Now that bass season is officially open, that only leaves one season left to go – the mighty muskie. The season opens June 5. Love them or not, they are the king of freshwater (outside of the trout and salmon family). They are revered by anglers as a fish that can be very difficult to catch and feared by swimmers young and old (fear mongers will tell you they attack people and that is not true).
Due to the fact that muskies can grow to very large sizes – the current state record is 54 pounds from Lake Winnibigosh back in 1957 by Art Lyons – they have also received a bad rap on a number of fronts. People that don’t know much about them assume that since they are so big that they feed on every species in the lake. That is far from the truth. Could they eat everything in the lake? Probably. Do they eat everything? No. Muskies have a preferred diet just like every other fish. They prefer suckers, tullibee, burbot, and other soft rayed high calorie fish. But since they are so big, they do occasionally eat things that are outside their preferred meal. Like walleyes for instance.
Muskies and walleyes
A lot of walleye fisherman have had a muskie come up and grab their walleye while they were trying to land it. This is pretty rare, but of course it can also be a very compelling argument that muskies love to eat walleyes. But the truth of the matter is the only reason that muskie went for the walleye was because it was struggling on the end of the anglers line; it was easy prey. The struggling walleye was also putting off fear pheromones that basically broadcast that they’re in trouble. Muskies, being the opportunistic feeder that they are, are simply reacting to what nature presents. If an easy meal presents itself, they’re going to take it. Same with northern pike.
By the numbers
The reason Muskies are so hard to catch is the fact that there are just not very many of them in any given body of water. They are considered a low density species of fish. So as much as some may think “the lake is full of them,” that is generally not the case. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) data from their website shows that on average, they stock fingerlings (about seven inches long) at about .2 to .4 fish per littoral acre (an acre of the lake that is less than 15 feet deep). In other words, a little more than one fingerling for every four littoral acres of water. So if the lake had 1000 littoral acres that would be around 250 muskies.
In contrast, the DNR data shows that on average, they stock about one pound of walleye fingerlings per littoral acre. There is an average of 15 fingerlings per pound that are 4-6 inches in length. So that adds up to an average of 60 fish for every four literal acres. That’s 60 walleyes for every one muskie fingerling stocked just to put things in perspective of a lake’s average population that contains both species of fish.
This of course is based on all the stocked fish surviving to catchable size, which is unrealistic. Although fingerling size fish have a much higher survival rate than fry size, there is still mortality that the DNR takes into consideration for the final numbers, but these are the basic stocking numbers they shoot for. And one last fact about the relationship between walleyes and muskies: Almost all of the best walleye lakes in the state are great muskie lakes as well – proof that muskies do not hinder walleye population. What is the walleyes biggest predator? The frying pan.
Where to find early season muskies
As far as where to look for early season muskies depends on what type of spring we’ve had. Like all other gamefish, they will react to how the season is progressing weatherwise and by water temperature. This year, although we had an earlier than average ice out, the spring has been the usual roller coaster of weather patterns. Finally, as of late, we’ve had a nice string of warm temperatures that brought the water temperatures up dramatically and actually pushed us back to where we should have been with the early ice out.
Muskies like to spawn when the water temperatures are anywhere from 50 - 60 degrees. So by the time the season opens this weekend, the spawn will be over. Muskies generally spawn in the shallow water of the bays, which warms up faster than the main lake water will. Once the spawn is complete, you won’t have to go far to find post spawn fish. They will generally hang around in the same bay that they spawn in for a little while recovering from the rigors of the spawn. Look to adjacent deeper water with fresh weed growth or shallow rocks or a combination.
What to use
There seems to be two schools of thought on what to use for early season muskies – big lures or small lures. Again, it all depends on how the season has progressed. This year, with the spawn complete, anything should work as far as lures are concerned. Some anglers think that smaller baits are the ticket in the early season and then use bigger ones as the season progresses. On Mille Lacs, it can be a different deal. If you’re like most anglers that come here, you are looking for a big fish. If that’s the case, I would dispense with the smaller lures and go right into whatever you like to throw in the summer. As a general rule – big lures equals big fish on Mille Lacs.
Like I said earlier, whether you love them or not, the mighty muskie can be one of the biggest thrills an angler can experience in freshwater fishing. Year after year, there seems to be more and more anglers out there fishing for them. If you go, be sure you are prepared with a quality pliers and a hook cutter, and be gentle with your handling. They may be big, but they are actually a very fragile fish. The minimum size limit is 54 inches to harvest, but most anglers let those fish go as well and get a graphite reproduction made to commemorate the catch. CPR – catch, photo and release.