began stocking along the western shore and the northern reaches of Green Bay, where future natural reproduction was deemed to have a greater chance of success. Anglers who noted and adapted to these changes are now scoring trophy fish and forging new fisheries on this massive waterway.
The results of recent fieldwork may not be available on agency websites for several months or more. By staying in contact with the staff, you stay ahead of the learning curve. Commercial fishermen also can provide clues to population density and movement of large baitfish within a system, including whitefish, perch, ciscoes, or shad. Ask about incidental muskie captures. These catches often occur in much deeper water and further removed from structure than muskie anglers typically fish. Such information may inspire you to pursue new location frontiers.
Also search for waterways muskies may wander into from connected lakes or rivers. High-water events can wash them over dams or give them access to feeder creeks. The escapees may form new muskie populations in overlooked waterways. Or else a few survivors may attain huge size.
Some of the best "off-season" winter muskie fishing occurs in skinny waters downstream from major dams and spillways where muskies don't officially exist. Excellent fisheries also exist in the far southern range of muskies, where native riverine strains exist, or populations have been established through stocking.
Visit Google Earth to locate drop-off and pick-up sites for launching a jon boat or kayak on small waters. By zooming in on Google Earth, you can chart river features and note locations of rapids, rocky banks, feeder creeks, and heavy woodcover that concentrate baitfish and attract muskies.
Focusing on lakes that have recently produced record fish and were highlighted on every fishing forum may not seem wise. But if a fishery can produce one record muskie, it likely has the potential for yielding more. These fisheries often are large and receive a spike in fishing pressure within months of a record catch that lapses in most cases. Keep a log of all big-fish producers. Study maps and check for connected waterways that may receive less pressure but still harbor big fish.
For example, Michigan's Lake Bellaire produced the 58-pound state record fish last fall. It covers less than 1,800 acres. Obviously too small to grow more giants? Without map research, you might not realize that Bellaire connects to Torch Lake via the Grass River and Clam Lake. Torch Lake produced the prior state record muskie just three years before, and connects with the even larger waters of Lake Skegemog and Elk Lake. The record fish from Torch Lake had been netted by the DNR and enrolled in a tracking study. There's plenty of biological data available on it. These waters enter Lake Michigan via a dam at Elk Rapids, and Grand Traverse Bay offers a vast resource to grow monster muskies that might leave this system.
Wherever you fish, do some online homework, and study stocking, netting, and tracking reports to get a better picture of local fisheries. Contact bait shops, DNR personnel, and guides to fill in gaps, then devise a game plan.
Spend time on the computer studying lake maps. Mapping software allows you to formulate a plan from your living room. It's much more productive than facing a new fishery in 30 mph winds, rain, and bone-chilling conditions. At some point, however, that's where the battle plays out — sunup to sundown on the water. For those of us who live for giant muskies, an encounter is worth a lifetime of research.
*Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor and an avid muskie angler.