September 30, 2010
Most of us do our muskie fishing on lakes. But you would be surprised at the great action on rivers in the northwoods.
by Ted Peck
Terry Fieselman just smiles when he hears that stuff about the muskie being "the fish of 10,000 casts." This laid-back Taylor County guide knows better, at least on his home water in Wisconsin's heartland, a good hour's drive from any big-name muskie lake.
Taylor and Price counties are off the well-beaten four-lane path, tucked between Interstate 39 and Interstate 94. This location and the absence of any large bodies of water except the Miller Dam Flowage allow the riverine muskies that swim here to hide in plain sight with very little chance of ever seeing a hook - other than Fieselman's.
Highways aren't the only access obstacles on a close encounter with these fish. Boat ramps are pretty much the shortest path to the water, with the easiest grade on the Upper Black, Flambeau and Jump rivers, where a cartopper or canoe is the ideal watercraft until late summer. That's when the canoe becomes little more than a handy conveyance for your gear, and old tennis shoes provide the major source of downstream propulsion.
These waters, covering an estimated 1,682 miles, are little more than glorified creeks, not worthy of much more than a footnote as being on the list of Wisconsin's 49 recognized muskie rivers - if it weren't for the fact that representatives of the Esox clan in both numbers and respectable size swim here.
This is why Fieselman smiles when some wag mentions muskies. In his neck of the woods it isn't a matter of casts so much as it is miles, with the real potential for a close encounter with a muskie near any fallen tree or substantial barrier, backwater eddy or shade of an undercut bank.
Photo by Tom Evans
The obvious question is, Why don't more folks chase these fish if all it takes is a simple float down a scenic river? With Fieselman and one of his kids, B.J. or Niko, at the helm of a canoe, it is that easy as they deftly maneuver the watercraft into good position. An accurate cast can be made with expert boat control through rapids and obstacles until the fish is whipped enough to be led to boatside for a quick release.
A 40-inch muskie may not be a challenge to a veteran Esox "hook" from the fishing platform of a stable boat on a quiet lake. But take the leaner, meaner riverine cousin of this fish and put a hook in her face while ghosting downstream backward in a canoe and you'll find yourself in the middle of a "hair dryer in the bathtub thrill." Hooking up with a muskie is enough to make you forget about traveling through Mosquitoville at convention time while wearing a heavy layer of sweat, bug juice and mud.
Float-fishing one of these rivers won't be your cup of tea if your concept of "roughing it" is a non-Jacuzzi room at the Best Western. But if the quiet grandeur of a secluded summer river epitomizes your concept of a perfect outing in the Land of Cheese, floating the Flambeau, Upper Black or Jump is a trip through the Promised Land.
Gear is pretty simple. Taking two rods is a good idea. One should be a medium spinning outfit spooled with 10-pound-test line to probe areas between muskie haunts for walleyes and smallmouth bass. For lures all you need is a pocketful of 2-inch Mister Twister fliptails and 1/8-ounce jigheads, a couple of Beetle Spin-type safety-pin spinners for a little different look, a couple of Mepps Black Fury in-line spinners, a No. 9 black/silver Rapala or two, and a couple of clear Heddon Tiny Torpedos.
The designated "muskie rod" should have a little heavier action and line to toss a Hawg Wobbler, Surf Roller or similar topwater bait. But Murphy's Law says the muskie is going decide to eat when you're winging that Tiny Torpedo in pursuit of other species. Although the odds of landing a 20-pound muskie are more in your favor with muskie tackle, the chances of initial hookup approach sure-thing status when you arrive at the river and announce "I'm bass fishin'!" and throw nothing besides the Tiny Torpedo. With skill and a little luck there's a good chance you can handle a riverine muskie on medium spinning gear while fishing for smallies and walleyes.
A major key to success lies in making a steady retrieve. Forget about animating the lure with subtle twitches and dips. Muskies in a riverine environment operate within fairly narrow strike window parameters. A steady retrieve over the water it calls home is more efficient for the angler in a situation where he may only get a cast or two - and definitely more appealing to the fish.
Another key is learning to recognize water with the highest potential for holding fish. Although it's possible to slow the downstream progress of a canoe with a crab-claw anchor off of the stern, successful float-fishing for muskies is a study in picking your casts and casting accurately.
Although a fair-sized rock in the middle of a long run of riffles may look "fishy," a muskie needs enough water to meet its habitat requirements. Save that cast for the little pocket of deeper, foamy slack water under the grassy bank just a few more yards downstream - unless you want to catch a bass. With time on the water you'll learn to pick out spots a considerable distance downstream and maneuver the canoe into an optimum spot to take your best shot.
The potential for calamity while float-fishing for muskies in a canoe is much greater than in more traditional watercraft. Personal flotation devices should be worn at all times. A good pair of sidecutter pliers should be readily available. A spare paddle should be lashed to the gunnel. A "dry bag" with bug repellent, sun block, camera, dry clothes, snacks, water - and your wallet - will reveal the difference between a veteran float-fisher and somebody about to try the experience for the first time with a real potential for never getting in a canoe on a river again.
Of course, Wisconsin has a number of muskie rivers where you can gain access at an actual boat ramp in an outboard-motor-powered boat of substantial size with more amenities. But when it comes to actually hooking up, the odds of encountering "uneducated" fish are directly proportional to the degree of difficulty required to get within casting distance - making the Upper Black, the Jump and the nether reaches of the Flambeau perhaps the most untapped riverine muskie resources in our state.
The following is a look at access points to these waters and tips on maneuvering through the dragon's teeth of other top northwoods muskie rivers where most anglers fear to tread.
FLAMBEAU RIVER The 10-mile run of this river through Price County is by far the best muskie water on this tributary of the Chippewa River, with 24 miles of the Flambeau
in Rusk County a good bet as well. The South Fork Flambeau stretch of river through these counties is wild, with a considerable amount of whitewater - some of which can challenge even veteran canoeists.
Two floats in the South Fork's Price County run offer the very best for this river. It takes about eight to 10 hours to float from County W down to County M, with the put-in on County W at the intersection with Down River Road at the bridge. Another good float ends up at the County W bridge, beginning six to eight hours upstream in the little town of Lugerville.
For more information, contact the Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, (715) 762-2703.
JUMP & UPPER BLACK RIVERS The Jump River also has two good floats worth a serious look, both upstream and downstream from the town of Jump River.
It takes eight to 10 hours to work the stretch from Highway 73 at Jump River down to the wayside take-out point in the town of Sheldon. This is not a place to task your grandpa's handmade birch bark canoe. Rocks are plentiful and unforgiving.
The run above the village of Jump River takes about 10 hours if you put in off of River Road, about eight miles east of County MM.
The Black River around Medford is vastly different from the waters downstream by the I-94 bridge, which millions of cars pass over every year. The old steel bridge on Highway 64 by Medford is a great take-out point. Drop off one vehicle at the bridge and take Grover Road north to Sawyer Dam Road for a three- to four-hour float, with a float to the archery club adding about two more hours to your adventure.
Terry Fieselman knows these rivers well. His phone number is (715) 748-0913. For information on lodging and other amenities, contact Taylor County Tourism at 1-800-257-4729.
MENOMINEE RIVER This Michigan/Wisconsin boundary water takes top marks as one of the most beautiful and diverse fisheries in the state, with walleyes, whopper smallies and eye-popping muskies.
The lower reaches below the Hattie Street Dam in Marinette hold the potential for tangling with a Great Lakes spotted muskie. Access is easy here, with three good boat ramps in Marinette with enough water to launch a big boat.
If you decide to launch above the Hattie Street Dam, be aware that these stained waters become a minefield of boulders, deadfalls and general carnage that eats lower units and beats up boats. These 83 miles of river in Marinette County are one of the best-kept secrets in our state, rated as Class 3 muskie water by the Department of Natural Resources.
The upper reaches of the Menominee are essentially a series of "cookie-cutter" pools, with river levels regulated by dams operated by the local power cooperative. Above the Hattie Street Dam at the lower end of the pool is a good boat ramp with plenty of parking and camping opportunities. The lower end is essentially a flowage with generally slow, sleepy water and great habitat in the form of weeds at the channel edge, deadfalls and similar cover. As you move upstream, the Menominee's wild side becomes increasingly apparent as the scenery begins to look more like a river again. By the time you get within sight of the next dam, the water is swift and rocky.
Perhaps the best word to describe the Menominee is "diversity." This river has everything an angler could ever desire regarding fish species, aesthetics and variety of angling conditions.
Nobody knows these waters better than guide Mike Mladenik. His phone number is (715) 854-2055. The Marinette Area Chamber of Commerce is a great source for lodging and other amenities. Their phone number is (715) 735-6681.
WISCONSIN RIVER Our namesake river changes considerably between its upper reaches, in northern Wisconsin, and its confluence with the Mississippi River, near Prairie du Chien, with 134 miles of river designated as Class A and Class B muskie water by the DNR. Several flowages slow the pace of the river between the big twin tubes at Grandfather Dam and the ever-changing sandbars licked by boiling brown water near the Wisconsin's confluence with the Father of Waters.
A muskie might just find your bait at any point along the journey, with the biggest specimens cruising in the quiet waters of the flowages. But by far the most exciting water lies above Wausau. If there is a muskie fishing epicenter for Wisconsin River muskies, it has to be the 16-mile stretch between Wausau and Merrill, which is rated as Class A2, Category 1 water by the DNR.
Several access points and the security of occasional glimpses at I-39 have made this an increasingly popular float for novices and river rat wannabes. There is some marginally challenging water along this run, providing a good taste of adventure - and a really good chance of dancing with a big muskie.
But if you're one of those folks who believe that people not living on the edge are simply taking up too much space, check out the Wisconsin River above Merrill. This river has been called "the hardest-working river in America" because of the power-generating dams along its run. As the river develops broader shoulders with the entry of more tributaries south of Wausau, rapid changes in water level are scarcely noticed, or at least are not a source of great concern. But in the wild-and-wooly country above Merrill, failure to constantly monitor the river environment can leave you stranded - or worse - in anything less mobile than a canoe.
Guide Todd Koehn knows well the dangers - and potential - of the upper river, traversing these waters in a flat-bottom boat with a jet-drive outboard.
Koehn's primary passion is smallmouth bass, with his weapon of choice a No. 5 Mepps Black Fury in-line spinner. In three days on the upper river last summer, Koehn and I boated and released 15 smallies over 18 inches. But it was the close encounters with five muskies that iced the cake.
Like most riverine fish, the upper Wisconsin River's muskies aren't huge - mid-30- to maybe 40-inchers. But put a 35-inch muskie in tumbling thigh-deep water and even the most taciturn angler tends to babble and gesture frantically when the spinning reel's drag starts to scream.
The most exciting fish on this trip didn't even eat a lure. But she did come out from behind a big rock twice to investigate, finning for several minutes in defiance before swimming away to her lair. She was a fat one, maybe 43 inches, definitely out of place for a stretch of river that was kiddie-pool deep.
You can reach Todd Koehn at 1-800-710-8020. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHIPPEWA RIVER From the Winter Dam, in Sawyer County, to the Rusk County line, some 25 miles away, is the very best stretch of the 122 miles of muskie water recognized on the Chippewa by the DNR.
Access is fairly easy along the first eight miles of this run down to Ojibwa, with three decent boat landings and just one small rapids to contend with, which doesn't pose a problem unless the river is exceptionally low.
Several more rapids and a dam from Ojibwa down to Bruce in Rusk County make the next 34 miles of river a cartopper or canoe-only stretch, with the best muskie habitat found in the river's deeper holes.
Folks at the James Sports Shop in Ladysmith can help you with logistics. Their phone number is (715) 532-6016.
OTHER WATERS Wisconsin's muskie management began over 50 years ago, with rivers as the genesis of the terrific muskie action we enjoy now. Some of these - like the Upper Black - have been hiding in plain sight since the days before muskie management was even considered.
Finding waters like this isn't an easy proposition. Anglers who have discovered our state fish swimming where least expected aren't keen on sharing the good news. Prospecting for new muskie water is like any other poke-and-hope adventure - not all roads lead to glory.
Picking up a free copy of the DNR's Wisconsin Muskellunge Waters (PUB-RS-919-96) is a good start. DeLorme's Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer is another valuable tool in locating new water.
You might want to check out the Yellow River in Washburn and Burnett counties, the Manitowish and Turtle rivers in Vilas and Iron counties, or perhaps the Tomahawk in Oneida County, which the DNR rates as Class A2, Category 1 water.
Muskies are where you find them. And there is much to be said for being the first human contact in the education of a muskie. With nearly 1,700 miles of recognized muskie river in our state, there should be enough water to keep you occupied at least until freeze-up.
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