Lee Tauchen likes hanging out with walleye guys when he guides for muskies at Mille Lacs in late summer and autumn. His choice has nothing to do with their personalities. It has everything to do with their location.
Tauchen loves to fish for muskies on the rocks, so he targets the same reefs that walleye anglers prefer. Muskies are there, too, and for the same reason. The reefs are loaded with bait fish later in the year and from mid-August through ice-up, the muskies are there to fatten for the approaching winter.
Tauchen, 33, lives in Madison, Wis., where he works as a multi-species guide early in the year. He spends March and April catching walleyes from the Wisconsin River. May and June, it's walleye and muskies from the Madison chain as well. But muskies in Madison are generally not of the size he craves. He wants big fish, very big fish, or "monster fish," as he calls them. That's why he moves his business to Mille Lacs in July.
"It's a pretty awesome body of water," said Tauchen, whose clients had boated five muskies over 50 inches by mid-August.
They included a 51-inch fish Ted caught while researching this story. Two of the five reached 55 inches. One of the mammoths left droppings behind in the boat. Tauchen noticed they contained feathers.
"It ate a bird of some sort," he said. "Muskies that are big enough to eat birds are the right ones."
Tauchen got his start muskie fishing when he hooked into a 36-inch fish while fishing for smallmouth bass with four-pound test. The fight that followed got him addicted to muskies.
His favorite spots to fish include Lac Seul and Eagle Lake in Ontario. He likes the solitude of Canada. He may also be biased because he caught a 54-inch fish there.
But Tauchen made the decision to move his business from Packerland to Viking country for the latter part of each year after he fished Mille Lacs in the fall of 2004. His biggest muskie of the season was 53 inches. He and his friends had six fish in one three-hour period on a frigid November day when only die-hards ventured on the water.
"Even when fishing is tough, it helps to know that the very next cast could be that 50 pounder," he said.
The word is out on Mille Lacs and fishing pressure can be high. But that doesn't bother Tauchen.
"I'm willing to put up with the crowds because of these pigs," he said.
Tauchen credits the hefty fish present in big numbers to a DNR stocking program that began in earnest 20 years ago and to the catch-and-release practiced by most muskie anglers today. Rather than taking a fish to mount, the vast majority are shooting a picture, taking measurements for a graphite replica and releasing the fish to be caught again.
Like most muskie fishermen in the north country, Tauchen targets vegetation during portions of the calendar. But by mid-August he's checking the reefs to see if muskies have moved out of vegetation to the rocks. The massive muskies in the "fleet" that cruise open water much of the summer in search of tulibees become concentrated on the reefs as summer turns to autumn.
He also believes that muskies in weeds are in a "comfort zone." They're there to digest food and are lazy. Therefore, it's harder to make them strike, he said.
The rock pattern Tauchen uses works on any muskie lake that has rock reefs in them. At Mille Lacs, he targets the rocks that rise out of 20 to 30 feet of water and that top out at an average of 5 to 10 feet.
Some reefs are massive. Tauchen cuts his search time down by focusing on peaks where the rocks top out at 5 feet. A sonar and GPS are great tools. Find a peak, set a way point, drift more, find another peak, set another way point, catch a fish, set another way point. Soon the productive portions of the reef are mapped out. The fish can bite anytime.
"They've got to eat. They get into moods where they get stupid," Tauchen said.
But the rocks seem most active at low-light times like sunrise and dusk or when wind creates wave action that cuts light penetration. Tauchen lets the breeze move the boat along as he and his guests cast downwind to cover the most water. You can also use a Drift Control drift sock to slow your boat down and keep the boat from swinging around in the wind.
Tauchen's basic equipment consists of 7-to 8-foot rods, 80-pound braided line and 80-pound flourocarbon leaders. Shorter rods are for jerkbaits, longer are for everything else.
We like a little shorter rod such as the 6-foot, 2-inch St. Croix Musky Avids for jerkbaits, 7-footers for crank baits and 7-foot, 6-inch for bucktails.
Tauchen doesn't trust snaps. So he puts a heavy-duty triple split ring on the end of the leader and attaches it to a triple split ring on the bait.
Tauchen is also extremely attentive to the sharpness of his hooks. One touch of a rock, a missed fish, a caught fish, anytime he changes a bait, out comes the file to hone the tips like a razor once again.
"You just can't give them any chances," he said. "I won't let a bait go out of the boat unsharpened."
Tauchen's license plate gives a strong hint as to what his favorite lures are. It reads, "Top H20," the name of the bait he designed and distributes through Lee Lures. (Ted caught his monster fish on one.) The lure is segmented with a lip at the front and a spinner blade at the back that makes the Top H20 slither across the surface like a snake. All you have to do is reel slowly. Tauchen also likes his Chopper, a prop bait, even when water temperatures plummet.
"Topwaters work a lot later in the year than people think they do," he said. "We've caught them on surface baits in 38-degree water. The only rule is that there are no rules."
In general, though, topwater lures seem to do best when the wind is blowing or during low-light conditions like night time or cloudy.
Tauchen also likes regular Bulldogs. Muskies prefer to attack from the front so he jerks and pauses, jerks twice more and pauses, so a trailing muskie can anticipate the next move and intercept what it thinks is prey.
Days may wear on, but don't let your guard down. The biggest fish of his life came on the final day of week-long trip when he hadn't seen another fish. And stay excited.
"If you don't shake when you catch a fish, don't do it," Tauchen said. "It's not fun. I still shake every time."
Give Tauchen a call at (608) 444-2180 for a chance to catch one of the biggest fish of your life.
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