Where to Find Them
Equipment
Baits & Lures
Angling Tips
Muskellunge Fact Sheet

Fishing for Muskellunge

Muskellunge in Iowa can reach lengths over 50 inches and weigh more than 50 pounds. Historically, muskellunge have been called the fish of ten thousand casts. Some anglers may be wary to put in so much effort for one fish, but hooking a trophy musky will give most anglers a fever for which there is no cure.

Where to Find Them
Muskies, native to the upper Mississippi River drainage, have been found in Iowa’s rivers since the late 1800’s. The first attempt to stock muskies into Iowa lakes began in 1960 to offer anglers another trophy sport fish. Thanks to improvements in hatchery practices, additional areas are now stocked. Find muskies in Big Spirit, Little Spirit, East and West Okoboji, Clear Lake, Brushy Creek, Black Hawk Lake, Big Creek, Three Mile, Lake MacBride, Hawthorn Lake, Pleasant Creek, Lost Grove Lake, Lake Sugema, Deep Lake, Upper Gar, Minnewashta Lake, Lower Gar, Little Sioux River, Cedar River, Iowa River, Shell Rock and the Des Moines River.

Muskies are often caught in the spillway below reservoir dams or downstream of low head dams. Some muskies are caught with live bait or twister tails in eddies and other current seams.

Since muskellunge are stocked in low densities, they are not found everywhere in a lake. Side scan sonar, underwater cameras and GPS systems can help you find a weed line along with specific key features within the habitat such as inside turns, small points that extend out into deeper water or clumps of aquatic plants that are denser than the rest of the weed bed. Use a GPS unit to help you come back to these locations throughout the fishing season.  

Once water temperatures reach the mid-60s and after the fish have recovered from the spawning season, muskies start to eat more often. Find active fish in weed lines close to drop offs on natural lakes, bulrush beds and rock reefs. Boat docks can provide excellent cover for muskies to trap their next meal in lakes that lack lots of aquatic plants.

Look for muskies in creek channels that wind through flooded timber. Rock jetties and armored shorelines, such as the face of a dam, will also hold muskies. Try also road beds, constructed rock piles, earthen mounds and brush piles. Look for places where many habitat types cross, such as where a weed line meets an old road bed with rock piled on it.


Equipment
There are many types of fishing rods; choose a rod that best fits your style of fishing. Fishing rods are usually rated for 2-16 ounce lures in 6-9 feet lengths. Longer rods are good for making larger figure eights next to the boat. Short rods work well with jerk baits and glide baits. It’s much easier to make quick twitching motions with short fast action rods.

Bait casting reels rated for 50-100 pound braided line are also used. The gear ratio of a reel is important when you choose what type of lure to use. For example, a 6.4:1 gear ratio is suggested when using twin bladed buck tails, while a 5.3:1 is better for jerk baits. Higher gear ratios let you retrieve faster using less energy. 

Most anglers use braided line. It is smaller in diameter, resists scratches and doesn’t stretch like monofilament line. Anglers usually use leaders made of wire or fluorocarbon since muskies have sharp teeth that can cut or fray the line while fighting.

Baits & Lures

First-time musky anglers should use crankbaits and spinners. These are easy to use and don’t need a high degree of skill to make the correct presentation to a fish.

Crankbaits come in a wide variety, but all are fitted with a metal or plastic lip that makes them dive to a specific depth. Crankbaits used in Iowa usually range in size from 6 to 12 inches. While one color will not catch all the fish, match the lure color to the main prey species in the water body you are fishing.

Crankbaits are equally effective for trolling or casting. When trolling, put the lure 10-60 feet behind the boat at a speed of 4 to 8 miles per hour. Use a depth finder to help you find submerged weed lines; troll just along the outside edge. For casting, find a likely spot, let the boat drift with the wind or move it slowly with an electric trolling motor and cast the lure as far as possible using a steady retrieve, reeling as fast as you can.

A common trick of musky anglers is to make a "figure 8" motion with about 12-24 inches of line between the lure and the rod tip before they remove the lure from the water. Complete this motion at the end of all casts or trolling runs. Muskies are often caught right beside the boat after following the lure and strike only when there is a quick change in the lure’s speed or direction.

Spinner baits have a metal spinner, in a single or tandem pattern, followed by a group of weights attached to one or two treble hooks hidden with hair or soft plastic body dressings. They come in many colors and patterns. The spinner attracts the fish and is usually very polished or finished in a fluorescent paint. The hook-hair portion of the lure is the body and is dyed in dull colors that look like natural food items. Some anglers attach soft plastic body dressings to spinner baits to add color and increase the action of the lure.

Spinner baits work well for both trolling and casting. They sink so you must delay your retrieve to let the lure to get to the correct fishing depth. 

Jerk baits, made of wood or plastic, imitate injured bait fish. Best used by experienced anglers, they are named for way you  retrieve them. The lure floats on the surface until it is retrieved; it then dives sharply and darts side-to-side. Some jerk baits have a metal tail that you can bend to change the action. Otherwise, the angler must supply most of the erratic action. Jerk baits come in a variety of colors and styles, but no pattern is best at all times.

Jerk baits do not dive as deeply as crank-baits; they work best in shallow water, especially over submerged plants or other structures near the surface. They are usually fished in 6 to 8 feet of water.

Cast as far as possible then jerk the lure in a zig-zag motion to retrieve. 

Angling Tips

Iowa’s lakes, except Big Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, and East Okoboji Lake, do not have a season and give anglers a chance to catch muskies when they are at their heaviest during the pre-spawn period. Muskies spawn when water temperatures are between 48-56 degrees Fahrenheit.Anglers may see many muskies in shallow water during the spawning period, but they are tough to catch when they’re actively spawning.

As water temperatures begin to rise in early spring, muskies can be seen in shallow bays soaking up the sun. In reservoirs, find them in the upper arms and inflows. Sight fishing, a common technique, involves slowly moving along in a boat to look for muskies. Cast large jigs tipped with a large soft plastic, such as a 6 inch twister tail, ahead of the fish and slowly work the jig combo back towards the fish. Look also in deeper water next to spawning areas for baitfish species such as sunfish and suckers.

Try twitching large crank baits along areas between shallow back bays and main lake drop offs early in the spring. Look for any aquatic plants that have started to grow. A few sprigs of green aquatic vegetation may be all  you need to attract a fish of a life time.  After casting the crankbait, work the lure with twitches and pulls of the fishing rod while retrieving. Glide baits work like crankbaits, but instead of diving, they display a zig zag pattern. A long pause or “hang time” between twitches of the rod is the key to effectively retrieve both of these baits.

Fishing techniques used during the summer are similar between natural lakes and reservoirs and often depend on the forage base. Cast spinner baits and top water baits when fishing in and around emergent vegetation, such as bulrush. These baits are designed to avoid getting snagged on vegetation. Use spinner baits, jerk baits, buck tails and top water baits in shallow submergent weed beds, such as curly leaf pondweed and around boat docks.

Use deep diving crankbaits, buck tails and large plastic jigs in deeper weed beds . Buck tails, jerk baits, and crankbaits work well when fishing rock areas. Both casting and trolling in the deeper water are good options. Try fast retrieves and fast trolling speeds to entice muskies to strike. Don’t be afraid to “burn” baits (retrieve very fast) when water temperatures are warm.

During the fall, muskies continue to build up energy reserves before the winter and spring spawn. Use deep diving crankbaits, large jigs, large plastics or glide baits.

While male muskies rarely grow to 40 inches, females will reach 40 inches by age 5 in many waters. Because natural reproduction is very low or non-existent in Iowa and specimens have reached 25 years of age and lengths over 50 inches, avid anglers usually practice catch and release .  Proper handling is essential to safely release fish and avoid injures to anglers. Find more tips for a speedy and safe release on the DNR website

All muskellunge less than forty inches must be immediately released in all waters of Iowa. There is a closed season from December 1st through May 20th on the Iowa Great Lakes (Big Spirit, East and West Okoboji Lakes).