Lake of the Woods Muskie Trends, Tactics & Threats
As recently as the early 1980s, Ontario’s crown jewel of a freshwater fishery—that maze of islands known to the Ojibwe as Pikwedina Sagainan—still represented unexplored, largely unknown muskie water. In the centuries since French explorers and Indian tribes roamed its rocky islands, dramatic changes have reshaped Lake of the Woods. Yet to marvel at the seemingly unspoiled Precambrian surroundings, you’d be hard-pressed to believe it.
“I caught my first muskie in 1965,” recalls Doug Johnson, legendary Lake of the Woods muskie guide. “But it wasn’t until a few years later when a new road went through to the Northwest Angle that I started fishing them hardcore. I met up with Dick Pearson, who’d accompany me on exploratory trips well before GPS made things easy. We’d throw a spare can of gas in the boat and fish our way out into the lake until the gauge hit empty. Then we’d fill it back up and make our way home.”
Now 80, Johnson still maintains a little cabin on the Northwest Angle portion of the lake, from which he bases muskie operations, June through October. “I guided until I was 72,” he says. “Now, I don’t go after them with so much fire as in those earlier days. But I still do lots of banker’s-hours expeditions, and still catch my share of fish.”
Once a full-time biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Johnson remains sharp as a tack, both about the fish he’s boated and the baits he prefers to sling. To date, his tally reads as impressive as any stat-sheet in the sport: one fish at 56 inches, four 54s, twenty-five 53s, and forty-five 52s, along with too many 50- and 51-inchers to count.
“There’s still no other lake I’d rather fish for muskies,” he says. “It seems like we see a few more boats on good spots every year. But there’s always the next great spot waiting to be found. And there’s still plenty of big old fish swimming around to keep things interesting.” Yet, beneath the surface, Johnson and others believe change is brewing.
If you’ve fished Lake of the Woods anytime during the past decade, rusty crayfish would’ve been impossible to overlook. Native to the Ohio River basin, invasive rusties have spread into the northern U.S., as well as into portions of Ontario. Beyond the species’ affinity for multiplying and displacing native crayfish, rusty crayfish can decimate aquatic vegetation, leading to other problems. On Lake of the Woods, you can’t step near any shoreline without observing shells, claws, or live rusty crayfish. They make raccoons, otters, and seagulls happy. But anglers feel anguish for the little crustaceans, which have eaten their way through entire beds of pondweed—beautiful cabbage beds relished by muskie hunters.
“Rusty crayfish have been in the lake since the 1960s,” says legendary muskie angler Dick Pearson, who also keeps a cabin on the lake. “They’ve now spread as far north and west as they can go and are expanding south into the rest of the lake, devastating weedbeds as they go.”
“There’s almost no cabbage left, particularly in the Northwest Angle,” he says. “As the vegetation has disappeared, muskies have redistributed among less habitat. You see more anglers concentrated on fewer, high percentage spots—mostly rock. But that’s something we can adapt to. What’s most alarming is I think the crayfish are eliminating a lot of spawning habitat. We’re seeing fewer and fewer small muskies every year.”
Beyond his own observations, Johnson cites catch data compiled by Red Wing Lodge, located on Sabaskong Bay. “Since 1987, the folks at Red Wing have kept records of every muskie caught by their guests,” Johnson says. “The number of small muskies, particularly those under 35 inches, has decreased during the past several years. I’m seeing the same trend with the sizes of fish I’m catching. I don’t see many 25- to 35-inchers anymore.
“It’s probably too early to make judgments about poor year-classes and young muskies. But given what we know about the loss of vegetation and potential spawning habitat, it could become a big issue in the years to come. Rusty crayfish in most lakes have boom-and-bust cycles. Problem is, on the Woods, the population has only continued to boom, year after year.
“Perhaps soon to be of equal or greater concern is the presence of the spiny water flea,” Pearson says. First discovered in the Lake of the Woods in 2007, Pearson and others worry about the species’ potential impact on native zooplankton, forage on which many young-of-the-year fish depend, including newly hatched muskies.
While both the Minnesota DNR and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) are studying the consequences of invasive species in Lake of the Woods, neither have gone on record about any adverse effects. Time will tell, but perhaps given the lake’s massive size and biological diversity, nature will balance itself out, as it sometimes does.
Meanwhile, the muskie population in Lake of the Woods remains so robust that it’s still possible to discover big fish where you’ve never seen them before. And if that’s not enough options, you’ve got Eagle, Wabigoon, Pipestone, Kakagi, Dryberry, the Indian Chain, and countless smaller waters within an a few hours drive. Lac Seul’s catch-and-release regulation helps it retain perhaps more gargantuan fish than any other lake in Ontario.