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.

Creeks South
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.”

Continued after gallery…