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It was early evening in mid-July in Northern WI.  It felt good to be back up north, the waters near my home in the twin cities west metro had not been treating me so well.  I was able to raise big fish almost at will, but getting them to strike was another story.  I was jonesing for bites, and I could feel my skill starting to stagnate.  Unable to overcome the intelligence of the large pressured metro muskies, I headed for the waters I grew up on.  Northern WI holds a special place in my heart, not only because it was where I was born and raised, but because of its diversity of musky fisheries.

Small Rivers, Big Muskies, Nothing Better

Small Rivers, Big Muskies, Nothing Better

I love fishing northern WI and its tangle of musky filled rivers and little flowages that can be found nowhere else.  Big fish are farer and fewer between than in larger waters, but they are plentiful and often willing to bite.  I can also fish uncontested by other anglers, as they are often remote, challenging to access, and tough to fish by conventional means.  Growing up in northern WI, I took this peace and quiet for granted, but now I realize just how magic it really is.

In the few days I could get away, I had done well fishing a few of my favorite trickles.  It had been good for my numbers and my soul and I was on my way back home, but I wasn’t done yet.  I parked my vehicle to fish the tail waters of a small dam.  The river was low, but the pool was clear, relatively deep, and gorgeous.  Quietly, I slipped into the river on foot and opted to fish from a shallow sand bar that gave me good casting angles and concealment from the fish.

I instantly began to move muskies.  Not wanting to spook the area out with a snag and lure retrieval right away, I worked out the channel and pool areas first.  Then I began to make longer casts and working trickier angles closer to structure.  I had moved two different fish in the upper 30 inch range, tossed a rigged live bluegill at them, and taken and missed a strike from one of them on the live bait presentation.  I probably could have caught that one, but I didn’t want to risk a deep hooking, so I set right away and discovered that my hook was not in play yet.  I was a little disappointed, but I gathered up my guts and started getting my manta tight into the distant structure.

I aired out a cast 35-40 yards at a tight angle right along a line of logs, brush, and weeds.  It hit down perfect, and I instantly began to rip the manta wide and shallow.  After two sweeps, a good musky got in right behind it.  She was hot, and in the shallow water her tail was above the surface thrashing water like a shark.  This went on for near 10 yards, but the manta passed the line of structure and not wanting to be in the open she tucked herself back into the end of the line of structure.  I cast back past the spot at a different angle and as the manta went by she sprung and shot forward.  Her initial movement propelled her forward 10’ at lightning speed, mouth wide open, gills flared, body straight and rigid.  There was neither question nor hesitation, she stomped the manta at full force.  The striking capability of muskies never ceases to amaze me.

She battled in the shallow water, but she was hooked well and I was able to force her away from the structure.  I brought her to the shallows were we danced a little while longer before I grabbed her by the tail like a salmon angler and guided her into 6” of water.  A young angler nearby helped me measure the fish while his parents took photos.  It was his first time seeing and touching a musky, and he was both excited and cautious of the 46” small river hog.  It was a great experience all around.

Muskies and Rivers

Rivers and streams across the muskies’ home range hold excellent fisheries.  However, muskie location in these systems can change drastically due to many factors.  These location changes are often seasonal, but they can also occur across much shorter time spans.  Tactics for catching river muskies are sometimes similar to those used in lakes, but often they are very different and specialized.

Muskies thrive in rivers as far south as Tennessee and the Carolinas, as far north as southern Canada, and everywhere in between.  Booming fisheries around the country prove that muskies thrive in many river and stream environments.  Good water quality is preferred, but anglers and biologists alike are discovering that muskies will live and grow well in less than ideal water quality.  Natural reproduction is another case all together, as reproductive assistance is often needed to maintain many populations.

The size of rivers and streams that hold muskies also varies greatly.  Some systems are wider and deeper than many lakes, while others are shallow and narrower than a city street.  Muskies will tolerate systems with almost no current or very swift current.  In fact, in warm water, muskies often prefer to hold and feed in current fast enough to knock an angler off his feet.  Acceptable water clarity also varies from gin clear to very stained and/or murky.  Rivers will also contain a wide variety of structure.  All of these aspects affect seasonal and forage based muskie location as well as effective tactics to catch them.

Spring

Regardless of the system, muskies in the spring will migrate for spawning activity.  Even if reproduction in the system is limited or nonexistent, the muskies do not know this and will always respond to their biological urges.  During this time, muskies can be found in high concentration and will often be very active.  If a specific river or stream is open to muskie fishing during this time, action can be good but bites can be tricky to come by as the muskies are usually more interested in reproduction than feeding.
In some states, muskies are protected during this time by a closed season and therefore targeting them with angling efforts is illegal.  In other states, muskies are open to fishing during the spawn, checking specific regulations is the quickest way to find spawning muskies that are legal to target.

Spawning migrations are dictated by water temperature which is controlled by weather.  Across the muskies’ range, spawning and related migrations can occur anywhere from March through June depending on how fast the water warms.  Muskies will begin to move towards prime spawning locations at water temperatures of 42-52 F.  The length of the individual journey will determine how quickly the muskies must get on the move.  If the migration between wintering areas and prime spawning habitat is long (many miles) muskies must get started at the lower end of that temperature range.  If spawning areas are close (a few hundred yards or so) to wintering spots, muskies may wait till the last minute to move in.  Every scenario between these two extremes is also possible.

The period of prespawn migrations and congregations is one of the best times to catch a real hog.  Females are full of eggs and are at times looking for a last minute calorie boost even though the water is very cool.  Slow erratic presentations often work very well.  Jerkbaits and twitchbaits are an excellent choice.  For the best prespawn hog bite in rivers, look for water temps. of 45-49 F.  Males also eat well on occasion during the prespawn.
Muskies have a wide range of temperatures that they can and will spawn at, 49-59 F.  However, most spawning takes place at 52-55 F.  At about 50 F males will start chasing females whether they are ready to drop their eggs or not.  At this time, the females will loose interest in presentations and a strike from one becomes a rare occurrence.  Males on the other hand will become very aggressive, and while feeding strikes are almost nonexistent, aggression strikes become common.  An aggression strike is a strike used by a male in a spawning area to claim territory and establish dominance.  Males will chase lures out of areas to establish a territory as theirs or strike at a lure to show it who is boss more or less.  An aggression strike is usually not a solid inhaling strike used when feeding, it mostly consists of bumping and slashing.  Therefore sharp hooks become an even more valuable tool, as getting solid hook sets from such strikes is tricky.

Males will fight with one another and chase females until they drop their eggs and leave.  I have observed this behavior all around me while wading in small rivers.  Fish spook at first but if you stand in the same place and fish for a while, muskies will swim and chase one another all around you.  Males will actually come in specifically to investigate your presence.  Males will remain in spawning areas until the last female has come and gone.  Observing spawning behavior will make an angler aware of just how numerous and smaller in stature males are as compared to females and also just how unique and rare large muskies are.

In small rivers and streams muskies will usually migrate up stream (sometimes long distances) until they reach an impassable obstruction, either natural or man made.  The most common examples of these are either water falls or dams.  It is important to note that muskies can make it up obstructions much higher than many anglers think.  I have never witnessed a musky jumping up a high falls, but I have seen them jump 4-6’ in the air when hooked.  I have seen them congregated below a 4’ falls, but I have also seen them above falls of similar height.  Rest assured that a long rocky extremely shallow and fast riffle will not stop even the largest of muskies, we all know how strong and determined these fish are, and reproduction is a great motivator.

Reproductive migrations in large rivers can be similar, often muskies will migrate upstream long distances to congregate (usually below a dam).  However, muskies may also use weedy bays and backwaters more adjacent to their normal home range if conditions are suitable.  This eliminates the stress of a long migration, and thus ensures survival.  Most large rivers have current that is slower than that in smaller rivers, and as such more closely resembles a lake environment.  Muskies in large river systems often behave very much like muskies in lakes, and using convenient spawning bays is just one of those similarities.

In large rivers, a boat is usually necessary to gain direct access to dam tailwaters.  A small to medium shallow drafted boat is usually best for navigating over and around shallow obstructions that abound in these areas.  In small rivers, a pair of neoprene waders will enable a stealth approach and access to prime areas.  Work lures with and across the current.  Muskies will be holding in seams (fast to calm water transitions), behind obstructions, and in holes if most of the area is shallow; the closer to the impassable obstruction the better.  Neutrally buoyant jerkbaits and crankbaits are my lures of choice, well defined twitches, jerks, and pauses are key to triggering strikes.

Postspawn muskies in rivers are often beat up and run down as they are in any other body of water, but they do want to eat.  Muskies in the largest rivers to the smallest streams are usually looking to move towards their summer haunts as quickly as possible.  However, if these areas lack food and/or favorable conditions; muskies will linger in shallow, calm, and/or forage filled areas until conditions in their summering areas become more favorable.  In other words, they will use transition areas.  I use the same fore mentioned presentations to take strikes from these reluctant fish.  In large rivers, trolling may be necessary to intercept muskies moving to summering areas.

Summer

Summer river musky location has many variables.  What I consider the summer period begins as soon as muskies finish post spawn migrations and ends as the water begins to cool significantly in the fall.  Depending on latitude and elevation within the muskies’ range; the beginning, end, and duration of the summer period can vary greatly.

Where muskies end up after their post spawn migrations depends on river conditions and forage location, and can vary greatly from one season to the next.  Large rivers are usually much more stable than smaller rivers, and thus muskie location in them is often more predictable.  The most major factors that affect summer muskie location in rivers are water level, current, water clarity, forage location, water temperature, and oxygen levels.Water level and current in rivers are directly related.  During summer, precipitation usually dictates how much water is moving through the river.  Muskie rivers may have springs, spring fed tributaries, and other ground water influx; but the majority of their flow consists of rain water.  If the majority of their flow was comprised of spring water, it is likely that the river would be too cold to sustain muskie populations.  Dams also affect water level in rivers, but not all dams are created equal.  Some dams are nothing more than concrete and/or natural materials with no built in mechanisms for controlling stream flow volume, and therefore water level above the dam will dictate streamflow below the dam.  Dams that have the ability to control discharge will usually increase or decrease discharge based on precipitation levels, but their purposes of power producing, water supply, or other will often have special needs that dictate how much water must be passed through regardless of precipitation.

My most valuable river scouting tool, I use before I ever leave the house.  That tool is the USGS website.  On that website, I can get real time streamflow data for many streams and rivers across the country and compare those levels to average levels or levels that have produced well for me in the past.  If the stream or river is not on that site, I use weather.com to check local recent rain fall and make my own conclusions about water conditions.  Remember to check several locations throughout the river’s watershed.  Precipitation many miles away upstream in any direction can affect the water you want to fish.  Don’t waste your time and money traveling to flooded rivers.

In flooded rivers, I have seen little musky feeding or any other activity.  This does not mean that they don’t feed, it just means that I haven’t seen it.  If the water becomes too fast and turbid I think muskies usually lay low in current breaks waiting for better conditions.  Of course, as opportunists, muskies may often take prey that comes by in close proximity.  Some muskies may even take advantage of prey confused by murky fast water.  However, targeting such fish proves tricky.

During normal summer river conditions (average height, normal current, at least a little clarity, and water temp no higher than 76 F) muskies will move about the river freely following forage.  If forage stays in place, muskies will set up in preferable structure near or amidst the forage.  Often, forage fish species will make their own summer migrations (usually in search of its own food) and muskies will follow, even over long distances.
On a small river I regularly fish, I have observed massive amounts of suckers feeding on invertebrates in the river bed.  Amongst them were good numbers of adult muskies that proved to be feeding and catchable.  A week later the suckers were gone and so were the muskies.  It was like a ghost town on the same stretch of river, and I looked for miles in vain.  The next week, they were all back again like they had never left.  How far they went and how long it took them I don’t know, but I bet their foraging migrations are very impressive in distance, speed, and frequency.  In my experience, when forage is present, muskies will show preference to certain specific spots, but they will not be used in the absence of forage.

Tough Summer Conditions

Water fluctuations and other environmental changes will also cause muskies to make spur of the moment migrations.  If conditions become unfavorable in one part of the river, muskies will often move to an area more suited to their needs.  If the conditions that they are escaping are physically stressful and potentially harmful, the need for a suitable environment will supersede all other needs including forage.

In my experience, the most shinning of these examples is when the water becomes overly hot.  Once water temperatures begin to push past 76 F muskies will seek cooler water, and at 80 F the need becomes urgent as muskies begin to undergo harmful bodily stress.  Hot water is harmful to muskies mostly because it is poorly oxygenated.  The warmer water gets, the less dissolved oxygen it can hold.  Unfortunately, as the water warms, muskies’ bodies need more oxygen.  These two factors compound on one another exponentially, and can lead to muskies effectively suffocating to death and/or building up lethal amounts of lactic acid in their bodies.

Large rivers usually have deep water refuges that are a little cooler, although even the deepest rivers are usually largely uniform in temperature and never stratify.  Big rivers also often have cool water tributaries that muskies tend to really stack up on, especially if there is good forage present which there usually is.  These cooler areas are very small and isolated and have little effect on the temperature of the main river, so if muskies are using them, they are right on them.  On large rivers that are Great Lakes tributaries, muskies can move into the lake as soon as conditions in the river become unfavorable.  In the northern Great Lakes, they may stick to the area directly outside the mouth as the main lake may be to cold all year.

Finding cool water in small rivers and streams can be much trickier, if possible at all.  They are seldom very deep and hot conditions will usually cause them to be low on top of that.  Deeper slower pools traditionally thought of as musky habitat in these waters become very stagnant and uninhabitable.  Muskies will move to the mouths of cool tributaries or into the tributary itself when possible if such tributaries exist.  Spring water seepages along the banks are often prevalent, but usually too small in volume to provide any relief.  Sometimes the headwaters of such rivers get much of their volume from springs and in such cases muskies can move upstream.  Southern muskie rivers often have cool headwaters.

If the tail waters of a dam come from the top of the reservoir above, chances are the water is very warm as it has heated in the sun.  However, if the dam draws water from lower levels of the reservoir, the tailwaters and the stream for miles below may be a good source of cooler water if the reservoir above is deep, large, and slow enough to stratify.
However, I have fished many rivers in which none of these options are present.  In such cases, muskies move into the fastest (usually shallow) water possible where they hold close to any available structure.  They lay belly to the bottom face into the current and let the poorly oxygenated water pour over their gills with little or no effort on their part.  In this way, they can maintain adequate oxygen levels in their body.  If the sun isn’t too hot on their backs, I imagine the can take prey that drifts by, but they are very spooky and do not look happy in the least about being exposed.  Their reclusive nature lends poorly to being in such shallow water for extended periods of time.

It was quite by accident that I discovered fish doing this.  During a hot dry summer, I was finding poor action in deeper slower holes, but as I quickly drifted between them through the fast shallow water, I kept spooking muskies.  I quickly realized by the sheer number of large adult fish in these areas that they were the only locations being used.  By being very quiet I could move and catch a few of these fish by casting shallow presentations from long distances to the shallow logs, rocks, and weed clumps they were using as limited cover and slight current breaks.  Once the water cooled in late summer, the muskies immediately moved back to their preferred haunts.

Most lures are effective during summer.  I cover most of the water by using lures that run shallow to avoid snagging in most areas.  Then I opt for deeper lures to scour out specific holes.  To find less pressured fish (one of the main goals of river fishing) I fish small non navigable rivers on foot and larger rivers with non navigable stretches by pulling my boat through the rough areas on foot.  Waders will work well, but swim trunks and water sandals are often good enough.

Fall

The transition of summer into fall is most often very different in rivers than in lakes.  Rivers do not stratify and thus they cool very evenly in fall and do not experience turnover.  This cooling is usually not rapid and is not stressful on fish.  In fact, it can cause them to feed very heavily.  While action is slow on surrounding lakes due to turnover, river action can be dynamite.  Two main factors that dictate river musky location and migration in fall are forage location and muskie movement towards wintering areas.

Cooling water in fall can trigger forage migrations.  If this occurs, muskies will follow the forage, especially if the migrating specie is a main source of food in the system.  Sometimes forage will migrate into tributary streams and rivers out of large lakes.  During these times, muskies may migrate heavily into rivers that had few if any muskies all summer.

As the water cools, muskies will move out of shallow fast water towards deeper slower holes.  Remember, all of these terms are very relative in terms of the specific region and system.  Early fall begins when water temps. drop into the low 60’s F.  In the northern part of muskie territory this could occur in August.  In the southern extreme, it might not happen until November.  Also, a deep hole in a small stream could be as shallow as 4’ and very small in area.  In a large river, there could be vast tracts of 20-60 foot water, in which case muskies could scatter far and wide as the water cools, and be tough to locate.

The fall period consists of water 42-64 F, and in this range a lot can happen in terms of musky activity level, feeding tendencies, and effective tactics.  As the water cools, the muskies’ forage lust increases tremendously, but their willingness to chase and attack fast lures decreases considerably.  At 64 F muskies will still hit faster stuff, but below that slower presentations shine.  In large systems many anglers like to troll, in small waters trolling is tricky at best and at worst a bad idea all together.  I prefer to cast jerkbaits and work live bait.  Jerkbaits of neutral or near neutral buoyancy (slow sink or rise) are best.  For a glider I like the Manta Hang 10, for a diver I like the Bobbie.  I also love live bait.  Suckers are my favorite; but panfish, walleyes, and other fish (where legal) from the system also work well.  In a slow moving hole I like to put a lively bait below a slip float just shallow enough so it can’t swim into any snags and drift it very slow through the hole from top to bottom from a stationary upstream position, slowly paying out line as it goes.  The results can be spectacular.

Muskies will move quickly through shallower areas to find good holes or migrating forage, but they will rarely hold in them.  Concentrate on deep slow holes even if they are few and far between.  When you find one, work it meticulously and thoroughly.  Throw at least a few different lures (sizes and styles) and try some live bait if available.  If the river is nothing but deep slow water, you may have to troll to efficiently find active fish.  Finding concentrations of forage will be key to muskie location in this situation.

Winter

The winter period consists of water temps 42 F and below.  Fishing rivers in winter offers the unique experience of catching muskies in ultra cold water.  I have caught muskies in river water as cold as 36 F.  Rivers can reach uniform temperatures this low where as lakes cannot due to a unique physical property of water.  This property is that water is densest at 39.2 F.  I have fished lakes many times that where partially covered by ice, had large ice flows, and/or were freezing up around me.  Under these conditions my transducer thermometers at 8” below the surface on the transom and 22” below the surface on the trolling motor read no colder than 38 F.  This is due to the fact that the warmer denser 39.2 F water sinks to the bottom and is insulated all winter from the frigid weather above.  The 32 F water (ice) is limited only to the very surface.  This creates winter lake stratification, followed by a spring turnover.  However, rivers do not stratify, so they can get uniformly colder than lakes, and it makes for challenging fishing.

Wintering areas in rivers are larger deep slow spots were muskies rest and sometimes forage during the cold water months.  In large deep rivers, wintering areas are usually plentiful and as such, dense concentrations of muskies will be rare.  In smaller, fast, and shallow rivers and streams; suitable wintering areas can be few and far between.  As water temperature drops below 45 F muskies will concentrate heavily in these holes and competition for forage can become fierce.  Often the best wintering holes are small reservoirs above dams.

Winter muskie location and activity in rivers and streams varies greatly across the muskies’ home range.  Up north, winter is cold and harsh and muskie activity is usually at a minimum.  As mentioned before, rivers don’t stratify.  Therefore, water in a winter river can get very cold.  In middle latitudes, muskie activity can rise in early and late winter and during periods of warm weather.  In the southern most areas of the muskies’ range, activity can stay good all winter long, but during extended cold fronts the fish may shut down.  Muskies will usually not move far from wintering areas.  If they do, it will be to move to a different wintering area, and such a move will usually only happen during warm weather periods.  Areas that attract muskies in the winter will usually also attract forage.  Muskies will stay in wintering areas until they begin pre-spawn migrations as the water warms and the cycle starts over again.

Ultra slow presentations are best during winter.  Live bait is excellent.  Neutrally buoyant jerkbaits are excellent as well.  I fish them with good sharp jerks followed by pauses as long as 6-8 seconds.  For muskies that won’t strike the larger jerkbaits, those that opt to follow or boil, I cast back a #14 Rapala Husky Jerk.  I work them with a series of three sharp twitches followed by a long pause.  I work them on 20 lb. line and a 27 lb. leader. Jig and live bait or jig and plastic combos are excellent for bouncing along the bottom, sight fishing, or a cast back.

River Tactics

Some river fishing situations require special tactics, tackle, watercraft, and other equipment.  Large rivers fish a lot like lakes and therefore standard boats, tackle, and tactics can be used.  Small rivers get trickier though.  Shallow, fast, structure filled water is hazardous.  A large boat could easily become damaged, disabled, and permanently stranded.  My advice is to plan a one way down stream float trip with a light, small, shallow drafted boat or even canoe, though a boat is better suited to muskie fishing.

Anchors, oars, trolling motors, and paddles are all useful boat control tools.  Powerful trolling motors run with the prop just under the surface are my favorite.  In fast water, anchor to the side of a hole and fish it thoroughly before moving on.  If muskies are behind isolated structure in shallow fast water, sneak around them, anchor far to the side and cast in.  The name of the game is sneaky and quiet.  If you are using a canoe, anchor and get out to fish likely areas, a drifting canoe often moves too quickly to fish prime areas thoroughly.  Walk quietly, slowly, and softly; especially near likely areas.  Often I will drag my boat upstream on foot if the water is low to get to the tail waters below a dam.  I couldn’t run my boat up the shallow water, but I need it to fish the large deep pool below the dam, so dragging it against the current is my only option.  It is tedious and somewhat dangerous but I have come up with no better solution, and it gets me to good fishing.  If the water is cold, I wear neoprene waders.  Some expert river rats use jet drive outboards and run up and down shallow, fast, obstruction filled water.  However, just buying one of these rigs doesn’t qualify one to use them properly, practice and easing into rougher and rougher situations is the best way to go about it.

Stealth is the name of the game in rivers in any situation.  Sneak up to likely areas.  Don’t bang things around in your boat and don’t hit things against the river bed.  A drift anchor is a traditional river boat control device that consists of a length of heavy chain attached to a rope drug behind the boat as it progresses down stream.  It creates friction with the bottom, slowing the boat without stopping it.  However, that chain constantly clanking against the bottom will spook fish a long way away.  So is it worth it?  I don’t think so.

Most good lures for shallow and/or fast rivers run shallow and well through current.  Straight and steady retrieve lures such as bucktails, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, creeper topwaters, topraiders, and globe style topwaters are best for newcomers to fishing in current.  Jerkbaits such as gliders, divers, and walk the dog surface lures like the jackpot are a little trickier to get the timing of in current, but when you can get them to dance around rocks, logs, and weed clumps it is a sight to beheld and very effective.  Look for muskies to be holding in and around all types of structure, in deep holes, and above and below runs.

River fishing is a blast, it is a great way to find less pressured muskies, and it is a great way to develop new skills to make you a better all around angler.  Start in slowly and progress into more and more challenging situations.  Stay safe and catch some fish.

 

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One thought on “Fast Water Observations

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