River Kings: Tackling Wisconsin Muskies

Wisconsin muskies

With an abundance of lakes stocked  in the Badger State, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that Wisconsin muskies are basically river fish. 

Ask Wisconsin muskellunge anglers to name their favorite waters and odds are good most will mention big flowages, like the Chippewa, Turtle-Flambeau and Holcombe. Or it might be a handful of natural lakes, like Vieux Desert, North Twin and Pewaukee. Many anglers don't know that some of the best muskie waters in the Badger State are free-flowing rivers.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources publication, Wisconsin Muskellunge Waters, the pre-settlement range of our state fish was believed to be confined to a few lakes and rivers in the Chippewa, upper Wisconsin, Black, Amnicon and lower Fox rivers. They were also found in the near-shore waters of Lakes Michigan and Superior and in the upper Mississippi.

Today, this same publication reports that approximately 667 lakes and 48 streams in 53 counties harbor fishable populations of muskies. The greatest concentrations, however, are found in the upper Chippewa, Flambeau and Wisconsin river systems. If you add to those the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers, you've got some 800 miles of prime muskie water. Toss in a few key tributaries and the total comes to more than 1,000 miles.

The upper stretches of these rivers are floatable by canoe, kayak, johnboat or drift boat. The lower stretches and flowages can be fished from conventional 14- to 18-foot craft. Abundant public accesses make it easy to get on and off these rivers, whether you float from one point to another or return to your launch point at the end of your outing.

If you've never fished a river for muskies, you might wonder why you should give river fishing a try, when there are so many good muskie lakes throughout the state. I can suggest several reasons.

  • First, muskies are more concentrated in rivers and thus easier to locate. That's especially true in the narrower upper stretches, where muskies hold near boulders, logs, riprap and other structure, as well as in deep holes, along undercut banks and in eddies and current breaks.
  • Second, you'll do most of your fishing in 3 to 5 feet of water. At those depths, any muskie will see your lure as it passes overhead.
  • Third, far from the "fish of 10,000 casts," river muskies are aggressive and opportunistic feeders. Because river currents bring food to them, they must grab it before it gets washed downstream. You'll have more solid strikes and fewer follows on rivers than on lakes.

River muskies spend the winter months lounging in deep holes. By mid-summer, they have spread out to occupy the best feeding lies. To fish river muskies in summer, float downstream with the current, casting topwater baits, spinnerbaits and crankbaits to every likely piece of holding cover. Come fall, they begin to concentrate in deep holes again, where they can be caught on live bait and soft plastics. You can work soft plastic baits slowly and keep them in the strike zone longer than hard baits, which must be kept moving to be effective.

Convinced river fishing is worth a shot? Here's a look at some of the best places to fish these rivers.

CHIPPEWA RIVER

The Chippewa River offers more than 150 miles of muskie water. Both the East and West Forks of the Chippewa are excellent muskie rivers. The East Fork is fishable and canoeable from Glidden downstream. Seventeen road crossing provide access for 50 miles or so below the Highway 13 bridge, offering numerous opportunities for a half-day or full-day float.

The West Fork flows through Day Lake and the Clam Lake system. From Lower Clam Lake downstream to the Chippewa Flowage, there is plenty of water and good muskie fishing. This stretch is loaded with boulders, some as big as a small truck. Both forks converge at the Chippewa Flowage.

The Chippewa exits the flowage at Winter Dam. You'll find muskies from here to the Mississippi, but the best fishing occurs above Lake Holcombe, where the river is still relatively small. Downstream from Lake Holcombe, there is more water, so muskies here are scattered and you'll work harder for a strike.

I have fished both the East and West forks several times in recent years and have never failed to see or catch muskies. This is some of the remotest country in all of Wisconsin. In addition to muskies, you will almost certainly see bald eagles, and there's a chance you'll spot a black bear, wolf or elk as well.

Contacts: Happy Hooker Bait & Tackle near Hayward, (715) 462-3984; or Anglers All in Ashland, anglersallwisconsin.com, (715) 682-5754.

Great Family Fishing Tips

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FLAMBEAU RIVER

The North and South forks of the Flambeau are a little like Jekyll and Hyde. The North Fork is easy going, but the South Fork is a real barn-burner canoe river. Both hold plenty of muskies, but the North Fork is easier to fish.

From the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in Iron County downstream to Park Falls, there is good muskie action on the North Fork and in backwater sloughs. There are several access points along the river and at road crossings on this stretch, including a good boat launch just above the dam in Park Falls.

The Flambeau River State Forest stretch of the North Fork is the most popular part of the river for muskies. One good float starts at Crowley Dam, just north of Highway 70 in Price County, and ends at the Highway 70 bridge at Oxbo in Sawyer County.

The South Fork has been stocked with muskies for more than 20 years, so there is a good population, with fish up to 42 inches measured in DNR surveys. The stretch from Fifield down to the confluence with the North Fork flows through some pretty wild country, and you are less likely to encounter other anglers or boaters here.

The main stem of the Flambeau, which flows through Rusk County and joins the Chippewa above Holcombe Flowage, is also exceptional muskie water, but like the Chippewa, the Flambeau is wider and carries more water here, so you'll have to work harder to raise a muskie.

I've enjoyed some fantastic fall muskie action on the North Fork, when aquatic vegetation has died back and cooler weather triggers a feeding spree. On days that follow heavy rains, when the Flambeau is out of its banks, the Jump River is a good choice for a float trip. Several remote launch points above the village of Jump River provide access, and you can launch or take out a small car top craft in Jump River or downstream in Sheldon.

Contacts: Bridge Bait in Park Falls, (715) 762-4108; or James Sports Shop in Ladysmith, (715) 532-6016.

WISCONSIN RIVER

From its confluence with the Eagle River at Watersmeet Lake in Vilas County, downstream to Lake Wisconsin, the Wisconsin River and its flowages offer muskie action to rival that found on the Chippewa system. The Wisconsin is larger and somewhat tamer than the Chippewa and its tributaries, but there are stretches where you won't see another angler.

In Oneida County, the Sugar Camp, Rainbow and Rhinelander flowages are hit hard, while the river itself is not. There are sites where you can launch a small trailered boat and others that can handle car toppers only. From the River Road bridge crossing below the Rainbow Flowage or the Apperson Drive access at the north end of the Rhinelander Flowage, a car topper with a small motor can go upstream or down a long way, if you take it easy in the rapids.

From Tomahawk to Lake Wisconsin, you'll find muskies in the river and its flowages, but you'll have to hunt for them as there is more water for them to roam. Most of the river from here downstream is navigable by outboards, and there are boat ramps in every city and between them.

The Marathon County stretch, which includes Lake DuBay, holds some big fish. Phil Schweik and partner Justin Gaiche, of Hooksetters Guide Service, have boated more than 80 legal muskies up to 52 inches annually in recent years. Schweik targets weeds, downed wood, current breaks, eddies and dams with soft plastic baits and jerkbaits, along with big tandem spinnerbaits.

The stretches below the Nekoosa, Petenwell and Castle Rock dams are definitely worth fishing. You can launch a conventional boat at the landing near the sewage treatment plant in Nekoosa and fish up to the dam or work both sides of the river downstream about 6 miles to Petenwell Flowage.

Muskies congregate in the tailrace waters below Petenwell and Castle Rock dams, and anglers do well here throughout the season. Conventional boats can fish for a short way below each dam, but shallow riffles and rocks make it nearly impossible to continue downstream unless you have a canoe, drift boat or flat-bottom boat with a jet engine. It's a good idea to check locally for river levels, as intermittent water releases from these dams can impact boating and fishing.

Wisconsin River tributaries worth fishing include the Tomahawk, Willow and Squirrel rivers.

Contacts: Hooksetters Guide Service in Mosinee, hooksetters.biz, (715) 693-5843; Castle Rock Dam Bait Shop, castlerockdambaitshop.com, (608) 403-1590.

NAMEKAGON & ST. CROIX RIVERS

The St. Croix system is another large muskie river complex, with 200 miles of canoeable water on the Namekagon and St. Croix, almost all of it protected from further development as a National Wild and Scenic River. The Namekagon flows from Lake Namekagon in Bayfield County to join the St. Croix in Burnett County.

From Lake Hayward downstream, you might encounter a muskie in almost any deep hole. Bridge crossings and public landings every few miles facilitate trip planning. In summer, however, this stretch is popular with canoeists and tubers, so it's best to fish on weekdays and get an early start. The best stretch for muskies is probably the 30 miles of wilderness river from Trego to the St. Croix, where you'll see fewer recreational boaters.

For 100 miles, from the Gordon Dam on the St. Croix Flowage in Douglas County to St. Croix Falls in Polk County, the St. Croix itself is no slouch as a muskie river. There are canoe landings at the Gordon Dam and the Highway 35 bridge at Riverside, and numerous landings down to St. Croix Falls. The upper St. Croix is easily canoeable, and anglers who know the river use motors on the lower portions.

The St. Croix is shallow enough in most places to fly fish, in case you have a mind to try to catch a muskie on the long rod. Fishing legend Larry Dahlberg grew up on this river and perfected his fly-fishing techniques here. Topwater baits will take muskies near shoreline wood and in side currents.

Contact: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, nps.gov/sacn/index.htm, 715-635-8346 or 715-483-3284. The staff at either St. Croix Falls or Trego can provide river level information and help you plan a trip.

SUMMING IT UP

Many more rivers offer good muskie action. Some of the best are the Menominee, in Marinette County; the Black, below Black River Falls in Jackson County; lower Fox in Brown County from the DePere dam to the Bay of Green Bay; and Manitowish in Vilas County, from Boulder Junction to the Flambeau.

Float a river or two for some fast muskie action this summer. You may find you're having too much fun to go back to fishing lakes.

Side Notes

WATER LEVELS ONLINE

Water levels in rivers can fluctuate greatly, rising after heavy rains and falling during prolonged dry spells. Discharges at power dams can also change river flow rates dramatically in a short time period. 

The US Geological Survey website displays current streamflow data for many rivers nationwide, including some in Wisconsin, which can help you plan a river trip. Real-time data are recorded at 15- to 60-minute intervals, stored at the gaging station and then transmitted to USGS offices several times a day. Web pages for some stations also show median daily flows over many years for comparison. waterdata.usgs.gov/wi/nwis/rt

WISCONSIN RIVER TRAIL MAPS

Numerous power dams and rapids on the Wisconsin River can make navigation tricky, especially for canoes and other small craft. The Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company offers a series of 23 online maps that cover the entire length of the Wisconsin River and its flowages. The maps, which show landings, portages around dams and rapids, campgrounds and mileposts, can be downloaded or viewed on a mobile device. Aerial photos show portage routes around dams, as well. www.wvic.com/maps

POLARIZED GLASSES

In rivers, a pair of polarized glasses is worth more than a fish locator. The angler who can read current seams will catch more muskies than one who simply flails the water. Muskies often hold in slow water immediately adjacent to faster water, waiting for the current to bring food to them.

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