Most of us observe fishing history through the eyes of those who've recorded notable events for posterity, trusting their accounts to tell us what transpired. A lucky few view it through the prism of their own experiences. On the muskie scene, Doug Johnson definitely fits the latter category, having for 45 years enjoyed a front-row seat to the North American muskie saga, both as a biologist and — for the last 25 years — as a guide on some of the continent's finest fisheries.
In that time, he's witnessed watershed changes in muskie management, fish population characteristics, fishing tactics, and angler attitudes. Today, at age 71, he remains active in the sport, guiding clients to trophies on his beloved Lake of the Woods summer through fall, and volunteering during winter to assist biologists monitoring fledgling fisheries on the front lines of the muskie's ever-expanding range in more southern latitudes. Such a breadth of experience, we believe, gives Johnson a unique perspective on trends that have brought us where we are today, and influence how and where we fish in the future.
Though he ranks among the sport's legendary guides, Johnson's fishing career began humbly enough, in the sleepy farmland of Central Minnesota. "I grew up on a small farm west of Rush City," he recalls. "I rode my bike to Rush Lake to fish every chance I got." While the lake — actually two connected basins covering roughly 3,000 acres — was rich in panfish, pike, and walleyes, there were no muskies then."
But, like the sport of muskie fishing and Johnson himself, the lake of his boyhood adventures was destined for greater things. Thanks to Minnesota DNR's stocking program — hindered temporarily by an early reliance on small-statured Shoepack-strain fish — the Rush Lake system is now home to a thriving muskie population, including a share of giants topping the 50-inch mark.
As for Johnson, he eventually found a home as a biologist with the Minnesota DNR, a career choice that led him far from the farm — to a fishery station on the shores of Lake of the Woods. While conducting research with commercial fishermen, Johnson became fascinated by their tales of the lake's monster muskies, and became determined to learn more. "I focused on the Northwest Angle islands," he says. "There was no road to the Angle then, so I crossed over by boat, which was a long haul."
"It took me a year to catch my first one," he admits. That was 1965, and in the decades since, Johnson has by his account been party to boating more than 3,000 of the grand fish, including both his own his clients' catches. "We've caught 284 fish over 48 inches," he notes, adding that his personal best is a 56-inch Lake of the Woods behemoth.
Based on personal experience and comparing notes with other muskie anglers and biologists, Johnson believes the good old days are now, for both the sport and the fisheries that sustain it. "In general, muskie fishing has greatly improved since I started, even on Lake of the Woods," he says.
"Most states and provinces have greatly enhanced fish protection with higher size limits, which have encouraged voluntary catch-and-release. As muskie specialists have embraced a near-total release ethic, muskie populations in many lakes are at all-time highs for numbers and size." As fisheries have thrived, managers have recognized the importance of muskie anglers. "Fishery departments are doing a better job of stocking lakes and increasing the number of lakes available to fish muskies," he says.
Johnson believes the improved quality and expansion of opportunity are key factors driving the surge in muskie fishing popularity. "Not only are new fisheries appearing in states that had no muskies 50 years ago, but many lakes are now producing fish of tremendous size," he explains. "Consider the fish from Mille Lacs, Vermilion, or Green Bay and recognize how well these newer fisheries are doing. Many traditional waters are also producing more and larger fish. Because of these factors, I suspect that muskie fishing is the fastest growing segment of freshwater fishing. And further improvements will only further fuel the muskie fire."
From the captain's seat in his guide boat, Johnson has observed an evolution in anglers as well. "Muskie fishing has gone from being something a few people tried for a day or two during their week vacations to a full-blown obsession," he says. Such addictions haven't gone unnoticed by tackle makers, who have rewarded the growing legions of muskie faithful with more and better rods, reels, line, lures, and other accessories.
"I've seen so many advances in recent years," says Johnson. "My first muskie rod was a Fenwick PLP56, a 5-foot 6-inch two-piece pool cue. Now the trend is toward longer rods — 8 feet or more — and for good reason. Long rods make casting easier, hook-sets more powerful, and they're great for figure-8s. Plus, many are made of light, powerful graphite. What a difference.
"Reels also have changed, but in some cases not for the better from a durability standpoint. Perhaps it's the size of the lures or the no-stretch line we now use, but most of my new reels don't have the stamina some of my old favorites. On the positive side, the new lower gear ratios and power handles help handle the bigger lures we're fishing now. Where we'll be down the road with muskie rods and reels is anyone's guess, but given the trend toward larger baits, even longer rods and more powerful reels are likely to follow."
One of Johnson's favorite tackle trends is the proliferation of superbraids. "When it comes to hooking and landing muskies, they're one of the best things to come along," he says. "I spool 100-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth and pretty much forget about it. I switch ends now and then, maybe trim a few feet off the end if it starts getting fuzzy, but that's about it. I've never had 100-pound line fail."
Nowhere, of course, has change been as sweeping as on the lure front. "Much of the fun of muskie fishing is gathering and trying new baits on the market. When I started out, I suppose there where 25 different muskie lures that actually worked. For many years, Windel's Harasser was my go-to bait. I still use them, but now the choice of bucktails is almost unbelievable — and growing every year. From my experience, they're still the single-most reliable lure; it seems muskies still haven't figured out that a chunk of hair with a spinning blade in front isn't a good thing to eat. The last couple years, big double-#10-blade bucktails with flashabou or marabou have put most of my bucktail fish in the boat: Double Cowgirls, Shumway Giant Flashers, the usual suspects.
"Other lure types — spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, surface baits, jigs, and what not — are all going through what I call the rubber-tail period," he continues. "Almost every lure type has some sort of a flexible tail attached, and they all seem to work. From a marketing standpoint, these baits are a manufacturer's dream. They catch fish, and they break after you catch one."
Johnson gives a nod to the trend toward bigger baits. "They're super-sized, just like our fast food," he laughs. "It's not a bad thing, though, because I'm pretty sure that the bigger the lure, the bigger the average size of fish. Where all this ends is anyone's guess, but as long as there are muskies and muskie anglers, I'm sure the super-size trend will continue."
As Johnson reflects on the past and looks ahead, the gains in fishing tackle, fishery management, and conservation promise a bright future. Though Lake of the Woods remains his favorite muskie water — he spends 120 days guiding on it each season — he winters in Tennessee. There, he sees firsthand the rising tide of opportunity and growing interest in muskie fishing.
"On some lakes, where a few years ago people didn't know what a muskie was, you now have a large percentage of anglers targeting muskies," he says. In some of those waters, he notes, the combination of cool-water summer refuge and ample forage are leading to fish rivaling the size of their northern cousins. This geographic expansion, Johnson believes, is yet another reason muskie fans can look forward to great days water for years to come.
Dealing With Pressure
The downside to rising muskie fishing popularity is more pressure on prime spots, especially at prime times. "It gets a little frustrating when you have to wait in line to get on a spot, or someone cuts you off halfway down your favorite pass," Doug Johnson concedes. "But more importantly, fish get hard to raise. If you fish a classic weedy bay and see five muskies the first pass, you might only see two when you fish it again, then none on the third pass. It's hard to get a fish interested when you pull into a spot another boat has just fished."
Johnson responds to pressure by looking for fish and areas other anglers overlook. "The key is being able to identify areas that don't look good, but are," he says. "For example, a featureless rocky shoreline might not look like much might until you realize there's a fertile weedbed hiding beneath the surface adjacent to it."
Other spots Johnson seeks are shelves sweetened by a boulder field or weed clumps. "You can locate these areas with electronics if you know what to look for," he says. "I do a lot of trolling in the fall, and that helps me find overlooked spots. Once you develop a milk run of fishing areas that aren't on everyone else's marked maps, you're going to be successful no matter how much pressure there is."
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and a lifelong student of the Esox scene. Doug Johnson is at 218/386-1559, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit 4muskiesonly.com.