June 12, 2016
By Steve Ryan
Tiger muskies are the rarest and most elusive of all North American esocids. In most settings where they occur naturally, they have a nearly mythical status. A mere sighting of a trophy specimen gets people talking. Catching a tiger over 50 inches puts you in select company.
The rarity of tiger muskies comes from the fact that Mother Nature doesn't produce many of these beautiful "mistakes." They occur from cross-breeding northern pike and muskies. The resulting offspring are sterile and thus don't perpetuate the breed. But they're also produced in hatcheries for stocking in a variety of situations, primarily now in the western United States. Tigers are used as a management tool to reduce invasive species or rough fish, as well as to produce exciting fisheries. Their sterility prohibits long-term problems should they prove detrimental.
To better understand what it takes to catch trophy tigers, muskie fanatics Jeff Van Remortel and Paul Thruman have spent considerable time researching record catches across the country and analyzing their own catch data and observations. As a starting point, they acknowledge that plenty of gray areas exist in pinpointing prime lakes with populations of naturally occurring tiger muskies, but they point to several key attributes that are common among many of the best fisheries.
"In most top waters, there's a strong self-sustaining population of muskies or else regular stocking," Van Remortel says. "It also must have a population of pike, though population density need not be high. Pike typically head to the spawning grounds shortly after ice-out and muskies usually arrive a few weeks later. For them to hybridize, the water must warm quickly enough to meet the desired temperatures for both species, so spawning activities of both species overlap. Lakes that have large expanses of shallow water with suitable spawning habitat in the form of back bays, small connected lakes, or extensive emergent vegetation seem to be among the most consistent producers of natural hybrids."
To determine the prime periods to pursue trophy tiger muskies, Thruman and Van Remortel have kept detailed angling logs and investigated record catches from across the country. Information on catch dates shows that most catches from the Midwest and West have been in mid-summer. While a record fish could be caught during any month of the year, as affirmed by Massachusetts's record 27-pound tiger caught on December 31, 2001, or the 35.8-pound New York record caught on May 28, 1990, Van Remortel confidently picks the summer months and early fall as the prime times to pursue tigers.
"Large tiger muskies increase feeding activity during periods of rising water temperatures or cooling trends," he says. "When water temperature rises from June through early August, big tigers go on the feed. They exhibit another peak of activity just prior to turnover and again post-turnover when water temperature drops."
Given that population densities are low wherever tiger muskies occur naturally, Thruman and Van Remortel work key areas. "In lakes where vegetation is sparse," Thruman says, "the tips and inside turns of the largest rock points and rockbars that extend the farthest from shore are hybrid hangouts. In lakes with abundant vegetation, the most obvious points with the steepest breaking weedlines are most productive. Mid-lake humps and sunken island complexes can also be productive. The one thing these key spots have in common is close proximity to the main lake basin. The ideal spot contains complex structure located close to deep water."
Due to limited natural reproduction and sporadic stocking of tiger muskies across North America, there's no easy path to catching a tiger muskie, but several western fisheries have good odds for anglers seeking either their first tiger or a trophy fish. Located not far from Portland and Seattle, Merwin and Mayfield reservoirs are the most convenient of Washington's tiger muskie fisheries. Stocking in Mayfield began in the late 1980s and at Merwin in the mid-1990s so potential for big fish is good. Local expert Kelly Reichner notes that both fisheries are clear, which makes it common to spot a dozen fish per outing. Early in the season, he concentrates on steep banks with deadfalls in the water. Later, he concentrates on stump flats, but maintains there are no absolutes to locating tigers. Favorite early-season techniques include casting glidebaits around deadfalls near deep water working swimbaits like SPRO's 8-inch BBZ-1 tight to the cover. He switches to crankbaits and heavy black and red bucktails with #6 French blades to fish slightly deeper and faster as the season progresses. Tigers average 34 to 38 inches on Merwin and Mayfield, with much larger fish present. The state record is a 31.25-pounder from Mayfield in 2001.
New Mexico's Bluewater and Quemando reservoirs have been stocked with tigers for more than a decade to control a population of goldfish and white suckers that had overrun these historic trout fisheries. Tigers kept up their end of the bargain, quickly suppressing these rough fish. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish seeks to strike a balance of tiger muskies in these rebounding trout fisheries. Current assessments indicate 26 tigers per acre on Bluewater and 5 per acre on Quemando, with Bluewater's muskie density far higher than its desired 4 per acre.
Local guide Matt Pelletier fishes both waters and recommends Bluewater for its size, convenient location near Highway 40, and fine state park amenities. He notes that recent droughts have dramatically lowered the water level, making boat launching difficult at times and forcing muskies from shoreline cover, which is now dry. Pelletier uses an array of approaches to put clients on fish, with fly fishing a popular option. He also casts to points with articulated swimbaits like the Dynamic Lures Dynamo LP in trout patterns and trolls with the jointed Rapala BX Swimmer and X-Rap Jointed Shad to cover water. He also promotes proper handling techniques to help sustain Bluewater as a fishery capable of producing 50-inch fish.
In the Midwest, the most famous tiger muskie haunt is Lac Vieux Desert (LVD). Straddling the border between northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, this 4,000-plus-acre lake has yielded two 50-pound tigers and possibly harbors another in its vast weedy flats. Most of the lake is less than 15 feet deep and vegetation dominates much of its shoreline. Pike and muskies reproduce in this fertile fishery and plenty of tigers get produced in the mix. Covering water and concentrating on windblown structure is the name of the game on LVD. Due to its high pike population, downsizing for tigers is not an option. Instead, casting double #8 bucktails is a good choice when seeking to coax trophy tigers from thick vegetation. Tigers from 40 to 46 inches are caught here annually.
Minnesota is in the heart of trophy muskie territory these days and the Twin Cities metro lakes serve as the epicenter for tiger muskies in Minnesota. Since the 1980s, the Minnesota DNR has focused on small metro lakes to expand big- fish opportunities by stocking tiger muskies. With nearly a dozen lakes stocked on a biennial basis, picking one as the top producer is tough. But Lake Elmo deserves attention because it produced the state record of nearly 35 pounds. Elmo has been regularly stocked for the last 10 years and is capable of producing another tiger of that caliber due to its deep clear waters that support a healthy tulibee population. This forage base allows stocked tigers to grow fast and pack on weight. This strategy is key for producing big tigers because they don't live long. Popular tactics here include downsizing lures and focusing on steep edges. Productive ones include Rapala DT 14s and 16s since they dive quickly and rise slowly on the pause to maintain their depth control, and countdown lures like 7-inch Biwaa Divinator tailspinner that can be fished at any depth.
Of all the large Ontario muskie fisheries, Lake of the Woods takes the cake for producing big beautiful tigers. Muskie chaser Morgan Solberg has taken his share of tigers from northern Ontario. In expansive waters that offer different water clarities throughout the system, Solberg has found that most tigers come from clear water. "During summer, it seems like tigers take on more of their pike nature and hold in the clearer, deeper, and cooler parts of the system, instead of the stained, warmer, and shallower areas where you find muskies," he says. He focuses on windblown rock points, reefs, and saddle areas close to deep water. Hard-body swimbaits like the Savage Gear Hard 4Play and soft-body WaterWolf Lures Shadzilla excel for working the edges of these rock structures, while prop-style topwater baits are effective at covering the top of shallow rock spots.
In the East, New York has some of the finest tiger muskie fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic region. Otisco and Conesus lakes are among the best for both numbers and size. Abundant alewives in these deep, narrow lakes of the Finger Lakes chain make them ideal for growing big fish. Conesus is stocked with nearly 10,000 tigers per year and Otisco with approximately 7,500, as a tool to manage alewives. Most Conesus tigers run in the 22- to 30-inch range, but there are plenty from 34 to 40 inches. Otisco Lake offers trophy tiger muskie potential with good numbers of fish in the 38- to 44-inch range, with fish topping 30 pounds. Fishing deep weededges with silver bladed and white dressed bucktails is productive, and local experts also troll baits like Big Fork Jointed Reef Diggers. Both lakes fish well during the summer months when tigers patrol steep breaking shorelines and points.
Wherever you chase tigers, be sure to pack your camera. These fish are far too valuable to be caught only once. Handle them carefully and briefly as you snap a few shots of these spectacular giants. Thruman and Van Remortel have documented the recapture of many trophy tiger muskies over several years in large systems. Let 'em go, and let 'em grow.