Fishing Memories Title
Welcome Title

"Right Around the Corner"
(And Off the Dock!)

Muskies, Inc Outing
Red Wing Lodge

August, 2001
Redwing Lodge

Suppose you took a "Grand Tour" of legendary Muskie haunts. Where would you fish? For sure, we all have our favorite lakes and rivers. Along the way, though, you'd certainly have to hit Lac Seul, Leech, the "Chip," Rowan, maybe the St. Lawrence River, and perhaps a few others. I myself have a particularly fond spot in my heart for Osbourne Bay and for the Houseboat Muskies of Kenora. But no Muskie Tour would be complete without a visit to Sabaskong Bay, Lake of the Woods.

Sabaskong Bay, Lake of The Woods

It's one of those places with all of that wonderful "Up North" Canada atmosphere, for starters. And it's also got more classic Muskie fishing spots than any place I've ever seen. But it's better than that. For you see, Mike Bartlett will tell you that you don't have to chase around for miles and miles in search of the elusive critters. You can catch them "right around the corner."

That "corner" is the point on a small bay where Mike's Red Wing Lodge near Morson, Canada, is located. I spent a week there last August, fishing Muskies along with some three dozen other of our Muskies Inc. members. And we had a spectacular time. We caught some 47 Muskies during the week ("we" means the other guys – by some fluke I myself was skunked).

The weather gave us an ever–changing show of sun and rain, wind and calm, hot and cool, clouds and rainbows that alone was almost worth the price of admission, including a spectacular display of northern lights. Mix that in with the companionship of a bunch of extremely knowledgeable Muskie fishermen, a free Walleye feast one night, and a speech by Perry Smith, newly elected president of Muskies Inc., and it made for a great trip.

End to End Rainbow

The annual Red Wing Outing has been one of the highlights of the season for our Twin Cities chapter for some fifteen years now. Every August we head up to Sabaskong for a week on those prime Muskie waters. Rick Hartz ("Ranger Rick" to you old–timers) of our chapter has been organizing these events since 1985. This year we had 17 of our members attend, plus 18 other fine folks from the St. Cloud and North Metro chapters.

So how about the fishing during the week? Well, I can report that Dave Stanoch of our chapter got a 49–incher, and John Roundsley from one of the other chapters got a 51–incher. Our own John Newman came in with 7 fish. Terrie DuBe caught 48 1/2 inches worth of Muskie, but unfortunately that was two fish. Smokey Swenson got a 35–incher on the first day, apparently decided that was good enough, and I'm not sure if he fished after that or not.

(I do have to tell you that Smokey spotted a monster beaver chewing on a branch out by the docks. He hustled me over to take some pictures. Smokey estimated this beaver to be at 36–inches and 55 pounds. He didn't release the critter, but then he didn't catch it either.)

Julie johson Holding a 44-inch Muskie

But to me the most impressive feat was by Chris and Julie Johnson from the St. Cloud chapter. Between them those two young folks caught 13 Muskies, including a 44–incher by Julie. Man – do they participate in the Chapter Challunge? They could make that a runaway if they keep it up. I fished reasonably hard and got skunked. It reinforces my suspicion that somehow or other, there is some "big wisdom" relative to catching Muskies that I just plain don't have a clue about. Will I ever learn? Does somebody have a secret to sell? Chris? Julie? John?

As it turns out, I did in fact get some insight into Muskie success on Sabaskong.Let me give you three different perspectives.

First, listen to what Perry Smith, Muskies Inc. president had to say. One of the highlights of our week was a talk by Perry at the Tuesday night Walleye feed. Perry spends much of the summer on Sabaskong each year, and catches incredible numbers of Muskies. As just one statistic – last year he caught four fish over 50–inches there, and this year has a 55–incher spotted that he's going after.

Perry Smith

Perry commented that the water level on Sabaskong was much higher than usual in the spring, and then fell by some three feet over the summer. That caused accelerated weed growth leading to "matting" on the surface when the water dropped and some tougher fishing on normal spots. Also, the weather had been quite variable (like during our week!) with no long stable periods, which typically slows things down too.

Perry counseled a "slow down and be methodical" style of fishing, and it obviously works for him. "Take your time and pick the weed beds apart. The fish will be down in the weeds, won't see lures at the surface, and you have to 'rip' through the weeds to get the lure to the fish," reported Perry. And that 55–incher he has staked out is just such a weed fish.

His standard casting lure? It's a single blade, single hook spinner bait, black and orange or black and gold with a white Mister Twister added for contrast. But Perry has also done a lot of trolling. He's got a 49–incher trolling with a Depth Raider, and then a super 53–inch fish on a Believer. He trolls at 3 1/2 mph with the lure running some 50 – 60 feet behind the boat and bouncing off rocks.

So there you have Perry Smith, a man who advises you to "Be patient, slow down, spend time wherever you do fish." You can't argue with his success in catching those big Muskies. And I have to note that Mike Bartlett, who has years of wisdom on these matters, echoed Perry's advice: "Don't run and gun."

But here's a second approach and a different spin to Sabaskong Muskies. I talked to Chris and Julie Johnson, who, as I've noted, caught over a dozen fish during the week. Their technique? An absolutely classic "Run and Gun," shades of Mark Windels! They hit the prime Muskie spots, particularly points with rocks and weeds, cast a few times to the most likely locations, and then moved on to another spot if nothing happens. (Although I forgot to ask them, I'm sure they had a "Milk Run" established, and revisited the places where they get action.)

So you can't argue with their "running and gunning" stats either – 13 fish up to 44–inches in a week. And you have to suspect that if you gave them another week or so there would be a 50–inch class fish in there too.

john Newman on The Phone

Then John Newman from our Twin Cities chapter, a third perspective. He's caught over 200 Muskies during his career, and got those 7 fish during the week, topping out at 43–inches. (He even has a standard "you should have seen the one that got away" story. You see, he was on Lac Seul, there was this 55 – 60–inch fish that got off at boatside, and the 45–inch fish that he caught a few casts later would have been a snack for the first one...)

John comes at it still a different way. He counsels "versatility," downsizing under cold front conditions, moving slower and trying different things until something works. His favorite lure during the week was a little rattling 4–inch crankbait, an "AC Shiner," that apparently is hard to find these days. He worked it around rock points jutting out from smaller islands, often fishing in 4 feet of water. And, unlike Perry, John didn't work weedbeds, but he too certainly caught fish.

My thoughts? It's difficult to make a lot of sense out of all this conflicting data. Here you have three different ways of going after the Sabaskong fish, and they work superbly for the people involved. (Note that whatever it was that I was doing didn't work.) But then Mike Bartlett had one other thought: Your first trip to Sabaskong – or really to any new lake – is a learning year, one to get to know the water, the map, the rocks, the weedbeds, all that. The next year you'll start catching them. And the years after that, the fish better watch out! Maybe I'll have to come at it that way.

While I'm at it, let me note just a couple of specific hotspots in addition to that "corner" that Mike is so fond of. First though, you have to realize that you literally can't go a couple of hundred yards in any direction on Sabaskong without running into an enchantingly inviting Muskie spot. However, these are some of the places that kept popping up in the various discussions around the dock, and will at least give you a feel for typical spots that you can try.

Juris Walking on Water

I personally think that the King Islands, some five miles from Red Wing in the bay SE of Blueberry island, are absolutely spectacular. The water in this bay is quite a bit clearer than much of the rest of Sabaskong, and there is a string of above–and–below water rocks that you just know has to hold fish. Be careful of the rocks right at water level though – it would be easy to do propeller damage. Perry Smith also said that the red buoy at the entrance to the bay is a good spot. And the "saddle" between the first two islands on the right as you enter the bay just shouts "Muskie!" at you. The two sharp rock points each have beautiful cabbage weed beds – I heard somebody describe this as "THE Classic In–Fisherman spot."

The point of Rabbitt Island and the buoy there is another place that big fish have been seen, and Tom Bastian of Huntertail lures is also fond of the rock reefs on the north side of Rabbitt. Mark Sewald from our chapter marked a number of spots for me in Stevens Bay, at the NE end of Sabaskong. The far end of Stevens also has some vertical rock walls that rise more than a hundred feet above the bay and make for wonderful spots to take scenic pictures.

Finally if you like to troll, the deeper water channel to the NE of Comegan Island leading into Miles Bay has 40 to 50 foot holes that are excellent fall locations.

But there are literally countless other good spots. You really just need to go and explore for yourself. Get the superb Canadian Hydrographic Service map for Sabaskong, # 6214, from various dealers or it can be purchased online at: Red Wing also stocks the maps and Mike will cheerfully mark them up for you. Then just follow his advice, your instincts, and watch out for rocks.

Graph of Number of Muskies per Year

Mike's advice is based on solid data. He keeps all kinds of interesting computerized Muskie statistics that you can view on his web page and in their marketing literature. Let me share a few with you. Chart 1 shows the number of Muskies caught by Red Wing guests since 1987. That's a total of 4,045 Muskies over the 13 years, with last year being the best ever at 556. (And it goes without saying that "catch and release" is strong – 99.04% of the fish were released and all but 2 the last four years.) I'd venture to guess that we Muskie Inc'ers catch more Muskies here than any other place we fish. For example, in 1998 – a particularly good week for our outing – our folks caught more than 70 Muskies.

Graph of Muskie Size Distribution

The size distribution? Chart 2 shows the lengths of those 4,000 Muskies. Some 1551 of them, almost 40% of the total, were over 40–inches, with close to a hundred 50–inchers. And note that only 10% were under 30–inches. That tells me you have an excellent chance to catch quality fish, a shot at the real trophies, and that little fish are not common. (I'll have to ask our own Terrie DuBe how she managed to get two fish in that lower 10% category.)

Finally, Chart 3 shows the data for the average lengths of Muskies caught each month. The data certainly reinforce the conventional wisdom that bigger Muskies are caught in the fall. I've never understood that, and nothing I'd ever read had given me a believable story up to now. But Mike finally provided an explanation that hangs together. Here's what he told me.

Monthly Graph of muskies versus Size Class

Observe that the lengths come in three "groups." The May and June Muskies run around 34–inches. The average length then jumps to a very consistent 37–inches for the July through September period, and then jumps again to 38 to 40–inches for October and November.

However, the early fish, the ones in May and June, are often caught by walleye fishermen, sometimes using light tackle which can't deal with big Muskies. Many of them are Muskie first–timers, and are overwhelmed by a fish of any size. All of this contributes to small fish being brought to the boat and measured. The bigger ones, even if they bite on a jig and minnow or whatever, simply are not captured.

Then, beginning in July and for the next three months, the "experienced" Muskie fishermen arrive and bring in bigger fish. It's not that the fish population somehow magically became bigger. Instead, it's the fisherman population that changes its characteristics and is able to deal with larger sizes of fish. Most of the fish are caught casting all the usual lures – bucktails, spinnerbaits, wooden jerkbaits, and topwaters. But now both the tackle and the skill of the fisherman are a match for bigger fish.

And then, in October and November another change. Trolling for Muskies in deeper and open water becomes the standard technique. The use of Jakes, Grandmas, Depth Raiders, Swim Whiz & Believers, and C B Lips dominates. In fact, of the 175 Muskies caught last year in October and November, only 8 were caught on a lure other than these five.

And I'm willing to accept that the deeper water Muskie population is a different one, consisting of bigger fish, than the spring and summer "weed and rock, shallow Muskie" population. (Rod Ramsell gave a superb talk at one of our monthly chapter meetings, and made an excellent case for this based on his own experience and data. I believe him.) It's these bigger fish that are targeted and caught in the fall. What Mike Bartlett said makes sense to me, but I've never seen it described that way before.

A quick note on lure selection. The water in Sabaskong is famously murky, although some of the remoter bays are clearer. The conventional wisdom is to use bright colors and noisy lures. For sure, it's easier to pick up the brighter lures on the retrieve, but I'm not convinced that the Muskies really care one way or the other. In my survey of the other Muskie folks, and from the records in Mike's database, I couldn't perceive any obvious "best" lure type or color (except for the fall trolling pattern). The Muskies seem to be catchable pretty much on everything, and I would recommend going with what you feel works best for you.

Here's some things of interest to you if you're considering Sabaskong:

About Red Wing Lodge

Betty, Anne and Mike Bartlett run the Lodge. It was opened in 1981 by Ken and Betty, and it's been a great place for us Muskie fishermen ever since. They've been hosting our Twin Cities chapter outings since 1985 and Red Wing has also headquartered Muskie tournaments in '83, '86, '93, and '97.

They have a main lodge building with a beautiful view of the lake (including that "corner"!), with office, dining room, and licensed bar. They have a pool table in the lodge, videotapes, licenses, tackle, maps, ice cream, candy, and pop. Mike sits down each new arrival to answer all questions and to mark up your map with the current hot spots, locations of uncharted rocks, and routes to take around the lake.

There's a dozen or so campsites, and cottages with one, two, three, and four bedrooms that can sleep from one person to a group of ten people. The cottages have electric heat, tub/showers, electric stoves and refrigerators and are fully equipped with kitchen utensils and fresh linens. Housekeeping weeks run from Saturday to Saturday with check in time after two p.m. and check out time before nine a.m. Red Wing Lodge offers Full or Modified American Plan packages, with "get acquainted" parties each week.

Their docks have room for any number of boats, and they provide gas, bait (if you're into walleyes) and they also rent boats and motors. Guide service, including that grandest of all Canadian customs, shore lunch, is available. But best of all, Mike, Anne, Betty, and their entire staff are the nicest and friendliest of people, and just a joy to spend a week with.

You can get all kinds of information on the lodge, rates, etc., from their web site. For additional information visit our resource center.

I have to give you one quick "corner" story.

It seems that a couple of years ago, during the MI outing week, Mike took Anne and son Matt, 14 at the time, to do a bit of fishing at the second point "right around the corner." They went out in a 20–foot Alaskan loaned to them as a demo boat by a dealer. It was not equipped – no net, no measuring stick, no needle–nose pliers, no hook cutters, no charge on the trolling motor battery, no nothing. They just took it out for a spin and a cast or two.

Given all that, and given that the conditions were perfect – cloudy, light mist, a chop on the water – you can readily expect that Anne's first cast with a yellow, jointed Believer would result in a fish. It did – a Muskie of major proportions. The fish struck. It ran, it splashed, it came at the boat, banged into the side, tried to jump into the boat. It did all kinds of awesome Muskie things.

Anne was hysterical, jumping and hollering.

Mike was at a loss as to what to do. Only an inch of the Believer protruded from the fish's mouth. The thing was hooked absolutely solidly.

Finally, with the fish at boatside he marked its length with a paddle (later determined to be a 48"+ fish) and then gave the rod to son Matt.They deposited Matt on shore, fish still on the line and in the water.Mike and Anne ran the boat back to the lodge to get tools and reinforcements. Smokey Swenson, who had watched the three of them go out, was on the dock.

      Smokey: "Where's Matt??"

      Mike: "We left him babysitting."

      Smokey: "What?"

      Mike: "Anne got a huge fish."

      Smokey: "What?"

      Mike: "Never mind – just grab a net and pliers and jump in!"

Well, they got back to Matt, netted the fish, cut the hooks, and Smokey took pictures. They released the Muskie none the worse for wear. And they made it back to the lodge in high spirits. The remnants of the Believer hang proudly above their bar. Sit down with Mike some evening and you can get this (and many other) stories from him.

Finally, I've told you about the corner, but how about the "dock" in the title of the article. Well, go talk to Dave Stanoch. His brother caught three Muskies off the Red Wing dock a couple of years ago, casting to that little weedbed. And I ran all over the lake, looking for what?

Our Little Corner With Eagle Above

Okay – next year? I plan on being smarter and more experienced, and maybe I'll catch a Muskie or two myself. I'll certainly try both the corner and the dock. If that doesn't work, I might try to snag that beaver. But for sure, I'm going back: Red Wing Lodge, Sabaskong Bay, Lake of the Woods.

Smokeys Beaver

Juris Ozols

The following resources you may find helpful, if you're planning a trip to fish muskies in Canada.

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