July 15, 2020
By Jeff Knapp
For those of us who love to fish rivers for any number of species, the transition from spring to summer is an exciting time. The activity level of the finned creatures that exist below the warming surface is in high gear, and when muskies are among those creatures, early summer is an especially thrilling time to be on the river.
Rivers that hold muskies are typically of low-to-moderate gradient and support common warmwater and coolwater species, such as bass, walleyes and northern pike—sometimes all three. As spring evolves into summer, a musky’s metabolism is on the rise, meaning it needs to eat on a regular basis. As such, catching them becomes a bit easier.
READ RIVER SYSTEMS
It’s typical for river systems to feature both free-flowing sections and stretches impounded by dams. Though there will be similarities between the two types of water, there are current and habitat characteristics inherent to each. Muskies respond somewhat differently in each type of water.
As a full-time multi-species guide, I spend a significant amount of time on a large river section elevated by low-head dams. The “pools” created by these impoundments are representative of similar river scenarios across the musky’s range. Like all river fish, muskies are bound by flow and current conditions.
By late May, river levels are typically stable, which means muskies are moving toward midriver structure. Typically, submergent weed growth has developed by now, and it plays an important role in musky location. Expect to find muskies setting up on or near humps, points and flats. Often these will be associated with island areas. It’s common for soft-rayed species such as suckers, redhorse and common carp to frequent such areas, all of which are preferred musky fodder.
Patches of weeds on such structures are often the “spot-on-the-spot” for making musky contact. Here, vegetation provides shallow-water cover, drawing muskies in as they become active. Since most rivers that support muskies are stained or murky part of the time, the diminished light penetration limits weed growth to the shallower areas, often around 5 feet in depth. Shoreline timber in the form of laydowns and beaver lodges that jut out from the bank are also prime lies.
When river flows are normal to low, and I expect to find muskies within the midriver structures outlined above, the fish respond well to a variety of presentations, including musky-sized spinnerbaits, floating minnow baits and soft swimbaits.
Bucktail spinnerbaits, like the Buchertail Slopmaster, excel at picking apart the weeds that often rim the edges ofhumps, points amd flats. Unlike traditional bucktails that sport treble hooks, most musky spinnerbaits have single hooks. Combined with the weed-clearing qualities of the safety-pin-shaped wire construction, a spinnerbait slides over and through moderate weed cover well, particularly these fringes of weeds.
Where weeds rise to the surface, cast to the edge, allow the spinnerbait to helicopter for a second or two, then start your retrieve. Hits often occur within the first couple turns of the reel handle. In areas where weed tips remain subsurface, try bulging, or “waking,” the spinnerbait near the surface.
Buoyant minnow baits, like the Crane 206, provide another kind of look for fishing weed edges. Worked as a twitch bait, one can hover the lure near the prime zone. By employing a slack-line twitch of the rod tip, you can make the bait dance from side to side, diving briefly, while it remains close to the cover. This is an especially effective tactic in situations where you feel confident a fish is present.
Aside from the classics, large soft swimbaits like the 5 1/2-inch and 8-inch Lake Fork Tackle Live Magic Shad are great river musky lures. Paired with a 1/2- to 1-ounce jighead, the combination is great in situations where you’re covering larger expanses of water. Swimbaits also offer great depth control. By counting down following the cast and/or slowing the retrieve, you can work deeper zones in the water column.
FISH THE RISE
Rivers being rivers, it’s not uncommon for flows to rise substantially, in which case the fish can be driven off the midriver structures. Muskies will often relocate to shoreline-connected pockets where they can escape the force of the flow. The mouths of incoming streams can be especially productive as calmer, clearer water and a plethora of food fish are often found there.
Large, skirted jigs in the 1- to 1 1/2-ounce range, such as the J-Mac J-Musky and Esox Cobra Magnum, excel in this situation when fished with a stop-and-go retrieve. It’s another great lure for working deeper water, and one that I employ well into the fall months. Make certain to rig this jig with a large trailer.
WATCH THE WATER TEMP
Veteran guide Red Childress (alleghenyguideservice.com) fishes on a section of free-flowing river not only rich in musky habitat—plenty of islands, incoming feeder streams, deeper channel areas—but that is also a tailwater fishery. Being downriver of a major reservoir with a multi-level discharge, water temperatures tend to be cooler during the summer months. This influence is significantly countered about 10 miles downriver of the outflow, where major tributaries begin entering the river, warming it. As such, Childress experiences many water conditions over the course of the year.
“Even in early summer, in river sections with cooler water, I expect to find muskies in areas with warming water,” says Childress. “Often, incoming creeks and spots with newly developing weedbeds will have the ‘right stuff.’ Musky spawning sites are typically nearby, with the fish still holding in the same general area. Baitfish will pile up here, too. Dark-bottomed areas that absorb the solar energy of the sun will also attract food fish and muskies.”
As summer progresses and water temperatures begin to rise, Childress expands his musky search to include a wider variety of habitat types, particularly ones that feature reduced current. This could be shallow water in the 2- to 3-foot range, or deeper main-river channel spots in the 8- to 12-foot zone.
“It’s important to pay close attention to baitfish location, as well as be on the lookout for muskies cruising around,” Childress says. As in lakes and reservoirs, baitfish will often school up in balls that will be evident on a sonar unit. When river conditions are clearer, it’s common to observe schools of minnows and shiners cruising close to the surface. Likewise, muskies are known to cruise just under the surface. Though these “porpoising” muskies are typically in a negative mood, such activity does betray the general location of a fish meriting a return visit.
Regarding lure choice, Childress doesn’t buy into the philosophy of going with smaller baits early in the season. He still throws baits in the 6- to 9-inch range unless fishing the aftermath of a severe cold front, in which case he’ll downsize.
Childress opts for bucktails and glide baits, particularly in shallower water. In deeper zones, like backwater eddies and main channel areas, he uses rubber baits like Medussas or larger lipped crankbaits.
KNOW THE FLOW
Experienced anglers know that river conditions, namely flow and clarity, hold great influence over fish activity and location. All things being equal, Childress prefers chasing muskies under stable river conditions or a slight increase. However, rivers rarely provide ideal conditions. High water is common and has become the norm in recent summers. Childress doesn’t shy away from higher flows during summer, particularly if the water is not downright muddy. He expects to find muskies in current-breaking areas close to the bank, though not all of them.
“Some muskies will stay in the main channel and hug bottom around large current breaks, boulders, rip rap and humps, and stay tucked tight to island tips,” he says. Vertically fished baits like vibrating blade baits, and rubber baits like the Bondy Bait and Shadzilla V, excel for getting down to muskies holding tight to current breaks in deeper water.