Find Wisconsin’s Hidden Musky Gems

By Steve Heiting

Musky fishermen on the lookout for big fish have long followed the “fishbowl theory” — that is, the bigger the bowl, the bigger the fish inside them grow. Applied to muskie fishing, that means the bigger the water, the better the chance at a trophy.

You can’t argue with the big fish opportunities offered by some of Wisconsin’s largest musky waters — Green Bay and the Lower Fox River, the Chippewa Flowage and Lake Wissota would make anyone’s short list. But if you fish only larger waters in your quest for big muskies, you’re certain to overlook many terrific options.

In this day of better-educated, mobile musky hunters, larger waters also tend to be the most popular. And who can blame those anglers? Lakes get popular by producing muskies, and if these muskies are large so much the better.

I’ve always been a sort of contrarian and prefer to seek waters with fewer fishermen. I don’t mind fishing a lake with fewer muskies, either — if only a handful of muskies in a given water are going to bite today, but I don’t have to “share” those opportunities with other anglers, it usually means I will enjoy as much if not more action than I would on a nearby, more popular lake.

During the 2006 musky fishing season, three of the four largest Wisconsin muskies in my boat were caught from lakes of less than 500 acres. Also, the average size of my Wisconsin-caught muskies was just a hair under 41 inches. I’m mentioning these numbers to underscore the potential of small musky waters.

I won’t reveal any lake names here because if I do, I’ll be telling every one of this website’s readers and none of us will have any fun on those waters this season. However, I’ll describe how you can find your own small water musky gem.

The Right Ingredients

Muskies are like white-tailed deer — feed them the right food, leave them alone for a few years, and you’ll eventually have giants. Now, genetics also plays into this some, but that will only complicate this article. And since we are discussing waters that are alreadyoverlooked by the masses, the muskies have likely had the time to grow. So, that leaves food as the primary consideration.

Most smaller-acreage musky lakes simply do not have the right type of baitfish to grow big muskies. Typically they’ll have lots of panfish, some suckers and bullheads, as well as gamefish. A bellyful of bluegills and small perch just won’t create muskies of the size we’re looking for.

I seek out musky lakes that feature deep water (30 feet deep or more) and/or have a river or creek connected to them. Often deep water means the lake contains ciscoes, and the stream attachment increases the likelihood of a substantial sucker and/or redhorse population (even though it’s a whole different species, a redhorse is basically a sucker on steroids). If I find bullheads in either of these waters, I like the lake even more.

Consider that ciscoes are like filet mignon to a musky while a sucker is the equivalent of a bratwurst. And to quote the late Peter Haupt, “bullheads are like a pork chop to a musky.” We all understand what a steady diet of steak, pork chops and brats would do to our cholesterol count, and it works the same way with muskies.

Deep water and attached streams factor in other ways, too. Most musky anglers don’t like fishing deep water and that creates a sanctuary where muskies can live longer while seeing fewer lures. Streams also provide an escape — if there is a widening of the stream or it leads to another lake — you can bet the farm there will be muskies there. Muskies like to travel, and some fish at some time will have made the journey to the next lake up- or downstream. By searching out such attached lakes I’ve caught muskies from lakes that are not even supposed to have them, at least according to Wisconsin DNR publications. You can’t get much more overlooked than that.

The Right Stuff

The beauty of overlooked muskies is that they tend to not see a lot of lures during a season and are thus less conditioned to them. On some of the lakes I fish I get more strikes than I get follows, which means the muskies don’t see a lot of baits. Dumb muskies look just as nice in photos as smart ones.

I further put the odds in my favor by fishing during prime times. Since I have 300 musky lakes within an hour’s drive of my home I can pick and choose when I fish. And I won’t fish them when I wouldn’t expect success anywhere else, such as in the middle of a hot, summer’s day. Just because a lake is overlooked by musky fishermen doesn’t mean it’s not a favorite of pleasure boaters. So, I try to be on these waters during periods of low light, such as before breakfast or after dinner. If the moon is rising or setting, I’m going to be there. I’ve said it many times that while I fish less than I did back in my guiding days, more muskies visit my boat today than back then — fishing when I want, rather than when I have to, is paramount.

Finally, I fish deeper than most anglers are willing. In cisco-based lakes, I use my electronics to find the ciscoes first, then work through the schools with crankbaits and big plastics. I rip and twitch these baits to try to make them stand out from the thousands of other baitfish nearby. In waters where the muskies feed primarily on suckers, fishing with a crankbait along the weed edge while occasionally making contact with the weeds will usually produce bigger muskies than the shallows.

Compared to fishing Green Bay or the Chippewa Flowage, smaller waters can leave you feeling a bit claustrophobic. But if catching big muskies is your goal and you have a small water nearby that fits this criteria, do yourself a favor by fishing it this season. Many of you will be glad you did.

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