Fishing a river for muskies in the summer is an option that is too often over-looked. After all, rivers tend to attract everyone: jet skiers, sailboats, cruisers, water-skiers, speed boats, partiers and so on.
Additionally, there are the "unknowns" in rivers that can hinder a fisherperson’s exploration of the system: changes in the current’s speed, water level changes including flooding, wing dams and the overall difference in the movements and migrations of fish in river systems compared to lakes. Where does a musky angler start?
A start would involve your boat motor, fishing pole and a good lure. These basic tools allow you to troll. Trolling is the answer to learn new bodies of water in general, and especially river systems. I have been fishing river systems since my teenage years. Throughout this long period, I tried to learn everything I could about the behavior of fish in moving water, along with where they reside. Looking back, I realize that all the time I spent trolling taught me the most.
To help you out with part of the muskie trolling process, I will share the ins and outs of my top three lure choices for trolling for muskies on river systems during summertime.
Super Shad Rap
This lure is my favorite for all trolling situations in rivers. If I could only have one lure to troll around for muskies it would probably be this one. It has unmatched versatility that helps me cover the most water. I use the lure in a variety of both shallow and deep-water spots depending on how much line I let out.
The 5 1/2-inch lure allows you to troll at a precise depth, and it has a running depth between six and 15 feet. In addition to the nice range of depth, you can also use it at a variety of speeds. Generally, in the summer months you want to troll this lure at a higher rate of speed (at least 3 to 5 mph). This lure also resembles shad fish, which muskies target in many rivers in the Midwest.
Under bright conditions, the three best colors to use are shiner (SH), gold (GSH) and hot tiger (HT). These colors have produced many times for me under both dirty and clear water conditions. During low light conditions, the three best colors are original pearl shad (OPSD), perch (P) and firetiger (FT). The pearl shad and perch colors are great in clear water rivers. In most dirty water rivers, the firetiger color is good in cloudy weather.
These are great shallow water trolling baits that are often only used for casting. These types of lures can produce fish even when the bite is "slow." Commonly, many muskies use large flat areas in rivers to feed. These areas can consist of sand, rock, weeds, or a combination.
While many lures are good to troll on these spots, trolling a bucktail across shallow water is very productive if done right because they only go down a few feet. This creates a suspending presentation that not only keeps you off the bottom where you could get hung up, but allows fish to see the bait from a distance. This is especially good in clearer water rivers where sight is important.
Additionally, since bucktails are usually trolled in shallow water, you can cover a lot of ground by changing the angles of your boat during the trolling pass. This method of trolling eliminates more water and creates a constant change in your lure speed. Some of the most productive trolling runs with a bucktail are done in a haphazard way with changing speeds. Trolling bucktails in shallow water also allows you to troll multiple lines with ease. They are less likely to be snagged and you do not need to have much line out while trolling them.
Bucktails in general are great for shallow water trolling, but one in particular really shines. The Dreamcatcher bucktail has been my most successful river bucktail. It comes in several sizes, but the standard model is clearly the best. The lure offers a large reverse skirted body that creates a larger target for the fish. Despite its large size, the lure still pulls very easily. A young boy or an elderly person could easily hold onto this bucktail, as it will not wear them down like many of the others on the market.
When fishing shallow water in river systems, you should be very attentive to what color you are using. I have seen color presentation in shallow water make all the difference. Many rivers are dirty and the shallows are where just the right color makes all the difference. The Dreamcatcher comes in a variety of colors, but the best part is that this lure can be customized to whatever the hot color is in your particular area simply by contacting a local dealer. I found that the crappie color is the best on cloudy days in both dirty and clear rivers. The muskies I encountered really zeroed in on that color. Most rivers have crappies and this particular bucktail offers a spectacular looking crappie pattern.
On brighter days, I have noticed that white skirts are great. Especially since most rivers have white bass in them and white shad that muskies feed on. I like to use an orange or lime green blade on these baits in dirty water on bright days and gold or nickel blades in clearer rivers. There are many great bucktails out there, but the Dreamcatcher has been my most productive while trolling on river systems.
Vibrating Crank Baits/Lipless
Most lipless crankbaits send off loud vibrations in the water. This style of lure can be very effective in both clear and dirty water rivers. Generally, these types of lures either float or suspend. They can vary in length, but some of the most productive lures are about eight to 10 inches long. Some people describe this style of musky lure as a variation of a Sonar walleye bait.
In some river systems, many large groups of baitfish will suspend over deep water in the hot summer months. Naturally, the musky will relate to these groups in their movements and migrations. The vibrating crankbait allows you to attract attention in and around these groups of fish by mimicking a wounded fish and/or a fish trying to escape.
This style of lure should be used on deeper breaklines when you know exactly how deep your bait is running. Most lipless lures are effective while trolling very fast and they normally run about 10 to 14 feet down in the water column. They have very low resistance at very high trolling speeds. Most crank baits pull back hard when you speed up your boat.
However, crankbaits without a lip do not grab the water as much. I will frequently troll these baits way over five miles per hour and will often "rip" my line every few seconds to create an even more "escaping" action. It is a great search lure for muskies and for schools of baitfish as you often bump into a few as you are trolling by.
One of the best lures in this category is the "Skinny Boy" lure made by No Box Lure Company. This well-crafted lure withstands fish after fish crushing it. The lure dives about 10 feet. Additionally, to get the lure to the maximum running depth you need to let out a lot of line. I have caught many giant muskies on this lure when others would not perform.
I found that the blue and white colored Skinny Boy works best in bright conditions in most waters that are cleaner. The all white body with a black head works well in clear water on cloudy days. In dirty water, I have noticed that the brightest ones work best during both clear and cloudy days.
Trolling can be one of the most effective ways to learn a river system and to find a musky. Not only does trolling allow you to navigate new water in a safe manner, but it is also a very effective presentation for river muskies, which move frequently. Trolling enables you to move with them. Arming yourself with the proper lures and running them at the proper depth and speed will make all the difference.
Editor’s Note: If I had one day to fish the river for muskies, Josh would be my guy. He runs a guiding service and can be reached at 651-777-2421 or email@example.com.