River Muskies: By Kayak

A remote float along a winding wilderness river produces an epic adventure  

Fishing from a sleek, stealthy kayak is one of the hottest new trends in the angling world, and for several worthy reasons. Kayaks allow you to access remote waters most “big boat” users can’t, and although these light, skinny watercraft are remarkably stable and maneuverable, the fact that you’re literally sitting down in the surface film brings an entirely new perspective. In a kayak, every outing is an exciting, “up close and personal” angling adventure.

One of my most recent kayak adventures showed just how deadly, and efficient, these crafts can be. Early July in northern Wisconsin isn’t typically a time associated with hot fishing for most local species, but it’s a reasonably good bet for river smallmouth and muskies, which should be starting to stir with the predictably soaring summer temps. Both fish were on our minds when my brother-in-law Jim and I launched our identical 9-foot, one-man kayaks shortly after 7 a.m. along one of our favorite wilderness rivers. Trailing just behind us would be my father-in-law Dick paddling solo in his homemade, cedar-strip canoe. Three amigos armed with fishing tackle and a plan. Temps for the windless, bluebird day were predicted to hit the mid-80s, and we hoped the fishing to be as hot.

To be honest, I had less than complete confidence in the conditions, as our primary goal was top water action, and for this tactic I much prefer dark, overcast skies. But the rainy spring and early summer had the water running high and fast, adding an intriguing twist. July and high water don’t typically go together, so we really didn’t know what to expect. The answer was really quite simple: When in doubt, go fishing!

Most of the morning saw the three of us jockeying our positions as we drifted and paddled downriver, ensuring good coverage of both overgrown banks, where we suspected most of the fish would be hiding out in the fast, unusually high flows. First on the board was Jim who waylaid a pair of nice smallies using soft plastic top water frogs and medium spinning gear. I missed a few nice bronzebacks that catapulted clear out of the water as they slashed at my tiny top water buzz baits, nipping just short enough to quickly twist off before a solid hookset. Talk about frustrating! The display was about as aggressive as tentative fish ever get.

Throughout the morning, I had been using the same medium-heavy action baitcasting rod rigged with 14-pound-test mono, but switching back and forth between using a wire leader for insurance against muskies, and a leaderless presentation aimed at the finicky smallies. Just before noon, after covering about 7 river miles, I made the switch back to a thin, nearly invisible wire leader thinking I needed to be prepared for a visit from a wily water wolf. Talk about karma. Not 10 minutes later, it happened. I’d managed to get out ahead of both Dick and Jim by several hundred yards, entering a hairpin river turn quite alone. On the inside of the turn was a huge tangle of driftwood that begged for a cast. One pitch is all it took.

The author said he had to battle both this muskie and the swift current, but prevailed after 15 minutes!
The author said he had to battle both this muskie and the swift current in his kayak, but he prevailed after 15 minutes!

From the kayak, watching the huge muskie rocket out toward the tiny top water lure was like witnessing an alligator ambush a muskrat! The fish was just two feet from the boat when it inhaled the lure and dove beneath me, and here’s where the kayak saved the day. As mentioned, the water was high and really moving, and there I was, attached to a trophy muskie and headed—right now!—for a hairpin river turn, the outside edge of which was littered with more impossible tangles of driftwood. Not good. My first thought after setting the hook was, I’ve got to somehow use a two-handed paddle with my non-dominant left hand, to negotiate the river turn, before I can even think of fighting a very irate lunker muskie, being “controlled” with the rod in my right. Try that sometime if you’re feeling spry.

Somehow, it all worked. I credit the lightweight, responsive kayak, and a few lucky, awkward digs with the paddle, to launch me through the raging turn and away from the ugly wood tangle. And then came another lucky break. Since I’d been so occupied guiding the boat I held off on horsing the muskie, and simply held on as it dug straight down into the clean midriver channel, away from snags.

Fifty more yards downstream was a large, horizontal downed tree that had fallen in from the left bank, sticking out into the river 20 feet or so, and when I’d somehow managed to guide the fish out and around to the right—both hands on the rod now and paddle across my lap—I knew I had a chance. Drifting some 100 yards farther downstream, muskie still holding to the river’s deep center channel, the river suddenly widened and shallowed, and I saw my opportunity. Leaping up from the kayak, I straddled the boat and then touched feet to sandy river bottom. Five minutes later, in water about 20 inches deep and with banks much too overgrown to beach the behemoth, I was able to slip a hand under a massive jaw. The battle was over.

Dick pulled up just as I corralled the fish, and Jim drifted up five minutes later, as I was reviving the old girl in the crystal clear current. I’d guessed the battle had taken some 15 minutes, and it took just about that long to revive the fish before it could summon the power to slither slowly away. But not before we’d stretched out a kayak paddle alongside her and cut a little notch.

Back at the cabin, stretching a tape to that little knife mark registered 50 inches—a burly northwoods river muskie nearly half as long as the nimble kayak used to catch it!

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