As one of the most sought after open water game fish in the country, it is surprising to learn that few anglers ever target big muskie through the ice.
This aggressive predator remains elusive to many anglers but through the ice, it is a daunting task on a whole new level.
There are many reasons why ice fishing for muskie has proven to be so difficult. Not to mention, most avid muskie anglers frown upon ice anglers chasing muskies. I wanted to learn why few anglers target muskie in winter and how to be more successful while on a quest to cross this fish off my bucket list.
Finding muskie under the ice
The first step to any successful ice fishing trip is finding the fish. Muskie are no different. When a lake first freezes over, expect to find muskies in the same spots they preferred in the fall.
Muskie hang tight to the bottom and stay relatively shallow. Find them cruising weed lines or along channel breaks, points, shoreline bars and inside turns. Start fishing in 10 to 15 feet of water. Sometimes you can find them in even shallower water similar to pike but it doesn’t take them long to leave the shallows once the water temperature drops.
Later in winter, muskie tend to move even deeper in search of warmer water near humps and reefs. At this point, it gets more challenging finding them and in many locations, the season is all ready closed for muskie fishing.
Seldom are muskie catches one after the other like a good crappie bite. It is going to take some patience to find them. You can make it easier on yourself by asking locals who have had success or tackle shop owners who know the waters better. A detailed contour map is essential.
When you find a spot to try out it becomes a game of covering water. Muskie roam in search of food so the more lines you have in the water, the better your odds of crossing their path.
The best approach is to drill several holes along a piece of structure, like a point, spaced at least 20 yards apart. Drill one hole starting in 10 to 12 feet of water and vary the depth a few feet up or down when placing the other holes. The number of holes you drill depends on how many lines you are allowed to fish in that area.
Keep in mind, no matter how well you choose a spot, muskie fishing is a patience game. With good bait, it is just a matter of time while you wait for a fish to show up.
Muskie tactics on early ice
It’s all about presentation when targeting muskie in early winter. There are two main ways anglers hook into these giants. First, is with a baited tip-up and the second is active jigging.
Tip-up ice fishing for muskie
You would be hard pressed to find a method better at bringing big fish through the ice than tip-ups. Set up for muskie fishing using a live sucker minnow on a quick strike rig. Use a decent sized minnow at least 6 inches long to really get their attention.
If you don’t have live minnows, dead minnows work equally well in most situations. However, live minnows are better at getting the attention of muskie further away.
It would be wise to tie your quick strike rig with a high strength wire leader. Muskie have enough sharp teeth to slice through standard monofilament. Pre-tied quick strike rigs are available at most sporting goods stores for a few dollars.
Hook the minnow under the dorsal fin using the upper hook and through the upper jaw with the lower hook. That way they can still swim naturally. If the minnow is especially strong, it may trigger the tip-up flag. I like to cut slits in the minnow’s tail to slow it down a bit.
No matter how you decide to bait your tip-up, it is a waiting game. Use as many as you are legally able and strategically spread them around to boost your odds of a hook up.
Fishing with tip-ups is highly affective for all manners of fish species. If you have never tried it, I encourage you to read our ultimate guide to tip-up ice fishing. It will definitely help you become a more successful ice angler.
Tip-ups should be your primary approach to catching muskie through the ice but active jigging has its place too. Most ice anglers use a jigging rod near a tip-up to add some flash that draws in fish to the live bait.
Plenty of muskie are caught on an active jigging rod though. The most popular lure choices are the Rapala Jigging Rap, large Kastmaster spoons or even open water type lures, like a Fuzzy Duzzit. As long as it has good action when jigged it will work. You can also tip your lures with minnow heads to add a bit of scent.
Whatever style jig you use, make sure you have a sturdy ice rod and reel. A 32 to 36 inch, medium-heavy or heavy rod should give you the leverage needed. Pair it up with a good reel spooled with heavy braid and a wire leader. Baitcaster ice combos are especially well suited for this type of fishing. However, any set up that works for large lake trout or pike can be adapted for muskie.
Muskie vs. Pike
A lot of anglers new to muskie and pike fishing have a hard time telling the difference between these two fish. While they do look similar most muskie fishing is limited to catch and release, so knowing the difference could help you avoid a ticket from the warden.
Geographically, only a small portion of muskie habitat range overlaps with the northern pikes. Muskie can be found in water as far south as Georgia and further north into Maine and eastern Canada. However, they are rare in most places other than the Great Lakes region and tributary rivers where their numbers are highest.
Pike, on the other hand, are prolific in most states of the midwest and northeast, as well as Canada. There is a good chance that any lake you catch muskie in will also have pike.
Here are a few physical characteristics to differentiate pike from muskie.
- Both species have forked tails but muskies have pointed tails and pike are more rounded.
- Muskie have variable spots or stripes that are darker in color than the main body, whereas pike have a darker green-blue body with lighter colored markings.
- Both types of fish have pores on the underside of their jaw used to detect movement in the water. Pike have 4 or 5 and muskie have 6 to 9.
Always be sure of your catch before keeping a fish. It is important to all anglers that we preserve our quality muskie fishery.
What is the legal seasons for muskie
One of the reasons more anglers don’t target muskie through the ice is because of season restrictions. Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota are closed to muskie fishing by December 1st which means some winters safe ice has yet to form. Only when those areas get a deep freeze in the fall do ice anglers have a chance at targeting muskie.
Some states, including Michigan, have year round catch and release muskie fishing. You should always check the local regulations before pursuing muskie. The majority of areas that have muskie only allow anglers to harvest one fish each year and most anglers prefer to catch and release in order to perpetuate this trophy fishery.
Is ice fishing for muskie ethical
It takes a long time to grow trophy sized muskie. For that reason, it is important to treat them carefully and release all fish as quickly as possible.
Muskie get fished hard in the summer and they use the winter month to recover, which is why muskie season normally ends before ice up. It is also possible to indirectly catch muskie will fishing for pike. As long as you know the difference and get them returned to the water quickly, it is alright.
More importantly, pulling a thick muskie through an 8 inch ice hole can cause serious damage to the fish if you’re not careful. Muskie aficionados frown upon ice anglers who handle fish poorly on the ice.
Just remember to avoid setting the muskie on the ice and be prepared with jaw spreaders, pliers and hook cutters so you can quickly get a picture and release the fish before it freezes.
Few species of fish hold as much prestige as the muskie. There is a reason they are the most sought after big game fish in America. They are ferocious fighters and reach immense sizes. Up to 50 pounds or more!
As popular as they are, it is amazing that more people don’t catch these incredible fish through the ice when conditions and seasons allow. It may be both a curse and a blessing though. More anglers mean more damage to these sensitive fish.
However, for the right angler willing to practice careful catch and release fishing tactics, ice fishing for muskie is truly an un-tapped opportunity.
Want to get the most out of your ice fishing season? Check out our Washington State Ice Fishing Secrets ebook. Our book highlights the 10 best lakes for ice fishing in Washington State with actual coordinates to some of our most productive holes. Plus, we thoroughly cover everything from gear selection, tactics and travel planning. To top it off, you also get information on 41 other lakes with superb ice fishing! Check it out before ice fishing season passes you by!