There’s something inherently terrifying about a dark alley at night. While most of us might think a midnight ramble through a starlit field sounds downright romantic, we enter unlit side streets with at least some trepidation and adrenaline. In that condensed space there is no room for escape. Every doorway, dumpster, pile of garbage, or tiny bit of cover could be hiding some fiendish villain waiting to leap out and attack.
For a certain type of person, entering this state offers a thrill that’s hard to find elsewhere. While you could seek this excitement by walking boldly down every dark alley you encounter, there is another way to get your kicks that comes with a slightly lower chance of getting cut—small stream muskie fishing.
Small Water, Big Fish Many anglers probably associate the pursuit of muskellunge with vast lakes; big, slow-flowing rivers; places fit for colossal super-predators. However, thousands of petite, gurgling streams; meandering, weedy creeks; and plunging, rapid-filled rivers are scattered across the country, each one pretty enough to make your average trout angler drool, that harbor healthy populations of muskies. Small waters like these offer anglers up-close-and-personal predator combat wild enough to satisfy any adrenaline junky.
Many of these streams shelter migratory populations of muskie in the spring and fall. The fish often enter in pursuit of spawning baitfish like suckers, shad, and even gamefish like salmon. Some muskies will also use these places to spawn. Many streams also hold muskies that call these ecosystems home all year long.
Many anglers believe these stream-resident muskies are always small and that fish need bigger environments to grow to their full capacity. This is not true. While muskies do grow big in lakes and larger rivers, they are more than capable of reaching magical sizes of 40 or 50 inches in any waterway with adequate forage.
Now, it might seem like a fish that big in such a small environment would stand out like an elephant in a Quonset hut. But just like that knife-wielding thief potentially hiding in that dark alley, a big muskie will use any piece of cover or shadow to hide, waiting for the precise moment to attack.
How To Find Muskies in Small Streams Just like the other members of the Esox genus—the pike and the pickerel—muskie are ambush predators. Instead of chasing down their prey, they typically prefer to lie in convenient hiding places and wait for their prey to come to them. While large lakes and rivers typically include a plethora of weed beds, drop-offs, boat docks, rock piles, and back eddies for these stealthy predators to hide in, small streams are often limited in their concealment. This can make those small stream muskies relatively easy to find—as long as you know where to look and ready for some legwork.
During spring run-off and other times of high, dirty water when cover is abundant, muskies can spread out and be found almost anywhere in a river system. However, as the waters clear and recede, the refuge muskies require to feed and live becomes scarce, forcing the fish to retreat into whatever shelter is available. This usually means moving into areas that have deeper water, vegetation, overhead cover, structure, or strong current.
Depth is relative: the deepest spot in a small stream could be as little as 4 or 5 feet deep or as much 20 feet. Locating these places is vital because often the stream will seem completely devoid of muskies until you suddenly find 20 or 30 fish stacked in the same 100-yard stretch that’s just a few feet deeper than the rest of the river.
Finding these spots often means covering a lot of water. So, before heading out to battle muskies on a small stream, use any maps or depth charts available and scout out the most likely areas. Deep holes, log jams, undercut banks, bases of waterfalls and rapids, dam outflows, and sharp corners of the river where the current digs into the bank are all prime holding spots for muskie and easy to locate on a map or app like Google Earth or onXmaps. You can often hike into these spots, or better yet, float into them in a boat.
Using a boat on these streams is often the most efficient way to get to the fish, since overland access is often blocked by private land or impassable terrain. You can also cast a line into fishy-looking spots from a boat that you might otherwise overlook on a map. As far as boats go, you want to choose a watercraft appropriate to the size of the stream. On larger rivers, that could be a drift boat or a canoe, but for smaller streams a kayak or even a float tube will suffice. Just be sure that the boat you choose has enough room for your equipment—when you’re fishing small streams for muskie, you want to go loaded for bear.
Spin Fishing for Small Stream Muskie Muskies are the largest member of the Esox genus and are entirely capable of snapping a rod, unspooling an entire reel, or dragging a rig down to snag up in the logjam from whence they came. Hooking one feels like going toe-to-toe with a velociraptor in a phonebooth. Most of the time, you want to get them to the net as quickly as possible. I always choose the stiffest and heaviest fishing rod available, paired with a baitcasting or spinning reel with a fully lockable drag, and strung with 40- to 50-pound-test braided line and a heavy steel leader.
When it comes to fishing for muskies in any situation, bigger is usually better. If you’re fishing live bait, don’t bother with something small like a minnow. Instead, try a live 6- to 10-inch sucker rigged with a 2/0 circle hook through its back and drifted through deep holes under a bobber. If you’re the patient sort, you can also rig the bait with a heavy egg sinker instead of a bobber. Sink the sucker to the bottom of a hole where it can struggle and eventually a passing muskie might inhale it.
If you prefer to pound the banks using lures, you want to choose something big and flashy that moves a lot of water and appeals to a muskie’s aggressive nature. Big bucktail spinners like the Mepps Musky Killer are hard to beat for this, but larger spinners and spinnerbaits like the Strike King KVD or a Blue Fox Vibrax will work as well. Large flashy spoons like the Eppinger Daredevle are also great options.
For more finicky fish or in colder water when muskies are less hostile, large jerkbaits like the Livingston Jerkmaster and the Rapala Husky Jerk and soft plastic swimbaits like the Bull Dawg and Big Hammer become more effective. But for the ultimate thrill in muskie fishing, nothing beats the explosion on a topwater lure like a Thorne Bros Big Mama or a Whopper Plopper.
Remember that no matter what lure you decide to use or whether you’re fishing from a boat or from the bank, always perform a figure-eight motion in the water with your rod tip after every cast, working the lure like a scared baitfish trying to hide. Muskies are notorious for following a lure to the rod tip and finally striking right at your feet—even if you don’t see them before.
Fly Fishing for Small Stream Muskies Unlike a lot of other fishing situations, fly fishing for muskies in small streams might actually be among the most efficient way to catch them. Maybe it just feels that way because of the trout fishing vibes that come with this experience. Muskies only eat when they feel like it and have a maddening habit of refusing lures at the boat.
Muskie flies are often made of bucktail, feathers, and other natural materials that provide neutral buoyancy. This means that flies stay in the strike zone longer than lures, provide a more seductive wiggle, and have a better chance of getting smashed by a big muskie. Furthermore, flies can be fished with both the traditional cast-and-strip method, working every little piece of structure you drift by, or by dead drifting and twitching along fishy-looking banks and patches of cover for muskie that aren’t up for a chase.
Just like when you’re fly fishing for large pike, you’ll want to approach these small-stream monsters with heavy gear. Think tarpon heavy. A 10- or 12-weight fly rod is the industry standard, and it wouldn’t be overkill to beef it up to a 14-weight. An 8- or 9-weight could theoretically get it done if that’s all you have, but casting big flies will be more difficult and a big fish might hurt your feelings.
You’ll want a heavy-duty fly reel with a fully locking drag, a fly line with a heavy shooting head that can easily toss flies the size of Christmas stockings, 30- to 50-pound leader, and top it all off with a steel leader. Now, a lot of anglers would say that a length of thick, fluorocarbon shock tippet instead of a steel leader would make your flies swim better and look more natural in the water. However, having recently witnessed a personal best muskie roughly the size of a crocodile bite off and swim away with my favorite muskie fly, I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s steel all the way for this guy.
As far as fly patterns go, I prefer to tie my own. But if you aren’t into arts and crafts, there are several quality fly retailers online. Look for hefty bucktail flies with a lot of flash like the Musky Deceiver or Cohen’s Manbearpig. These flies were designed with muskie in mind and are more than up for the job. Any local fly shop should have dozens of offerings as well.
The Fish of Ten Thousand Casts? Many anglers spend days, weeks, months, even years hunting big lakes and rivers in search of their first muskie. These mysterious and challenging gamefish have created their own culture of diehard and slightly masochistic anglers who go cast until their shoulders nearly fall out their sockets in hopes of merely seeing a muskie, let alone catching one.
But on small streams where muskie populations are condensed and competition for food more intense, the chance of hooking into and landing several fish in a single day becomes a distinct reality—one that should be explored both by those looking to fulfill their muskie dreams and those who seek the thrill of the big fight just around the dark corner.