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In WI, lowland reservoirs are called “flowages”.  Flowages (lowland reservoirs) differ from hill-land reservoirs.  Hill-land reservoirs have more defined shapes, usually long and narrow because of the steeper surrounding land.  Hill-land reservoirs have a well defined main channel and tributary channels.  The flooded river valleys of hill land reservoirs often look like a carrot with roots coming off of the sides.  Flowages tend to sprawl; encompassing lowlands, wetlands, and pre-existing lake basins.  Also, the topography of the channels is much less defined.  In WI, reservoirs are small compared to some that exist in North America.  Even the Petenwell, Chippewa, and Turtle Flambeau Flowages at 14,000 to 22,000 acres pale in comparison to southern, prairie, western, and Canadian reservoirs that sprawl hundreds of thousands of acres.  On the smallest end of the spectrum are the small flowages of northern WI which are no more than 250 acres in size.     

Swallowed My Manta & Leader, Like Geppetto's Boat

Swallowed My Manta & Leader, Like Geppetto’s Boat

Small flowages have a river or rivers running into them.  Some of those rivers are large enough for muskies to make seasonal migrations into and out of.  River spawning muskies may migrate many miles up stream during spring from the flowage to reproduce.  After spawning, a percentage may stay in the river to feed.  Some members of the population may be year round river residents.  Some muskies may winter and spawn in the flowage, but move into the river to feed during summer and fall.  Many different scenarios are possible depending on the density of the individual musky population, amount and location of acceptable spawning habitat, amount and location of forage, size of the flowage compared to its main tributaries, and water level fluctuations caused by precipitation and/or human control.

Small flowages commonly have high density populations of muskies.  That means they have above average numbers of adult muskies per acre.  Compared to other gamefish species, muskies are a low density inhabitor, which means that among other things, the individual needs a comparatively large amount of habitat to successfully exist (predate, grow, reproduce, etc.).  Fortunately, small flowages offer a good amount of habitat suitable for all aspects of the musky’s life processes, hence the high populations.  Part of this suitable habitat includes rivers, which may have the majority of the system’s suitable musky spawning habitat or may draw large amounts of the system’s musky forage for a multitude of reasons.

Seasonal Movements

Most small flowages are part of a river system in which the main river is large enough to support a sustained population of muskies.  Usually the river is at least 15 yards average distance across and contains holes that commonly reach a depth of at least 4 feet.  In such flowages, a large amount of the system’s muskies may spend a lot of time in the river for reproduction, foraging, to avoid overcrowding, higher oxygen levels, or a combination of the four.  However, these rivers seldom have enough (if any) suitable wintering habitat (deep slow holes) for the muskies in the system.

In late fall, when the water temperature in the large flowage tributaries drops into the mid 40’s and below, many muskies move down into the flowage in anticipation of winter.  When this happens, musky density in the flowage proper increases and often competition becomes fierce.  Muskies will stack up in prime areas, and marginal areas hold more fish than they did before the influx.  Competition for forage combined with the pre-existing fall binge causes muskies to become very aggressive.  Multiple fish days become common for the angler with proper timing.  The trophy potential of the system also increases as old wary muskies drop their guard slightly when faced with the feeding frenzy.

Post spawn action in the small flowage’s large tributaries can be excellent as the season opens.  If the majority of the musky spawning habitat in the system is in the river, then that is where its muskies will be around spawning time.  Often, they will concentrate heavily below the first migratory obstruction.  Usually this is a dam, but a falls higher than 4 feet will stop any further upstream progress as well.  Sometimes, it may take many miles to reach this obstruction, but the muskies reproductive drive should never be underestimated.  They will travel long distances through shallow, fast, obstruction filled water without exception if that is what the habitat dictates.  During a cold spring, concentrations of fish may still be heavy upstream as the season opens.  If this is the case, excellent action can be had by the timely angler.  Often, these areas are remote, or at least hard to access.  Fishing pressure can be light, and the action excellent.

The Forage Connection

Small WI flowages often have an abundance of excellent musky forage.  Most common are white suckers, red-tailed chubs, and common shiners; which create appropriate size structures of forage necessary for all stages of musky life.  Redhorse suckers are also common rough fish in these systems that muskies predate on.  Muskies often prefer soft finned rough fish, but if an abundance of walleyes or panfish exist, adult muskies may target these gamefish at times, especially if sucker numbers are down.  As suckers migrate, adult muskies follow, and anglers that have found the suckers have almost surely found the muskies.  Suckers in small flowages migrate up stream to spawn during spring just as muskies do.  Muskies spawn at 49-59 F, while white suckers spawn at 57-68 F.  Hence, white suckers usually complete their spawning after the muskies do.  Post spawn muskies will often stay in the river to predate on the concentrations of distracted suckers.  Opportunistic muskies may often be located by looking for schools of spawning suckers.

After spawning, suckers spread out through the system, and stay spread out in small schools unless they migrate back up stream to predate on invertebrates hatching in the river bed and moving water.  Like muskies, suckers go where the food is.  Feeding suckers are usually obvious in most small rivers.  Use polarized glasses and a brimmed hat and simply look for them as you move through the river.  When feeding, they often turn sideways to aid in rooting out the insects.  Look for the flash of their silver sides.  Following the food chain is key to finding muskies in any body of water, and small flowages are no exception.

Seasonal Small Flowage Tactics

Spring can be a bit of a crap shoot for musky fishing on small flowages in northern WI.  By the time Memorial Weekend Saturday rolls around, the muskies are usually in a post-spawn pattern.  On the plus side, these flowages are usually shallow and dark which helps them warm faster in the spring.  Locate musky spawning areas and fish just outside of them.  As mentioned earlier, if muskies spawn up river, look for them in those areas or just down stream.  However, muskies will also spawn in shallow areas of the main flowage.  These areas and those adjacent could hold good numbers of muskies, especially if they have good structure and forage.

Because of the small size of these systems, muskies typically distribute throughout them, setting up for summer very rapidly after the spawn, so searching for them may be necessary.  This is especially the case if the spring was warm and spawning concluded early.  In such small systems though, searching is never all that tough of a task.  In large bodies of water, large post spawn females often have a way of disappearing for a few weeks, but they are easier to search out in small flowages.

Post spawn muskies can be tough to trigger, especially the big females.  Down sizing and/or slow fishing is often necessary to get bites.  Finesse live bait tactics can be excellent.  For artificial lures, I prefer gliding jerkbaits such as the Manta Hang 10 and small neutral divers such as weighted 6” Bobbie Baits.  I fish these jerkbaits hard with long pauses, the cooler the water the longer the pause. If I really need to get extreme with the down sizing, I use #14 Husky Jerks and #12 X-Raps by Rapala.  I fish them on heavy spinning gear and 20lb. Fireline with a 27lb. seven strand wire leader from Chequamegon Tackle Company to maintain the action of the lure.  I work these lures in a series of three very sharp twitches followed by a long pause.  Again, the cooler the water and tougher the bite, the longer the pause.

Summer on small flowages can be excellent, but there are some variables that affect where and how to best catch muskies.  Summers in northern WI are usually mild and small flowages have continually flowing water, so it is rare that the water in them will become stagnant.  However, their shallow usually dark water absorbs a lot of the sun’s warmth, and if their water temperature gets much past the mid 70’s, oxygen levels can get too low for the muskies’ comfort.  If this occurs, muskies may move into the river where oxygen levels are higher, or adjacent to small tributary mouths for the same reason.

Available structure is another factor that affects summer musky location in small flowages.  Some flowages have good rock, wood, and vegetative structure.  However, many small flowages lack weed growth because of water level fluctuations caused by precipitation and dam function.  If such a flowage has stable water for a few months in the summer, it will grow good weed beds and muskies will use them heavily.  Muskies love weed edges, especially when they have been deprived of them for a long time.

Most lures will work in small flowages during the summer as long as they are fished properly around the right structure.  For a real good time though, the topwater bite can be excellent.  These flowages usually have stained water, low fishing pressure, and muskies holding tight to dense shallow structure.  This combination of factors scream topwater bite.  Some of the fastest most aggressive topwater action of the season can be had in these waters as they heat up during summer.

Fall is a magic time on small flowages.  As mentioned before, small flowages often have a higher density of muskies come fall, which makes for excellent action.  The muskies are feeding and fat. Action is often the best when the water temperature is 40-46 F.  By this time, any weed growth has died off and the muskies are using wood, rock, deep holes, or the river channel.  Combinations of the above features are often deadly.  Also, don’t rule out up flowage areas where the river comes in.  Often, current attracts forage and in turn muskies to these areas.  These tributary mouths are excellent places to intercept muskies moving into the flowage.  Again, muskies can be all over especially since so many of them are on the move.  Fall spots can be the same as summer spots, and if summer spots are being abandon for fall locations, transition spots between the two can hold muskies.  Count nothing out until the muskies show themselves.

Live suckers and jerkbaits are my staple fall presentations.  Of course, in WI anglers are allowed to use three lines apiece, and if I can get away with it, I use all of them.  Years ago in northern WI, my buddies and I named this firing up the meat wagon; and it can be very productive.  However, working small flowages usually means working in tight quarters to heavy cover.  Ideally, I would like to have a sucker directly under my figure eight pattern a little deeper than half way to the bottom, a sucker 15 yards behind the boat for that boat shy lunker (where trolling is legal), and an artificial rod in hand constantly picking out structure.

If trolling is not legal, then any sucker line must run completely vertical into the water from the rod tip.  This is considered “position fishing” and not trolling.  Trolling is illegal state wide in WI except on certain waters or in certain counties that are specified as open to motor trolling.  Where motor trolling is not allowed, suckers can be row trolled, but then rowing takes the place of casting a jerkbait and that sucks.  An electric motor with universal sonar allows for the most pinpoint hands free control of the boat and positioning to structure.

I use 5 oz salmon stalker slip bobbers on all my sucker lines and 4.5 ounces of lead above every quick strike rig.  Such rigs come pre-weighted from Chequamegon Tackle Company.  The weight balances out the bobber, so the musky feels little resistance when it takes the sucker.  Also, the weight keeps the sucker struggling in place which is very tempting to sluggish cold water muskies.  A hooked sucker will often out run a hungry musky that isn’t all that hot.  Also, a sucker that is weighted down can’t swim into a submerged tree as easily.  Rigged suckers want nothing more than to get out of the open, and will swim into any cover they can.  A clump of vegetation is manageable, a crib is a disaster.  At the very least the sucker is gone, if not the entire rig.  That is also why I always use bobbers even for my boatside vertical lines.  If a sucker gets chased by a musky the adrenaline rush will make it much stronger and it will dart towards any cover it can.  The bobber will hinder this effort, and help regain control of the sucker immediately after the short burst of energy is done.  This assistance in control is very important especially because I am probably retrieving a lure while this takes place.  If I put down that rod mid cast, I could end up with two snagged and/or tangled lines instead of just one.  Control of all lines is very important to avoid messes on the meat wagon.

Any artificial will work in fall as long as it retains good action at slow speeds.  When fishing likely areas over 8 feet deep, use different lures to cover all depth zones and pick the hole apart.  I like to work a Manta Hang 10 up high to pick off the most aggressive fish, then I scour out the depths with a weighted Bobbie bait, and finally I work my suckers through for the ones that have to have the real thing.  Often, when moving a lot of fish in the fall, clear daily preferences between artificial and live baits can be observed in muskies.  Sometimes they only want meat, but more often than one may think they are hot on lures only, even in the face of lively struggling suckers.  Of course, when they really get on, nothing is safe in the water.  I’ve gone through half a dozen suckers my first half hour on the water.  At those times it’s hard to keep a sucker alive in the water.

The Diamond in the Rough

Often, small flowages receive very little musky fishing pressure.  The smaller they are, the more remote area they are in, the tougher they are to get into, and the harder they are to launch a boat on; the better they usually are.  Often, these waters are overlooked by many anglers because they are known as numbers lakes with few large fish.  This is often the case because it often takes larger waters to grow larger fish.  However, some small flowages (especially those that aren’t even known as musky waters) have only a few but much larger muskies since there is more food and space to go around.  Many anglers also shy away from these waters because their big modern musky rigs are often too large to get into these waters.  In this way, flowages are very friendly to those on a more modest budget.  Small flowages are ideal for small boats and canoes.  The small boat angler can fish in comfort with out having to worry about rough water or jerks tearing up the water all around them.  Small flowages are therefore great bodies of water on which to teach kids how to fish muskies.

To find small flowages with largely unknown musky populations, look for those connected to known musky waters by some type of river or stream, even if it is a long way away.  If there are several dams or falls in between, just make sure it is down stream.  All it takes is a few small muskies funneling down over the years to create an awesome fishery.  If I think a forty acre flowage has five muskies in it, I am all over it.  Chances are, few people if any are using it, and the five muskies are either big or will be in the future.

On the other hand, are the flowages with lots of muskies.  True, many of them will be small but there are big ones too.  I don’t care for the modern elitist attitude that only the largest muskies are worth chasing.  Those types of guys can fight each other out on Mille Lacs all day and all night for all I care.  I like catching very large muskies, and I do catch them, but I love all muskies; and those that live in these small flowages are very unique and beautiful and I love them.  Also, some of them do get very big.  I say let the snobs fight each other for the hot reef.  I like to escape the crowds and get back to what musky fishing is all about, what musky fishing came from:  Exploring, and seeking out the diamond in the rough.

 

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