Beware of Muskie Fever. It can ruin the life of a perfectly normal fishaholic.
And contagious? You betcha. I caught it even before I went anywhere near water where the mighty muskellunge lurks. Then, last year, I finally had my first chance at a muskie, and what an introduction! Six long days and 8,600 casts without a single hook-up. (Click here to read the gory details.)
But even such a royal butt kicking can’t come close to curing Muskie Fever. Instead of giving up and going back to trout, I couldn’t wait to go back for another beating. Catching a muskie was high on my life list, so it had to happen. All I needed was a better time and place, eh?
Pilgrimage to Muskie Mecca
We’d heard about muskies getting easier in the fall, so we decided to brave the weather and plan a late-season excursion to world-renown muskie hotspot, Minaki, Ontario.
Minaki is a gaggle of fishing camps and private cabins, many with boat access only, and, of course, one of the best muskie populations on Earth. And a river flows through it, the immense Winnipeg River, the outlet of legendary Lake of the Woods. The river now only flows right by the front door of most of the lodges in Minaki but also through several huge, natural lakes within easy boating distance–Gun Lake, Pistol Lake, Roughrock Lake, Big Sand Lake, Little Sand Lake, and others, all outstanding muskie habitat.
In late October, four of us made the long drive through Montana, across North Dakota, through southern Manitoba and over to Minaki, Ontario, where we hooked up with two local guides, Mike Pundyk and Jean-Luc Dube, and moved into a comfy cabin at Barber’s Resort.
But the local weather was everything but comfy.
Fall Muskies Not for Wussies
When morning rolled around on our first day, we looked outside and saw otter tracks in the snow covering the boats and docks, wind whipping up whitecaps, various stages of frozen water howling horizontally by, the thermometer reading -2 degrees Celsius, so we shared a moment of silence staring at each other before asking: What’s the problem? Let’s go fishing.
The point being, if you decide to go after fall muskies, plan for the worst weather and be grateful for anything better. Bring your full-body, cold-weather armor, all the high-tech, guaranteed-to-keep-you-warm-and-dry gear you can afford. That includes several pairs of mittens and gloves (waterproof, if possible), and raingear that would make a deep-sea crabber jealous.
The soft spot is your feet. Since you don’t move around much in the boat, the chill gradually creeps up through those wool socks and makes the rest of your day miserable. After a couple of days of enduring cold feet, we drove down to the nearby town of Kenora, home of the giant “Husky Musky” statue, and cleaned out a Canadian Tire store’s supply of Grabber Toe Warmers, otherwise known as “hotties.”
After we put a hottie between two layers of wool socks, our toes stayed warm for most of the day, but if you plan to be out longer than six hours, though, bring an extra hottie. Next time I go after fall muskies, I’m going to check out those electric socks. In any case, go all the way with planning ahead to keep those tootsies toasty.
We had a little learning curve, but now we know that once you gear up for fall muskie hunting, it can be close to comfy.
(They call it “hunting,” incidentally, because it so resembles big game hunting–a lot of chasing hopefully followed by a little catching.)
What Makes Fall Muskies Easier?
During warm summer months, muskies hang out in shallow water off rocky points, on reefs, around islands or in weedbeds. When fall weather starts cooling off the water, starting sometime in October, muskies move into deeper water.
Muskies–especially those “Big Girls,” as they’re called, because most trophy fish are females–leave the shallow water haunts when lower water temperature starts killing weeds that holds oxygen and provides cover for forage fish. With the easy meals disappearing, muskies head for deeper water to feed.
Get a Grip
Instead of lashing the waters with a thousand casts per day, you usually troll for fall muskies. “Trolling works best this time of year,” Mike explained, “because the fish are more dispersed instead of being concentrated, usually around the weedbeds.”
Trolling for fall muskies could best be described as long periods of bone-chilling boredom occasionally interrupted by brief bursts of chaos and euphoria. Just in case that doesn’t sound like much fun, read on; you can’t argue with success.
And it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t sit there dreaming about bonefishing on a Belize salt flat or soaking in a hot tub. You have to pay attention.
Since you’re deep trolling (at 20-30 feet), you get snagged a lot, which can jerk the rod out of your hands, especially if you don’t have your drag set correctly. And if you aren’t concentrating and don’t have a good grip on the rod when that big muskie finally strikes, you could lose the rod. The hit is everything but subtle.
Nor are the baits even remotely subtle; you can get a decent workout just reeling them in thirty times per day. (For some unknown reason, muskie lures are called baits.) We used gargantuan 14-inch-long, half-pound crankbaits called Grandmas, Jakes and Believers, all armed with three 5/0 treble hooks–about the same size search and rescue folks used to use to drag for bodies.
“This time of the year muskies are looking for an easy meal,” Mike explained. “That’s why we use these huge baits. Instead of a few small treats, they want a big meal like this to conserve energy.”
Fortunately, those big baits float because even though we used 80-pound PowerPro superline, we broke off several baits when snagged, probably because sharp rocks frayed the line above the leader. Those baits simply floated up to the surface ready to go back into the game.
A good thing, too, since those huge crankbaits cost about $40 each. Luckily, we only lost one during our seven-day trip.
Not All About Muskies
Minaki might be most famous for its muskies, but it has much more to offer. For example, we jigged for walleyes each morning for a couple of hours and had steady action, at least enough to catch lunch every day. We also caught several pike each day, including one 41-incher that couldn’t resist that giant crankbait.
On days where the weatherman gave us a little break, and it warmed up to a tolerable 10 degrees Celsius, Mike and Jean-Luc cooked up traditional shore lunch on a scenic point or island while we soaked in the scenery and got a little exercise gathering firewood before eating too much of the world’s best fish and chips.
In or close to Minaki, you can see about a hundred private cabins and eight operating lodges, but as you motor farther down the river, the landscape takes on the image of a wilderness lake, hardly different than the many fly-in destinations I’ve visited. On warm summer days, I’ve sure there’s more going on, but on our late-October/early-November trip, we only saw a handful of other boats, and most cabins were abandoned for the winter.
The scenery was even better than some fly-in shield lakes we’ve seen, mainly because of the more diverse forest cover, especially those big pines, both red and white, you don’t see up north. And eagles everywhere, including one that put on a show for us one morning while we jigged for lunch. Too late in the year to see many loons, though, and I missed that daily serenade.
Finally, the weather changes and shows us how nice it can be fishing around Minaki. Photo by Bill Schneider.
No Meat Hunters Allowed
If you want to take home a cooler of fillets, Minaki is not for you. Of all the places I’ve been fishing, and that’s a lot of places, I haven’t been anywhere with more restrictive fishing regulations–at least for any drive-to fishing destination.
For muskie, it’s basically catch-and-release. Legally, you can keep one trophy over 54 inches, but in practice, this very rarely happens. The conservation ethic among muskie aficionados is as strong as it gets. If they catch the trophy of a lifetime, they take a few photos and measurements, carefully release it, and go home and order a replica mount.
For walleye, the daily and possession limit is only two fish, none between 35-45 cm (13.8-17.7 inches) and only one above 70 cm (27.5 inches), with similar tough regs and slot limits for smallmouth bass and northern pike.
These strict regulations happened because most local guides and lodge owners saw fishing success slipping. They banded together and convinced the provincial government to impose these restrictive regulations, and it worked. Muskie fishing is better than ever; smallmouth fishing is exceptional; and walleye fishing is coming back strongly–lots of fish caught, but not as many trophy ‘eyes as in years past–not yet.
There Is a Fishing God After All
Last year on my first muskie hunt and far too many times previously and since, well, let’s just be respectful and say the Fishing God was not looking after my best interests. But I must have been a really good boy lately because He was taking care of me in Minaki. Here’s how it went down.
On the first day, not surprisingly, because I used to it, no muskie for Bill, but two other members of our party caught nice fish in the low 40-inch range.
Then, on the second day, my first muskie ever, a 37-incher. Suddenly, after what seemed like an eternity, I was no longer a muskie virgin. It felt sooo good. Experienced muskie hunters might scoff at the size of my prize, but to me, it was huge. If I’d gone home that night, I’d considered the trip a success. Little did I know that the 37-incher was only an appetizer.
Late the next afternoon, during “prime time,” as Jean-Luc calls it, just as the night takes over the day, I almost lost my rod when the fish hit. After a short but intense fight where I couldn’t even move the fish at first and started wondering if I had snagged a sunken log, I finally netted that monster, a true trophy, the fish of my dreams, exactly 50 inches long and a definite “Big Girl” weighing 35-40 pounds. As you can see, I could barely lift it up for the photo. If I’d gone home that night, I’d considered the trip a phenomenal success. But there was much more to come.
Then, the next day, another Big Girl for Bill, 45.5 inches.
Then, a day without a strike; back to normal.
Then, on the fifth day, another trophy goes for Grandma, again exactly 50 inches, although not quite as heavy as my first girl.
Then, another day without a muskie.
Then, on the last day, 5 minutes of daylight left, 5 minutes from the cabin, 5 minutes from the end of our trip, another monster muskie smacked Grandma. It was pitch dark by the time I finally landed it, a truly amazing fish–fat and 51.25 inches.
There you go. I don’t even need to exaggerate. Three 50-inch muskies in one trip, three of them caught in the same place, which shall forever remain secret. I’ve read about hardcore muskie hunters who fish dozens of times each year and still go many years without catching even one 50-incher.
So, for the non-believers among us, yes, there is a Fishing God, and sometimes, although not nearly often enough, He gets in a really good mood. I’ll be so much more reverent from now on, just in case I might be granted one more fishing trip in my life as good as this one.
All together, the four of us put thirteen muskies in the boat during our seven days at Minaki. Even though it warmed up towards the end of our week, we caught more fish in the severe weather we had the first three days. In any case, it was an outstanding muskie hunt by anybody’s definition.
“You’ll never, ever, never come close to doing that again,” Jean-Luc promised me as we packed up to head back to Montana. If he’s correct, and he probably is, I can live with it. But it won’t stop me from trying again and again and again. There is, after all, no cure for Muskie Fever.