Muskie, though known to be aggressive apex predators, are sometimes called the “fish of 10,000 casts.” And there’s some truth to this: they can be elusive trophies, though the heart-pounding excitement of landing one keeps die-hard fans coming back to the water, season after season.
And as winter approaches, that excitement doesn’t dim like the sunlight.
But ice fishing for muskie is controversial - and for good reason.
We’ll explain why, and for those of you who live in states where ice fishing muskie is legal, we’ll give you some tips and techniques to help you catch the trophy of a lifetime.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Ice Fishing Muskie: Ethics
Many muskie anglers frown on ice fishing for this species - and it’s important to understand why and take their concerns seriously.
In states like Maine, where muskie are an invasive species, ice fishing Esox masquinongy, as this fish is known to science, is uncontroversial. In fact, anglers in places where muskie are invasive are encouraged to keep their catch to protect native fish species.
But in their native habitat, muskie are carefully protected.
Spring, summer, and fall fishing take a toll on the muskie population, even with strict limits and lots of catch and release. Some fish are taken, some are injured, and some die from deep hooks and poor handling.
There’s just no question that they need the winter months to rest, recover, and fatten up.
Keep in mind, too, that it takes years for a muskie to reach trophy size. Constant hammering with no break would decimate the trophy population in no time.
As Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources reports, “Muskellunge growth rates vary depending on water temperatures and food base, but they tend to grow fairly rapidly their first few years, capable of reaching 30 inches or more in three to four years.”
That’s pretty fast, but from there, growth slows to a crawl.
“At maturity, growth rates slow considerably, especially for males. Generally, because of this slowing growth rate, most fish over 40 inches are female.”
Indeed, according to Jerry Younk, a DNR fisheries research biologist, “Depending on the body of water, muskellunge in Minnesota could take 13 to 21 years to reach 50 inches.”
That’s a long time to reach trophy size, and ice fishing isn’t terribly friendly to big fish.
Beyond the need for a “safe” season of muskie, pulling a trophy through a small hole in the ice can injure it, as can protracted time on the ice. For a slow-growing species, every mature fish that’s lost is a real problem.
State regulatory agencies recognize this, and many restrict the muskie season, preventing ice fishing.
Always check your local regulations, as muskie seasons vary from state to state quite a lot.
For instance, Michigan allows year-round catch and release muskie fishing. But northern Wisconsin and Minnesota end muskie season by December 1st. That’s not unusual at all, and many states end their season before the ice has a chance to really take hold, making ice fishing for them legally impossible.
If you do decide to ice fish for muskie where they’re a native species, be prepared, treat them with great respect, and do everything you can to minimize stress and injury.
Ice Fishing Muskie: Tips and Techniques
Smart muskie hunters do their homework before winter brings its ice.
Using good fishing electronics, they use GPS to mark likely spots: drop-offs, points, shallow weed beds, deep holes, and submerged humps. With these located, finding them again on the ice is no sweat.
Knowing where to look is half the battle.
Early winter will find muskie shallow, where the prey they feed on will still be gathered. Shallow, weed-filled coves are a great place to start as soon as the ice is safe, but don’t forget rock piles, blow downs, brush piles, and other places where bluegill, shad, shiners, suckers, and minnows will gather.
Where you find dinner, you’ll find muskie.
As winter progresses and water temperatures really plummet, both the bait and muskie will move deeper, looking for warmer water. During this transition, it’s a good idea to drill a series of holes running from shallow to deep, either over a drop-off or a sloping point. Keep your spacing about 20 yards apart so you can cover plenty of different depths.
In the coldest months, you’ll find muskie sticking to deeper water, holes, and submerged humps. You can drill holes around the edges of a submerged feature, have a few over a deep hole, or mix and match a bit. Check out our recommended ice augers.
Patience is key, and it’ll take time to find the muskie and attract their attention.
By far, tip-ups are your best bet.
Drill your holes, and check your flags. There’s no question that this is the most productive method.
Tip-ups are the best technique for hard water muskie.
Set up your tip-ups as you normally would, but use some wire leader at the end. Muskie have ferocious teeth, and they can and will cut your lines. Yes, the wire will cut down on the strikes you’ll get, but with sufficient tip-ups in the water, it’s a numbers game - a question of patience - as it always is with muskie.
You can jig for them, too, and more than a few crappie anglers have accidentally hooked a muskie on wax worms or other small lures.
Muskie can be caught on rod and reel, too.
With a ice fishing rod and reel, wire leader is likely to scare muskie away, so use tough leader and be prepared to lose some bait.
Probably the best muskie bait for tip-ups are large three- to four-inch suckers.
Big suckers are the way to go.
Live suckers are preferred by many, but in especially cold water, frozen minnows work well, too, as the torpid muskie aren’t looking for a chase.
Every angler should have conservation in mind, and especially for species like muskie, careful regulation is critical.
But in states that allow ice fishing for muskie - or where they’re an invasive species - there’s no more exciting catch on the hard water.
We hope that this article has helped you better understand the controversy surrounding ice fishing for this species, and we hope as well that you’ve learned something.
As always, we’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.