Maureen O'Brien holds a nice musky caught from a small lake while fishing with the author.

Big Muskies From Small Waters

By Matt Raley

Catching a big musky on any water is a tough feat, but catching one from a small lake is even more rewarding because there are not as many in small waters as in bigger systems. Small waters contain only a handful of the upper echelon fish we all strive to catch. Here in north-central Wisconsin, there are hundreds of lakes that contain muskies, many of which are only a couple hundred acres or less in size. Targeting small water bruisers has its challenges but it’s always gratifying to put your net under one.

One negative of small water fishing is generally there are not a lot of spots holding muskies. The number of large fish can sometimes be counted on your hand. With the limited spots on small waters, the fish seem to be more educated because it doesn’t take nearly as many fishermen to create high angling pressure. Many of small water muskies have been caught several times. In fact, I know of one 47-incher that lives in a 115-acre lake that was caught by my friends, myself and others five times over only a couple years. I have even caught the same musky twice in the same day on a small water.

The landscape is dotted with small lakes where I guide in the Vilas and Oneida county region of northern Wisconsin. They generally have a primary breakline dropping into the main basin, but not much for structural diversity. There won’t be a bunch of midlake humps, points, inside turns, and secondary breaks to fish.

Advantages To Small Water

With that said, there are plenty of upsides to fishing small water:

• Smaller lakes won’t take as long to break down and learn.

• You should be able to put your bait in front of a musky more often and more consistently, which helps counteract higher angling pressure.

• Smaller lake size allows you to cover everything within a day’s time and figure out the key areas of musky location, while on big systems you could be fishing for many hours without even presenting your lure in front of a fish.

• When you locate a big musky she will generally be there for longer periods of time.

I’ve spent weeks targeting specific fish on such lakes. I often pull up to a spot and tell my customers that there’s a 45-incher in the vicinity and they should be on their toes because it wants to eat boatside. It’s very gratifying to catch specific fish that you have seen on several occasions and, in some cases, over the course of a couple years.

Fish will be located around the lake and not just on the windblown side. They do not respond as heavily to things like wind and weather changes like those in larger lakes, so it becomes easier to locate them. Many times you can simply put the trolling motor in the water once you launch and start fishing.

Small water is also a great option when fishing during shortened feeding windows and uncooperative fishing weather. You will never run into a situation where you have a “blow” day and can’t get out.

Finally, if the bite window is only 30 minutes long but you spent 15 minutes driving your boat on big water during that timeframe, the odds of getting a bite diminish greatly.

Small Water Strategies

There are two ways I like to approach smaller lakes. One is to run and gun and the other is to sit and grind. I utilize the run and gun technique when I feel fish are active and there are long feeding windows. I fish through the lake fast and hit the spots I know are holding active fish. Then I continue onto the next lake and hit its active fish. Its similar to fishing one big lake. Instead of using your outboard, you trailer from small lake to small lake to fish a variety of spots. I like to hit a cluster of small lakes located in the vicinity and not waste too much time traveling in the vehicle.

The second strategy to small water muskies is to sit and grind. I like to utilize this strategy when fishing conditions are not ideal and feeding windows are short. This is one aspect that is harder for people to grasp during days of minimal fishing pressure — they want to cover water and keep fishing new spots. It’s even hard for me during a normal day of fishing to pound a couple spots over and over, but many days each season this is the method that puts fish in the boat.

On tougher days I don’t want to run around and fish a lot of different spots in hope there’s an active fish there, but rather set up on a couple and grind those spots out and wait for a feeding window to open. I know the muskies are there, so why leave? I don’t want to miss the bite window while traveling from lake to lake or fishing a bigger water with more diverse structure options.

My tournament fishing experience has led me to fish the same spots over and over more often. You can’t get bit if your bait isn’t wet. Fishing the same spot multiple times does not spook muskies. They aren’t afraid of much. Even in shallow water they will hold tight and not let things like boating traffic or lures going over their head bother them. This is pretty apparent if you have ever successfully short-line trolled in shallow water, with just a few feet of line between your rod tip and lure.

If you raise a musky off a spot while casting, you may not see that fish again until it wants to eat, but odds are good that musky is in the vicinity. I can stay and cast at the same spot over and over and finally get that fish to bite, though it may be hours before it does so.

You can be surprised how many different fish will be holding on a certain piece of structure at the same time. I have raised over a dozen muskies while casting at the same spot for several hours. My tournament partner, Nate Osfar, and I have been in many tournaments in which we fish the same drift over and over and finally get a bite after several passes over the same spot. My theory is if you know fish are present, why move? Half the battle in the musky game is just finding the apex predator.

Fishing small lakes has its drawbacks just like fishing big waters, but I find them more enjoyable. You never need to beat up your body up like you will on bigger waters. I’ve fished a lot of different waters around the country and could set up shop just about anywhere I wanted, and my favorite place to chase summer muskies is in Vilas and Oneida counties in northern Wisconsin. You can hop from lake to lake and not even get close to fishing them all in a season.

Gregg Thomas

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