How to Catch Muskie in Small Streams
By Kubie Brown
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 on Xmaps. 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.