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Ladies and gentlemen of the Northwoods: Start! Your! Bucktails!

And after a long hiatus from MLO, I’m back with a vengeance. And this time, that vengeance is focused on one thing: boating my first true northern Wisconsin Muskie.

(Insert jokes about an outdoorsman from Wisconsin who has never caught a Muskie.)

But the truth is, I’ve never really taken the time to seek out muskies. If I was going to be on the water, I was going to be fishing for ‘eyes. Plain and simple. But all that changed when my parents bought a cabin last fall on a lake known for its muskie fishing. And as tonight at midnight marks the beginning of Wisconsin’s northern zone’s muskie season, I figured now is the perfect time to start this series.

I really began being drawn to the concept of muskie fishing when I started to really analyze its core. At its most true concept, I realized muskie fishing wouldn’t be like bass fishing, it wouldn’t be like walleye fishing, and no, it wouldn’t even be like northern pike fishing. No, this new endeavor I was contemplating, this new pursuit I was mulling over wouldn’t be fishing, at all. Fishing is far too passive of an activity to properly describe the pursuit of the elusive muskellunge. No, this new journey would have to be a hunt.

Becoming a muskie hunter, I knew, would require not only a new arsenal of equipment, but an entire change in fishing philosophy. No doubt it would be a challenge, but it was one I decided I was ready to tackle.

Making the switch from a primarily walleye fisherman to the ranks of the musky hunter will not be easy, but in the next few weeks I’m going to chronicle my journey to boat my first ‘skie.  I’m going to be talking about how, where, and why I’m fishing the way I do. This is meant to be sort of a fishing log of the novice muskie fisherman.

If you’re a seasoned musky fisherman and see me doing something wrong, please, give me a comment. If you’re a new musky fisherman like myself, realize you’re not alone! Use these next set of posts as a tool to learn from my mistakes. I know I’ll probably make some huge (and stupid) rookie wrongs, but that’s part of what this is all about—the journey through trial and error to becoming a better a musky fisherman! There will be no guides, no cut-corners here. Just a fisherman and his quest to catch his first muskie.

Now, seeing as I’m quite the novice at musky fishing, I’ve been doing my homework and research over the long months of hard water. I think I’ve developed a fairly basic, but decent plan for fishing these first few weeks of the season.  I’ll be mostly fishing a deep, clear lake with a lot of points, mid-lake humps, and break lines. These first few weeks I’m going to concentrate on fishing shallow water (the water quickest to warm) and searching for new weed growth. I’m going to be throwing a lot of smaller bucktails with slow retrievals for cold water lethargic ‘skies. I’ll probably also be tossing quite a few shallow jerk-baits and top-water lures, as well.

Why, you may ask? Because, from what I’ve understood, in this colder section of the season, muskies tend to relate to the shallows. Zooplankton (the bottom level of the food chain) will be drawn to shallower water because it’s the first to warm. This, in turn, attracts the bait fish which feed on zooplankton, which, in turn, attracts the bigger fish which finally, brings in the top-dog prey fish. And it’s my goal to catch that ultimate prey fish—the water wolf of the northwoods.

So join with me on my journey. There’ll be times it’s going to be frustrating for me (and probably a lot more frustrating for you guys who know what you’re supposed to do) and there’ll be times of elation (I hope). But no matter what’s going on, I hope you enjoy reading the next installment of Mitch Larson Outdoors: The Muskie Curve.

Good fishing!

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Kevin Pechumer of UW Madison's Fishing Team poses with a nice walleye

The University of Wisconsin has a lot of teams. Football, basketball, soccer. Name an activity or sport, chances are the UW has it.

And yes, that includes fishing.

And why not? Nestled on an isthmus between two large lakes teeming with fish, UW-Madison is the perfect spot for students to enjoy Madison’s water.

And that’s just what the UW Fishing Team does.

Lee Zinn, a senior majoring in biology who was president of the UW Fishing Team for two years, says that the fishing team is a great thing to have on campus.

“We were founded in 1996 and now have over 40 active members,” Zinn says. “We’re just a bunch of students who love fishing.”

Zinn, who became president of the fishing team at the end of his freshman year in 2008, credits his grandfather for introducing him to fishing.

“When I was six, my grandpa died. My parents must have felt bad for me and bought me a 14-foot aluminum fishing boat,” Zinn says. “I guess I was just destined to become a fisherman.”

So Zinn says it was an easy choice to join the UW Fishing Team his freshman year.

“My personal favorite fish is the musky. But when it comes down to it, I like to fish for whatever is biting. If a fish is biting my hook, I don’t discriminate,” Zinn says. “A fish is a fish.”

Like other UW teams, the fishing team does its fair share of travel. Zinn says the team tries to take a few fishing trips around the Midwest each year. In the past, Zinn says, they’ve gone to places like Green Bay, Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota, and Lac Vieux Desert in the Upper Peninsula.

And while many people enjoy fishing because of its relaxing nature, some members of the UW Fishing Team embrace fishing’s competitive side, as well.

“We host two collegiate bass fishing tournaments a year:  the Midwest College Shoot-Out on the Madison chain and the Wisconsin College Shoot-Out on Lake Wisconsin,” Zinn says. “There’s a lot of pride on the line.”

Teams consist of two fishermen from each college who fish for two consecutive days. At the end of the two days, whichever team has the most pounds of bass wins the tournament.

Zinn says both of these tournaments are big draws. This past September, the Midwest College Shoot-Out had 20 different collegiate fishing teams attend with UW’s Fishing Team taking third place.

But when they’re not competing against other schools for bragging rights, the team takes a more relaxed approach to fishing.

“During the fall we try to have walleye and catfish nights each week,” Zinn says. “We just throw out our fishing lines and hang out with friends on the shore on the Union. We usually catch some nice fish, too.”

But when the ice begins to freeze, contrary to what some people might think, the UW Fishing Team remains busy.

“When you say ‘fishing,’ a lot of people automatically think summer,” UW Fishing Team member Trevin Kreier says. “But in honesty, we probably do more ice fishing than anything.”

Zinn attributes this to a lack of boat availability.

“It’s pretty hard for students to keep boats here on campus. A lot of times there’s too few boats to go around,” Zinn says.  “But when there’s ice across the lakes, anybody can fish.”

But just because anybody can fish doesn’t mean everybody is familiar with it.

“I get a lot of funny looks during the winter,” Zinn says, “especially when I take my ice auger and ice fishing gear on the bus. I’m sure it’s quite a sight.”

But according to Zinn and Kreier, a few funny looks are well-worth the great fishing that surrounds Madison.

“Some of the best ice fishing in the state is right in front of the Memorial Union,” Zinn says. “The Madison lakes have some of the best ice fishing in the state.”

And Zinn welcomes anyone who wants to witness Madison’s excellent fishing to join the fishing team—no matter what

Larson with a nice bass taken on a UW Fishing Team outing

their experience level.

“All it takes to become a part of the UW Fishing Team is to attend one fishing team meeting and to pay $15 for team dues,” Zinn says.

Kreier shares a similar attitude.

“If someone wants to go out and doesn’t have all the equipment, that’s fine,” Kreier says. “Fishing team members are usually very good about lending fishing gear. All you have to do is ask.”

“Fishing is a learning experience. You’re always finding out something new. It’s all trial and error until you get it right and start catching fish,” Kreier says. “Fishing is just a great opportunity for students to get out on the water, relax and forget about school for a few hours.”

For more information on UW’s Fishing Team, as well as a list of scheduled fishing team meetings, visit www.uwfishingteam.com.

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Waswaaganan and Ogaa: the Torch Lights and Walleye

As the ice begins to retreat from northern Wisconsin’s lakes, walleyes begin to flock to shallow mud flats, preparing themselves to spawn. As the walleyes gather in the shallows, Justin Schlender and the rest of his Ojibwe brothers, spears in hand, brave the waters to meet them.

While their modern methods are quite different from the flaming torches mounted to the front of canoes, their goal remains the same: provide food for the clans and honor the gifts that the Creator has given.

“The way we spear has evolved since those past times,” Schlender says. “We still go out as soon as it gets dark, but the way we spear, like so much other technology, has evolved over the years.  Instead of canoes we use small johnboats with outboard motors. And now we wear helmets with car headlights attached to them instead of mounting torches to the front of our boats. We slowly motor our way around the shallows looking for the reflection given off by the eyes of the walleye.”

But while Schlender talks about the advancements in technology, he’s quick to point out the similarities in the way the Ojibwe spear now and the way their ancestors did.

“Like our forefathers, we always carry tobacco with us and offer it up before we spear. I never enter a boat without first laying down my tobacco. Tobacco is what carries your prayers up to the creator. I don’t ask for much. I just ask for safety and that we’re well taken care of,” he says.

Even with boats, lights, and prayers, though, the plight of the Ojibwe walleye spear fisherman is not an easy or safe one. Early spring conditions, freezing water, and less than stable boats can quickly turn a spearing outing into a failure.

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As ice finally leaves the last of Wisconsin’s lakes and sports fisherman make their final preparations for the opening of the fishing season this weekend, I think it’s important for them to take some time to remember who they’ll be sharing the water with.  The following is the first of a three part reflection on Ojibwe spearing and the importance, tradition, and future of walleye spearing in their culture.

The throbbing cadence of tribal drums blaring over Justin Schlender’s speakers drowned out the rest of rush hour’s traffic.  The rise and fall of the traditional native chants offered a stark contrast to the usual bass beats and techno that bump out of downtown subwoofers. At first, I couldn’t help but to find it ironic. Here, in downtown Madison, who would imagine that Ojibwe music would be causing all this ruckus? After all, aren’t the Native Americans supposed to be the quiet, reserved ones?

But after sitting down with Schlender for a few hours I realized that those thumping drum beats weren’t noise pollution, at all. They were a reminder. Now, even hundreds of years after European encroachment on Indian lands, Wisconsin’s native American tribes are still here–still going strong in their traditions—and won’t easily be forgotten.

The struggle

The Ojibwe have always been spearers. It’s a tradition that’s nearly as deep-rooted as the wild rice that brought them to the land that would become Wisconsin.

Justin Schlender, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of the Ojibwe, has a long history with walleye spearing. It was, after all, his father, Jim Schlender, former head of GLIFWC (Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission), who locked horns in the ‘80s and 90’s with the state and the DNR in order to ensure that spearing rights were recognized.

“Spearing has always been in our blood,” Justin Schlender says. “When the Europeans first came over long ago, they saw us out on the waters in our canoes. It was night time and we had baskets of flame hanging out over the canoe bows. Burning bright, they lit the waters, guiding our spearing ancestors to the walleye. Thus, the French called it Lac Du Flambeau–Lake of the Torches.”

Since the time the first French settlers met the Ojibwe people, much has changed. More and more Europeans settled the area, the United States won its independence from Britain, and the lands of the Ojibwe began looking more and more desirable to the fledgling country.

Under pressure from the United States, the Ojibwe signed the Treaties of 1837 1842 to cede large tracts of land to the United States government in order to bolster a growing American timber industry. With great foresight, though, the Ojibwe leaders who signed these treaties made sure to retain the right to hunt, fish, and gather in ceded territory. This, they hoped, would ensure the survival of their descendents.

But while the Treaties of 1837 and 1842 represented the supreme laws of the land—a binding promise between the federal government and the Ojibwe—state law and DNR officers began dismissing the importance of treaty rights. Ignoring the rights guaranteed by the federal government, law enforcement and the WDNR began restricting and prosecuting any Ojibwe who speared or violated state resident fishing regulations. When the state of Wisconsin was created, they claimed, the Ojibwe lost the right to spear in ceded territory.

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Just a brief report, here. I haven’t been to the Wolf in a week, so this is all information that I’ve gathered from other reliable people and sources.

It appears that the Wolf’s flood waters are finally beginning to recede. While still above flood stage, the discharge levels being being reported in New London have dropped down from 9220 (from last Saturday) to 7320 cubic feet per second, today. Gage levels have fallen, as well, and are now only a few inches above the flood stage levels. Still, the water is high compared to previous years and boaters should excercise caution while on the water.

And as the water levels continue to drop, water temperatures continue to plummet, as well. Cold temperatures, freezing rain, and up to eight inches of recent snow accumulation in the Wolf River watershed have helped push water temps down. According to data by the USGS in New London, as of noon today, water temps for the Wolf were only about 40 degrees. As snow in the area melts off and drains, combined with colder than average temperatures, I wouldn’t be surprised if it dips a little lower before warming up this weekend with more pleasant temperatures.

For anyone that’s interested in watching the sturgeon spawn, this cold water is definitely going to put a halt on any spawning activity for at least a week, and maybe longer. But when the water does start hitting that magic temperature range of 52-55 degrees,  watching the sturgeon spawn at Bamboo Bend in Shiocton or on the Sturgeon River Trail near New London is an awesome experience.

As far as walleye fishing goes, reports are out that the females are done spawning and are making their way back down stream. Logical sense would predict that within the next few days males will be easier to come by as they begin moving en mass down stream, as well.

Plastics like this Ringworm can be a valuable tool for Wolf River walleyes.

As fish continue to get swept downstream in the strong currents, look for walleyes in the fifteen foot depth range. Drifting helps locate active fish and guys are catching fish on both live bait and plastics, as well. If plastics is the route you’re looking to take, consider Gulp! Minnows, ringworms, or twister tails. As always, I tend to suggest brighter colored baits in the turbid waters of the Wolf.

I would imagine fish will continue to head back downstream for the next week or so, but as more walleyes continue to ride the current back into Poygan and the Butte, that good fishing will start following them downstream, too. Even then, there will still be plenty of walleyes that are either local to the up-river portions of the Wolf or that are just a little tardy coming out of the marshes for fisherman to catch north of Freemont. And as water temps (hopefully) rise in the upcoming weeks, fisherman can begin looking forward to the annual white bass spawning run up the Wolf as well.

Good fishing,

Mitch Larson

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For the Midwestern muskie addict, right now can be a pretty depressing time of the year. In most parts of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota many, if not all, of our favorite muskie waters are still shielded by the last remaining strongholds of winter. Even this past week I heard that people were still fishing my favorite muskie lake in Vilas County!

You’re probably beyond sorting your tackle box. For many of you, you’ve probably done it three or four times, even. All of your Muskies Inc. magazines are probably worn out and your stir-craziness is driving your wife/significant other crazy. If these symptoms describe you of late, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

But besides staring at the clock and crossing the numbered days off your calendar until muskie season opens, here are a few things you might consider doing to help cure (or at least treat) your spring muskie blues.

Pete Maina's "Muskies Suck"

1) Read a good muskie book:

I don’t necessarily mean reading a tactical book on fishing muskies. If you’re suffering from the spring muskie blues you’ve already been bitten by the ‘bug’ and probably know a thing or two about muskie fishing. I’m talking about reading a light-hearted, fun book. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading Pete Maina’s “Muskies Suck” or “The Greatest Musky Stories Ever Told” compiled by the writers of Musky Hunter Magazine. These two are a couple of books guaranteed to make you laugh, teach you a few things, and help pass the time until the season finally arrives.

2) Research three new lakes to fish:

We all have our favorite spot–that particular lake we turn to when all else fails. You probably know the body of water like the back of your hand. And that’s all fine and dandy. But, we as muskie fisherman know that one of our most important abilities is being able to adapt. So why not take the time to expand our ability to do this by learning three new lakes to fish? While you can’t really truly learn a lake until you’re on the water, there’s nothing wrong with doing some back-up research to help shorten the learning curve. Study some maps, talk to some local guides, read up on past fishing reports. This way, when it conditions aren’t exactly perfect for your favorite fish-producing lake, you’ll have a few more options to fish without fishing blindly. Plus, there’s always the chance that the grass will be greener on the other side. Who knows, you just may end up finding that new “perfect spot.” (more…)

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Rex Larson with a nice spring walleye

While there’s still plenty of ice in the North Woods, the waters of central Wisconsin, especially the Wolf River, are beginning to heat up. The past few weeks have seen some hot walleye action on the Wolf with plenty of male walleyes being caught. Warm weather has finally triggered snow to melt and, as a result, the river is running high with water flooding the banks in places.

While the channel water is running fast and the current is strong and cold, the spill-way water in the marshes is warming up nicely. As a result, the females are starting to enter the marshes and are in the early stages of spawning. Unfortunately, this means the males that everyone has been catching the past ten to 14 days are right on their heels.

So what does this mean? Well, as you probably can guess, when the males and females are in the marshes, it means fishing is SLOW. I would imagine, depending on water conditions and temperatures, we’re looking at a pretty slow week or so of fishing. Keep in mind, though, that this means there’s some good fishing right on the horizon.

Post-spawn can be some of the best fishing of the year, if you ask me. Females and males leave the marsh and start riding the current back down-river towards the lake basins. Exhausted and depleted, these fish are often eager to snatch up any easy meal to help replenish the calories they used up in their up-river spawning run.

But, if you just can’t wait til walleyes start coming back out of the marshes to fish, there are a few things you can do to catch fish between now and then.

With the high water conditions, I sometimes like to move into the shallower slack back-waters. In certain parts of the Wolf where flood-water runs over the banks and into the tree-line, try pitching your minnow up into the timber shallows and slowly bouncing it back to the boat. (more…)

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