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Fishing for muskie

by Warren Illi
| January 25, 2024 12:00 AM

What’s probably the rarest game fish in Northwest Montana? I’ll bet that 99% of local fishermen can’t answer that question correctly.

Give up? It’s probably the tiger muskie. 

Tiger muskies are only found in one lake or stream in Western Montana. That lake is Horseshoe Lake, found in the Thompson Lake chain of lakes. 

My recent interest in muskies was stimulated by a recent magazine article I read about world record (size) game fish. In that article, my boyhood idol for being a great fisherman was Louis Spray, Jr. He fished lakes in western Wisconsin, where my family had their lake cabin and where he caught his world record muskellunge of 69 pounds and 11 ounces. 

That fish is now disqualified as a record fish because it was shot before landing the fish. The keepers of record size freshwater game fish do not allow entry of fish that have been shot. Back in the 1950s, shooting a large fish did not disqualify it from the record book. At that time, it was common practice for fishermen to carry a .22 pistol to shoot and kill big fish before trying to land it and bring it into a boat. A live 30-50 pound fish thrashing around inside a boat can quickly damage a lot of fishing tackle. Fisherman Louis Spray was well known in Wisconsin muskie fishing circles, so I was disappointed that his big muskie was disqualified.                            

Before we go any further, let’s review some information about muskies. 

Their formal common name is muskellunge. That’s quite a mouthful to say, so most fishermen simply say muskie or musky. For most fishermen, muskies are simply a big cousin to the more common northern pike. Northern pike are a favorite game fish of many fishermen because they are very common, bite readily and can grow to a very large size. The muskie looks similar to the northern pike, but bigger and with different spots and coloration on its skin. 

The natural range for muskies is limited to the lakes and major rivers around the Great Lakes and large rivers down the spline of the Appalachian Mountains. Like their more numerous and common cousin, the northern pike, muskies are a long slender torpedo-like predator fish. They are an apex predator. They can grow to be five feet long and weigh over 70 pounds. They are difficult to catch, known to be a fish of 10,000 casts. Meaning you need to be prepared to fish a full week of 10, 000 casts and perhaps catching one fish.

When I was growing up in Minnesota, my dad and uncle had a lake cabin on Bone Lake in northwest Wisconsin. Bone Lake was a good size lake, about a mile or two wide and 7 miles long, and known for its good muskie fishing. 

At the south end of the lake, a dairy farmer had a farm. The farmer kept his fishing boat on his shoreline. It was the standard fishing boat of that era, a 14-foot aluminum Lund boat, powered by a 10 horsepower motor. On the bow of the boat was his boat’s name, Muskie Special. 

That farmer was a good muskie fisherman. He liked to catch muskies, then attach the fish to his steel stringer and hang the fish over the side of his boat. He would then motor to Rest Point Resort which had a small store where folks could buy bait, soda pop, beer and hang out. He would beach his boat, making sure his muskie catch was hanging on the stringer, over the side of his boat, but with the large head of a muskie sticking above the water. 

Resort guests and other folks, like me, with a nearby cabin, would hurry to his boat to see his big fish. Then we would peer into his boat, hoping to see what lure was on his fishing rods. His rods were very visible, but no lures were visible. He kept his lures in his tackle box and the tackle box was securely closed with a padlock. The secret aspect to his lures, just added to the mystic of muskie fishing.

A few years ago, I was fishing for tiger muskies in Horseshoe Lake. My lure was hung up in a shallow water brush. I eased my boat to the shore to free my fouled lure. Looking down in the water column, I spotted a tiger muskie laying on the bottom in 5-6 feet of water. I eased myself and my fishing rod into position to dangle my lure right in front of the fish’s nose. Regardless of how I presented my lure in front of that fish, it would not bite. After spending a half hour trying to get that fish to bite, I gave up. 

Several years ago, I caught a nice muskie while fishing in Minnesota. It was a warm evening in late May. I asked my wife if she wanted to take a sunset cruise on our lake. As long as we were on the lake, it would be shameful to not troll a lure. I thought we might pick up a walleye or two for dinner the next day. Now the prevailing wisdom for muskie fishing is to troll a large lure, 8-12 inches long at a high rate of speed. I departed our dock trolling at less than a half mile per hour with my electric motor, dragging a 4-inch jointed Rapala lure.      

We had gone only a couple hundred yards when my rod bent, signaling the bite of a nice fish. The fight was on! To my surprise, the fish was not a large walleye, but a dandy muskie. We landed that fish and put it in the live well while we searched for a camera. This fish was the largest freshwater fish I have ever caught — 40 inches long — but was still far short of the 54-inch minimum size muskie I could keep from this lake. I took some photos prior to releasing the fish. I now have a nice fiberglass replica of this fish on my basement wall.

The tiger muskies in Horseshoe Lake are not a true muskie, but a hybrid fish with a true muskellunge mother and northern pike father. These are sterile fish, so can’t reproduce and spread to other lakes. So if you want some exotic fishing fun next summer, try some musky fishing in Horseshoe Lake. But I would not plan on a musky dinner that night!