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Where to Find ThemEquipmentBaits & LuresAngling TipsMuskellunge 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 cautious about putting 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 are native to the upper Mississippi River drainage and have been documented in Iowa’s rivers dating back to the late 1800’s. The first attempt to stock muskies into Iowa lakes began in 1960 to provide another trophy sport fish for anglers. Thanks to improvements in hatchery techniques, additional areas are now stocked. Muskies can be found 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 find a weed line along with specific key features within the habitat such as inside turns, small points jutting out into deeper water or clumps of aquatic vegetation that is denser than the rest of the weed bed. Once these key features are located, a GPS unit helps you return 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 begin eating more frequently. Weed lines in close proximity to drop offs on natural lakes, bulrush beds and rock reefs are great places to find active fish. In lakes that lack abundant aquatic vegetation, boat docks can provide excellent cover for muskies to ambush their next meal.
EquipmentMany muskies have been unintentionally caught by anglers fishing for other species, but more specialized equipment is needed when targeting muskies. Proper equipment not only helps to land fish quickly, but also reduces the fatigue caused by countless hours of fishing and casting large lures.
There are many types of fishing rods; choose a rod that best fits your style of fishing. Typically, fishing rods are rated for 2-16 ounce lures in lengths ranging from 6-9 feet. Longer rods are good for making larger figure eights next to the boat. Short rods work well when using 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 choosing what type of lure to use. For example, a 6.4:1 gear ratio is recommended when using twin bladed buck tails, while a 5.3:1 is better suited for jerk baits. Higher gear ratios allow for a faster retrieve with less energy from the angler.
First-time musky anglers should use crankbaits and spinners. These are easy to use and don’t require a high degree of manual skill to make the proper 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 range. Crankbaits used in Iowa typically range in size from 6 to 12 inches. While there isn’t one color that will catch all the fish, match the lure color to the dominant 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 ranging from 4 to 8 miles per hour. A depth finder can help you locate submerged weed lines; troll just along the outside edge. For casting, find a likely spot, let the boat drift with the prevailing 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 perform a "figure 8" motion with about 12-24 inches of line between the lure and the rod tip before removing 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 sudden change in the lure’s speed or direction.Spinner baits have a metal spinner, either in a single or tandem configuration, followed by a series of weights attached to one or two treble hooks that are partially hidden with hair or soft plastic body dressings. They come in many colors and patterns. The spinner acts as a fish attractor and is usually highly polished or finished in a fluorescent paint. The hook-hair portion of the lure serves as 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 allow the lure to achieve the correct fishing depth.
Jerk baits, made of wood or plastic, imitate injured bait fish. Best used by experienced anglers, they are named for the method used in their retrieve. 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 can be bent to change the action. Otherwise, the angler must supply a great deal of the erratic action. Jerk baits come in a variety of colors and styles, but no pattern is superior at all times. Jerk baits do not dive as deeply as crank-baits; they are best for fishing shallow water, especially over submerged vegetation or other structures near the surface. They are usually fished in 6 to 8 feet of water. Cast as far as possible then retrieve by jerking the lure in a zig-zag motion.
Iowa’s lakes, with the exception of Big Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, and East Okoboji Lake, do not have a season and allow anglers a chance of catching 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 catching these fish while they’re actively spawning can be difficult.
In early spring, as water temperatures begin to rise, muskies can be observed in shallow bays soaking up the sun. In reservoirs, they can be found in the upper arms and inflows. Sight fishing, a common technique, involves slowly moving along in a boat looking 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 adjacent to spawning areas for baitfish species such as sunfish and suckers.
Try twitching large crank baits along transition areas between shallow back bays and main lake drop offs early in the spring. Look for any aquatic vegetation that has started to grow. A few sprigs of green aquatic vegetation may be all that is needed to attract that fish of a life time.After casting the crank bait, manipulate the lure with twitches and pulls of the fishing rod while retrieving. Glide baits works in the same manner as crankbaits, but rather than diving, they display a zig zag pattern. A long pause or “hang time” between twitches of the rod is the key to effectively retrieving both of these baits.
Fishing techniques used during the summer are fairly 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. Deeper weed beds are best fished with deep diving crankbaits, buck tails and large plastic jigs. Buck tails, jerk baits, and crankbaits are great options when fishing rock areas. Both casting and trolling in the deeper water are viable options. Fast retrieves and fast trolling speeds are needed to entice muskies to strike. Don’t be afraid to “burn” baits (retrieve extremely 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 seldom grow to 40 inches, females will reach 40 inches by age 5 in many waters. Because natural reproduction is extremely low or non-existent in Iowa and specimens have reached 25 years of age and lengths over 50 inches, catch and release is generally practiced by avid anglers. Proper handling is essential to safely releasing fish and avoiding injures to anglers. A large net to keep the fish in the water and proper tools, such as hook cutters, large jaw spreader and long handled needle nose pliers, will allow for a speedy and safe release.
All muskellunge less than forty inches must be immediately released in all waters of Iowa. On the Iowa Great Lakes (Big Spirit, East and West Okoboji Lakes) there is a closed season from December 1st through May 20th.