April 19, 2023
By Jeff Knapp
The deep pool we were fishing was located just upriver from where this smaller river joined a larger one. The spot was around 15 feet deep and surrounded by huge rocks that provided cover for fish as well as a barrier to current.
My guide client for the day, Brandon, pitched his Pegassus musky bait out to the edge of the rocks and began a slow twitch/pause retrieve. As the bait neared the boat, a broad-shouldered musky that looked to be in the low-40-inch range pounced on the lure.
Even in the 35-degree water the fish displayed extraordinary energy. A couple showering head shakes and she was gone long before she could be scooped up in the nearby net. The whole episode took only a few seconds to unfold, though the enthusiasm it inspired kept us going throughout the bitterly cold day. Before the outing concluded at dusk, we boated a musky in the mid-30-inch range, this one coming on a 1/2-ounce blade bait.
Two musky encounters in a day, particularly a late-winter day, might seem exceptional, but it's really not. In rivers with solid musky numbers—ones that remain open through the winter or open rapidly during early spring—it's reasonable to expect to bump heads with a fish or two during a relatively short outing that takes place during the warmest part of the day.
The experience above illustrates some key points. For one, river muskies tend to remain active throughout the winter months, perhaps more so than their lake-dwelling brethren. Also, they tend to collect in river areas with little or mild current. This characteristic eliminates a lot of water and increases the chances of multiple muskies being in one location. Lastly, they respond to both classic and non-traditional lure options. You can fish baits specific to muskies, but you can also downsize and catch other river species as well as muskies.
So, what scenarios create the habitat river muskies require during the early-spring? In general, ones that provide depth, protection from strong current and food. The last one is a given, since food species such as suckers, redhorses, chubs and darters also must seek out the same type of areas to survive winter's harshness.
Depth is relative. In a small river, 8 to 10 feet is deep; in larger ones 15- to 20-foot depths are common. Areas of depth can be found along outside river bends, where the current gouges out the river bottom during periods of high water. Junction pools, where a stream joins the river, often have outstanding potential. Current-deflecting structures such as wing dams and rock bars typically form deeper, protected pools below them and, in some instances, above them. Islands, or clusters of islands, can shield downriver areas from current and harbor muskies if adequate depth is available.
On navigable rivers with locks and dams, fish often stack up within the downriver side of the dam. The chamber creates an area of reduced current within such a structure. The mild current often extends for a great distance below the mouth of the lock chamber. This is one of the better spots for early-season river muskies.
Even on the best days, fishing for river muskies during the late winter can be physically challenging. Cold hands make simple chores such as changing lures taxing. For that reason, it's wise to keep outings relatively short and during the warmest part of the day when you can put forth your best effort. Typically, my river outings during this time run from around noon until near dark.
Productive classic musky baits tend to have certain characteristics in common. They can trigger bites while being fished slowly. They can cover a variety of depths. And it's wise to include baits that can be fished horizontally as well as jigged vertically. Lures that check these boxes include rubber baits like the Bull Dawg, Medussa, Posseidon, Pegassus and Bondy Bait. Heavy jig-style lures like Bait Rigs' Esox Cobra and J-Mac's Musky Jig excel and have accounted for many river muskies in my boat. The jigs should be dressed with some sort of soft-plastic trailer like a twister tail or soft swimbait. Trailers slow the jig's descent and create a lengthier, more balanced profile.
Opt for the smaller versions of these rubber baits. While river muskies can be active, the term is relative in keeping with the cold-water environment they are now in. They aren't likely to move far for a meal, nor are they as apt to prefer a larger one. Presentations should be made with this objective in mind: Keep the lure in front of fish and make it easy for them to eat it.
Envision a pool approximately 50 yards long, shielded from the main force of the river by an upriver island. Gradually tapering banks drop off into depths in the 15-foot range. Armed with a lure such as a smaller Bulldog or the jig-and-plastic-trailer combo, a cast is made right up to the bank. After splashing down, a pull-and-pause retrieve commences, the angler on alert for that strong tap that telegraphs a musky bite. As the lure is worked toward the boat, the retrieve is slowed so the lure stays close to the bottom. Once near the boat, the bait is jigged vertically a few times before being slowly cranked in for another cast. Muskies being muskies, even in such cold water they will often follow and hit at the last minute (as was the case in the opening anecdote), so be alert for any boatside strikes.
It's common for more active muskies to be up near the bank, in water that may be warmed from the sun's rays. But many times the fish will be holding in deeper water. As such, another approach is to vertically jig a bait directly under the boat. The Bondy Bait was designed for such use on the Detroit River and excels at triggering lethargic bottom-hugging muskies. The Pegassus is another rubber bait that works well when vertically jigged. These baits should be slowly pumped upward, just off the bottom, then lowered on a relatively tight line. I find St. Croix’s Mojo Musky rod in the 8-foot, medium-heavy-power/fast-action configuration to be ideal for both casting and jigging the lures described here. An Abu Garcia Max Toro low-profile reel spooled with 65-pound-test Sufix 832 completes the outfit.
An added bonus of fishing for late-winter river muskies is that it can be combined with targeting other species (most commonly walleyes, as they both tend to inhabit the same rivers and same pools) and not significantly reduce your odds of catching a musky.
Metal blade baits such as the Silver Buddy have accounted for dozens of my river muskies, as has the classic jig-and-minnow combination. Blade baits should be fished vertically, imparting a short, upward snap to activate the lure followed by a descent on a semi-slack line. The jig-and-minnow can be both cast and jigged vertically.
While I've found bite-offs rare in frigid river water (cold-water muskies often bite with the same finesse as a small river walleye), you can provide some protection by incorporating a fluorocarbon leader of 50-pound-test and stronger snaps than you might use for walleyes. There are many YouTube videos that illustrate how to tie knots with larger diameter fluorocarbon, which is a better idea than using crimps.
Keep in mind also that this type of angling isn't limited to anglers with boats. Indeed, many muskies are taken by shore casters, particularly ones targeting junction holes during the evening twilight. No discussion of musky fishing is complete without mentioning the need for proper release tools. This includes an adequate net, cutters capable of snipping musky-sized hooks and long-nosed pliers for unhooking fish while keeping your hands out of harm's way. I carry a musky-sized Stowaway net, which doesn't clutter up the boat until needed; quality Knipex side-cutting pliers; and long-nosed Cobra pliers for safe unhooking chores.
Marquee Musky Rivers in the East
In keeping with the small-to-midsize rivers scope, the best choices for river musky action tend to be in the more southern part of the region, within or close to the musky's native range. Not only are muskies well-distributed, but chances are better that weather conditions will permit open-water fishing.
- UPPER POTOMAC RIVER: Just last spring, the Potomac produced a new Maryland state-record musky weighing 33 pounds. Some of the best water is within Washington County, Md. The Upper Potomac is peppered with a series of fixed-crest dams.
- NEW RIVER: The New River provides Virginia anglers with an excellent chance at catching a river musky. Though known for its whitewater sections, the New boasts many flatwater stretches that play host to muskies. The best musky water is from below Claytor Lake to the West Virginia line.
- ELK RIVER: West Virginia's Elk River harbors a native musky population that includes trophy-sized fish. The entire river from the Sutton Dam tailwaters to the river's merger with the Kanawha River in Charleston supports muskies.
- MONONGAHELA RIVER: The Monongahela River is an excellent destination for late-winter muskies. Concentrate on the areas below the locks and dams that interrupt the river's flow from West Virginia into Pennsylvania. The lock chambers (on the downriver side of the lock) can be especially productive.
- ALLEGHENY RIVER: Expect to find muskies in the deeper pools (locally called "eddies") in the free-flowing middle portion of the Allegheny. In the lower, impounded Allegheny, locks and dams can concentrate fish, as can deeper holes and the mouths of tributaries.