BRAINERD, Minn. — “If you’re a very bad person in this life,” hall of fame angler Al Lindner once told me, “your punishment will be casting to muskies for the rest of eternity.” Admittedly, he said that at the end of a long and fruitless day of muskie fishing on Mille Lacs Lake. We were tired, hungry and beginning to harbor a deep grudge against the fish of 10,000 casts.
Still, I wonder what Al would think about anglers trying to catch those elusive fish on a fly rod. What did those poor souls do to deserve such a cruel fate?
Luke Swanson not only embraces that challenge, he’s turned it into a career. He’s wrapping up his fourth year as a full-time multispecies guide. He fishes Mille Lacs, Gull and a handful of smaller lakes during winter then hits the Mississippi River when the smallmouth bass season opens in May. Once October rolls around, though, his focus shifts to muskies.
Swanson said the whole month of October is productive for river muskies, but the fishing usually gets better as the water temperature continues to fall.
“The first half of October can be great,” Swanson said, “but the second half is even better. I continue to fish until mid-November — even later if the river remains free of ice. We might only get two or three shots a day at the tail end of the season, but they’re usually the biggest and heaviest fish we catch all year.”
Follow the suckers
From spring through early fall, muskies spread throughout much of the river. As water temperatures begin to drop — usually in early October — the fish begin to move toward the deep holes where they will spend the winter.
“Fish don’t immediately move into deep water when they arrive in these areas,” Swanson said. “They usually stage nearby in spots that offer cover and slack water. Big eddies or log jams that block the current and attract baitfish are prime locations. Sometimes they’ll even hold in a steady run if the current is not too fast.”
As water temperatures continue to plunge, the fish begin to drop into the wintering holes, Swanson said. Muskies that are actively feeding are usually found at the head of the hole, where the bottom just begins to drop, or at the tail out of the pool where the water begins to get shallow again. Inactive fish often hold in the middle of the hole until they’re ready to feed again.
“High water usually means faster current, which forces fish to hold behind current breaks and in eddies,” Swanson added. “Those conditions make precision casting more important, but they also concentrate fish in easily recognizable areas. Regardless of current speed, muskies will continue to hold near wintering areas.”
Swanson said the day to day movement of the fish has as much to do with the location of redhorse suckers as current speed or water temperature.
“If you find the suckers, the muskies will be there,” Swanson said. “They might not be feeding, but they will be nearby. It’s almost like they’re babysitting the suckers — keeping tabs on the school until they’re ready to eat.”
Fish slow, fight fast
Once he identifies an area to fish, Swanson uses a bow-mount trolling motor to slow his drift downstream. He’s found that the ideal speed is about half as fast as the bubbles moving on the surface. If he sees a particularly good looking spot, he holds the boat stationary to give his clients time to thoroughly dissect the area.
“Clients are usually casting toward the riverbank, while I position the boat a medium cast length away,” Swanson said. “Sometimes, though, we focus on the main river channel when targeting a channel dropoff or a big pool. Good boat control is essential for a good presentation.”
Swanson added that the best fall retrieves are usually much slower than during summer.
“After making a cast, we allow the fly and sinking line to drop in the water column,” Swanson said. “Strip the fly back with long, slow pulls and frequent pauses. That’s when the strike happens — 90% of the time they hit on the pause. Sometimes they lunge forward and engulf the fly so viciously the line just goes slack.”
If they don’t get bit, Swanson instructs clients to perform a figure-eight at the end of the cast. Once the fly is within a rod length of the boat, the client plunges the rod tip into the water and traces a large figure-eight with the rod. This maneuver sometimes triggers a strike from a fish that followed the bait back to the boat.
“When a fish does bite, set the hook hard with your line hand,” Swanson added. “And if a fish eats the fly on a figure-eight, it’s critically important to set the hook toward the fish’s tail. Pull toward the head and you’ll flip the fly right out of her mouth.”
Once the fish is hooked, Swanson advocates relentless pressure to land the fish as quickly as possible.
“Keep the rod tip low and to the side,” Swanson said. “Never fight a muskie with the rod tip held high. Whichever way the fish swims, pull hard in the opposite direction. He swims right, you pull left. Try to move them backward in the water. Muskies are fast and powerful, but they’re not known for their stamina.”
Swanson uses an unconventional fly rod he developed in conjunction with the custom rod builders at Thorne Bros in Blaine, Minn. It’s built on a medium-heavy baitcasting blank that features a relatively soft tip that quickly transitions to a strong backbone.
“The powerful midsection is critically important for setting the hook on a fish that follows a fly back to the boat,” Swanson said. “I’ve used 10- and 12-weight fly rods — the same rods saltwater anglers use for powerful fish like permit and tarpon — but they’re just too soft for casting oversize flies and setting hooks at the side of the boat.”
The medium-heavy model Swanson prefers doesn’t carry an official line-weight designation like factory-built rods, but he thinks it’s about the equivalent of a 15 weight.
Many trout anglers have heard that the reel is only used to hold the line and backing, but that’s equally true for muskie fishing.
“I never fight a fish off the reel,” Swanson said. “The fish move too fast and you’re better off using your hand to retrieve line.”
Swanson recommends anglers purchase a reasonably priced reel sized for a nine- or 10-weight line and 100 yards of 30-pound-test Dacron backing. Use the money saved to buy a better fly line.
Swanson prefers 450- to 500-grain sink-tip lines that he customizes by cutting off some of the tip. A loop on the end of the line is attached to five feet of 60-pound Maxima Ultragreen monofilament and 15-inches of 65-pound 49-strand wire. The wire terminates in a Stay-Loc snap used to attach the fly.
Big flies for big fish
Swanson developed the Pig Sticker fly to mimic the size and action of his favorite conventional lures — the Bull Dawg and the Medusa. The Pig Sticker is tied on a series of three wire shanks ranging from 1-inch to 3 ½ inches. After the material is tied on, the shanks are connected with split rings. Two 2/0 hooks are also attached to rings, one behind the head section and one on the terminal end of the tail section.
“The modular design of the Pig Sticker allows me to get more life out of my flies,” Swanson said. “If a fish demolishes the tail section of a fly, I can easily attach a new one and keep fishing. The head and tail sections are most vulnerable. I have one middle section that’s accounted for more than 35 muskies. That’s important when you spend 30 minutes tying a fly.”
Swanson added that bigger flies are more productive during fall. Most of his flies are 14-18 inches long, which provide the same kind of sucker profile that muskies are looking for. Most fly anglers, though, are intimidated by the thought of casting something that big.
“I teach new clients how to ‘water load’ by dropping the fly line to the water on their backcast,” Swanson said. “Tension from the surface film loads the rod as they begin the forward cast and the line shoots toward the target. No multiple backcasts necessary.”
Swanson said most clients pick up the cadence quickly and can cast oversize flies with little effort.
“I fished with a 75-year-old woman from Arizona who was in central Minnesota for a wedding,” Swanson said. “She was an experienced trout angler but had never fished for muskies. I taught her how to water-load the rod, and she was able to cast a Pig Sticker all day. Best of all, she landed a 45-incher during the last hour of our trip.”
For more information or to book a trip with Swanson, visit his website at http://www.livinthedreamguideservice.com/.
Landing and releasing muskies
Luke Swanson said the key to safely landing and releasing muskies is to have all of the necessary tools at the ready. That list includes a net with a large hoop and deep bag, quality wire cutters that can easily cut your largest hooks and long-nose pliers to extract deeply engulfed hooks. He also recommends at least one glove to hold the fish for photos.
“When a client hooks up, I immediately grab the net,” Swanson said. “I scoop the fish head first at the first opportunity, whether it's been on the line for four seconds or two minutes. The longer the fight lasts, the more things that can go wrong.”
With the fish in the net and the net still in the water, Swanson lifts the head and removes the hooks. Once his clients are ready for photos, they lift the fish into the boat, take pictures and return it to the net. Larger fish usually earn a trip to the bump board for a measurement before they're released.
“When releasing a muskie, hold the tail with one hand and support the fish beneath the head with the other,” Swanson said. “Point the fish into the current to allow water to flow over the gills. Don’t pump the fish back and forth, just hold it until they recover enough to kick off on their own.”