Over my many years as the outdoors guy at the Mesabi Tribune I’ve fished with - and interviewed - a lot of muskie anglers who take their sport seriously.
But Brian Johnson might just be the most hardcore angler I’ve ever come across.
You know you’re talking to a dedicated muskie chaser when he describes being in a boat and getting pelted in the face with snow and freezing rain just to get close to a 50-inch beast of a fish in a foot of water.
“I've been on the lakes until Dec. 1 a few times, or close to it, with air temps in
the low teens and wind from 20-30 mph, covered in ice, equipment freezing and breaking, but hey, we just needed to catch one more super tanker,” Johnson said. “If you plan with safety in mind, you can fish until the lake finally can't be launched on anymore. Some diehards have been known to chisel open ice at landings for several hours, just to get launched. I have
done this. Those final days are tough- and you may not catch many fish - but if you do, you'll have the highest chance for a huge fish of both length and girth than any other time of the year.”
Conditions should be a little better when Johnson, a 1989 graduate of Mountain Iron-Buhl High School, and current Bemidji resident, takes to the lake next weekend for the annual muskie opener, but rest assured those will only be the first of many days he will be out and about chasing one of the state’s most popular trophy fish.
“I fish for muskies as often as possible from the opener until the season closes or we can no longer launch, whichever comes first. In my younger years, it was not uncommon to fish for them 10-to-14-hour days on the weekends and as many 4-to-6-hour trips after work during the week as I possibly could,” Johnson said.
Surgery on both shoulders has slowed him down some as of late but it’s still an obsession. While he lives in Bemidji and spends most of his time fishing there, he also hits Lake Vermilion as often as possible, as his parents have owned Whispering Winds Resort on the west end of the lake for more than two decades.
“There is not a better place on the lake to take off in your boat with high hopes of boating some muskies,” he says sincerely. “I've actually always had great success on Lake Vermilion and have a few secret patterns I work there that once learned have been very productive.”
It’s also where he got his start in the sport as well, chasing his first muskie soon after his parents bought the resort. It took a while to find success, he added, but once he did, he was hooked.
“Muskie fishing on (Vermilion) was really up and coming at around that time. It was a good time to be chasing them. The fish were really maturing into large adults and overall hadn't been fished for a whole lot. They were easier to catch there than in many natural muskie lakes or lakes that had been stocked for a lot longer,” Johnson said. “My first official muskie was caught on Lake Vermilion. I'll never forget the spot or bait and I caught it with my brother Jeremy (Johnson) in my parent’s boat. It was a 42 incher.”
Since then, he has landed plenty of fish – including a 53-inch fish in the greater Bemidji area after dark, after catching a 47-incher earlier in the day.
For Johnson, it’s the challenges, successes and failures that drive him. Many days may go by without a bite or a fish in the net in some instances.
But then you hook one and it’s like stepping into the twilight zone, Johnson says – a place where neither time nor space exist.
“You never know what's coming next, but the world can be moving along a turtle's pace and then suddenly a few seconds can feel like hours, a minute or two can seem like
a week. Your life and everything you've ever done flash before your eyes and hopefully, at the end of that, there is a big angry fish in your net,” Johnson said. “It's you and a fish and hopefully a friend to help you net the darn thing. The adrenaline rush is likely crazier than any drug and is likely more addictive than any also.”
When it comes to tactics and strategies, Johnson has a number of suggestions for both new anglers and those who have been at it for a while.
First, be persistent and spend the time needed to be successful and remember to have reasonable expectations. You may not catch one but are likely to contact several at least and some of those almost but not quite moments are just as exciting, he said.
Second, if you're new to the sport, do some research prior to jumping in. There are a few basic items that will help you increase your success, the safety of yourself, your boat mates and the fish. Proper release equipment like large, long pliers, a jaw spreader, quality bolt cutters for cutting hooks, is important to have on hand.
“Hooks are cheap, a trip to the ER after somehow getting hooked with a muskie bait is not,” he said.
Early in the season there are really two primary options, Johnson said.
“Fishing small, fast moving baits in relatively shallow water is a proven tactic. This is most often done with bucktails but there are other proven winners like topwater’s, glide baits, crankbaits and others,” he said.
Also, in the early season while casting, downsizing and speed are often the keys to success.
Another proven winner on or near the opener is fishing the open water abyss.
“It's intimidating sometimes and is most often done trolling but with modern sonar equipment, it can be quite easy to locate these larger predators in the wide-open spaces and
casting to them even though you're in the middle of nowhere can be very successful,” Johnson said. “When trolling the true open water, bigger is often better and crankbaits rule the day, while large rubber baits can be trolled or casted and be very successful.”
When looking to troll, Johnson suggests looking for the deepest water available and starting there.
“Just be aware, because you're fishing in deep water doesn't mean the muskies are deep, they may be on the surface or no more than a few feet below it. The golden rule of
trolling is don't run your baits below the fish, which tend to eat from below their prey in these situations,” he said. “We often use planer boards and may have as little line out as just the three- or four-foot leader or we may have 20-to-50 feet of line out.”
As the season progresses fish locations will shift towards shallower structure and areas overall, but fish never entirely vacate the open water either and some may really live out the entirety of their lives out there.
“In Vermilion, there are whitefish and ciscoes which are muskies preferred food, why go in shallow for a bad gas station pizza when in the deeper open water your surrounded by a non-stop all you can eat buffet?” he said. “Still, the shallow locations will start to really turn on better once the large female fish have recovered and fed in the open water.
As the water temps begin to rise and weed growth increases, larger baits and a variety of speed options open up.
“You have to try a few things and figure out what they want, it may be bucktails one day
and topwaters the next. The hot bite or pattern rarely holds up for more than a few days. Fishing peak periods like the four solunar peaks,” Johnson said. “Each day becomes more important as well as the low light periods and for some, after dark. It's amazing over the years on terrible days how the one bite might come exactly to the minute of a solunar peak or at least within a few minutes, and it might be the only bite of the day so be ready.”
Then there is night fishing, which Johnson said is not for everyone, especially on a lake with hazards like Vermilion, but it can really up the odds for mid-summer success.
“Top waters, slow crankbaits and large bladed bucktails often work best but don't be afraid to try large rubber baits also,” Johnson said.
As the summer progresses into fall, fishing can really heat up as soon as the first really cool cold fronts start impacting the water temps. Tactics can be all over the map, but it often drives the bait and the predators super shallow – like down to a foot deep or even less.
“I've caught and watched muskies caught when the fish is out of the water almost completely in between waves crashing beaches where in order or fish shallow enough, you had to land your bait on the sand and then drag it into the water. No joke,” he said. “As it really gets into the late fall season trolling heats up again as well as a steady dose of large rubber baits. One or the other put the largest fish caught in Minnesota annually in the boat and account for nearly all of the true giants.”