If you’re friends with either one of us on Facebook, you already know that we had a great day Muskie fishing last week. Catching a Muskie (Muskellunge) can be one of the most exciting experiences in fresh water an angler can have, and it’s on many a Bucket List. Muskies are one of the largest freshwater fish in North America. They routinely grow to 4 feet or more in length, and they are very strong. Muskie fishing is definitely not for the faint-hearted!
We were lucky enough place the winning bid on a guided Muskie fishing trip for two at a fundraiser last spring for Pete’s former employer. When the day finally came, we met our guide, Brian Blaeser, close to Lake Shamineau in Central Minnesota in the wee hours of a very cold morning. Lake Shamineau is home to many species of freshwater fish, including northern pike, bluegill, largemouth bass, and walleye.
Pete was excited about this trip because Brian utilizes a relatively new method called “live bait rigging.” Muskies are enormous ambush predators who will eat anything up to about 30% of their own length which will fit in their long mouths, including frogs, mice, ducklings, small mammals, and bait fish. Their preferred method of eating is one big gulp, although they have many sharp teeth, much like a northern pike. Live bait rigging (video) utilizes a harness around a large (often 12 inches in length) sucker minnow. Brian’s rig wraps around the sucker’s body, making it look like a suicide bomber with multiple hooks. These bait fish are very active in the water, making them more attractive to their prey.
We put in on the east end of Shamineau, as the west public access was iced over and Brian understandably didn’t want to use his expensive rig as an ice cutter that morning. After backing the boat down the ramp, we discovered Brian’s boat was actually frozen to the trailer, and the boys had to resort to brute strength to get it into the water.
This is definitely cold. We all were dressed in multiple layers, with rain suits to cut the wind. I still managed to convey quite the glamorous image in my designer sunglasses, as you can see. The air temperature at around 28 degrees was actually colder than the water, so steam was rising in mysterious wisps and clouds as we got underway. We were thankful when the sun fully emerged, as there was a noticeable difference in warmth. Brian actually became too warm and began peeling some of his layers off. Pete and me? Not so much!
Brian started things out on the lee side of the big island in the eastern portion of the lake, and fortunately, this decision sheltered us from the raw westerly wind. Shamineau’s water is extremely clear, and Brian told us when live bait rigging, it is not uncommon to see the Muskie trail the bait several feet down, take the bait and swim off with it. The best Muskie fishing technique is to wait until the reel starts to sing, and then yank back to hopefully set one of the bait fish rig’s hooks deep within the fish, then reel it in. A Muskie might shake its head violently in an attempt to rid itself of the hook, and they can be quite acrobatic fighters, leaping from the water and twisting, too.
It didn’t take long to get the first bite. The reel started singing and we all three sprang into action: Brian assisting Pete in playing the line, Pete yanking it back to set the hook, and then reeling the fish in, Brian grabbing the net, and me in charge of staying out the way and getting the photos. This Muskie didn’t put up too much of a fight, although it didn’t particularly care for being held up straight after coming out of the net.
What a thrill!
At 42 inches long, this Muskie was impressive! But even though it was a personal best for us, regulations posted indicated the minimum legal size for Muskellunge is 48 inches. I couldn’t help but notice the many cabins and sandy beach areas along the shore where swimmers play in warmer weather. Knowing what lurks below the surface gave me pause, and the unmistakable strains of the “Jaws” theme entered my head. Normally, when I think of freshwater fish, I think of non-threatening pan fish like little sunfish, bluegills and perch. Since Pete’s Muskie was emphatically not a keeper, back into the drink it needed to go. Most anglers will tell you the sport isn’t about keeping the fish, it’s about catching it, and muskie fishing is no exception.
“Catch and release” is the norm with northern pike and other freshwater fish similar in bony structure to the Muskies. Although they can be de-boned and eaten, these species aren’t generally fished for food in North America, and the Muskies’ low population makes conservation imperative.
Fishing is a lot about waiting. We continued throughout the rest of the cold day, trolling slowly in different areas of the lake, changing our hand warmers back and forth, observing a family of Trumpeter Swans, and a bald eagle. Brian pointed out what he thought might be a freshly dug black bear’s den a few feet above the shoreline not that far from where we put in. The live bait rigging method seemed to allow the bait fish to behave more naturally, rising and diving as they wished, and the two we started with stayed alive the entire day. At $5 each, this appealed to frugal aspects in our nature. It’s nice to be out away from everything, although with technology and social media, we were able to share our success in real time and our friends on Facebook got in on the fun.
There were a couple of additional bites, and Pete pulled in an impressive northern pike:
As we did earlier, we released this northern pike to swim another day.
But no more Muskie. Such is the luck of the draw. We really enjoyed our very cold day fishing with Brian, a consummate outdoorsman who has great stories of fishing in more exotic locations like Costa Rica and the Amazon. I will say I was quite relieved to get on dry land and start up the Jeep with the heater full blast, though! This will be the last of fishing in Minnesota for us until things ice over.