The two anglers on the dock were nervously fidgeting with their gear. And why not, they were about to start their vacation fishing on the premier musky lake in the world, and with a guide they heard was really special. "Are you guys ready to go fishing?" questioned a stocky, dark-haired kid about 12 years old.
"Sure kid, as soon as our guide gets down here," the taller angler replied. "I am your guide," the lad said assertively, "and the faster we get out on the lake the more muskies we can catch!"
Like many anglers who got "stuck" with young Bill Sandy, they thought someone was playing a joke on them - this couldn't be real. But after a day or two on the water with the kid, the buzz started in camp about how much this youngster knew. By midweek the lines began to form to see who would be next to share the boat with the young sensation.
Bill Sandy grew up fishing Lake of the Woods, and I doubt if anyone knows the west area of this massive watershed half as well as he does. I'm sure you can blindfold him anywhere on that end of the lake, spin him around 20 times and let him go at midnight, and he'll take you right back to the lodge. At age 5 he had his own boat, and at 9 he was guiding out of Monument Bay Lodge, which was owned by his parents. Today he owns and operates Sandy's Blackhawk Lodge on LOTW.
Sandy claims to put around 300 to 350 muskies in the boat each year, of all sizes, that are caught by his clients and himself. At least 10 to 15 of these muskies usually exceed the coveted 50-inch barrier. In 1998, one of his clients landed and released a 57 3/4 -incher, which is his biggest fish to date. With an Ontario musky season that starts the third Saturday in June each year and may last into early November on a warm fall, those are pretty incredible numbers. I don't doubt him one bit. Bill and I have fished together nine times and have boated 39 muskies - an average if 4.33 fish per day. To reach 300 he'd "only" have to average two a day, and that is very possible since he fishes for these big predators every day.
Very little gets in the way of Sandy's musky fishing. He is about as hard-core as you can get, and would turn down a paying, non-musky guiding trip to go musky fishing by himself. Wind, rain, snow, sleet, sweltering heat - not much will stop him. By now you can probably tell I have a lot of respect for the man. He's just the kind of person I like to fish with: he fishes hard, smart, is observant, and most importantly, his favorite word isn't "I". He lets results speak louder than words.
Sandy is out on Lake of the Woods chasing muskies from opening day until the lake begins to ice-up and stop his efforts. Obviously there are big seasonal changes in the muskies' habits, but weekly changes occur and even day to day shifts will happen on this big lake. Like most outstanding guides, Sandy's boat control, casting ability, and skills working the various "killer" musky lures are nearly flawless. But where he really shines on Lake of the Woods is in his overall knowledge of the waters, and quickly putting together fish-producing patterns. You might catch a musky out of a necked down area that has cabbage and water movement through it, and then ask and think for a minute or two, then say he knows of 11 more similar conditions; then it's off to the races. Or if the key pattern is points that have a combination of rocks and weeds, the next several hours might be spent weaving through islands and other "uncharted" shortcuts to fish his favorite few dozen or so similar spots.
During the first few weeks of the season Sandy targets early-to-warm shallower bays. He states that ideal bays have a dark, soft bottom (which soaks up and retains heat better than any other bottom condition), and are generally 3 to 12 feet deep. He further fine-tunes this pattern by searching out bays that face south, which get direct sunlight for the most hours of the day. Slow-tapering bottoms are another big plus. Put all these factors together and you've got the best spawning and post-spawn conditions, warmest water, and earliest weed growth. If you fish the more classic-looking musky spots at this time of the year, you'll probably end up being disappointed.
Bays will still hold the most muskies as waters start to warm, but now Sandy starts adding bays with a little more depth (6 to 14 feet), and faster bottom tapers to the equation. When fishing these bays and the shallower type previously mentioned, Sandy starts out fishing "point to point". He basically starts at one point, puts the electric on a medium steady speed and just goes down the shoreline covering everything in his path, and usually with a bucktail, which is his favorite early-season lure. Points may be rock or rock/weed combinations. There is often a band of weeds ringing the bay's shoreline. He fishes it all, paying particular attention to where weed growth widens to create small flats or points, or where weed density changes. The back of the bay may have an incoming creek or other water source, a different type of weed growth, reeds or rushes, or a flatter slop-covered bottom. Fallen trees may exist that reach out to meet a quicker-tapering bottom. Basically, there are a lot of options for the muskies to use and Sandy fishes as many of them as he can until the fish begin to show themselves. Then the pattern(s) are quickly fine-tuned and he's on his way.
Most of the time he'll be tossing a Mepps Tandem Musky Killer with a silver blade, that has a black, black/white, or white bucktail skirt. Through the years he has caught many muskies on these combos, but sometimes a client will toss another color and it will get hot. As fish get pressured more through the season, wild color patterns that the fish haven't seen can really get them going. Three-quarter-ounce spinnerbaits are sometimes used to get into the heavier vegetation.
As the weather warms, topwater lures such as the Mud Puppy, Jackpot and TopRaider come into play. A slower, steady-retrieve generally works better early on, but don't be afraid to burn the surface lure in fast and sometimes erratically as the water warms and the fish get more aggressive. Sandy says surface lures and bucktails produce best results under warm, stable weather conditions. Under cold front conditions, he'll often fish a little deeper, slower, or with bursts, favoring crankbaits such as DepthRaiders and Normark Super Shads, or smaller-size jerkbaits such as the Reef Hawg.
When fishing bays, Sandy awaits the time when more fish are coming off the rocking points. This is usually the signal that tells him the muskies are becoming more rock-oriented. Now more of his efforts shift towards the more classic, faster-breaking rocky structures such as points, sunken humps, clusters of small islands, bottlenecks, flats, and chunk-rock shorelines. But even through most of the summer fish will be related to these types of structures, Sandy stresses that you shouldn't give up on bays. Almost any little, sandy cupped area that you find on LOTW will have weeds and just about any of these small weedbeds can hold a giant musky. On many northern lakes, the changing weather of late August-early September can toss a lot of musky-finding curves at visiting anglers. But one of the great features of LOTW is that it has so many different types of water, and you can almost always find something that is productive - shallow weeds, weed/rock mixtures, deep water slots, shallow flats, massive island clusters, big weed bays, rock bars and humps - you name it and this lake has it. Sandy knows where to find it all, so he is never at a loss for finding good areas to fish at any time of the year.
The best times to fish during the warmer weather? Sandy says the muskies usually don't get active until after 9 a.m. Sometimes the best bite is from 12 to 4 p.m. Other times the day's best action occurs in the evening. He just keeps fishing hard and covers a lot of water, rarely returning to the same spot in the same day unless a big fish is spotted.
Sandy's standard summer musky-fishing outfit is a stiff, 7-foot baitcasting rod and a reel spooled with 50-pound test Tuffline. Hooked fish are usually scooped up in a magnum-size net that has a treated bag that eliminates hooks fouling up in the mesh. After carefully removing the hooks with a very long-nose pliers, Sandy will quickly release it or hold it up for a fast photo. He hopes some day that one of these fish will reach the gargantuan proportions of the one he saw several times a few years ago - a fish so big he doesn't even like to talk about it. But that's another story.
Field Editor Spence Petros can be contacted for more info on his Canada trips, fishing schools, or seminars by writing Spence Petros, 2207 Stilling Ln., McHenry, IL - Phone (815) 455-7770 or visit his web site at http://www.spencepetros.com.
Bill Sandy has guided on Lake of the Woods' Northwest Angle for 30 years. He owns and operates Sandy's Blackhawk Island Resort and Muskie Camp. He can be reached by calling (218) 386-1099, or write Bill Sandy, Box 866, Warroad, MN 56763. You can check out Bill's web site at http://www.blackhawkislandcamp.com.