WAUNAKEE — The half-foot-long bait darted through the gin-clear water.
The tip of the 9-foot rod bounced up and down, and eyes were transfixed as the bait made its way through the shallows.
“This is what they’re eating. It’s about the same size as a bluegill on (lakes) Monona, Waubesa and Wingra,” said Leif Spilde, a seasoned muskie angler, as he pointed his rod tip down and focused on the bait. “My four or five biggest fish in Madison have been on this.”
But despite Spilde’s skill and experience, there was zero chance Saturday of a monster fish magically appearing to give chase. There were no explosions through the calm surface or tales about the one that got away.
The lack of action wasn’t surprising, considering Spilde and fellow muskie guide Jeff Hanson were making their casts in the indoor swimming pool at Waunakee High School.
“The key to these is to not work them fast,” Hanson said as he pulled a top water bait made from maple across the water. “The fish can’t resist that.”
And neither could the 35 or so anglers who stood on the pool deck watching, taking notes and dreaming of the season opener that is just six weeks away in the southern half of the state, and on Memorial Day weekend in Wisconsin’s northern reaches.
Saturday marked the Capital City Chapter of Muskies Inc.’s 18th annual Intermediate & Advanced Muskie School. The daylong event is believed to be the only school of its kind in the world and offered up 37 different classes attended by nearly 250 students from Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. The school, with a $35 tuition that includes lunch, is designed to improve the knowledge of muskie anglers, raise money for muskie stocking in the Madison area’s chain of lakes and provide two $1,000 scholarships for Waunakee High School students considering a career in natural resources.
Educators, who consist of muskie guides from around the state and experienced anglers from the club, volunteer their time, while a massive raffle that includes rods, reels, scores of baits and tackle and even a trip to Canada, brings in thousands of dollars. In the last 10 years, the event has raised $76,929 to stock 4,670 muskie between 8.3 inches and 11.6 inches long in the Madison chain. And some of those fish, some from Minnesota stock and others from Wisconsin, are nearing 50 inches long.
“We’re seeing excellent growth. We’re very encouraged that both strains seem to be growing very well,” said Jim Olson, a Madison attorney who has been muskie fishing for all but 10 of his 79 years and keeps track of the club’s stocking program. “In years to come, I think there will be more and more 50-inch fish to come.”
Capital City is one of more than 50 independent fishing clubs affiliated with Muskies Inc., an international organization established for the purpose of promoting and improving the sport of muskie fishing. The Madison chapter is one of the largest, with 350 members who attend monthly membership meetings that feature expert speakers. The club also sponsors local and northern Wisconsin fishing outings, works with the Department of Natural Resources to improve local fishing opportunities and promotes a sport that has turned the Madison area into one of the prime destinations in the Midwest in which to land a fish of a lifetime.
Many of the fish that will soon begin jumping the dam on Wingra Creek are likely the results of the club’s work, along with the stocking and management efforts of the DNR.
“The (muskie) densities in Madison are about a half a fish per acre, which is about the highest that you want to manage a lake at,” said Scot Stewart, a retired DNR fisheries biologist who helped manage Madison-area lakes from 1987 to 2015. “You look at the pictures of the fish out of these lakes and it’s just incredible. We’re really lucky.”
Muskies Inc. was founded in 1976 in Minnesota, with the Madison chapter coming along in 1983. The first meetings were held at Stevens Bar and later at Ruby’s at South Towne Mall, Jingle’s Coliseum Bar, Jingle’s on the River and Park Ponderosa, which is now the 5100 Bar in McFarland, where meetings continue to be held. On April 6, the club will sponsor its 35th annual muskie seminar, which this year will be held at Doubledays Bar & Banquet Hall in Cottage Grove and feature Lee Tauchen and Robbie Jarnigo, hosts of “Today’s Angler,” a popular YouTube fishing show based in Madison.
The muskie school was first held at Madison Area Technical College in 2002 and drew about 50 students. By 2009, it had moved to Waunakee High School and grown to 127 students. Last year’s school drew nearly 280 students, while this year’s attendance was down slightly. Geoffrey Crandall, considered the dean of the school, came up with the idea for a day full of muskie-focused classes. It was initially turned down by the club’s board of directors but a few years later when some new members came onto the board, he was given the green light.
“It’s just a really great way to share information,” Crandall said of the school, where this year’s two dozen instructors had a combined 800 years of muskie-fishing experience. “This is an educational event. It’s not a commercial event and we get really good support.”
The classes touch on virtually every aspect of muskie angling. The school’s small auditorium, for example, hosted seminars on how to rig a live sucker and another on how to better shoot a fishing trip using multiple digital cameras mounted in a boat. The Performing Arts Center hosted a session on trolling, while a psychology classroom was turned into a reel repair shop. The library served as a stage for anglers to learn how to better use their fish locators, while classrooms in the school’s 1200 wing off the cafeteria hosted classes on fishing for muskie in the Mercer area, making steel and fluorocarbon leaders, and another titled “Taming Fall Trophies.”
Dan Small, who has hosted “Outdoor Wisconsin” on Wisconsin Public Television for more than 35 years, used a Spanish classroom to lecture 10 students about the finer points of catching a muskie on a fly rod. Small, who has been chasing the state fish since the mid-1980s, used a PowerPoint presentation to show off videos and pictures of trips on the Jump, Chippewa and Flambeau rivers. He also brought along his own fly rods and a box full of flies. Unlike trout flies that can be less than an inch in size, muskie flies are elaborate with feathers and streamers and can be 10 inches long or more.
“It’s easy for a muskie to suck in a fly because there’s no weight to it,” Small said when asked about the challenges of catching a muskie on a fly rod.
“If you can cast these big flies and present them to where the muskies are, I think you actually have a better chance of hooking a muskie, although maybe not landing it, than people throwing conventional tackle.”