Who doesn't love a good road trip? It's a time to explore new waters, or perhaps reconnect with old fishing friends and locations from the past. For 2018, my list of the hottest muskie waters stretches far and wide across North America.
For most anglers, winter is time to organize tackle and stock up on gear at sports shows. But savvy muskie anglers are dialed into southern fisheries that never freeze over and have no closed season. Folks in Illinois may test their luck for state-record caliber fish at Lake Shelbyville in the center of the state or Lake Kincaid in southern Illinois. These shad-based fisheries produce plenty of 30-pound fish while folks are staring down ice holes Up North. In these reservoirs, slowly work glidebaits like Mantas, Tailgunners, and Warlocks in these chilly waters. Focus on the mouths of major creek arms, marinas, and stump flats that warm in late afternoon on sunny days.
If paying endless expressway tolls curbs your enthusiasm for fishing downstate Illinois, a trip to Webster Lake in neighboring Indiana might be the ticket. At just under 800 acres and with an estimated density of eight muskies per acre, it's an ideal location to gain confidence in new lures while working out the winter kinks. Here, too, glidebaits are especially deadly for open-water muskies suspended under schools of baitfish. Other productive lures on Lake Webster (and nearby Lake Tippecannoe) are Storm's Kickin' Minnow and the Water Wolf Shadzilla. These mid-sized soft swimbaits can be counted down to various depths and worked at varying speeds to provoke strikes from muskies that typically range from 35 to 44 inches.
To scratch the big-fish itch, I'd bypass Kentucky's two top producers of Cave Run and Green River, not stopping until I reached middle Tennessee. Here Esox anglers are surrounded by some of the best naturally reproducing muskies at the southern extreme of their range. Fish from 50 to 54 inches are caught annually from several Tennessee waters, including Melton Hill Lake, Center Hill Lake, and the Caney Fork system, which includes Great Falls Reservoir. All these fisheries have 50-inch minimum-length limits.
One of the most devoted and widely recognized muskie anglers in Tennessee, Cory Allen, notes the uniqueness of these fisheries. "They're regulated by TVA hydroelectric dams, which create great opportunities for anglers during periods of increased flow," he says. "They also have potential to produce some of the largest fish muskies anywhere. Tennessee muskies rival those in the highest-profile fisheries for length and girth potential. While traditional winter tactics of slowly presenting gliders such as Hellhounds and Tailgunners have their time and place, a few anglers have found great success with rubber baits that glide and fall slowly, like the Lake X Kermit and XToad baits, and Eastfield Lures' Wingman and Tomcat. These swimbaits have external harness rigging systems developed in Europe to target giant pike, but work great for southern muskies."
After the challenges of chasing muskies on large TVA reservoirs, my next stop is to slow the pace and reconnect with fishing friend Jase Bouldin, a pro staffer at Jackson Kayaks and one of the most knowledgeable anglers on the small streams of eastern and central Tennessee. Non-motorized watercraft are the only option on some of the most picturesque muskie streams anywhere.
These rivers are clear and narrow enough to cast across in most locations, so you see most fish when they follow and strike. These fish are partial to topwater lures and it's worth packing surface baits like a Savage Gear Suicide Duck. While most of these small-stream muskies are in the 34- to 42-inch range, fish over 50 inches are available for those with enough fortitude to make day-long paddles on rivers with few access sites.
Leaving Tennessee, it's time for a cross-country junket to the Great Northwest. Washington is best known for salmon and steelhead, but as Michael Floyd, president of the local Muskies, Inc. Charter #57 NW Tiger Pack, explains, "A well kept secret among locals are the seven area lakes that offer good fishing for tiger muskies."
One of Floyd's favorites is Mayfield Reservoir. Located in Southwest Washington near the town of Mossyrock, this 2,250-acre reservoir is Washington's premier muskie fishery. This impoundment on the Cowlitz River received the state's initial tiger muskie stocking in 1993 and yields consistent catches of tigers up to 50 inches.
"Mayfield's many weedflats provide the best fishing. Tigers use vegetation to ambush their primary prey, northern pikeminnows and suckers. The bite turns on in the first week of May and continues through September with summer providing the most consistent catches," Floyd says. "These fish seem to prefer smaller offerings than their Midwest cousins, so 5- to 8-inch swimbaits and glidebaits in baitfish patterns, such as the Savage Gear Glide Swimmer and 3D Shine Glide are top producers. The water is extremely clear, so stealth is important on Mayfield."
On the trail of more tiger muskies, the Mountain West region of Utah provides some of the best waters. Utah began stocking them in the late 1980s and is recognized as a premier trophy tiger muskie destination. Here, I'd hook up with Kim Case Wagner, president of Muskies, Inc., Mountain West Muskie, Chapter 65. Chapter 65 works closely with state biologists on tiger muskie research and receives grant funds from Muskies, Inc. to conduct age-and-growth studies. Wagner and other members of the chapter have a keen knowledge of the eight Utah tiger muskie fisheries and have tagged and fin-clipped more than 100 tiger muskies for DNR studies.
For the biggest fish, Wagner steers anglers toward either Joe's Valley or Pineview Reservoir. The prime early season encompasses mid-April through June when casting, trolling, and fly-fishing are productive. Joe's Valley Reservoir, at an elevation of 6,880 feet, is about 165 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. At full pool, it covers approximately 1,200 acres. "This picturesque fishery has steep cliffs, drop-offs, and exposed boulders," Wagner says. "During high-water periods, flooded brush and terrestrial grasses serve as cover. As the reservoir is drawn down, cove areas and creek inlets become mostly featureless mudflats."
For those looking to avoid crowds, he suggests the period from mid-June through September when recreational boat traffic is light. Be mindful of lightning storms that can build in this area during the afternoon hours, along with associated high wind gusts. Joe's Valley offers anglers a good chance of catching tiger muskies over 40 inches.
For tigers topping 50 inches, haul the boat to Pineview Reservoir. Just 45 miles north of Salt Lake City, this 2,800-acre reservoir sees heavy recreational boat traffic during summer. Pineview also lacks the scenic cliffs, fast drop-offs, and boulders of Joe's Valley. It's a basin reservoir with inflows from the Ogden River and feeder creeks. Enough 50-inch tigers have been caught here over the last decade to place it high on any muskie angler's bucket list.
Leaving tiger territory out west, it's time to swing for the fences with muskie guide extraordinaire Stephen Boulden, in search of a 50-pound fish on upper Green Bay. With renewed stocking throughout the Bay, the northern parts of Green Bay and the Menominee River are a top destination for behemoth Great Lakes fish, with numbers of heavy 56- to 58-inch muskies caught there each year. Troll the river channel and around open-water pods of shad and whitefish with oversized lures such as the Legend Plow, Supernatural Headlock, or Westin Platypus. It's a high-risk, high-reward scenario with some of the biggest muskies anywhere.
Whether we hit a home run or strike out on upper Green Bay, my next stop is in Vilas County, Wisconsin. Here we make our base camp at the St. Germain Lodge and pick the brain of owner Rob Manthei for up-to-date information on the 563 lakes in the county. Manthei chases muskies from the season opener on Memorial Day weekend until ice-up and appreciates the diversity of Vilas County. "This area has lakes that provide more action with smaller fish — great for new muskie anglers, and also offers opportunity to catch a northern Wisconsin trophy. While our fisheries are rather consistent, I have two favorite time periods. First is the late-summer to early-fall transition. I like to see lakes get an algae bloom that "greens up" the water. Big St. Germain Lake, Big Arbor Vitae, and several others typically develop this darkening of the water every season. It drives the muskies shallow and into thick vegetation. The bucktail and topwater bite is great at this time of year. Look for wind-blown areas and baitfish concentrations."
For those not able to make the trip to Vilas County in late summer, Manthei says the post-turnover period of late fall can be as good. "From October 1 until ice-up, I generally cast and pull suckers on quick-set rigs. I fish deep points and mid-lake rock structures that you find on nearly every lake in our area. The glaciers carved up these lakes nicely. Best of all, anglers often have lakes to themselves during the week."
Leaving the tranquility of the North Woods, it's on to the busy waters of the Motor City and the Detroit River. Here, there's no one better to share a boat with than Jon Bondy. Lake St. Clair and the river are at the peak of their productivity for trophy muskies. Bondy explains that muskie movements on the lower Great Lakes are centered on baitfish, particularly gizzard shad. "I don't think muskies eat as many walleyes and perch as people think because of the abundance of shad," Bondy says. "Outside of spawning, muskies are focused on those schools. In summer, shad school near small humps in open water. With two major rivers connected, current is a factor in shad and muskie location. In fall, shad move toward creek mouths where the water is warmer and fertile." Vertical jigging with lures like Bondy Baits can bring bone-crunching strikes. Big baits, tight lines, and no-stretch braid make for intense battles. It's always exciting and productive to fish Lake Saint Clair and the Detroit River.
For the last stop, it's time to meet Brent Perkey and fish some of the East Coast's best muskie rivers with a fly. He guides for monster pike in Alaska with Midnight Sun Trophy Pike Adventures in the summer and operates River Wolf Outfitters for muskies in Virginia from fall through spring. While East Coast rivers have been stocked with muskies for over 70 years, the James and New rivers host thriving naturally reproducing populations. These river fish lash out at large, well-placed streamer flies and take you deep into your backing. For Perkey, it's the most rewarding method for pursuing these crafty predators. "I prefer fly-fishing. It's a more relaxed approach presentation-wise, and more exciting when you get one hooked."
Perkey's season typically starts in late October as muskies transition from shallow runs to deep wintering holes. As water warms in early spring, they feed heavily until they spawn in April. He suggests that anglers give them a break once they pair up and wait to restart their muskie-fishing until mid-May, when their spawn is completed. Multiple-fish days are common on the James and New rivers, with enough 45- to 50-inch fish to keep anglers excited all day.
With so many hot muskie waters across the country, you have plenty of excuses to take a road trip and explore new waters. You can experience new surroundings, learn techniques, and tangle with trophy muskies on waters that may not have been on your agenda.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan lives in the Chicago, Illinois, area but travels worldwide to find the best big-fish bites.