Catching Musky and Pike in Iowa

By Billy Pryor

Muskies (aka the musky or muskellunge, plus many other spellings and titles) are the largest of the pike family. They prefer clear water lakes and rivers and are most actively feeding in water temperatures 55° to 70° Fahrenheit. They will eat any fish they can catch and prefer to ambush their prey. They are also known to eat crayfish (crawdads), frogs, mice, and even birds. Fishing for these trophy fish is so popular, because of their size, their incredible speed, and strong short runs.

The northern pike (cousin to the Muskie) is also quite the fighter. They primarily feed in water temperatures 58° to 70° Fahrenheit. Although they look similar to the muskie, they are olive in color with white or yellow bellies. A northern pike will have light colored markings on a dark body which is opposite of their cousins. They are also an ambushing predator that will eat frogs, crayfish (crawdads), birds, and pretty much any fish they can fit in their razor filled jaws. They will strike fast and burn your reel, so be ready.

What most people want to know first is “Where can I catch these predatory fish in Iowa?”. If the water temperature is right there are many bodies of water in the state that will inevitably give you the opportunity to catch one of these fish. Just remember, these fish are not like your normal game fish and are known for rarely being caught. Muskies have even been respectively titled “The fish of 1,000 casts” or even “The fish of 10,000 casts”. A few of the highly recommended bodies of water for these top tier fish would be; Big Spirit Lake, East and West Okoboji Lake, Clear Lake, Three Mile Lake, Brushy Creek, Little Sioux River, and the Des Moines River. There are many other places throughout Iowa containing these two illusive species but these eight are very popular locations throughout the state. The Iowa DNR website can also tell you other bodies of water that these fish are naturally found in or semi-annually stocked in, There you can also get up to date fishing reports on locations, lure choices, and water statistics.

Proper gear to catch these beasts is another challenge. If you are not prepared with heavy duty line and tackle; you will more than likely miss the strike as it snaps your line and darts off with your lure or bait. For muskie you should use larger lures (even salt water size lures) and a heavy duty line, like a braid. Make sure you use a steel leader if you want to keep your lure from quickly being cut from your line. They will also hit fresh cut bait. Muskie will seek larger prey in autumn when they are feeding for the upcoming winter. In spring, the waters have not warmed up yet and the fish are slower, so they are content with smaller baits. Lures such as jerkbaits, large jigs, diving plugs (like Rapalas), and bucktail spinners are the most widely used. Bucktail spinners and jerkbaits are great for casting, and diving plugs are common for trolling. A common tactic is to spot the muskie by slowly trolling weed lines and looking ahead. Once a muskie has been spotted, cast past it and retrieve your lure within it’s sight. Sight fishing pays off well as these predators ambush their prey using sight. You may not see the monster that sees your lure, so a lot of anglers will swish their lure in a figure eight next to the boat before removing it from the water. This can cause a strike because of the change in speed or direction of the lure. This motion may be just enough of a tease for them to attack. Keep in mind, the most important skill to have for this remarkable fish is patience.

As for the northern pike, they also have a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, so it is best to use a heavy duty braid and a steel leader You should use larger spinner baits, large spoons, fish-imitating lures (like Rapala minnows or slash bait), shallow-running plugs, jerkbaits or even fresh cut bait and focus your fishing closer to cover. Northern pike will also hunt for much larger prey in autumn when they are stocking up for the winter season. Much like the muskie, spring time waters have not warmed up and the fish are still slower, so they will attack smaller baits and lures. A tactic that has proven time and time again for these predators is the zig-zag or the slash. Causing commotion in the water by making this style of bait retrieval is sure to get their attention. When reeling in a more shallow lure, jerk the lure left and right, making a back and forth retrieval. This imitates an injured fish attempting to make it to safety.

Now that we have some information on these fish, gear selections, and a few locations to try, lets talk about their habitat. Muskies and pike can be caught in spillways below dams. They both are also commonly found along weed lines. While looking at weed lines, look for specific characteristics like turns, dense foliage, or areas that jet out into deeper waters. Docks can provide excellent cover for predatory fish to trap their prey in lakes that lack aquatic vegetation. Also look for places where different habitat types intersect, like where a weed line meets a rock pile. Look for active bait fish in any of these areas. Bait fish mean predator fish.

Fishing for a northern pike may be a bit easier than the muskie, but both are trophy fish that are respectively known for their challenge. They will be picky on what bait or lure you are using. You do not become the top predator in the water by simply going after anything that moves. Patience is a virtue, and with these monsters, it is a requirement. Just remember, once they are hooked, keep the line tight. These aerial acrobats are sure to lunge from the water and send your hook flying along with your excitement.