Photo by Greg Keefer.
Muskie hunters are literally missing the boat when they overlook the Badger State’s excellent river fishing. When you switch to moving water, the rules change a bit.
Widely differing habitats make river fishing for big muskies a challenge on the good days, but when conditions are less than favorable, it can be a downright tough bite.
Is it worth it? You bet it is.
Here’s a look at some waters most muskie hunters are missing.
Guide Ken Wallock points to the 53-inch trophy caught on the Stevens Point Flowage and Ron Kutella’s 47-inch, 23-pound world fly tackle record as proof of the Wisconsin River’s muskie-producing potential.
“The Wisconsin River system is one of the top muskie fisheries in the state,” he said. “Recently, a number of muskies in the 50-inch class and topping 40 pounds have been documented from the Wisconsin.”
In mid- to late September, muskies start fattening up for the winter. Wallock uses Suicks in bright colors, walleye and sucker-colored Bulldawgs and large bucktails with a single 6/0 hook to take advantage of the feeding binge.
River islands that provide shallow feeding shelves, downstream and upstream island points, shoreline wood and the edges of deeper breaks are all top spots to toss a bait. Muskies will retreat into the backwaters when the water is high.
Fisheries biologist Tom Meronek gives the fishery between Merrill and Petenwell high marks. River muskies are responding well to regulations designed to promote trophy-class fishing. From the Castle Rock Flowage to Dubay Dam, the minimum length is 45 inches. From Lake Dubay to Lake Wausau, the minimum is 34 inches and above Wausau Dam to Merrill, a 40-inch minimum is enforced.
Wallock and his fellow Prime Water Anglers Club members have improved launch and shoreline facilities in Stevens Point at Highway 10 West, Bukolt Park and the Franklin Street landings and the Biron Flowage. Anglers may also launch on Lake Dubay, but watch out for stumps.
For more information, contact the DNR at (715) 359-7582 or (715) 623-4190 or Kenny Wallock’s Professional Guiding at (715) 321-0038 or www.kennywallocksguiding.com.
The Menominee, one of three major river systems available to Milwaukee’s 330,000 residents, offers a surprisingly good muskie fishery despite pollution issues and the effects of urban sprawl. (Continued)
Great Lakes strains, or spotted muskies, have been stocked below the first dam on the Menominee since 1987. Although the fish have access to Green Bay, they spend part of the year in the river, according to fisheries biologist Michael Donofrio.
The best fishing usually takes place within a month of the season opener or in the last month before the season closes. Targeting any backwaters, laydowns, rocks and holes that are free of strong current or that create eddies and slack water are always the best bet.
The river is an unlikely-looking source of good muskie hunting, a fact readily acknowledged by Russ Greenley of Pete’s Sport Shop in Peshtigo.
“There are some big fish in the river, even 50-inch-plus fish,” Greenley said. “You can find muskies right in town. Muskies are found throughout the whole river, but toward fall, they hang out in the river mouth area and on Flag Point near the warehouse. There’s a big flag there and you can’t miss it. When you’re in 3 or 4 feet of water, the weeds start, and off the ledge and woody cover is where muskies concentrate.”
The main channel has been dredged several times and is featureless, so look for woody cover or breaks in the current — anything that is different than the surrounding habitat.
When the Menominee is turbid with little visibility, noisy baits are called for. In-line spinners, topwater propellers and jointed baits made to clack and splash on the retrieve can be top producers.
For more information, contact the DNR at (715) 582-5050 or Pete’s Sport Shop at (715) 582-3681.
An even better bet for tangling with river muskies is the Peshtigo River. Although it’s not the Badger State’s largest river, it’s a relatively new fishery worth taking a look at.
After a problematic paper mill shutdown, the fishery began rebounding, especially the 14-mile lower stretch.
The first muskellunge was released in 2002, and within a few years, the Peshtigo became an overlooked fishery.
Upriver stockings began in 1974, and more than 10,000 large fingerling muskies have been released creating a thriving fishery.
We’ve only stocked Great Lakes muskellunge in the Caldron Dam area and as a result there are very good muskie populations in the Caldron and High Falls dams areas,” Donofrio said. “Though fewer in number, there are good fish downstream and in the other flowages as well.”
Don’t be afraid to fish every nook and cranny that creates slack water. Any structure that breaks the current carries the distinct possibility of harboring a muskie. Riverine muskies prefer slack water behind laydowns, rocks and other cover. Weedbeds are generally scarce, so muskie hunters must change the traditional ways they fish and target other types of structure.
Late spring and fall are the best times to tag a big muskie here, said Donofrio. Typical muskie jerkbaits, crankbaits, in-line spinners and spoons will tempt these fish for some exciting action.
For more information, call the DNR in Marinette at (715) 582-5050.
Eagle River muskies are like Peshtigo’s fish in that they are smaller than their lake counterparts, but they are very aggressive.
“During the fall, the lakes on the chain attract a lot of fish to the deeper waters, especially Catfish, Eagle and Cranberry lakes, as well as the river that connects the lakes,” said Rick Hanson of Rollie & Helen’s Muskie Shop in Minocqua. “I’ve fished the Watersmeet area and there are muskies in the stretch of river between Yellow Birch and Watersmeet lakes, the last of the chain. This is a popular stretch of river and some local anglers do well here. The Eagle
and Wisconsin rivers and Rice Creek all meet in this area and the muskies are after suckers and perch.”
Hanson said the river offers good numbers of muskies, as well as an occasional big one.
You’ll be on these muskies wherever you find sticks, logs and prey fish; however, as the river approaches the city of Eagle River, shoreline access is very limited because of bordering property being fairly well built up.
Muskies generally don’t become huge on the Eagle, but there’s a good fishery, according to fisheries biologist John Kubisiak. Bucktails, jerkbaits and spinnerbaits all produce if you can find the fish.
There’s good access at Heckler’s Marina on the Yellow Birch and Watersmeet stretch of river, as well as good access throughout the Watersmeet area and throughout the chain.
The Eagle River flows through a network of 28 separate lakes from the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest through Oneida and Vilas counties in the northeastern part of the state.
For more information, contact the DNR at (715) 365-8919 or Rollie & Helen’s Muskie Shop at (800) 453-5224.
The Fox is much better known for muskies than the Eagle River, especially the Lower Fox, stretching from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay. The last several years have seen a dramatic improvement in the fishing.
“The Fox River’s spotted muskie population has been in the spotlight recently,” said David Rowe, a fisheries biologist at the Green Bay Service Center. “In 1989, the DNR and local muskie clubs began stocking the Lower Fox and we’ve now got a growing population of fish measuring in the high 40s with a few 50-inchers available.”
The Fox’s fish grow fast because of a plentiful forage base of gizzard shad, emerald shiners and suckers. Catch rates during the DNR’s electrofishing studies have doubled since 2005, Rowe said, with the average adult fish measuring more than 40 inches. In 2003, the minimum length limit was increased to 50 inches.
Pete Smith of The Sportsman has hunted Fox River muskies for a long time. He recommends visiting anglers look for current breaks and discharge pipes, especially the pipe near the Georgia-Pacific paper mill.
Muskies are scattered throughout the eight-mile stretch between the dam and the river mouth, a shipping channel that provides deep water and allows muskies to be anywhere.
The hotspots change from year to year and so do the baits, Smith said. Last year, University Bay was a great spot, just off the river mouth, but it was also the first time the area has produced numerous muskies. Grandma’s was tops in 2007, but it’s anyone’s guess what muskies will want this fall.
Trolling is legal on the Fox allowing anglers to cover plenty of water and effectively find fish.
Access includes all Green Bay metropolitan boat ramps near the river mouth, the Fox Point boat launch in DePere and the Brown County Fairgrounds.
For additional information, contact the DNR’s Green Bay Service Center at (920) 662-5480 or The Sportsman in Appleton at (920)734-3299.
Scott Wyss of Hatfield Sports Shop in Hatfield gives the Black River thumbs up, especially the stretch between Highway 10 and the Black River Dam.
“A lot of legal-sized muskies all the way up to 50 inches are taken,” he said. “The part of the river I’m the most familiar with is below the Hatfield Dam on a three-mile stretch to the power house. It’s by far the top area for muskies.”
The river is shallow with a rocky bottom and muskies are often found right above or down in the deep holes.
Habitat varies on the lower Black, according to fisheries biologist Jordan Weeks. Near Black River Falls the river bottom is shallow and rocky, while downstream near Hawk Island the substrate changes to sand. In October and November, the deep, slow pools are best and may be fished with typical muskie baits.
Almost every year a 50-inch fish is taken including one of Wyss’ fellow DNR employees who caught a 52-inch, 38-pound lunker.
Keep the bass boats at home. The only navigable waters for anything larger than a canoe or small aluminum boat is the Black River Flowage and Lake Arbutus. Float trips in canoes are popular, but the upper river above Black River Flowage is rocky, and you can expect to swap paint with a rock or two. The lower river has long expanses of shallow sand flats that make navigation difficult and creates distance between locations that are holding fish. Muskies are found as far upstream as Clark County.
The Black has good access on the lower end from Melrose downstream. Launch areas below Melrose include Highway 108 and North Bend. Carry-down launches include Irving, Hawk Island and off Haugstead Road.
For more information, contact the DNR in La Crosse at (608) 785-9002 or in Madison at (608) 266-5222. The Hatfield Sports Shop may be reached at (715) 333-5009.
The Chippewa Flowage has produced outstanding muskie action over the years, while the riverine waters are overlooked. The 44-mile stretch of the Chippewa River below the Winter Dam down to Lake Holcomb is a muskie fishery in its own right.
“You’re likely to encounter fish as big as those in Lake Holcomb or the Radison Flowage,” said fisheries biologist Frank Pratt in Hayward. “There are 50-inch fish in the river and if you can find woody cover combined with deep water in the main stem, you’ll be on muskie habitat.”
Pratt has caught his share of the toothy predators and has used a fly rod to do it. The fish are shallow enough for flies to tempt them with an average depth of only 2 feet. The river bottom fluctuates between riffles and deeper holes, some of which can be quite a distance from each other.
Topwater baits are good options for the same reason, Pratt said. There is seldom a need for a crankbait that dives very far.
Guide Steve Genson has found that fall fishing on the Chippewa ups the odds of tangling with the biggest fish of the year.
“There are a couple of seasonal events that clue me in on when we should be hitting the river,” he said. “The first is the fall turnover period on the lakes in my region. As the water cools, fishing can be inconsistent and slow. The second are the migrations of prey fish that move up the river.”
Poor fishing in other waters combined with the surge in muskie forage spells success. Focus on current breaks and slack water. The fish will occasionally follow the bait into the flow before smashing it, so keep the bait moving.
Bulldawgs, Shallow Invaders and Swimmi
ng Joes do the job, Genson said. Work the baits with a sweeping motion to keep them from hanging up. The Just Add Water series of spinnerbaits are a great option and can be fluttered down into holes.
The Chippewa River in this stretch can be floated in its entirety. Accesses are scattered and it can be a far paddle between some of them.
For more information, contact the DNR at (715) 634-9658 or Genson’s Fish Hunts at (715) 766-2710 and online at www.fishhunts.com.
For lodging information, contact the Wisconsin Department of Tourism at (800) 432-8747 or visit online at www.travelwisconsin.com.