Carefully keeping brush and leaves between yourself and the stream, you read the water. Any spot where you can’t see bottom is suspect. A bend where current digs a pool can be prime. You approach slowly, cast carefully, retrieve with rod held low. Sounds like trout fishing, but it’s not even close. This is about stalking velociraptors with fins in tight corners. Some believe creek muskies can’t attain maximum size in small rivers. I live on the Upper Mississippi in Minnesota, best negotiated by jet boat most of the year. During extremely low water, we ride the current in drift boats, canoes, or kayaks, disembarking to wade and cast. Last fall, an angler popped a 56-incher not far from my house.
Even smaller streams like the Big Fork in Minnesota, the Paint in Michigan, the South Fork of the Flambeau in Wisconsin, the Grasse River in New York, and many creeks in Pennsylvania are barely navigable yet produce muskies over 50 inches every year.
In northern waters, muskies tend to grow big in larger rivers, and reservoirs. They enter smaller streams after spawning, or when suckers run, or when shad run—in other words, at specific times of the year. In some systems, they don’t arrive in those smaller environments until mid- to late summer. “Muskies over 42 inches are pretty common in the South Branch of the Flambeau,” says Skip Sommerfeldt, fishery biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He studies muskie populations on the South and North branches of the Flambeau, and the East and West forks of the Chippewa River. “These river muskies migrate, sometimes much farther than muskies that dwell in lakes and reservoirs.”
In southern systems, however, muskies stay in creeks all year. And that’s where the muskie season truly starts. While muskie fever up north must wait for late May or June, Tennessee and Kentucky have no closed seasons and lots of big muskies in small places.
Cory Allen, muskie guide and owner of Stone’s Throw Adventures in Tennessee, has led anglers to numbers of 50-inch fish on small streams like Collins River, Daddy’s Creek, Clear Creek, Emory River, Obed River, Barron Fork, and all kinds of little creeks that shoot off those systems. “These are self-contained systems,” Allen says. “Muskies are residents. They find adequate forage year-round in the form of spotted and redhorse suckers, shad, and crayfish. Some of these systems are incredibly remote, like the Big South Fork River. It’s a trout stream up in Kentucky and more of a coolwater resource by the time it gets down to Tennessee. The Emory-Obed system is near the Kentucky border, too. Every one of the systems I mentioned have produced fish over 50 inches.”
Muskies do migrate, however, in some of the rivers Allen mentioned. “Depends on the situation,” he says. “The Collins has more interchange from the reservoir below. Conditions and forage abundance affect movement trends, I think. The most important thing about these small rivers is that they change every day. If it rains for a day, conditions change quite a bit. If it rains for three days, you have a complete current and color change. After a week of rain, these small rivers become dangerous. I watch the T.V.A. and U.S. Geological Survey sites for flow levels and usually fish small rivers only between flows of 800 to 2,000 cfs (cubic feet per second).”
Tactics: Big muskies may not always be found in deep holes, but those holes are always nearby. “Some holes fish better than others,” Allen continues. “Depth is important. On most of these systems, anglers do float trips. I think that’s a waste of time. I feel 90 percent of the muskies are in 10 percent of the water. Sometimes it’s best to walk in. Sometimes we kayak down to a stretch and walk that area of the river all day. Some of these rivers have 15-foot holes. On the Collins, a deep hole is only 7 or 8 feet deep. That’s where you want to be. Muskies won’t occupy those long stretches of river that are 2 or 3 feet deep.”
From his kayak, Allen does a lot of sight-fishing, since territorial behavior among muskies differs dramatically from larger environments. “You may find 20 fish in a 50-yard stretch sometimes,” he says. “So you want to locate and target the big girls visually whenever possible. In the smallest waters, I use a St. Croix Premier PS70HF spinning rod with 30-pound braid and Tiger Wire 49-strand stainless leaders. I like 30-pound because it doesn’t kill the action of small baits.”
Allen recited a litany of experiences with various lures. “I hooked the biggest fish of my life on a big Rapala X-Rap,” he says. “My favorite baits include a 7-inch Yamamoto Senko rigged weightless and a 7-inch Zoom Super Fluke on a 7/0 wide-gap hook. For some reason, they don’t appeal to small muskies. But big ones eat them up. Kalin’s Mogombo Grub on a 2-ounce jig is another favorite.”
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When the river’s up, tactics are more traditional. Allen goes with baitcasting tackle and bigger lures. “Creek muskies favor the head of an eddy,” he says. “Sometimes the eddies are so small I call them phone booths. River Run Tackle makes the Manta Hang 10—it has great hang time, giving muskies a chance to see it. The Hang 10 glides to the side. It’s the only lure that slips perpendicular to the current, right into their wheelhouse, in tight spots. Its hydrodynamic properties allow you to work parallel to the bank when you’re forced to cast perpendicularly by overhanging tree branches.
“When the water’s up, I use the same tackle I use on lakes. I have an 8-foot 6-inch Fenwick Elite Tech rod that lets me reach out and control lure direction better. It’s stout with a fast tip, giving more leverage in current. You need to be good at making sidearm casts and skipping baits. Get plastics back into the shade under the trees. It’s a different challenge. Casts often have to be short. We call it a shooting gallery.”
When not in his Jackson Big Tuna kayak, Allen uses a 17-foot boat with a 70-hp Yamaha tiller with trim on the handle and a jack plate. “When the water’s up, you need more power,” he says. “I leave the big motor on at all times to control the speed of the drift, with a Minn Kota i-Pilot for direction. When creeks get low, you have two options: You can sight-fish during the day or night-fish. Night-fishing is fun as it’s a topwater bite. I like the Bucher Top Raider or the Hang 10, which can be worked slowly. It’s amazing that they miss it more often during the day than at night. The Hang 10 isn’t well known and too many people fish it like a traditional glidebait. It’s best to give it a hard pop and immediately throw it some slack so it can move. It’s an awesome bait. On a long cast it can glide 8 feet.”
“During spring and fall, river muskies migrate,” says Jerry Younk, fishery biologist for the Minnesota DNR. “To spawn, they move into side channels and backwaters, or stay on the downstream shorelines of islands where current is minimal.” He says peak spawning for river muskies occurs in water temperatures between 50°F and 56°F. Migrations to summer habitats begin immediately afterward and sometimes involve movements into smaller rivers and creeks.
“Riverine muskie movements are possibly linked to the movements of suckers,” Younk says. “When suckers pull out, muskies follow. The main forage in the Mississippi River is redhorse sucker. Sometimes, when we see big schools of redhorse moving upstream, we see muskies flanking the school, moving right along with them.”
Tactics: About that time, muskie enthusiasts begin stalking around in waders and paddling small rivers in kayaks or canoes. One of the few guides that works creeks on foot in Minnesota is Ian Swenson. “There’s something about catching monsters in small rivers,” Swenson says. “I like blazing trails, getting dirty. I have a folding boat that works well on small rivers and is easily dragged over portages. Yet clients can stand in it. We portage a lot, or we blaze trails to reach spots on foot. I put about 6 hours a week into it and we caught over 60 muskies last year.”
Swenson appreciates the dark side, too. “Night-fishing is spectacular on small rivers early in the season,” he says. “I don’t guide at night, but I often hit it for a couple hours before sunrise. They’re less spooky then, without recreational traffic from canoeists. It’s critical to be quiet on a small river. Muskies are spookier than they are in lakes and reservoirs. When you make noise, they’re either going to spook or they’re going to eat, but I’d rather sneak up on them whenever possible.”
After dark, Swenson tempts them with a Poe’s Jackpot or Bucher Top Raider. “A topwater keeps you fishing,” he says. “It’s hard to hold a boat on a spot for more than a couple casts, and you don’t want to snag at night.”
Like Allen, Swenson likes a longer stick. “Tackle Industries makes a telescopic 9-foot muskie rod I rig with 80-pound braid and wire leader,” he says. “The long rod makes it easier to fight fish and keep them hooked in current. Where I fish, many banks are deep enough to figure-8 with from the bank, and that ups my catch rate by about 25 percent. I like to cast upriver so lures move with the current. You can catch fish working against the current, but they face into it and generally want lures approaching that way. On small rivers, topwaters always are productive in warmer conditions. In spring, they like small cranks like the 6-inch Muskie Innovations Jake or the Manta Hang 10 ripped as fast as you can reel.”
Paul Meshak, owner of River Run Tackle, patrols central Wisconsin for muskies in the Flambeau, Chippewa, and Wisconsin rivers with a small boat. “The northern reaches of the Wisconsin river are almost unknown and really nice,” Meshak says. “We get out and drag boats a lot. Average depth is about 3 feet in low water. “We catch fish in a foot of water sometimes—big fish, too—50-inchers here and there.
“The water’s dark, so if you don’t stomp around you can get pretty close to them in 3 feet of water. When the water’s low, they move into more turbulent, oxygenated water—riffles and small rapids. You’d think you could see their backs sticking out of the water when it gets low and clear, but you can’t see them until you get close. Muskies won’t be far from a deep hole, and they won’t get way up on shallow sandflats. But if they have 3 feet of water near the bank, they may stray pretty far from those deep holes, even entering old oxbows and stumpfields in the old river channel along the Wisconsin.”
Rich Belanger, promotions manager for St. Croix Rods, fishes these rivers, often with spinners. “I like French blades because you can get ‘em cookin’ right away when they hit the water and get some speed out of them,” Belanger says. “Creek muskies have limited feeding opportunities. Burning bucktails like the new Bucher 700 Series TinBuck generates strikes. The tinsel working on the back creates an undulating action. Bucktails pulse predictably, but tinsel flares wildly and muskies respond, especially on a super-fast retrieve.”
Janies Flies And Custom Tackle produces the Slammit and Rammit Hybrid Bucktails, also Belanger favorites. “Those smaller single-hook and treble-hook bucktails are perfect for small rivers,” he says. “The blade starts turning right away, you don’t have to snap ‘em. They run well, they’re durable, and she offers several great color combinations for creeks. You want copper-orange or chartreuse hues here because the rivers are so stained. Fluorescents are key.”
Frank Pratt, senior fishery biologist for the Wisconsin DNR in Hayward, adds that muskies sometimes move into smaller rivers. “In some systems, we can’t collect them by electrofishing in the connecting lakes,” he says. “During summer, most muskies apparently move into streams in those systems.”
Big toothies in tight confines can get intense, especially in waders. Have an escape route planned because trebles and waders put the odds in their favor.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler. He contributes to In-Fisherman on a variety of topics.