January 29, 2020
Options abound for anglers willing to stay one step ahead of Old Man Winter’s grip as freezing temperatures lay waste to more northern fisheries first and then slowly plunge southward. The dreaded process of being frozen out of key muskie locations begins in Canada, typically around mid-November. Muskie die-hards like Mike Grant, who guides out of Andy Meyer’s Lodge on Eagle Lake, find ways to remain on the water until the bitter end.
During warm falls, the muskie season can be extended through the end of November on fish that can top 50 inches and 40 pounds. Once the launches lock up in ice on Eagle Lake, Grant switches to Lake of the Woods and squeezes every last drop out of the season. He keeps track of prevailing winds and locates launch sites with current that may keep him fishing muskies into the first part of December. Trolling big minnowbaits and constantly clearing guides of ice is the name of the game.
For anglers not willing to make a late-season trip north of the border, Green Bay remains an option through the season closure on November 30. The Metro launch at the mouth of the Fox River stays ice-free during this period and provides quick access to productive waters from Kidney Island to Point Sable. Trolling Super Shad Raps and Shallow Invaders scores some of the heaviest muskies of the season on these fabled waters.
If conditions turn rough on the Bay, the protected waters of the Fox River are ripe with industrial discharges and drainage from the Winnebago system that keep the water a few degrees warmer and muskies slightly more active. Concentrate on the stretch of river from the Highway 172 bridge to the Bay. Work the main river channel with shad-style baits, such as the Boss Shad, Chad Shad, and .22 Short by Llungen Lures, trolled at 2.5 to 3.2 mph.
Late November traditionally signaled the end of the muskie season in Wisconsin. However, current regulations have extended the season through the end of the year on most muskie fisheries located south of Highway 10. Quality fisheries abound for anglers willing to deal with the elements. Plus, with more people hunting this time of the year, most fisheries go unpressured.
Long nights and cold windy days can put a damper on casting efforts. To keep his customers engaged and on muskies during this period, Captain Lynn Niklasch takes advantage of these prevailing conditions. He rigs oversized suckers on quick-strike rigs and routinely records multiple-fish days on Southeast Wisconsin gems like Lake Oconomowoc and Okauchee. These fisheries produce their share of mid- to upper-40-inch fish up until the launches freeze solid. Steep-breaking shorelines, pounding winds, and active sucker minnows are the keys to scoring on these inland lakes.
Lake St. Clair remains a strong fishery into December for giant Great Lakes spotted muskies. Guides Jason Quintano and Spencer Berman like casting large rubber baits like Pounders and Swimmin’ Dawgs this time of year. The number of 45- to 52-inchers caught on these waters is staggering. Slightly stained and warmer water help put the odds in your favor for binge-feeding muskies bulking up for winter.
Popular casting spots include the mouths of the Belle, Thames, Puce, and Ruscom rivers. Schools of shad concentrate in these areas. Locate healthy weeds and muskies will be nearby. To allow muskies a respite prior to heading into the spawning season, Quintano and Berman end their muskie seasons on December 15, although current regulations allow for a year-round catch-and-release fishery on Lake St. Clair.
A stop in Indiana helps extend your season by several weeks. During years with a warm fall, muskie fishing remains strong through Christmas and beyond on the lakes of Northeast Indiana. With a population density as high as six adult muskies per acre, there are plenty of fish in Lake Tippecanoe, James Lake, Webster Lake, and the Barbee Chain. The odds of catching a 50-incher are lower on these waters, but the opportunity exists to do battle with a handful of 34- to 44-inchers.
Guide Chae Dolsen operates Webster Lake Guide Service on these waters. He favors Webster for action, Tippecanoe for trophy fish, and the Barbee Chain for a shot at both numbers and quality fish. Due to their location in far northeastern Indiana, there’s a chance for both an open- and hardwater muskie season each winter. “By mid-January we’re typically switching over from casting lures to drilling holes in the ice. Setting tip-ups on weedflats is the primary ice tactic and we routinely have multiple muskie days. It’s a great way to introduce young anglers to the sport.”
For those who view ice as a four-letter word, a trip through Illinois will put your mind at rest. A trip to one of the spillways on the Kaskaskia River during the full-moon period in January is a great way to start the New Year. Shad get pushed through the spillways at Carlyle Lake and Lake Shelbyville during periods of increased flow. Disoriented shad make an easy midnight snack for muskies that lurk below these dams. Shad-bodied plastics, lipless crankbaits, and bladebaits fool enough fish in the 36- to 46-inch range here.
In southern Illinois, Kinkaid Lake offers a premier winter muskie fishery that begins each November and stays strong through March on prespawn fish. Kinkaid is a bit of a gem being only 2,800 acres yet has the complexity and serenity to rival any lake in the lower 48. Located among the rolling hills of Shawnee National Forest, the shoreline is dominated by coves rich in oaks and hickories while the underwater environment includes flooded roadbeds, house foundations, and farm fields. Annual stocking at the rate of one muskie per acre ensures a healthy population of fish, many of which remain uneducated and willing winter adversaries.
Scott Donovan operates Shawnee Expeditions Guide Service and has invaluable insights into the monthly progression of winter muskie fishing on Kinkaid. “In early December, water temperatures are still in the 50s,” he says. “Fish are using main-lake points and weedbeds that haven’t died off. Key spots are adjacent to deep water that is holding shad. We see a big shad die-off once the water reaches 42°F to 45°F. This can be a great time to cast for late-season giants.” Working large baits such as a 10-inch Jake or Shallow Invaders with a twitch, twitch, and long pause around schools of dying threadfin and gizzard shad can be the ticket. In early winter, focus on the headwater areas around Johnson’s Creek to locate shad and active muskies.
As winter sets in and water temperatures dip into the low to mid-40s, shad suspend deep throughout the main-lake basin. To track the daily movement of these massive bait pods, look to the sky for telltale seagulls. Other birds such as ospreys, cormorants, and loons help narrow the search for active bait close to the surface. Donovan suggests being patient with presentations, as lures are competing with thousands of vulnerable shad. He says most anglers present baits too high in the water column this time of year and miss opportunities at muskies suspended in the 12- to 20-foot depth range.
As days start to lengthen and shallow coves with southern exposures warm a few degrees, muskies start a prespawn migration into feeder creeks and shallow, wooded bays. Multiple-fish days are common, with smaller male fish showing up first. “This is the start of the famous Rat-L-Trap bite,” he says. “We’ve caught big muskies throwing Traps when water temperatures are still 38°F to 45°F degrees. We burn 1-ounce Traps through and around weeds in a couple feet of water. The key is to make short targeted casts to visible weed patches and quickly rip baits free of any trailing weeds. Long casts are unproductive weed magnets. Once we move into early March, glidebaits and Shallow Invaders can produce muskies pushing the state record. This is when an experienced southern muskie guide comes in handy.”
Cave Run Lake and the Green River in Kentucky can be a rewarding winter adventure. Or for those with an even greater exploring spirit, Tennessee is a winter haven. The volunteer state offers some of the most challenging and rewarding river fishing for both native and stocked muskies. Best of all, these fisheries come with an ice-free guarantee from December through March. Guide Cory Allen left his roots in Illinois to pursue this southern brand of muskie fishing. He points to the Collins and Caney Fork rivers as winter muskie options.
Each located in central Tennessee, the Caney Fork is a powerful river with trophy trout and world-class striper fisheries to go along with its sizable muskies, while the Collins fishes at a slower pace with a reputation for solid muskies. Allen says that the upper Collins and Caney Fork still flow much as they did before the influence of man. “The Collins is more subtle in nature between riffles and runs,” he says. “The Caney is more accentuated, often staggered between pools of 30 to 40 feet deep, gouged and scoured by waterfalls stomping down the stairs of the Cumberland Plateau. These two rivers converge at Great Falls Dam to create a unique system that looks like a river but acts like a reservoir.”
This dam serves as the beginning of Center Hill Reservoir, 16,000 acres of limestone gorge that holds a healthy population of naturally reproducing muskies. Fifty-inch-class fish are prevalent on these waters. Medium-size jerkbaits and bucktails are consistent producers on the Caney, while the Collins has become increasingly popular with fly anglers. Concentrate on the lower sections of deep holes that contain woodcover and areas with feeder creeks.
Farther east is Tennessee’s fabled Melton Hill Reservoir. This large impoundment of the Clinch River once held the world-record striped bass and now lays claim to the state-record muskie—a 51.5-inch 43-pound 14-ounce prespawn fish from 2017. In the two decades since the initial stocking of muskies in this system, claims abound of giants caught and released that would obliterate the current record.
Melton Hill may have first made waves for its warmwater discharge fishery; however, the sporadic discharge schedule makes it a less-appealing option these days for out-of-state anglers scheduling travel. Allen favors fishing away from the effects of the steam plant. He routinely catches trophies by both trolling and jigging deep channel bends and feeder creeks during the dead of winter. “The largest fish to cross my gunnels was a 54.5-inch female caught a week after the steam plant had unexpectedly halted its discharge,” he says. “Many of our largest fish have come during the winter without any artificial thermal influence.”
As the temperature begins to warm, he fishes shallower isolated bays that retain the sun’s warmth and throws topwaters to early season muskies. “While many of the tried and true southern reservoir staples of Rat-L-Traps and small twitchbaits work, one of the more overlooked presentations is topwater, even into the 50°F range,” he says. “When the muskies are in the warmest and often shallowest areas, topwaters fish shallower than any other bait style and you can fish at a very slow speed.”
One of his favorite topwaters is the diminutive Surf Master by Best American Tackle. “The Surf Master is solid as a rock and fires from the rod like a trebuchet projectile,” he says. “It’s unique in that it features brass blades on each end of the body, synced to counter-rotate so the bait oscillates but never rolls over. The coolest thing about these blades is that they spin at ultra-slow speeds. This blade action provides a slight ripple on the surface and a light chatter as it makes its way back to the boat. Our muskies just eat them up.”
The New and James rivers of Virginia can keep you in muskies through the season openers Up North. Hop into a jetboat with Brent Perkey of Blue Ridge Musky Guide Services. These are wild scenic rivers with the possibility of catching multiple muskies in the mid-40-inch range. Glidebaits, twitchbaits, and big soft plastic grubs are good choices. As a bonus, shallow, clear water means that most strikes are seen before they are felt. Fish location depends on water temperature and river levels. Larger fluctuations take place as the winter season progresses, so get there early and ride out the run through spring.
Winter is upon us, and muskie anglers should welcome it for what is has to offer. Trophies await one final late-season encounter on large familiar waters up north, and opportunities farther south can be a game changer for those willing to broaden their horizons through the season.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan travels North America and beyond for the largest fish in freshwater.