Glowing shades of blue like a barracuda sliding toward the boat came a giant muskie. One of those follows you may tell people about without mentioning it was the biggest one you'd ever laid eyes on.
Happened just a few weeks ago, as I write this. One of those eye-popping, breath-stealing moments that can turn a normal, functioning human being into a babbling, obsessed "'ski head." Muskies can exert a powerful grip on their prey, but nothing like the hold they have on our minds. What causes a fisherman to abandon every other species — and every other form of outdoor recreation — to exclusively hunt muskies?
I guess you have to be there. And those who have been there will read this and wonder: What about Wabigoon? And Green Bay? Cave Run? The English and Winnipeg rivers? Somebody will certainly ask those questions. How could such places not make a list of the world's best musky waters? The answer is simple: Every list has to end someplace, and the criteria for this one includes world records, a history of producing giants, documented behemoths, verifiable angling reports, and real results from population and creel surveys taken by fisheries folks.
Things can change (and they always do), but that's how we determined which muskie waters might currently be the best in all the world for the most addictive fish on the planet.
Chippewa Flowage, Wisconsin
Here is the Mecca, the Wailing Wall, where muskie men and women come like pilgrims to pay homage to the waters that produced the world's biggest muskie — the 69-pound, 11-ounce, all-tackle world record caught here by Louis Spray in 1949, as recognized by the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in nearby Hayward, Wisconsin — the Musky Capital of The World.
The 'Big Chip ' is a 17,000 acre reservoir on the Chippewa River. It featrures 233 miles of undeveloped shoreline, 140 islands, and untold numbers of reefs and weed-covered humps that provide awesome habitat for muskies and everything they eat. Connected to the Flowage are 11 other lakes and 9 rivers. Muskies are found throughout the system.
The Wisconsin DNR reports that muskies in the Big Chip have been steadily increasing in average size in recent years. The state stocks muskies here, and will increase the number of muskies stocked beginning in 2016. A 57-incher was reported here in 2006, and in 2010 a 59 incher from the system was released uncertified.
Big fish continue to be caught and released here every year, but because Chippewa Flowage is a Mecca, fishing pressure for muskies can be extraordinary. As such, I wouldn't call this the best place to catch a muskie, but it's certainly one of the best places to grow one. Guides often say the best way to beat that pressure is to find smaller, isolated spots that don't attract the attention those bigger, classic points and sprawling bars do.
(Contact: Ty Sennett, guide cell: 612/839-1227 or 715/462-9403; tysennett.com/
Eagle Lake, Ontario
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says Eagle Lake has some of the fastest growing muskies in the province, yet the lake has a 54-inch minimum size limit. Legendary guide Steve Herbeck, twice a Wisconsin Musky Champion, 'has guided guests to 29 muskies over 40 pounds ' on Eagle Lake. His personal best: 47 pounds, 10 ounces. 'Eagle has twice produced muskies over 60 pounds, ' Herbeck said.
'There's a 5-day stretch surrounding every major moon phase, ' Herbeck says. 'Somewhere in that 5 days, something is going to trigger muskies on Eagle and all hell breaks loose. We'll catch 2 or 3 good fish in an hour. To put things in perspective, in 5 days of hard fishing on the Bay, during full or new moon phases, you should be getting a fish or two a day with the help of the weather. '
During summer, it can be easier to find muskies. 'Just look for areas where the thermocline hits structure ' Herbeck said. 'Muskies feed offshore on whitefish then rest shallow. But fall might be the best time to hook up. In cold-water times, it's more stable deep. Temperatures aren't jumping up and down. Use slower, deeper spinnerbaits, Bulldawgs, cranks, and walk them off the edges of the breaks to that 17- to 24- foot zone. Have to get the bait closer to them in cooler conditions. You need to pick the structure apart more. But few places offer a better shot at a true giant. '
(Contact: Andy Myers Lodge, 888/727-5865; andymyerslodge.com/canadian_fishing.htm
Georgian Bay, Ontario
'In pursuit of the big heavy, ' is the battle cry of Jody Mills, muskie guide on Georgian Bay. It's a lonely game. We've described some massive environments so far, but none so massive as this. Georgian Bay — a 'bay ' that forms the eastern half of Lake Huron — is roughly the size of Lake Ontario.
'Muskies here will relate to herring (ciscoes), perch, smallmouths, and emerald shiners, ' Mills said. 'But the smallmouths can be 50 feet deep. Perch can be down 80 feet. I have to fish from 3 feet down to 50 feet on every piece of structure. This is big water, and the muskies are significantly nomadic. I've been involved in a lot of tagging studies here, and it's pretty typical to catch fish miles from where they were tagged. I've never raised the same fish twice in the same spot here. I've caught 'lunge over 250 feet of water while salmon fishing where the nearest 'muskie structure' was 5 miles away, and I've caught them trolling plugs in 3 feet of water on top of remote reefs. '
These might be the least well understood muskies in the world. 'I would think, based on what I've seen, that some muskies head out into the big blue yonder and stay there all summer, ' Mills said. 'But, until we see some kind of telemetry studies on these fish, I prefer hard evidence over speculation any day. '
Wilderness fishing? Yes. Tough fishing? Anglers giving testimonials report catching 2, sometimes 3 muskies over 50 inches in a day. Stephen Crook of the Fox River Valley chapter of Muskies, Inc. reported catching muskies of 45, 48, 48, 50, 53, and 56 inches on a trip to Georgian Bay last September. I'll take that kind of tough any day.
(Contact: Jody Mills, Mills Musky Guide Service, 705/375-1826, millsmuskyguideservice.ca/guide.php
Lac Seul, Ontario
Famous musky hound Doug Johnson once said the biggest muskie he had ever seen was swimming around in Lac Seul, which has been in the news for producing world-record class muskies several times over the past decade. Those specimens were released (muskie fishing in this region is strictly catch-and-release), but the photos and accomplishments were noted in many an outdoor publication. At least two were documented at over 57 inches in length, with a few more right at 57 inches.
Located near Sioux Lookout in Northwest Ontario, Lac Seul is a massive, convoluted body of water covering over 409,453 acres with over 800 miles of shoreline. Anderson's Lodge claims Lac Seul is home to 'the largest silver muskies in Ontario, ' and tiger muskies are common here, too. A muskie must be 44 inches just to qualify as a Master Angler specimen at Anderson's. Many guides and enthusiasts here swear by bucktails and related in-line spinners like the Musky Mayhem Double Cowgirl and the Shumway Musky Baits Funky Chicken.
(Contact: Anderson's Lodge, 800/465-1098; andersonslodge.com/lac-seul-outposts/
Lake Vermillion, Minnesota
This was a tough one. At least five bodies of water vie for recognition as the best muskie lake in Minnesota. One post on the Minnesota DNR website lists the best lakes as Lake of The Woods, Rainy Lake, Leech Lake, Cass Lake, and Lake Winnibigoshish (which gave up the 54-pound state record in 1957). It failed to mention Lake Bemidji, which recently gave up a 57-incher — the biggest muskie ever hooked in that lake, according to the DNR.
Rainy Lake has very few muskies outside Red Gut, so I would replace that one with Bemidji. And when the post failed to mention the Rainy River among the state's best muskie rivers, I stopped considering it as a source for the best lake. But the site does mention that the state has 150,000 muskie anglers, according to a recent survey. Those anglers have about 120 lakes and rivers to choose from when satisfying their addiction, but most of them cite Lake Vermillion as a favorite.
Happens to be one of my favorites, too. I've seen evidence of at least three fish from Vermillion that would have crushed the state record, had they not been released. Muskie enthusiast Randy Porcuban put one back into Vermillion in 2009 that his companion measured at 59 inches long with a girth of 29 inches — probably somewhere near the rarified air of a world record. The last time the DNR surveyed the muskie population with nets, they claimed 15% of them measured 50 inches or longer.
Vermillion belongs on this list.
(Contact: Billy Rosner, Wild Country Guide Service, 218/666-2880; vermilionguide.com/
Mille Lacs, Minnesota
In November of 2012, guide Jason Hamernick put his client Roger Ecklund on a 56-inch behemoth with a girth of 29 inches. The usual formulas say 59 pounds — another potential state record released in Minnesota. Later that same month, Hamernick guided another client (Ryan Becker) to a fish over 57 inches long, with a girth of 28 ¼ inches.
Mille Lacs is Minnesota's second-biggest inland lake, covering 132,516 acres. It's a fish factory that produces prolific hatches of walleyes, bass, shiners, suckers, and perch almost every year. Which is probably why catch rates for muskies dropped to an all-time low in 2008 and were almost that low again in 2012. It's not that muskies aren't there — it's just hard to find one that's hungry.
Despite reporting low catch rates per angler hour in recent years, the DNR creel census of 2012 reports that 570 muskies weighing a combined 17,825 pounds, were released. About 30 percent of those fish were over 50 inches, and 40 percent were reported to be over the 48-inch minimum for harvest.
'When it's calm you can actually see bait right on the surface with polarized glasses, ' Hamernick said. 'I call 'em boilers because it looks like water boiling with hundreds of fish dimpling the surface. When panfish are doing this in open water off the weedline, I generally find the biggest active musky of the day nearby. On windy days you have to rely on your sonar as the baitfish will push down, but they generally stay in the top 10 feet of the water column. '
In summer, Hamernick likes Double Cowgirls, but in fall he likes big Musky Innovations Magnum Bull Dawgs — big baits for extraordinarily big fish. Hamernick's clients pull in between 25 and 50 muskies over 50 inches every year — most of them from Mille Lacs.
(Contact: Jason Hamernick, Musky Breath Guide Service, 612/209-0608; muskiebreath.com/
St. Lawrence River, New York, Ontario, Quebec
On my way to the tundra one year, I stopped in Montreal to visit the Polsky family. They took me to an antiquated building — a St. Lawrence shrine to dragons past. The walls were lined with ancient mounts of muskies the size of alligators. This can't be real, I thought to myself.
In December of 2011, a 60-inch muskie was caught and measured on the boat of Captain Rich Clarke. In December of 2012, a 58-pound muskie was caught and released on the boat of legendary St. Lawrence guide, Mike Lazarus (weighed on a scale certified by the IGFA and recertified shortly thereafter). Jeff Gardner reported a 59 incher from the St. Lawrence River in 2006 — but it weighed 'only ' 55 pounds.
If any place on earth deserves to be called The River of Dragons, this is it. The St. Lawrence is one of the world's longest navigable rivers. From its head at Lake Ontario to Quebec City, the water is fresh and home to some of the world's biggest muskies. From Lake Ontario to the Atlantic, the Seaway stretches almost 750 miles. 'Classic summer through September muskie fishing is pretty straightforward on the St. Lawrence, ' Lazarus says. 'We keep it simple and troll shallow weed humps, spoil piles and other manmade structures getting bushed by the primary current of the river. Less simple are the requirements. You need licenses from New York and Ontario or Quebec, a CANPASS from the Canadian government, an I-68 from the American government, and you must keep abreast of all updates on navigational charts. Water can rise or drop dramatically within 12 hours. I once lost a lower unit dead center between a green and a red (channel-marking buoys). '
So massive it's surreal, the St. Lawrence is the adventure of a lifetime for any 'ski head. But obviously, it's not to be taken lightly. Investing in a guide for a first visit is a smooth move.
(Contact: Mike Lazarus, 514/824-6875; Captain John Oravec's Troutman Guide Service; 800/443-2510; captjohnoravec.com/stlawrenceriver.htm
Torch-Elk Chain, Michigan
Torch, Elk, and Charlevoix lakes are massive fingers reaching toward Lake Michigan. Stretching through rolling hills, massive dunes, and stately forests, these vast waterways are clear as air and full of teeth.
Connected to this chain is Lake Bellaire, where Joseph Seeberger of Portage, Michigan, boated A Great Lakes muskie 59 inches long with a girth of 29 inches weighing 58 pounds in 2012. The goliath has since been recognized as Michigan's new state record, eclipsing the 'old ' mark by a couple of inches and 8 pounds. The 'old ' mark was established in 2009 by Kyle Anderson — on Torch Lake. Seeberger's fish has been recognized by the HYPERLINK "http://www.modernmuskierecords.org/"International Committee of the Modern Day Muskellunge World Record Program (MDMWRP) as a world record.
Skegemog Lake, considered by some the finest muskie lake in Michigan, is also connected to the Torch chain. At 2564 acres in size, the shallower, weedier Skegemog is dwarfed by Torch (18,770 acres), Charlevoix (17,200 acres), and Elk (8,880 acres). The chain may not have the surface area of Georgian Bay, but the amount of muskie habitat is certainly comparable, making this one of the most expansive muskie systems on earth. Let's put it this way: You can't fish it all in a lifetime.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources allows anglers to kill only one muskie per year now. Any angler killing a muskie are required to tag it. Without a doubt, the rules will allow more muskies to attain bigger sizes than ever before in the Water Wonderland state.
(Contact: Lakeside Fishing Shop, 586/777-7003, lakesidefishingshop.com
Lake of The Woods, Ontario
Lake of The Woods is a beautiful region onto itself. With over 1 million acres, 65,000 miles of shoreline, 14,500 islands, massive cabbage beds, thousands of reefs and other rocky structures, it could be argued that a more perfect habitat for muskies simply doesn't exist.
Lake St. Clair, Michigan, Ontario
Lake St. Clair covers 260,000 acres, yet experiences a complete exchange of water in less than a week. She's nestled between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, fed by the powerful St. Clair River, and drained by the equally powerful Detroit River (both are fabulous muskie venues as well). She's the trap in the drain between the Upper and Lower Great Lakes. And she just might be the finest muskie lake on earth.