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September/October 2004

Float-Fishing for River Muskies

by Mike Bleech
photos by the author

Angler with muskyFall was in the air.

Only a few leaves had started turning colors in the bottom of the river valley, but the air was cool and fresh. More importantly, the water temperature was dropping. It was musky time on the river. My brother Greg and I had launched his jet boat and floated several miles without action until we came to an 80-yard stretch where the water was relatively deep right up to the bank of an island.

My long balsa stick-bait hit the water just a few feet from the island.. I started the retrieve with a sweep of the rod.. Just as the lure stopped and my rod was at the most disadvantageous position, the water boiled and we could see a gold flash. I reeled as fast as I could and tried to set the hook. A huge musky began wallowing at the surface, but the action lasted only a few seconds.

Balsa lures are very effective for muskies. But the problem with any wooden lure is that muskies can sink their teeth into the lure. This can prevent a hook-set.

"That was a 30-pound musky," I said to Greg in a rattled voice.

There's good reason why devoted musky anglers spend a lot of time between action. Just the sight of a musky is a thrill. Hooking one even briefly is exhilarating.

The action wasn't over for us, though. After a few passes through the 80-yard stretch in less than an hour, we lost another musky that was just as big, and we caught a three-foot musky and a pike nearly as large. That's how musky fishing often goes. If you stay at it long enough, they get active.

You shouldn't expect steady action when you fish for muskies. Certainly, you should expect to put in some time. Muskies aren't as abundant as are smaller game fishes. But neither should you have to endure many days, even seasons, without success. Pennsylvania has a lot of excellent musky fishing. If you use the proper tackle and methods and pick your times and places wisely, you should catch muskies.

Selected River and Creek Musky Fisheries
Waterway Counties
1. French Creek Erie, Crawford, Venango
2. Allegheny River Potter, McKean, Warren, Forest, Venango
3. West Branch Susquehanna River Lycoming, Montour, Union
4. Juniata River Juniata, Perry
5. Susquehanna River Bradford, Wyoming, Luzerne, Columbia, Northumberland
6. Schuylkill River Berks
7. Delaware River Northampton

PA map showing musky fisheries

Musky fishing in Pennsylvania is best in our rivers or larger creeks during fall. The best fishing typically begins when the water temperature drops into the 60s. It will continue until the water temperature drops to the low 50s. In our northern counties, look for prime musky-fishing water temperatures from mid-September into November. Things should be happening by late September or early October in the southern counties and last through December. Musky fishing can be good even after that, but tactics change, and that's a different story for another time.

Muskies feed year-round. Water temperature isn't the only factor that makes musky fishing good during fall. Another main reason why musky fishing improves is that the fish tend to feed more during daylight hours in the rivers and creeks. The sun is lower in the sky. During summer, while the sun is almost directly overhead, muskies tend to be most active at night in rivers and creeks, at least in the shallower stretches. Float-fishing and handling muskies in darkness are risky propositions.


Two of the best lure types for fall musky fishing are jerkbaits and bucktail spinners.

Jerkbait fishing is an aggressive method that's perfectly suited to active muskies in shallow water. This method is strenuous, though simple. It's a series of jerks, as the name implies, produced by sweeping the rod. Jerks can be fast or slow, long or short. Until the water temperature drops below the mid-50s, long and fast jerks are usually best. You can't retrieve too fast for muskies to catch the lure. However, slower jerks, sometimes shorter jerks, might be better when the water starts getting cold.

Angler fishing for muskiesSome of the best jerkbaits dart from one side to the other as they are jerked. With lures that don't do this, change from one side to the other when you sweep the rod.

The only major mistake you can make in the jerking technique is allowing too much slack line. Slack line can prevent your setting the hooks. Time your motions so that you start reeling fast the instant the jerk stops, at the same time returning the rod to the jerk starting position, which is pointing at the lure. With the rod pointed directly at the lure, you can sweep the rod to set the hooks. When the rod is pointed perpendicular to the line at the end of a jerk, you have very little arc left to sweep the rod to set the hook, and you are past the part of the arc where you have the most power. Compounding the problem is that muskies often strike in the same direction in which the lure is moving, creating even more slack line.

If this seems like a lot of work, you're right. Some jerkbaits weigh more than 6 ounces, and just casting them is a chore. These big lures displace a lot of water. Jerking them is serious exercise. The first lures popularly called jerkbaits were virtually all big and heavy. Now, though, jerkbaits are defined more by the method in which they're used than by the specific lures. Most of the lures we call stickbaits can also be used as jerkbaits. These pull through the water easily, and they are light.

Retrieving bucktail spinners is less strenuous than retrieving jerkbaits, although you can make work out of it if you wish. A straight retrieve is adequate. Vary the speed. As a general rule, retrieve faster during early fall and then slower as the water temperature gets colder. A little stop-and-go or pulling the rod from side to side might trigger a few more strikes. However, if you're using bucktail spinners in combination with jerkbaits, stick with a straight retrieve.

Make a few drifts past each good musky holding area. Give any muskies that might be present a good look at both jerkbaits and bucktail spinners, try different lure colors, and if possible retrieve from different angles. When you're familiar with a stretch of river or creek, you can gauge the amount of time you spend at each good area by the amount of time you have. I prefer to hit several places instead of pounding one particular place for a long time. I also like to switch among places if I can get back upstream.

Good musky habitat is spotty in most of our rivers and creeks. The exceptions such as the lock-and-dam section of the Allegheny River or in the Susquehanna River near the power dams are really more like lake fishing. This is one of the advantages of float-fishing: You can almost pinpoint where muskies will be.

Stream locations to target for muskiesMild current, depth, cover

Muskies prefer calm water. This liking becomes increasingly evident as the water temperature drops. The best places will have adequate depth and cover. Adequate depth will usually be at least 4 feet, although muskies will hold in a couple of feet of muddy water. Fallen trees along the shoreline and boulders are the common river cover types, if depth is adequate. Of the three ingredients for good musky water, cover is the least important.

Water flows tend to be heavier during fall than during summer. This is another factor that tends to make fall a good time for musky fishing. It reduces the amount of likely musky habitat by increasing the current in most areas. But it also increases depths in areas that were too shallow for muskies during summer. The calmer water in rivers and creeks is usually along the shoreline, specifically on the insides of bends, below projections in the shoreline, and at the mouths of tributaries or coves.

The lower ends of islands can also be good musky areas if there's enough depth. Gravel, sand and silt typically accumulate in long bars below islands. Often there are narrow weed beds along these bars. Swirling water at the surface can disguise these holding areas. The water might be much calmer close to the bottom and particularly along the edges of the bars.


Muskies are sometimes caught on bass or walleye tackle, but usually by accident, and most often muskies hooked on this light tackle are lost. If you are serious about catching muskies, you should use proper musky tackle. Serious tackle for using the tactics described here consists of a rod rated for casting the lures you will use, at least up to 2 ounces, line testing at least 15 pounds, and a suitable reel. The rod should be fast or extra-fast action, and at least 6.5 feet long. Shorter rods don't move jerkbaits far enough. Most musky anglers prefer level-wind casting reels.

You should be able to catch muskies this fall if you learn to identify the places that hold muskies, choose the right tackle and use good fishing tactics.

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