Apply a fly for musky, walleyes at Van Vliet

By Naomi K. Shapiro

What: Fly fishing for walleye and trophy musky on Van Vliet and Presque Isle lakes.
How: Fish streamers between 8 and 12 inches long with steel leader on 7 to 9-weight rods.

Where: Presque Isle is located about 300 miles north of Milwaukee, Wis.

Who: Presque Isle Chamber of Commerce (888-835-6508; 715-686-2910)

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PRESQUE ISLE, Wis. — World-class fly angler and guide Bill Sherer knows Presque Isle waters as well as anyone.

“I grew up in the area, and I’ve fished these incredible and totally underfished Presque Isle lakes for decades,” he said.

“There is no greater thrill for a fly angler than to light into a 50 to 60-inch musky or lunker walleye in late November. Presque Isle has these fish in an area so totally unspoiled and unknown that only the chosen few who recognize what’s here have this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“Indeed, at any given time on any given lake in Presque Isle — which is rightfully known as ‘Wisconsin’s Last Wilderness’ — you may see one other boat. Two other boats would be a crowd.”

Trophy musky, like this 47-incher held by Wally Banfi, are the top target on Van Vliet and Presque Isle lakes.

Trophy musky, like this 47-incher held by Wally Banfi, are the top target on Van Vliet and Presque Isle lakes.

A world-renowned northern Wisconsin fly angling guide, Sherer (715-385-0171) holds two recognized freshwater world records on a fly rod: a 30-inch, 10-pound, 4-ounce walleye caught on 2-pound tippet; and a 45-inch, 21-pound musky caught on a 16-pound tippet.
Come November, Sherer and his clients brave the often windy, sleety, rainy and snow-driven weather to go after some of the greatest northern Wisconsin musky and walleye to be found.

Two of his favorite lakes are connected by a wide channel, but are completely different fisheries.

Together they’re known as the Presque Isle Chain, consisting of Van Vliet Lake and Presque Isle Lake.

(The Presque Isle lake being discussed is locally known as “Big Presque Isle Lake,” as there is a smaller lake of the same name in the area).

Both lakes are within a stone’s throw of the idyllic village of Presque Isle, and both have good public boat landings.

Fly anglers can assume that both lakes, in addition to being wonderful fisheries, are classic wilderness glacial lakes.

They’re “the whole package,” as Sherer puts it.

Van Vliet Lake

Van Vliet Lake consists of 220 acres, with a varied shoreline and lots of bays, inlets and cover, along with weedy areas.

Van Vliet also has several very good gravel edges and rock bars, with some pretty-good-sized boulders.

Max depth is 22 feet, with mean depth at 13 feet. Van Vliet, while not a dark-water lake, has a moderately tan color, but decent clarity.

There are three islands. Two are state-owned, but the largest — Novak Island — is privately owned.

The southwest bay on Van Vliet is very shallow (2 to 3 feet deep).

It’s a very good spot in spring, but at this time of the year fish have vacated the area, with many having moved around Novak Island, hanging in from 8 to 12 feet of water.

Northern pike fishing will be very good along weed edges, especially from noon to about 4 p.m. Sherer suggests that fly anglers use a sinking, 300-grain density compensated line, which sinks at about 7.2 inches per second.

Sherer likes to use a streamer about 5 to 6 inches long, usually in the “big green” look, which mimics a bluegill, perch or minnow.

It’s a “generic” type of streamer.

He then suggests using a steel tippet, with his preference being about 8 inches, and 30-pound test with solid titanium wire and a swivel snap.

Sherer suggests using a swivel snap to keep the twist out of the line, and allow the fly to move freely and look more alive.

“You’ll probably be able to get musky in the same areas as the northern pike,” Sherer said, “but I’d switch to a 9-weight rod with the same full sinking line, and a fly profile of 9 to 14 inches, really big streamers. I also limit my casting range to 60 feet to insure accuracy.”

“Fish the fly quite slowly, because at this time of year, the fish have cooled down a lot, and are not moving very fast. Move with a slow, methodical stripping action.”

“Use a 4-foot leader, with about 1 foot of titanium tippet. For the musky, I’d also switch to a heavier leader than for the northern pike.”

“Fish the rock bar in the northeastern portion of the lake, just before it narrows down and heads towards Presque Isle Lake,” Sherer said.

“This is an open-water rock bar, not associated with the shoreline. Depth will go from 10 to 16 feet. I’d use a Deceiver, like a brown ‘cockroach,’ as they call it. Or you can try a Deceiver in black.”

“I particularly like Marabou Deceivers because they have a bit more movement to them.”

“Fish those Deceivers off the bottom about a foot or so, with a jigging-type action. Your leader should be a 1X about 7½ feet long.”

Presque Isle Lake

Unlike its nearby sister, Presque Isle Lake has gin-clear water and little weed growth.

It consists of 1,280 acres with some bays (which aren’t particularly productive at this time of year) and a few non-descript islands.

Maximum depth is 80 feet. Presque Isle Lake has a lot of deep reefs, big rock bars and deep drop-off shorelines.

Concentrate fishing over the deep reefs and rocks, or on the deep shoreline drop-offs which will go 40 to 50 feet.

“You’re targeting generally the same species as you would on Van Vliet, musky and walleye,” said Sherer, “but you’ll look for them in entirely different types of water situations. There is very little weed growth on Presque Isle Lake, and the fish are not weed-oriented.”

“Fly anglers should fish for walleye along those deep rock bars and mid-lake reefs with the same tackle as described for use on Van Vliet,” said Sherer.

“Water depth will range from 18 to 28 feet. A nice bonus on Presque Isle Lake is that you may hook into some real nice-sized smallies which are hanging out with the walleye. If you can find any real big boulders, so much the better for getting some smallies.”

“As for the musky,” Sherer said, “I’m going to use a sucker-colored pattern with a good profile fly, 12 inches long. I’m going to fish the same bar as for the walleye, but fish at about 15 feet or so.”

Sherer points out one other very special opportunity for musky-hunting fly anglers: “Around the second and third weeks of November, the cisco — which are a primary musky bait fish in Presque Isle Lake — have their spawn.

The cisco come up onto the shallow rock bars in 4 to 8 feet of water.

And let me promise you, the big musky — I’m talking 50 to 60 inches, and that is not an exaggeration of any sort — follow these schools of spawning cisco.

Later in the afternoon, around 4 p.m., these big musky go on a total rampage through these schools of shallow spawning cisco.

This is the one and only time of the year that this occurs, and what makes me laugh is that so few anglers even know about this natural phenomenon and take advantage of it.

Heck, there have been years when I’ve been out there hooking into these monsters and never seen another boat.

These musky are really trying to pack on the pounds, and this shallow-running feeding frenzy is the last shot the musky have to pork up before their normal winter semi-hibernation.”

“I suggest that fly anglers use a cisco-colored figure-8 fly, in a pattern like white and blue and black, or a combo of all three, maybe with a little bit of pink and some flashing silver in it,” said Sherer.

“Six to 8 inches is a good size. I also prefer a clear, intermediate sinking line like an Airflow 40 Plus.”

“And don’t forget, cisco only exist in these big, very deep, clear-water lakes, so this is not a fishing opportunity that occurs in great abundance, and it’s an opportunity that too few fly anglers know about, let alone partake in.”

“The downside, if there is one, is that you can expect big winds, sleet and snow,” said Sherer.

“No big deal, at least not for true northern Wisconsin November anglers. It’s expected. But the total exhilaration, the opportunity to fish for these magnificent gamefish and experience nature at its most pristine and wild is worth any slight chill. Heck, that’s why they have winter gear and hot coffee.”