They call muskie "the fish of 10,000 casts." These monstrous and mysterious fish are hard to find and even harder to catch, creating their own brand of dedicated, patient, and slightly masochistic anglers. Muskie aficionados ply the water for hours at a time, blowing out their shoulders as they cast giant baits, lures, and flies, hunting for the toothy monsters they love through the spring, summer, and fall.
Yet, true die-hard muskie anglers don’t give up on the Esox ghost just because winter rears its ugly head. As soon the water freezes over, they head out into the cold to continue their pursuit of their favorite fish by taking on the most hardcore of fishing challenges—catching muskie through the ice.
The first thing that anglers need to know about ice fishing for muskie is that it’s extremely limited. Muskie are a highly valued and heavily pursued gamefish, so many states and Canadian provinces regulate muskie fishing in winter by having special regulations such as no live bait, size limits, or strictly catch-and-release winter muskie seasons. Many places, in fact, close muskie seasons during the winter and outlaw ice fishing for them altogether, so be sure to check the regulations in the area you intend to fish before hitting the ice.
No matter where you’re ice fishing for muskie, safe fishing practices are essential, especially if you’re planning on releasing the fish after you catch them. Holding the fish out of the water for too long in extremely cold conditions can cause a muskie’s gills to freeze, and dropping them or allowing them to flop around on the ice can badly injure a muskie and cause it to die after it’s been released. To prevent this from happening, you’re going to want to build a livewell to keep fish alive and healthy while you celebrate and take pictures.
Build a livewell by drilling a hole all the way through the ice and then partially drilling two holes to either side of it. Chisel the ice out between the holes, stopping at the length of the half-drilled ice so that water flows into all three holes. Scoop out the loose ice, and you’re ready to start catching and releasing fish. It’s a good idea to make several close to the area where you’re fishing to make certain you can get your muskie back into the water quickly.
“You always want to be sure the fish survives the experience,” Andrew Walker, owner and operator of the Cast and Conquer YouTube channel and guide service in Fassett, Quebec, said. “We use jaw spreaders and long-handled needle-nose pliers to remove the hooks while muskie are still in the hole. Then we move the fish to the livewell, keeping it in the water so nothing freezes and ensuring that she has plenty of oxygen. Then we make sure everyone has their cameras ready, lift the muskie out, take some quick pictures, then put it right back into the hole. We make sure she’s good and ready, and away she goes.”
Muskie are a mysterious enough fish to pursue in open water, but the mystery doubles when trying to find them beneath a solid sheet of ice. Without being able to see the fish or even good muskie spots in open water, ice anglers pursuing muskie have to rely on bathymetric maps and electronics to find both likely areas to catch muskie and, of course, the fish themselves.
“I started ice fishing for muskie maybe ten years ago with very little success,” Walker told MeatEater. “It was just really hard to find places to that we could consistently target and land muskie through the ice. Then, I noticed when fishing for muskie in late fall that the fish would be in deep water between 10 and 15 feet right before freeze-up. And in the times when we’d have ice and lose it, I’d see the fish push up into shallow water between 8 and 12 feet. I thought about it and knew that these fish would want to be close to food sources, like suckers and perch. So, we started setting up in shallow flats with a lot of vegetation that had a lot of food and that were in that 8- to 12-foot range and close to deeper water. That’s when we started consistently getting into some big fish.”
These shallow flats with deep water nearby are perfect for roving winter muskies and can be found along bank edges or even in the middle of large rivers and lakes. Big muskie will hold in the deeper water, between 15 and 20 feet, and then push up onto the flats to hunt and feed. Setting up tip-ups and jigging both along the edges of the deep water and in the center of these flats will almost always produce fish, though there can still be a long wait between strikes.
Muskie are a moody fish and often only feed once or twice per day. Therefore, it’s best to focus your fishing on larger flats with wide swaths of vegetation. These areas will attract more baitfish and, in turn, more hunting muskie, giving you a better chance of finding some fish in the mood to eat.
“The bigger the flat, the better,” Walker said. “The smaller flats that are only a couple hundred yards long might have one to three fish on them. But on bigger flats that are like one to two miles long you can have a six or eight fish day, no problem. In Quebec, we’re allowed to use ten lines, so we’ll make a wide spread of tip-ups and cover a lot of water to be sure we get baits in front of some muskie who want to play the game.”
While ice fishing for any sort of trophy-sized fish requires heavier gear, muskie push it to the extreme. Not only are they the largest members of the Esox family, but muskie are also complete berserkers and will make explosive runs for cover as soon as they are hooked.
“I’ve broken quite a few rods when setting the hook on a big muskie,” Walker told MeatEater. “You’ve got to give them a monster hookset and make sure they’re pinned when they strike and then let them run when they want to run. It’s definitely a time for your big game stuff, with rods designed for big lake trout and the like if you want to have a chance.”
Walker recommends heavy-action rods and reels with comprehensive drag systems. He rigs his jigging rods with heavy 90-pound test braided line down to 130-pound fluorocarbon leaders tied to a 30- to 40-pound wire bite guard.
“You want to go as heavy-duty as possible to make sure you don’t have any equipment failures,” Walker said. “Use a reel with a big spool and a lot of traction so that you can keep the fish pinned and gain a lot of line fast. You want a short fight that gets the fish in quickly so there’s less time for anything to go wrong.”
Lures for muskie have to be big and have a lot of flash and sound to attract attention. Large spoons like the Big Daddy and Nicholes Magnum Spoon can be quite effective, and large soft plastics like the Bull Dawg and Hogy rigged on 3/0-5/0 jig heads will catch a fish or two. However, the most effective jigging lures for muskie are big rattle baits like the Rat-L-Trap Magnum and the Tantrum. Not only can these lures be absolutely smashed by marauding muskie, but they’ll also draw cruising muskie into an area, where they will hopefully find your baits waiting for them.
“I jig aggressively even though I don’t catch a ton of fish doing it because it seems to bring the muskie into range,” Walker said. “A lot of times we’ll see fish come and check out our jigging lures either in the hole or on our electronics and then swim off towards our tip-ups. It’s not long after that that we usually have a flag.”
Tip-ups for muskie should likewise be loaded for bear. String them with 80- to 100-pound braided line and then attach a three- to four-foot section of 130-pound to 150-pound fluorocarbon to the line with a barrel swivel and add a wire leader. Both live baits and dead baits should be large—between 10 and 15 inches—and can include anything from monster shiners and live suckers to whole fish you find in the seafood section of your local grocery store.
“I like to use big dead baits like a whole mackerel or suckers rigged on a Quick Strike Rig,” Walker told MeatEater. “They’re great because the big baits will keep smaller fish like pike off your lines, at least most of the time, and the Quick Strike Rigs are perfect for catching muskie. I’ll rig one hook behind the bait's head and the other above the base of its tail so that it hangs horizontally in the water. The muskie will hit the bait sideways and run with it, and I’ll let them. But as soon as the fish stops to turn the bait, as they like to swallow prey head first, I’ll set the hook.”
This method almost guarantees that the muskie will be hooked perfectly in the top of the mouth. So long as you set the hook hard enough, you’ll be in for one heck of a fight. Muskies hooked on tip-ups should be allowed to run as often as they need to, with the angler only retrieving line when the fish slows down or stops. Try to stop them in the middle of one of their line-burning runs, and the only thing you’ll end up with is a pulled hook and a lost fish.
Muskie anglers have always been considered a special breed. They spend endless hours searching for a fish that they may never catch with successful days on the water often having only seen a massive shadow appear briefly behind their lure. It requires anglers that are durable, dedicated, and above all, patient. Ice fishing for muskie is on another level.
Muskie are super predators that cruise the waters they live in like wraiths, hunting and waiting to strike. Ice fishing for them requires spending hours sitting in the cold and staring into the darkness of an ice hole in hopes that somewhere down in the murky void, something is staring back. It takes a level of faith and almost a level of bravery that no other form of fishing has. Because when that flag goes up, or that rod goes down, there’s no doubt that the thing on the other end of the line is going to be a monster.
Images via Andrew Walker.