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Tips and Tricks for Northern Wisconsin Muskies

Author Rob Manthei prepares to release a northern Wisconsin brute.
Author Rob Manthei prepares to release a northern Wisconsin brute.

By Rob Manthei

During 19 years of guiding on the waters surrounding St. Germain, Wisconsin, I’ve come to realize that muskies can be predictable, yet most of the time they have a mind of their own. Muskies will act like no other critter, and sometimes push you to the edge of your sanity. The lakes of northern Wisconsin have many different characteristics, yet from the Minnesota boundary to the shores of Lake Michigan, the waters are pretty common.

As a guide, my job is to educate anglers as much as it is to try to help them put a musky in the net. Sometimes this task will test everything that is known of musky fishing, and sometimes it is “better to be lucky than good.”

The following tips may seem obvious to more seasoned anglers, although it doesn’t hurt to always revisit the obvious when the bite isn’t going your way. These techniques will help everyone from the beginner to the best of the best become a better musky hunter.

1. Pick A Good Musky Lake

While working behind the bar at our resort, I get asked many times the name of my favorite musky lake. Truthfully, I answer back: “My favorite lake is where they are biting.” One of the great characteristics of northern Wisconsin is the number of lakes that are available. Deep, shallow, weedy, sterile, clear, dark, natural, flowages … just to name a few. The only crutch we have is the lack of sizeable water. It has been proven, however, that genetics and food is the most important factor to grow large muskies, not just large water. Just ask Mr. Tom Gelb.

The Wisconsin DNR website provides lots of information of stocking reports, creel surveys, and overall musky densities in the respective counties from which the data was collected. It is truly amazing the information that I find using these reports, and also the surprises of size structures or year classes that a certain lake may have. Obviously a working knowledge of my favorite lakes allows me to believe I know what swims in it, but discovering “new” water without this information can be a long and painful struggle for which most of us don’t have the time.

2. Deal With Pressure

It is no secret that the “Up North” part of Wisconsin is shared much of the year by folks other than musky anglers. Sometimes the best musky waters are home to the most popular resorts. This means sharing the water with personal watercraft, pontoons, and other water enthusiasts. I deal with this quite often, since Big St. Germain Lake is in my backyard. Recreational and fishing pressure both matter.

Many lakes across the north have a bullseye on them from the Internet, word of mouth, and just plain results. These lakes will have full parking lots almost every weekend, as well as much of the summer busy season. A lot of the time these well-known lakes will produce over and over, but all fish, and more importantly large muskies, don’t react well to pressure. The following explains how I like to deal with these types of pressure on the water.

• Fish where musky anglers aren’t — I know this sounds kind of stupid and blah, but there is a much deeper meaning here. Say a certain lake has a dozen well-known musky spots. If the lake is busy, chances are that at least eight to 10 of these locations are being worked around the clock. I am not saying I wouldn’t fish some of these locations, because I will, but it’s important to fish the locations that don’t seem to be obvious musky haunts.

Fishing pressure will sometimes drive muskies off main structural elements to secondary locations. For instance, say there is a large weed point that covers several acres and leads into deep water. Nearby, there is a small secondary point that leads into the same deep water. Most fishermen will work the larger structure, believing that the larger area will hold more muskies. This is true if the weed point hasn’t been fish much during the last two or three days. However, in a highly-pressured situation, you might be surprised how many muskies could be using the smaller, less obvious point, which is often overlooked by anglers. Many secondary locations will only require a few dozen casts. Some musky anglers don’t like to stop and waste their time on such locations, yet they may be holding most of the fish. The same goes for rock structures. Look at the map for the smaller humps that aren’t attracting the majority of the boats, or go on a mission looking for structure that isn’t on the map. People who pay attention to their electronics when driving around a lake sometimes notice a piece of structure and say, “Gee, that isn’t on the map. Who put that rock bar there?”

One last technique when fishing weedlines is to try the two-pass method. If everyone is working the weedline itself, go a cast length outside the weeds. This can also be achieved by turning and firing one out into the open water every second or third cast while working the weed edge. A lot of pressure on the edge itself will push muskies deeper. Mixing up the routine with a second, deeper pass along the weeds is sometimes all that is needed to locate muskies that seemed to disappear from the standard weedbed. Sandbars, wind-blown gravel shorelines, and wood are other options that might be overlooked by many other musky nuts.

• Use a different presentation — Take a sample of 25 musky boats on a given lake and chances are the anglers will have blades, jerkbaits, crankbaits, topwaters, or rubber tied on their lines because they produce. But every musky angler has some sort of big twitchbait in their box, like a 10-inch Jake, 9-inch Grandma, Magnum ShallowRaider, or Custom X, but working it different than everybody else could be very effective.

This is a simple trick that seems trivial but works for me in a lot of high-pressure scenarios. To most, twitching a lure is a rip-and-pause, or rip-rip-pause deal. I do it a little different. After the lure hits the water, give it a few cranks to get the lure swimming (usually the first 10 to 15 feet of the retrieve). Then give it two to four hard, violent twitches. Mix in a few upward rips on the rod to really get the lure moving. Then pause and give it a few more cranks. Then give one or two twitches. After covering one-third to one-half of your retrieve with this approach, crank the lure steadily to simulate an escaping baitfish, gradually increasing the lure’s speed just before going into a figure-8. Fish can get conditioned to a certain lure’s action, so making the lure look as realistic as possible can only up your odds. The example of large minnowbait is just one of many lures that anglers get into a “robotic” retrieve method to many times. Making a change to a retrieve is just one angle to mix things up.

Changing the appearance or sound of a lure is another good trick. With the popularity of double-bladed spinners over the years, many of our lakes have seen their share of double-8’s to double-10’s. Sometimes burning a bait in will draw the reaction strike that we all hope for, but when muskies see the same thing over and over, follows seem to be more of the norm.

• Fish when the pressure is gone — The simplest approach is to spend most of your time on the water when nobody else is there. It sounds simple, but it can be very effective. With all the articles written today about night fishing, I still find it amazing that the amount of night fishing that goes on in my region is pretty minimal. The full moon periods of June through September can always be hot. Double this with stable, seasonable weather, and the musky action can be lights-out.

The best part of attacking a lake after nightfall is only a few boats (if any) will be on the water. I really don’t do anything different at night than I do during the day. I concentrate on weedlines first and rocks second. I work parallel to the edges with DepthRaiders and BullDawgs, and cast over the weeds with large-profile, double-bladed spinners, such as Cowgirls. I use topwaters very little after dark, except for a creeper-style or Hawg Wobbler on very calm, balmy nights.

3. The Open Water Phenomenon

For years, the open water pattern was the “big” secret in the northwoods. Actually, some of the legendary anglers of the “good old days” were doing this well before anyone “pioneered” this type of fishing. Larger, deep, trout-style lakes of the north are home to deep water forage such as ciscoes, smelt, and whitefish. Lakes that possess these protein-laced baitfish typically grow muskies of above average length and weight. These baitfish species prefer colder waters and need deep water haunts to hide from the high temperatures of the summer months. For much of the year, they don’t have any reason to move shallow, so the predators don’t either.

Early spring will find baitfish high in the water column due to the cooler surface temperatures. In fact, a lot of the time in the evening hours these baitfish will be easily found “dimpling” the surface. This is due to predators chasing them to the surface, or the baitfish feeding on smaller organisms themselves. Anyhow, when this is happening, your lures better be landing around the boiling surface!

Open water is the hardest pattern to convince anglers to try. Confidence will be your biggest ally here. It usually only takes a little success to become a believer. Just because the Lowrance reads 67 feet, concentrate on the upper 15 feet or so at this time of season. This biggest issue that I see with fishing open water is the loss of attention from my customers. It is funny how customers in my boat will cast diligently to a weed edge or shoreline for hours with an occasional follow, but when the scenery or targets are taken away, it’s a different story.

The simple side of this fishing method is that there is only two factors in open water — food and predators, so if you feel something, set the hook. There aren’t weeds, stumps, or rocks to bump with your bait. Locating schools of baitfish via your electronics can be difficult early in the year due to the shallowness of their presence. A lot of times the boat will spook them and ciscoes will travel left or right of the boat and not show up in the cone of the transducer. I’ve even seen trolling motor noise spook baitfish high in the water column, so I prefer to drift with the wind and work around the suspended bait. If there isn’t a “drifting” wind, I will set my trolling motor at the lowest speed possible on constant and travel a path while bombing the basin.

As with any other baitfish scenario, wind will play a big part of their whereabouts. Check the wind-driven areas first and then move on.

4. Rig Your Boat Right

The best rods and reels, and the sharpest hooks and prettiest colors won’t do you a bit of good unless your boat is in the proper location when targeting muskies. I’ve always preached that boat control is the biggest asset when musky fishing. Positioning your boat at the proper depth, angle, and correct speed while working a piece of structure is very critical. If conditions dictate that I must put down my rod in favor of boat control for my customers, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. I feel that in pressured situations, using GPS marks, saved GPS trails and precise depth management are vastly important.

I am a huge fan of large tiller boats. I like the open space and large decks that are common features of such boats. I give my customers first shot on the water and operate my Lund 2010 Pro-Guide from the back. I mount my Lowrance electronics in the back right below my casting platform. I run two large displays side-by-side to easily view the front and the back of the boat simultaneously, which gives me a 20-foot warning of a depth change coming up. For example, if I am following a 15-foot edge and the bow depth slowly changes to 12 or 13 feet, I know to kick the boat out and get back onto my line. It also signals a subtle change in the bottom contour and/or a small, usually unnoticed underwater point is coming up. This set-up allows for the best control that I know of. The use of waypoints to mark follows and catches year after year will allow for a database to be made to determine the “spot on the spot” and create your own hotspots.

5. Hire A Guide For The Area

This may sound like a self-promoting advertisement, but it is the truth. The first thing I do when I go to an area that I’ve never fished or (hunted for that matter), is hire the best guide I can find. Hiring a guide isn’t cheap, but it can and will prove to be a great move by the end of your vacation.

Most people plan their trips in the winter. If you set aside 10 to 20 dollars each week, by the time your trip comes the cost may be covered. If a guide is in your plan, make your date selection early. The best guides are booked early, and most of them have a steady repeat business which doesn’t allow for many openings during a peak vacation period.

A guide’s knowledge not only puts you on the best bite right away, but shows you the patterns that are currently working. In most cases, the patterns that work on one lake will typically work on similar waters nearby. There are many excellent fishermen who read this magazine, but sometimes it still takes two to three days of fishing to figure the bite out, even if you are familiar with the area. Putting more fish in the boat will definitely make you and your partner(s) happier by week’s end.

6. Pay Attention To Your Equipment

For some of us, this is a no-brainer. We change our lines, oil our reels, check each guide on the rod, and most importantly sharpen our hooks prior to the season. This is very critical in all applications of fishing, but it also helps speed up the calendar in March and April when there isn’t a whole lot to do.

My advice here is for the group of anglers who may make only one or two trips each season to the northwoods. I see it time and again, where fishermen aren’t paying attention to their equipment and it ultimately ends up costing them a fish. Make sure that every controllable variable is in your favor. I really don’t like to leave fishing to chance. This simple maintenance of equipment will end up being a difference-maker.

These are simple but very important tips that will help every angler become a better fishermen. I don’t really believe in magic lures, luck, or anything like that. I believe that we all control our success and certain factors sometimes go overlooked or underappreciated. I truly believe that an understanding of your water, controlling your boat, and putting the lure where it needs to be is the most important factor in fishing.

Rob Manthei guides in the Vilas and Oneida County region of northern Wisconsin, and owns St. Germain Lodge and the adjoining Fibber’s Restaurant. For more about Rob, visit: www.robmanthei.com

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