By Gord Bastable
What do you need to know to fish for muskie? There is an abundance of information out there on the technical aspects of angling for muskie….and an abundance of differing opinions. If you need to get some good background on the subject I would suggest picking up a copy of Dick Pearson’s, Muskies on the Shield, which deals with the types of water and conditions you will find on Eagle Lake. My purpose here is to get the “average” Vermilion Bay Lodge guest into an Eagle Lake “muskie mind set”. Whether you are a serious muskie person, or are not even planning on fishing for muskie, some of these ideas may be useful to you on your next trip to VBL. After all, regardless of what you are fishing for, if you have a line in the water, there is a chance a muskie is “eyeballing” your offering!
Here at the lodge I have met thousands of anglers with differing skills and interests. A common problem is that many people are ill prepared to deal with a big fish after it’s caught…this applies to ALL species found here in Eagle Lake. This problem is magnified greatly when the fish in question happens to be a muskie. A big, heavy, fierce looking fish with rows of sharp teeth can be daunting. The question then becomes how to release the fish without hurting yourself or injuring the fish….both of which are very easily done. The former can add a trip to the hospital; the latter can ruin the experience of catching a beautiful fish. The bottom line is being prepared for the possibility of catching big fish and knowing what to do when it happens.
Here are a few tips:
- Avoid using lures with excessive numbers of hooks. A lure with three trebles has nine hooks that you and the fish will have to eventually deal with. Look for lures with as few hooks as possible. Single hooks are the mainstay of saltwater fishermen whose prey can be 20 times the size and stamina of any freshwater fish. Multiple hooks are not necessary and are the cause of most disasters between the angler and the fish…keep them to a minimum. For example, a Rapala with three sets of treble hooks can be modified by removing the center treble.
- Use your pliers to flatten the barbs on your hooks. The concept of barb-less hooks seems to scare people… “Won’t I lose more fish?” Not likely. Give it a try on one lure and you will soon realize the benefits of an easy release….not to mention the danger factor to yourself (or others if your casting technique is faulty) is significantly lowered. Just remember, the less time trying to remove hooks increases the likelihood of releasing your big fish unharmed.
- Bring the right tools!! Like I pointed out in the beginning, being prepared to catch fish means more than just having the tackle to catch them…you need the tools to release them too! At a minimum have a “Hook-Out” hook removal tool. If you’re not familiar with what that is just ask for one (get two…they don’t float!) at any decent tackle shop…it’s only a few bucks. A pair of long nosed pliers will also be suitable…especially as it can be also used to flatten barbs. For those who refuse to flatten barbs a handy item is a quality pair of side cutters or hook cutters (Knipex makes a quality product). In some cases it is better to quickly cut the hooks when removal is very difficult.
- A large fish can easily “inhale” a lure deep into its mouth, which will make hook removal difficult and potentially dangerous. Purchase an inexpensive jaw spreader to keep the fish’s mouth wide open so that you can see what you’re doing. These work well for pike as well.
- Another “tool” that can save your hide and that of the fish is a pair of fish handling gloves. These generally have a rubber coating that will give you some protection from sharp teeth and gills….and will also protect the fish’s outer coating of slime from being rubbed off. Create a “place” in the boat for these items to have them ready for use.
- One last important item is the net. If you are serious about targeting big pike and muskie then spend the $ to get a decent muskie net… Beckman and Frabill are two manufacturers of a quality product. If you are just dabbling with the sport and are a VBL guest ask about borrowing a bigger net….we would be happy to provide you one.
- A Good Release… you’ve hooked and landed the “big one”…maybe even the fish of a life-time. The future of that beautiful fish is now in your hands. These are the steps you need to follow once you bring the fish to boat-side. From an idealistic point of view the ultimate “best” thing you can possibly do is an “at boat-side release”. If you prepare for this moment in advance you may have reduced the number of hooks on your lure…maybe even pinched the barbs. Your camera person is ready and is snapping shots as the fish comes alongside. You reach down and “voila” the fish swims away none the worse! If only that was the norm. The norm is this, it never goes the way you think it should. We also need to deal with our inherent human nature which demands a photo at least half as dramatic as those we are bombarded with on fishing shows, magazines, and fishing lodge websites. Let’s deal as best we can with reality then.
- Step one, if you have a decent net then use it to corral the fish at boat-side… IN THE WATER!Never, never, never…have I said it enough?…bring the fish into the boat using the net. Why? What ultimately happens is the fish will “freak out”, thrash wildly resulting in split fins, slime removed and hooks tangled. You are also removing it from its environment where it is able to breathe. Try to imagine it this way, you have just ran the marathon and as soon as you cross the finish line someone jams a sock into your mouth. The cardinal rule of muskie fishing is to only keep the fish out of the water as long as YOU can hold your breath…it’s as simple as that.
- Step two, while the fish is at boat-side in the net take a deep breath, get the tools needed to release the fish at hand, and have the camera person set up and ready.
- Step three, do your best to remove the hooks…this might mean grabbing the fish under the jaw to reach into the mouth (this is when you will really appreciate a glove and not having three trebles thrashing around your hand!) If you flattened the barbs you should have an easy go of it.
- Step four, the fish has been unhooked…now you need to decide on a photo. The best route from the fish’s perspective is a release shot “in the water“… this is probably the route to go if you are at all unsure about handling a big fish. If you feel you need to pick the fish up (and we all do) consider the state of the fish…if it is looking at all stressed skip the photo and just let it go. If it seems healthy then a quick photo is appropriate. Just make sure you support it in a horizontal position…and remember the cardinal rule…only as long as you can hold your breath!
- Step five, stop shaking and congratulate yourself on a good release…that is more impressive than the simple task of actually catching the darn thing anyways! Hope for some good pics!
The Measurement… “Back in the day” when I first started guiding on Eagle Lake the idea of measuring muskies was something you only did if you clubbed it and brought it in. Granted, those were the “dark ages”… I think we even had a 28” minimum size! Now that was progressive thinking…NOT! If we were lucky enough to see or release a fish it was always a 20#er or a 25#er. Now people are obsessed over measuring their catch. My only suggestion is to curb this impulse as much as you can. You’ll soon find yourself more concerned about getting “the measurement” than releasing the fish in a healthy state. There is nothing wrong with just estimating the size of your catch, especially if it is not your first, or is a small fish anyways. If you feel the urge is too strong then at least invest in a floating measuring device and do it at boat-side.
Be Prepared For the Unexpected
Drawing by Mary Walker
For some of my guests that first huge fish, be it muskie, northern, walleye, or whatever, is highly anticipated…but totally unexpected when it happens. Anybody have a camera? Where’s my pliers? What do I do!!? Well, if you paid attention to the first part of “muskie tips” then you might be better prepared for the unexpected. One thing that may seem obvious is recognizing “what” you have just caught. You would be surprised by the number mistakes that are made. Aside from being very embarrassing (and highly illegal) bringing in a smallish muskie because you didn’t known the difference is frowned upon. Perhaps part of the root of the problem is the misconception that all muskie on Eagle Lake are huge. There are plenty of all sizes so please be aware. In simple terms a pike has a darker body with lighter spots…..a muskie just the opposite…a lighter body with dark spots. The pointed tail fin of the muskie is a dead giveaway as well. A good rule of thumb is if you aren’t 100% sure what you have caught, you need to let it go.
A muskie mindset…. After many years of chasing muskies I have noticed behaviour that just doesn’t fit into a neat package of what these fish “ought” to be doing, and “where” they should be doing it. The idiosyncrasies of muskie fishing are often frustrating and addicting. Acknowledging that these fish can be unorthodox and unpredictable is the first step to achieving a muskie mindset.
Check out this photo from 2007. That summer the leg of a 13 year old guest, Billy Balinski, became prey for an Eagle Lake muskie! This was a first at VBL, and is possibly a new pattern for attracting shallow, beach-oriented muskie. Who would suggest using children for bait though?! Better to stick to the artificial baits (or limbs).
The paradox, at least in my experience, is that while many a muskie may not be adverse to a large meal, a large bait does not necessarily guarantee the desired results. In 2007, here at VBL, the largest muskie of the season was caught on a Mepp’s #4 bucktail. This is maybe two inches long and is a great smallmouth bait…..but not an obvious “muskie bait”.
How about using a walleye spinner harness with a fat night-crawler as a muskie bait? As weird as that might seem that combination has caught several muskie for guests at VBL. In 2008 long time guest Joe Moskal caught a muskie on a crawler rig in forty feet of water while bottom bouncing for walleye. A few days later, his partner, Marty McVicker, had a very large fish take a spinner harness in 35 feet of water before it broke off. Not only are they biting on the “wrong” baits, they are not in locations where they are supposed to be!!
The next photo is of a muskie…mid 40 inch range…that was caught in August of 2008 trolling for suspended walleye. The rig consisted of a three way swivel, six ounces of lead, and a five foot mono leader with a seven inch Rapala. The muskie was in 60 feet of water suspended at a depth of 35 feet. Was this a fluke, or is it more the norm? These examples prove that muskies do strike unexpectedly, and it will happen again this year. Will you be ready if a muskie takes your bait?
You may be disappointed that I have left out the “how to catch” section that you might have anticipated. There is no substitute for putting in the time on the water, for being prepared, and for acknowledging that the muskie will ultimately do what it wants, regardless what the experts say it should do. Develop your own muskie mind-set, even if you don’t fish intentionally for this species. Other than the basics, there would seem to be no absolute right or wrong as to what your approach should be, except to be “ready”. Have fun, be safe, and put ’em back alive! We’ll see you at the lodge and look forward to swapping some muskie tales and tactics.
Till then, all the best!