Trophy Musky...A Rational Perspective
By Tony Rizzo © 2005
Reprinted With Permission

Being a full-time musky guide for almost 44 years has given me the pleasure of sharing the boat with a large number of people from a variety of backgrounds and a wide range of fishing experiences. Over the course of any given day on the water, the topic of discussion will almost always turn to big musky. What big fish have been caught? Whatís news of fish caught from other areas? What is a big musky and why aren't more of the real big ones caught?

There has been a plethora of fishing shows on cable television in recent years. There are fishing shows where some hotshot celebrity fishermen claim to catch one or two 50 inch musky on each episode. Fishing magazines have become increasingly species specific with several musky magazines available today. You can see 50 inch musky on almost every page of these publications. Watching these shows and reading these magazines gives the impression that 50 inch muskies are commonplace. The musky releases reported in many clubs or posted on the release boards at local sport shops boggle the mind. Everyone seems to catch 50 inch muskies and there are some people that catch lots of them every year!

Doesn't anyone catch 48 or 49 inch muskies anymore? I'm not saying that these people are not entirely truthful, it just strikes me as odd since I know from my years on the water that 48 and 49 inch muskies are caught a lot more frequently than 50 or 51 inch muskies. It seems to me that the tendency to stretch the size of fish has increased in recent years. Way back in 1993 Doug Stange wrote an article that was published in the August issue of "In-Fishermen", where he made this observation; "every inch here and there, "every 48 inch fish that is suddenly 50, even every 49 inch fish that is rounded to 50 inches, and certainly every 52 inch fish that stretches easily buy photo to 55 inches, is to lessen the wonder of it all when reality strikes." So obviously, it isn't a totally new phenomenon.

I think that quote addresses the heart of my concern. So many musky are exaggerated in size that the wonder and excellence of legitimately catching big fish has been diminished. Expectations have been raised to unrealistic levels. I have had clients that are embarrassed to admit that they have never caught a 50 inch musky! Their expectations and the reality were just not in alignment. I didn't think less of their fishing skills or commitment but I was impressed with their honesty.

While there are many true sportsmen who musky fish simply because they love the sport, there are also a few people that do it solely because they are interested in their bottom line. It is to be expected that the size and legendary status of muskies is going to attract a fair amount of people that are only in it for their egos or the money. I guess that is what compels some people to exaggerate the size and number of their fish.

So how big does a musky have to be to be considered a trophy? I will give a few examples to give you some perspective. Most of my clients these days are regulars that have fished with me for years. In the days past when I would take more new clients, it was common for me to get calls from fishermen that had been fishing muskies for 10, 20, or even 30 years and were finally going to hire a guide because they still had never caught what they consider to be the trophy of their dreams.

I remember a number of years ago a client called me to book a guide date and told me that they had been fishing for 30 years and although he had caught lots of musky he never caught a 20 pound fish. On the second year that I guided him, he caught muskies of 21, 22 and 25 pounds in two days of fishing. For him this was the dream of a lifetime and he was like a kid in a candy store. I can't tell you how excited I was for that man. It was like I had caught my first legal musky all over again. The truth is that whenever I take a client out who catches their first legal musky, I don't know who gets more excited; them or me. I think any guide will tell you that this is an exciting time in the boat.

When I interviewed the late, great, Ray Kennedy for my book "All-Pro Musky Guides", I was provided some additional background. Ray guided the Minocqua and Tomahawk area in Wisconsin for many years and was known for catching big muskies. Rayís personal best musky went 54 inches and weighed an even 50 pounds. During his career, he and his clients put another seven fish over 40 pounds in the boat. I don't know of any other fisherman guide who put that many 40 pound Wisconsin muskies in the boat. There are many excellent guides that have never caught a single 40 pound musky. Yet with all of the 30 and 40 pound muskies that Ray Kennedy caught he still considered a 25 pound musky to be a trophy. Ray was comfortable enough with his abilities to acknowledge that there were some seasons where a 25 pound musky was the biggest fish of the year. So here was a big fish guide that fished almost exclusively on trophy waters and guided 150 days a year and there were years that a 25 pound fish was the biggest fish in the boat. How many years would it take a casual fishermen to put in an equivalent 450 days of fishing?

Way back in the early 1970s I made a statement in my book "Secrets of a Musky Guide" that any musky over 45 inches was a trophy. A few years later the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources published a document that was the compilation of findings from electro-shocking and fyke netting many lakes across Wisconsin. According to their findings, only 1.9% of the muskies in the state are 44 inches or larger. Now to my way of thinking any fish that is the top 1.9% of the population is a trophy.

The size of fish that defines a trophy is relative of course. All of the 45 inch muskies are a trophy for most areas of the United States; I don't think many guides in Canada would consider it to be one. In Canada, a 45 inch musky is just a nice fish. Many people want to lump everything together and not take into consideration where the fish was caught. You just can't do that. It is much harder to catch a 30 or 40 pound musky in Wisconsin (or Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania etc.) than it is in Canada. If you catch a 30 or 40 pound fish in the United States, it is much harder to get a trophy like that one that was caught in Canada.

But across most of the musky fishing world, 50 inches and/or 30 pounds have become the benchmark. If you question how difficult a fish of this size is to catch look at the results from some of the musky tournaments. In many tournaments there will be 75-100 boats with 150-200 fishermen fishing for two full days. A typical tournament will be the equivalent of 300-400 man days of fishing, more days than any casual fishermen will fish in 20 years, but how many 50 inch fish do you see caught in these tournaments? I can't remember the last time I saw a 50 inch fish caught in a tournament in our area even though there are a number of tournaments each year on some of the best lakes in the area.

I am not trying to discourage anyone, Iím only trying to give a rational perspective. There are many fishermen out there who love the sport, but between raising a family, working a job and paying the bills there just isn't that much free time available. Many of these people also hunt and don't fish in the fall when many of the trophy muskies are caught. When time to fish is limited, the fishermen will need to decide whether to focus on numbers or trophies.

So why aren't more big fish caught and how does one go about catching one? Looking at some statistics supplied by the Wisconsin DNR gives us a good understanding why there are so few really big fish caught. According to the survey referenced earlier, only 1.9% of muskies in Wisconsin lakes are 44 inches or longer. Now a 44 inch musky might go 25 pounds if caught in the fall but in the spring or early summer might only way 21 or 22 pounds. A nice musky, but if your goal is 30 pounds it isn't going to come close.

Leon Johnson wrote up another study conducted by the Wisconsin DNR In 1975. This study tracked 1000 stock muskies and found that only one half of one percent were still alive after 18 years. Now if you were to talk with a taxidermist that has mounted a lot of muskies, he would tell you that an 18 year old female musky is likely to be 49 to 52 inches depending on the type of lake from which it came. Male muskies rarely get that big and most only get to 42 to 44 inches or so although a few do get larger. Looking at this information makes it easy to see why it is so difficult to catch a 49 or 52 inch musky. There just aren't that many around.

The life expectancy of a musky is somewhere around 23 to 25 years depending on the latitude and the lake. Many people think that muskies live a long time and that if stricter size limits are put in place, that they will keep getting bigger and bigger but the fact is that if you release a 20-year-old musky she only has, at best, a few more years to live. Like all wild animals, a musky will only stay at her peak wait for a few years in her prime. After that she will start to go downhill. I have had a number of these older fish in my boat and they are easy to recognize by their big heads and skinny bodies. Some of them even look old. So not only are there very few muskies that survive the 18 or 20 years necessary to become a 30 or 40 pound fish, but they are only at their peak weight for a few years. Our window to catch them at their peak is very small.

Fish biologists have told me that these older muskies don't spawn. My clients have kept a few of these old fish and several were found to still have their eggs long after they should have spawned. I have been told that these fish will absorb the eggs back into their bodies. What I am sure of is that these fish that retain their eggs are very difficult to catch.

Any musky that has survived for 18 or 20 years has been around the block a few times. She has seen every type and color of lure. These are very wary fish and are very difficult to trick into hitting a lure. I also think that the lures we commonly use just aren't big enough to tempt them. While those 10 inch crank baits and jerk baits may seem big when you are casting them, they are small compared to the 5 pound suckers or Walleyes that these fish often eat. When one does hit a lure, it is more likely she has been hooked a time or two and has learned a few tricks for throwing the hooks.

As difficult as it is to catch a trophy musky, there are always ways to improve the odds. Probably the shortest way to a trophy musky is to hire a big fish guide. There are guides that focus on numbers of fish and there are guides that are known as big fish guides. A successful trophy musky guide knows the water he fishes; understands the seasonal patterns and movements and where the muskies are throughout the season; and has refined the techniques and presentation to take big fish.

Now don't hire a guide and expect that you will catch your fish of a lifetime or that he is going to divulge all of his knowledge on the first day out. Once you have found a guide that you like, plan on fishing with him for at least a few days. Most successful guides have a regular clientele. Many of the best periods of the season are going to be booked by those regular clients. By booking the same guide for a number of guide dates you will pick up more about the lakes, the patterns and the details that go into consistently catching trophy muskies.

I remember a client that I guided for three successive years. I really liked fishing with this guy and he proved to be good luck for me. Every time I guided him, I would catch good fish. All guides will tell you that they would rather see the clients catch the fish, but that isn't the way it went when I fished with this client, the bigger fish all came my way. That all changed during the third season when his turn came and he caught a beautiful 35 pound musky. He wanted this fish on the wall, so we kept it. When he took the fish to have it mounted, he told a taxidermist that he had planned on fishing with me for five years or until he caught his trophy. The taxidermist called me later and asked me if this guy was serious. I told him that I didn't know, but I do know that he never booked another guide date with me and I later learned that he quit musky fishing after he caught that fish.

That happens more than you would think. I have had many clients that were new to the sport who caught trophy muskies early in their fishing career. More often than not, these people quit the sport but on the other hand, my experience has been that fishermen that fish for a long time before catching their trophy keep on fishing.

Another way to catch a trophy musky is to learn as much as you can from books and magazines and apply it to the lakes that you fish. John Gierach made the observation in his book "A View From Rat Lake" that the other way to catch the big ones is to actually fish for them, which is something that most of us don't do. We continue to hope for big fish while fishing for little ones. Some honestly believe that trophies donít rely on their talents, but that is true of only the worst fishermen. Most know how to catch big fish, but are just not up for it.

Dick Slieght has said pretty much the same thing when I interviewed him for my book "All Pro Muskie Guides". His comment was that while all fishermen wanted big fish, very few were willing to pay the price. The fact is that across most of musky country you're going to have to sacrifice action if you want to catch a trophy.

With the exception of a few times of year, if you want to catch a trophy musky you are going to have to learn to fished deep water; you're going to have to learn to fish for suspended musky; you're going to have to learn where and when to fish dark water; and you have to know when, where and how to fish the different times of the season. Most importantly you are going to have to get off the action lakes and fish the trophy lakes that have bigger fish.

Generally speaking trophy lakes are going to be bigger, deeper and clearer while action lakes are going to be smaller, shallower and have darker water. Trophy lakes must also have the forage base necessary to grow fat fish which typically means good population of trout and ciscoes. Of course, musky populations in trophy lakes are significantly lower than in the action lakes.

There are a number of action lakes in the area where I live and these lakes receive a lot of fishing pressure. Many guides fish these lakes day after day. These are often the newer guides that are trying to build up their numbers or just trying to get their clients a musky. The fact is that it is possible to fish some of these lakes for a lifetime and never catch a 25 or 30 pound musky. This is as true in Canada as it is here in Wisconsin. There are action lakes in Canada that have tremendous numbers of musky but very rarely produce a 30 pound fish. Some of these lakes are a surprise because they have the size, depth and forage but apparently don't have the proper genetics.

Right now, Canada is the best destination for 30 and 40 pound muskies. A number of these Canadian lakes have the size, the depth, the forage, and the genetics necessary to produce numbers of big muskies. Fishing these clear Ďtrout waterí can present its own challenges, but gives the angler the best shot at a truly big musky.

I am not saying that it is easy to catch a 30 pound musky in Canada, only that it is easier than in most other places in the lower 48. The sheer size of these lakes distributes fishing pressure well; the muskies haven't seen as many lures; and for some reason big Canadian muskies seem to spend more time in shallow water than in Wisconsin where I usually fish.

I only spend a few weeks each year in Canada, but have caught three 30 pound fish in a single day on several occasions. According to my personal records it takes me 3 times as many hours in Wisconsin to catch a 40 pound musky as it does in Canada. It is still musky fishing though and the lakes that can produce the biggest fish also have their reputations for being the stingy about giving up there muskies.

Much of what I have said about Canada also applies to some of the bigger lakes in Minnesota. The point here is that in either case it isn't realistic to book a one week trip to either place and expect to catch a 30 pound musky the first time there. Sure it could happen, but a more practical strategy might be to count on making a number of trips. Once you have identified the lake you are going to stick with and have determined the time of the season that will give you your best chance, it makes sense to go back to the same location and the same week several years running. These are big bodies of water and this approach means that you will have a head start on fish locations and presentations at the start of each trip. Some of the more successful fishermen I know book the same week at the same resort for years and years.

As good is Canada can be, it isn't necessarily where I would recommend a beginning musky fishermen start. My hourly fishing average is actually much better in Wisconsin for numbers of musky caught and I still catch many trophies fishing close to home. I know the same is true throughout much of musky country. Putting time on the lakes that are closer and more accessible provides a solid experience base that allows the fishermen to be more effective when they fish other lakes.

What you don't often see in videos or read in magazines or hear at seminars are the days, sometimes weeks, when fishermen go without catching anything. If you want to catch a trophy musky, catching nothing is part of the price that comes with success. There are no magic lures, secret techniques or shortcuts to success. Sure there are always people that just get lucky, but for the rest of us, all we can do is make the commitment necessary to build upon our knowledge to improve our instincts and insights while on the water and continually refine our techniques to make us more effective over a lifetime of fishing. When I conducted my interviews for my book "All Pro Muskie Guides", I asked every one of the guides the same question: "Why aren't more big muskies caught?" Their answers were pretty much the same. Big fish are cautious, wary and they have become "water smart". Some muskies spend their lives in deeper water and never come to the shallows were most fishermen spend their time.

My friend Tom Swanson thinks that some of them that donít get caught get lucky and just fall between the cracks. Maybe nature just instills something in some fish to make certain that they don't ever get caught and ensure the preservation of the species. Perhaps that is how it should be.