With autumn in full swing that means one big thing for musky anglers: it's trophy season. Fall is the perfect time of year for catching the biggest musky.
Since fish are cold-blooded animals, they need to store up fat in the autumn months, as it will burn away when the temperatures drop. They feed more in the fall to fatten up for winter, especially since they won't eat as much under the ice and need to build mass so they will be ready for spring spawning. As a result they feed on fatty food sources and put on extra weight in the fall. Anglers looking to hook a big trophy fish are more likely to find musky tipping the scales in autumn.
Wisconsin's premier game fish, the musky is a solitary fish and lurks in weed beds or other protective cover. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
State regulations are crucial to know when you are out fishing. For Wisconsin, that now means a minimum length of 40 inches, up from 34 as of this year.
"To get trophy fish, the higher limit protects them to a longer size and an older age," said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fish biologist John Kubisiak.
It takes three to five years for a musky to get to 30 inches in length. The 40 inch mark takes nine to 10 years. The males won't get much bigger than that. Female musky can reach over 50 inches, but that can take up to 18 years to reach. The minimum length regulations are in place to help ensure fish will live long enough to reach maximum sizes.
Musky is primarily a trophy fish; though edible it is not typically sought out as a food as much as other species. As a result, many anglers will catch and release musky they don't intend to mount.
"An increase in catch and release fishing in the early to mid 90s has changed their populations. It resulted in more fish in bigger sizes," Kubisiak said. "Their numbers are better in the waters they reproduce naturally in, and we were stocking other waters less."
Musky are a low-density fish. Whereas you can have three to five bass or walleyes per acre of water, musky numbers are typically one to three for every two to four acres, or five to 10 in trophy waters.
Unlike other fish, musky live in their own spots. Sometimes a fish will cruise along behind bait without hitting it. The angler can then go back to that same spot later when the same fish is hungry again and catch it. Most other fish will use the same areas, so if one isn't biting you can catch another, or if you go back to a location you could get a different fish than you were trying for before. But with musky they have more of their own habitat.
In northern Wisconsin, musky season opens Memorial Day weekend and closes Nov. 30. Anglers can only bag one fish a day, so many will release what they get.
Those looking to catch a big musky should be well aware of their own state regulations, and when going out onto the water for the first time should consider hiring a guide. Using an experienced guide can shorten the learning curve and optimize both the angler's and the fish's safety.
"If you're under prepared for hooking a musky you could kill one that could have been released. You should do your homework and study what to do when you're out there, but you should also hire a professional guide for that first time out," said musky fishing guide John Rigel.
Rigel advises large baits for fall musky, which could mean from one to 13 ounces. The fish won't move as quickly in the fall, so he recommends using slower, jerk baits and slower presentation. He suggests a live bait, like 10-18 inch sucker minnows combined with fake baits.
To prepare for going out on the water to land a musky, he advises always wearing layers, as if one were going snowmobiling.
"If you get too warm you can take layers off, then put them back on later if you need to," Rigel said. "It's colder on the water, and if you get too cold you're going to rush it and want to come in sooner. If you're cold, you're pretty much done."
He also recommends keeping gloves handy. Even if you don't want to keep them on the whole time you fish, you can put them on for 10-15 minutes when you start to get cold and then take them off again.
Any time of the day has the potential to be good for musky, but cloudy days are better. Rigel also recommends slight wave action and a light breeze which will make line casting more discreet. But that doesn't mean an anxious angler should avoid sunny days all together.
"The best time to go fish for musky in anytime you get," Rigel said.
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