By Anthony Scimé and Scott McKee, Niagara Musky Association
Steeped in legend and lore, New York State boasts some of the most famous and productive muskie fisheries in North America. From the gigantic fish factory of the St. Lawrence River and the heavy currents of the Niagara River, to the vastness of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and the stocked gem of Chautauqua Lake, New York abounds in opportunities for anglers to pursue these hard-hitting and hard-fighting, toothy, apex predators. This article offers tips and a list of tools and tackle necessary for the novice or less seasoned muskie angler.
Pursuing muskies is a multi-decade endeavor for the most serious and committed muskie anglers, and even they will admit they are constantly learning. Fishing for these beasts can seriously test your resolve and commitment to the sport. Muskie anglers must be willing to sacrifice days, weeks or even months on the water, often in less than ideal conditions, to land one huge fish. Then, as soon as the fish is landed, their only goal is to release it as fast as possible. In that respect, muskie fishing may seem to be a silly exercise. If you agree, read no further. If you want to start fishing for muskies, however, read on.
You will find the first few years of your muskie angling experience to be the hardest (and most expensive), but they may also be the most rewarding. Learning how to fish for muskies by exploring waterways, by experimenting, and through trial and error before seeing the fruits of your labors make successful muskie fishing especially rewarding. Then there are the fish themselves of course. There is a certain allure to catching fish that swim alone atop the food chain. With the exception of lake sturgeon, muskies are the largest freshwater fish in New York's waters, and they have teeth-big, sharp teeth. Pursuing these fish can become addictive. For dyed-in-the-wool muskie anglers, other freshwater fish are viewed as merely bait.
Catch and Release
Serious muskie anglers don't keep muskies, period. Also, when the season opens in 2015, minimum size limits in waters such as the St. Lawrence and Niagara River will be 54 inches and for inland waters, 40 inches. Because you will have to release almost all the muskies you catch, the most important aspect of muskie fishing is knowing how to properly and effectively handle and release the fish. Although muskies are at the top of the food chain, they are very susceptible to post-release mortality if not handled properly. The first step is having the right release tools.
Do Not Go Muskie Fishing Without These Tools
Large coated landing net designed specifically for muskies: The large hoop and bag enables you to land really large fish with minimal damage to them. After netting a muskie, never bring the net with the fish into your boat. A thrashing muskie on the bottom of a boat with large hooks in its mouth could injure you or your boat partner(s) and it will certainly injure itself. While removing hooks from a muskie, keep its head under water so it is able to breathe.
Hook cutters: By cutting hooks which cannot be easily removed, you place less stress on the muskie and allow for a more successful release. This will be the most important tool you'll ever purchase if a hook from a muskie lure becomes embedded in you, especially if the lure is also attached to a thrashing muskie.
Large long-nose pliers: Muskie lures are large, with big hooks. Long pliers enable you to keep your hands away from them as you remove hooks and hook pieces.
Jaw spreaders: On occasion, muskies take lures deep into their mouths, and jaw spreaders enable you to access these deeply embedded hooks.
Proper Handling and Release
Limit a muskie's time out of water to less than 30 seconds. If you want to get a picture of your muskie, have your camera ready and make sure your partner knows how to use it before you remove the muskie from the water. One picture with you and the fish and a quick measurement-in the water or on a wet bump (measuring) board-is sufficient.
Holding a muskie: Slide four fingers of one hand under the fish's gill flap (be sure to avoid the gills), with the thumb on the outside where the two gill covers meet, and hold very firmly while cradling the fish under its belly with the other hand. No vertical holds. Best yet-do not take the fish out of the water at all.
Releasing a muskie: Hold the fish in the water until it swims away under its own power. If you've done everything right, this should take less than a minute.
Muskies can be caught by trolling and casting in almost any water containing muskies in New York State. A modest investment in muskie-specific equipment is needed. This equipment often varies, depending on whether you troll or cast:
Trolling: Medium-heavy trolling rods 8 to 10 feet long and rated for 20 to 40 lb. test line. Acceptable trolling rods can be found for under $50.
Casting: Rods at least 8 feet long, heavy action, with stiff but modest flex in the upper third are a good place to start. Beginner casting rods can be found for about $100.
Trolling: Larger capacity line counters are the favored reels among trollers. Counters with larger line capacities and handles are best - they make it easier to reel in large muskie lures and muskies alike. Good reels can be purchased for around $100.
Casting: You'll be chucking large lures all day long, so don't go cheap on a casting reel. Larger capacity reels with large handles, good cranking power, and fast retrieve rates are preferable. Expect to spend $100-$200 or more on an appropriate casting reel.
Trolling and casting: 80-pound braid is the standard. It is tough, but thin, enabling your lures to go deep when trolling. The diameter of 80-pound braid is around that of 17-pound monofilament, which makes it easy to cast.
Trolling: 100 to 200-pound seven-strand or solid stainless steel wire at least 3 feet long. Trollers who bounce lures on the bottom often use leaders up to 6 feet long.
Casting: 200-pound solid wire, 8 to 12 inches long.
Never use cheap leaders-they will fail on a big fish. Muskies will always exploit the weakest link in your presentation, so be sure that all leaders have quality snaps and swivels.
There are thousands of lures to choose from, which can present a problem for anglers new to the sport. The truth is, you only need a few.
For trolling deep: A few large-lipped deep divers 8 to 12 inches long. Legend Perchbaits, Believers, Depth Raiders, Jakes, Ernies, Grandmas and Mr. Toothy baits are tough, solid, and proven muskie catchers.
For trolling shallow: Large in-line spinners and spinnerbaits work well. Also, 6 to 8-inch Pikie minnow-type plugs will troll through and over most shallow aquatic environments.
Casting: Popular casting baits include jerk baits, crank baits, in-line spinners, spinnerbaits, top water baits, rubber creatures and tubes (like those made by Red October Baits). They are countless. Go online and purchase a few proven, quality-made baits.
Colors: A few lures in natural colors (perch, sucker, walleye, shad), a few in hot colors (firetiger, orange tiger, hot perch) and a few in black (night shiner, black perch) are all you need to get started. In clearer water, start with natural colors or black. In murky water, hotter colors can excel. While fishing at night, black, white or hot colors are good choices.
Angling Tips and Tactics
- It's all about location. Keys for casting and trolling shallow areas are weeds and their edges. Cast and troll above and along the edges. Any deviations from the norm - such as points, openings, and rocks among weed flats-are prime areas for muskies.
- If you like trolling deep, also make sure to key in on edges, especially rocky breaklines or deep shoals (which act as feeding shelves). Troll both the top and bottom of the breakline. Let your lure hit and bounce off the rocks, which will help trigger strikes from curious muskies.
- Vary the speeds of your presentations until you contact fish. When casting, erratically moving your baits may trigger strikes. The same applies to trolling. Vary your speed until a muskie strikes. Experienced trollers often pull their baits up to 6 MPH (or more) when water temperatures are warm, and may drop speeds to under 2 MPH when water temperatures dip into the high 30s.
- Muskies tend to follow baits. At the end of each cast, you should alter the direction of your lure with a 90-degree "L" or sweep them into a figure 8 or large circle, which will result in more strikes. When trolling, jerking your rod forward may also trigger more strikes.
- Fight and land muskies as quickly as possible. The longer you fight a muskie, the more apt it is to succumb to post-release mortality. Even very large muskies can be landed quickly with the proper equipment.
- The presence of baitfish often means predators are near. Windblown weed edges, rocks and points may congregate baitfish and therefore muskies. Focusing your attention on these areas is always a good place to start.
- Make sure your hooks are very sharp. Enticing muskies to hit is not an easy task. You don't want to blow a chance because of dull hooks.
- Change your leaders when they become kinked, as this will severely weaken them.
- Make sure your line is free from nicks and frays. Damaged line will break easily.
- For lures that don't run straight, bend the pull point the opposite way the lure is running improperly.
- Keep your drags tight when casting to ensure hook-ups. When trolling, drags should be set so line may be pulled out by hand with only slight difficulty.
- Soft plastic baits, like the Bull Dawg and Red October Baits tubes, have drastically different actions than more traditional musky lures, and are great under difficult conditions. Tubes excel when jigged in situations involving current.
- Learning from experienced musky anglers will cut your learning curve exponentially, but don't be afraid to explore and try different tactics and techniques.
- Muskies often become active as fronts approach and during major moon phases. Focusing your time on the water during these periods may result in more strikes.
- Time spent on the water is the key to muskie fishing. The more time you spend fishing for muskies, the more muskies you will catch. It is that simple.
- This is a very basic article which was condensed for this guide, but it should help you get started in your pursuit of New York State's ultimate freshwater angling achievement-catching and releasing a trophy muskellunge!
About the authors
Anthony Scimé is a founding member of the Niagara Musky Association and has pursued muskies in New York's Niagara region for over 35 years. Scott McKee is the current president and newsletter editor of the Niagara Musky Association.