Ever since he was a youngster, Mike Koepp has been a musky hunter. It all started one summer afternoon when Koepp, then 10, was fishing off a dock in Pewaukee Lake, not far from Milwaukee. “I’d caught a little bluegill and a big musky came and just ripped it right off my line,” he says. “From that day on, I wanted that fish. I just turned 50, so I’ve been looking for it for around 40 years now.”
Muskies, or muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) as they are formally known, don’t live four decades. But for longer than that they have been the Moby Dick for freshwater fisherman, having earned a reputation as “the fish of 10,000 casts.”
Andrea Spurlin wasn’t even trying to catch a musky when she hooked a 39-incher three years ago on the Wisconsin River near Stevens Point. She was fishing from a kayak for bass when Wisconsin’s state fish grabbed her spinner lure. Now she’s the one who’s hooked. She’s switched to heavier, musky tackle with a sturdy, 8-foot pole, heavy reel and a wide variety of lures and since then, the chase has been on.
“I’ve caught five muskies in the past three years,” says Spurlin, 32, who gave birth to a daughter last winter. “I love roller coasters, but landing a musky is an even bigger rush. And yes, I’m going to take my little girl musky fishing as soon as I can.”
In the years since that first musky snatched away Koepp’s bluegill, he has caught and released scores of muskies, which are the largest members of the pike family and can grow to lengths of more than 57 inches and weigh upward of 60 pounds. The world musky record belongs to Wisconsinite Louis Spray, who caught his 63.5-inch, 69-pound, 11-ounce musky in the Chippewa Flowage on October 20, 1949. Koepp, himself, has caught two 50-inchers. The DNR’s Tim Simonson estimates anglers in Wisconsin will catch 150,000 muskies this year, and the vast majority of them will be photographed and released.
These monsters, which some guides say are the freshwater equivalent of the ocean-going barracuda, are green, brown or light silver with dark vertical stripes on the sides that can break up into spots. They are omnivorous and will eat anything they can, including ducks, muskrats and other unfortunate critters. They live alone in many of Wisconsin’s lakes and larger rivers, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. They lurk along rock outcroppings, docks and weed beds that they use for cover to ambush prey, including the occasional lure or live bait.
There’s nothing like it when one hits, Koepp says: “It’s truly exhilarating and kind of hard to explain, which is kinda why they call musky fishermen adrenaline junkies. After one strikes, it can be like a small kid being pulled down the street by a big dog. It takes everything you have to hang on.”
While no one can guarantee you’ll land a musky, guides who work these five spots around the state can help you get your own musky rush – and maybe you’ll get to take home a fish, too.
Kenny Wallock, 54, says the Wisconsin River holds some “dandy” muskies. He should know – he’s caught dozens of them over the past four decades. “I was born and raised in Stevens Point and was fortunate to have a father who took us kids hunting, fish and trapping,” says Wallock, a guide who caught his first musky at age 10. “I really like seeing youngsters catch a fish,” he says. “They find out it’s even more fun than computer games.”
He says he is flexible working the Wisconsin River because musky hot spots change every year “as stuff washes out and flows in.” He often fishes below the river’s dams, where muskies find an easy meal in fish that are stunned after passing through the turbines. “I also look for weed beds and downed trees with an eddy or a hole,” he adds.
Wallock says he knows where nearly all of the rock cribs and bars are along his stretch of the river because he marked them with a handheld GPS five years ago when the river was down. Regardless, it’s difficult to pinpoint where muskies will be. “It can depend on water temperature and whether the current is pushing bait fish into the sloughs,” he says.
Wallock uses smaller, brightly colored bucktail lures that stand out in the muddy river. One favorite is a Phantom lure with a double blade and a bit of glitter. Come July and August, he will switch to top-water lures, including the Hawg Wobbler. At the end of the season he might use a sucker with a quick-set rig and a bobber.
Brett Jolly got an early start on his fishing career, angling for bass and walleyes with his dad when he was still in diapers. By age 10, he was hunting muskies on lakes and streams throughout northern Wisconsin. Today he guides on Green Bay and the rivers that feed it. In November 2010 he caught a 55-incher that put up “a heck of a fight,” he recalls.
Early in the season, Jolly fishes with bait-casting gear and a variety of lures including bucktails and top waters, as well as twitch, jerk and soft plastic baits. In the fall he’ll switch to trolling with line counter reels.
Though he says the Fox and Menomonee rivers produce sizable muskies, his favorite musky spots are in the lower part and northwest shoreline of Green Bay and the Door County area. “Finding the fish depends mostly on water temperatures,” Jolly says. “I try to follow the spawning progression in the spring and then the fall bait progression.” Early in the season, when the water is cooler, muskies stay closer to their shallow spawning grounds and weed beds, rock bars or other structures.
Even for experts like Jolly, however, catching the elusive musky is always a challenge. “The thing I like best about musky fishing is the thrill of the hunt,” he says. “You certainly won’t catch one every five minutes you are on the water. It takes work and dedication and patience. But when one strikes, it can be violent and explosive. It’s the most exciting freshwater strike you’ll get.”
Steve Miljat started out fishing for bluegills and bass as a kid. The 54-year-old first sought muskies in his 20s and liked it so much he became a guide on Pewaukee Lake in Waukesha County in 1988.
The lake continues to be one of the state’s top musky producers, despite heavy boat traffic. Miljat has caught two 52-inchers here and says there are “plenty of opportunities to get legal muskies on a daily basis.”
In the early part of the season, Miljat fishes the east and west sides of the lake in shallow, 4- to 5-foot water or near piers where muskies seek cover. “I look for shallow weed pockets, where muskies are resting,” says Miljat, whose favorite time to fish is near sunrise or sunset and either before or after a storm has moved through. Come summer, muskies will move out into the deeper water of the basin, and that’s when Miljat switches to trolling with crankbaits.
For tackle, he prefers bucktails and spinner baits or Suick jerk baits and Slammer twitch baits, which an angler jerks through the water to mimic the fleeting movements of bait fish. “It takes a lot of work to catch a big musky because they offer quite a few challenges,” he says. “No other freshwater fish will consistently follow and hit alongside the boat, so you need to master the figure-8 maneuver. When you hook one, it’s really a great thing. Even if you don’t get it in the net, it’s a real morale booster.”
For Darrin Engstrom, fishing is in his blood – his father was a charter boat captain on Lake Superior and an inland fishing guide. The Spooner native grew up fishing for muskies and everything else, and now fishes with his son, Dalton, who has landed his own 50-inch musky.
Engstrom moved to Chippewa Falls in 1988 and has been a musky guide for the past 12 years. He now fishes mainly on Lake Wissota and the Holcombe Flowage on the coffee-stained Chippewa River. Early in the season, Engstrom looks for
muskies in shallow bay areas with weed growth. “I might start on the west side of the lake that will have the sun hitting it first and be warming up the fastest,” he says. Here he uses top-water baits like Top Raider. He also likes prop-style baits that attract muskies with noise. Though many guides start with smaller lures and move up in size during the season, Engstrom says he uses whatever works. “Big baits are good in the spring,” he says. “I like the 16-inch Hawg Teaser or the smaller Hawg Dancer.”
When July and August roll around, Engstrom will move to deeper waters, fishing as far down as 30 feet. In the late fall, when water temperatures are in the 48- to 52-degree range, he says musky fishing is often the best because they are most active, getting ready for winter.
Engstrom calls catching a musky “exhilarating.” And once you land one, he says, watch out. “You might end up like me, spending thousands of dollars on rods, reels, lures, a boat, a bigger garage to put the boat in,” he says. “You are always thinking that the next best thing is out there.”
Veteran fishing guide “Ranger” Rick Krueger says Wisconsin is loaded with “musky opportunity.” But Kreuger, who runs the Guide’s Choice Pro Shop in Eagle River, says there are few places he would rather hunt these prize fish than the Vilas County lakes of Lac Vieux Desert and North Twin. He says those lakes are home to “super fish,” monsters that are in the 55- to 60-inch range – so big they can be difficult to get into a net.
“Vilas County has 1,300 lakes in a 40-square-mile range and hundreds of them are Class A (the best) musky waters,” says Krueger, 59, who runs musky and walleye fishing clinics.
Krueger, who has landed many muskies in the 50- to 52.5-inch range in his career, grew up near Chicago. He caught his first bluegills with his father out of a gravel pit in Illinois. “After that, fishing sort of took over my life,” says Krueger, who landed his first musky at age 16 and moved to Eagle River full time 30 years ago.
“I like muskies because they are big and a challenge every day,” he says. “They can strike at 30 miles per hour and are notorious at hitting the bait on the figure-8 maneuver, often with the tip of your rod in the water, within three feet of the boat. I don’t care how composed you are, that will shake even the most experienced guide for a second or two.”
Krueger follows muskies from shallow water in spring to deeper bays as the season progresses. He likes to fish early in the morning or just before dark and throw a propeller-style surface bait over shallow weeds because surface baits “can make a musky just sorta flip.”
“But there is no such thing as the best musky lake or musky bait,” he says. “I’ve got all kinds of lures: crank baits, jerk baits, glide baits, bucktails and spinner baits. The best is the one that’s working when he eats it.”
Musky fast facts
World record: 63.5"; 69 lb., 11 oz.
Musky season: Saturday before Memorial Day to November 30 for northern waters (north of Highway 10); first Saturday in May to December 31 for southern waters (There are exceptions, so be sure to check county regulations before going.)
Best time to fish: In the spring or fall close to sunrise or sunset. Some believe muskies are at their largest in the fall just before winter.
Where to look: Shallow water in the spring, near weeds, rock beds or piers. Muskies move to deeper, cooler waters as the air and water temperature rises.
Recommended lures: Try bucktails, top waters and spinners.
If you go
For more information on the musky fishing season and licenses in Wisconsin, visit the DNR website's musky page or call 608.267.7498.
Kenny Wallock, Wisconsin River: 715.321.0038
Brett Jolly, Green Bay: 715.581.5678
Steve Miljat, Pewaukee Lake: 414.791.9496
Darrin Engstrom, Chippewa River: 715.720.4655
Rick Krueger, Vilas County: 715.477.2248
Brian Clark is a Madison-based adventure travel writer and photographer. His stories and photographs have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Seattle Times, Outside Magazine and other publications. This article appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Wisconsin Trails.
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