Worth every cast: Lure of trophy muskies is too much for many to ignore
The strong wind that would eventually pick up was only a slight breeze when I sent a Big Mama top-water muskie lure into the rising sun over Lake Miltona on Sunday morning.
It was the first of many casts that day as Alexandria’s Greg Peterson and I searched for one of the giants that call these waters home. The only fish we saw was a small muskie that Peterson hooked and dumped as he got it up near the side of his Ranger boat. That’s par for the course for a lot of anglers who make a habit of going after these trophies.
They’re called the fish of 10,000 casts for a reason. Peterson knows all about that from fishing muskies almost every week from opener into September each season. He figures he catches around 18-20 muskies per year on average for the countless hours put in. But with a muskie, simply seeing a follow is enough to keep an angler coming back for more.
“It’s the thrill and the challenge,” Peterson said. “It’s more the challenge for me. It’s the fact that you’re after a fish that’s so hard to catch and is praised as such a trophy fish. If a guy walleye fishes all year, you might catch 80, you might catch 100, you might catch 200 walleye. But to catch a 50-inch muskie is a major challenge. It’s something that may not happen every year. It may only happen every four, five years depending on how much you go.”
Peterson has done plenty of walleye fishing himself over the years, but it’s hard for him to ignore the possibilities of what awaits him in a couple of the waters right here in Douglas County. Lobster Lake and Lake Miltona are both well-known waters by muskie anglers across the state. Both pack the potential for the coveted 50-plus inch fish that anglers are looking for.
“Lobster I think has changed a lot,” Peterson said. “Even though the fish are still there, I think Lobster’s muskies are very well educated because of the size of the lake and how many lures they see. Miltona, I would say as far as your catch rates, it grades right there with any lake in the state. It’s a lake where you can catch fish. I’ve done trips where I’ve gone up to Vermillion and spent a whole weekend and haven’t caught a fish, and I come back and I fish Miltona and I catch fish…it’s the crown jewel of the area.”
Lakes in Douglas County that feature muskies rely on stocking efforts by the Department of Natural Resources with limited natural reproduction to fall back on.
Bodies of water that featured a healthy population of the muskies’ preferred bait fish was one of the criteria that the DNR was looking for when they started stocking the fish in Douglas County Lakes in the early 1970s.
Lake Miltona fit that bill with a healthy tullibee and white sucker population, along with being a large, clear-water lake where the fish could flourish. The DNR will stock around 1,400 muskie fingerlings into Miltona every other year, along with about 660 into Lobster Lake. Oscar Lake is also stocked with muskie on a smaller scale.
Lobster lacks the tullibee population that Miltona features. That’s an area that helps Miltona stand out a little bit in terms of potential for producing trophy fish, but the sucker and perch populations provide muskies in Lobster with the bait fish that has helped them to reach their potential.
“You catch one out [on Miltona] with those white suckers and tullibees, you can tell the condition factors,” Glenwood DNR Fisheries Supervisor Dean Beck said. “They’re fat. Lobster Lake, we stock it at a heavier rate [per littoral acre] and it’s producing 50-inch fish, but we kind of looked at it as a place to go to increase chances of encountering a muskie.”
AND MUSKIES COEXIST
The stocking of muskies is a practice that has drawn controversy over the years.
The Glenwood Area DNR has heard the complaints before. Beck said the concerns range from fear of being bit, ducks and goslings being fed on and the fear of what a healthy muskie population means for the walleye.
Pushback from a group called “No More Muskies” actually led to the local DNR lowering its stocking efforts on Lake Miltona to 800 fingerlings during a portion of the last decade. The last DNR survey showed the numbers of fish were down as a result.
That prompted the DNR to reexamine things on Miltona. They got approval to up the stocking efforts again and moved back to putting 1,431 fingerlings into the lake in 2013.
“It’s always been a sensitive issue,” Beck said. “You either love them or you hate them, but it has been one of the faster growing segments of sport fishing in Minnesota. Our last creel survey on Miltona, we were interviewing anglers on what they were catching and they were coming from all over the Upper Midwest to fish muskies.”
The idea that walleyes and muskies can’t coexist has been debunked by studies conducted on muskies over the years. A popular diet study conducted in Wisconsin from 1991-1994 found that perch and white suckers were the most popular food source in the fish based on examining the stomach contents of 1,092 muskies from 34 lakes. Walleyes were rarely found despite large walleye populations in several of the lakes studied.
“It definitely does not show in the diet studies that have been done,” Beck said of the idea that muskies frequently feed on walleyes. “The diet studies confirm that there’s a definite preference for high fat, spineless type fishes and white suckers and tullibee definitely fit the bill.”
Muskie anglers also point to the fact that many of the most popular walleye fisheries in Minnesota are also popular muskie lakes. Vermillion, Leech, Mille Lacs and Miltona are all examples of bodies of water that attract trophy muskie and walleye anglers from all over.
“My rebuttal to that is you look at all the great trophy muskie lakes in the state, they’re all destinations for walleye fishing too,” Peterson said. “Then we’ve talked about the DNR studies…also in my opinion, I think the lakes should have big predators in them to balance out the ecology of the fishery.”
BEST IS YET TO COME
The popular time to catch big muskies in the area hasn’t come yet this year.
Action typically picks up toward the end of the summer and into fall when the waters cool down and the fish start fattening up for winter.
“The only muskies I’m hearing about are basically before a big storm comes or it’s a cloudy day with a pretty good breeze,” Dana Freese of Christopherson Bait in Alexandria said of the fish being caught so far in the area. “Day in, day out, I don’t think the muskie fishing has been fantastic yet…that’s normal for the lakes in our area. That muskie bite generally doesn’t start to pick up until maybe they’re getting active in August, but September into November is the best time on the lakes in our area.”
That seldom stops avid muskie anglers from making thousands of casts all summer long. For many anglers, the best time to fish is any time they can get on the water. The lure of what that next cast could bring is simply too tempting to stay away.
“In my own opinion, they’re kind of a magnificent fish,” Peterson said. “When you’ve done it for a long time and you see a 45 or a 48-inch fish, it’s a fish. But when you see a fish come in that’s 53, 54, 55 inches, you actually get nervous because it’s such a big fish. It’s so exciting to see something that’s that big.”