Pro Tips: Smallmouths as a Gateway to Muskies, Part II

Written by: Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips


The visual aspect of muskie fishing can be both exhilarating and frustrating.
Photo by Kip Vieth

The main reason I was drawn to smallmouth bass and the main reason they are still my favorite fly rod fish is that my clients and I get to see 90 percent of their eats. There is still nothing like watching large fish eat an angler’s fly. I think that is why most of us picked up a fly rod in the first place. Our angling experiences grow over the years. Most anglers are all about moving to the next big challenge. Smallmouths offer this challenge.

Trout anglers are often looking for the next challenge or a way to make the dog days of summer somewhat tolerable. Most love to fish a dry fly. Anglers love to fool their quarry, and see it when it happens. After watching smallmouths crush poppers and minnow patterns for years, the fly angler is often looking for the next big challenge. Smallmouths eating poppers never really gets old, but this is oftentimes when the addiction starts to creep in. The angler starts looking for that next adrenalin rush: muskies. A smallmouth angler might see one swimming in the shallows or have one blow up on their bass fly. A good portion of the time muskies are very visual. For the most part, the flies are big and bright. The fish love to follow your fly for great distances, which is a blessing and a curse at the same time. The eats are often viscous and explosive, and often just a few feet from the boat or the rod tip. If you’re a visual angler you might find yourself slowly creeping toward the addiction of muskies.

Reading the Water
There are days when everything just clicks. I have several longtime clients that, when they’re in the boat with me, it seems we are on the same mental wavelengths. I will look at a piece of structure and before I can say anything, a fly is dropped right where it needs to be. These are clients who have floated with me for years. They know what I’m thinking before I can even say anything.

I’m a river fisherman. I love moving water and all the structure it presents. Smallmouths love to relate to structure and are ambush strikers. They love current seams, wood piles, rock bars, and drops or weed lines. If there is advantage to be had, they will use it. This kind of fishing can become a game for the angler. How close can I get the fly to the productive structure? Muskies use a lot of these same kinds of structures as the smallmouths. Muskies love seams and wood. To the seasoned smallmouth angler these spots will jump right out. Nothing is more fun than having a large smallmouth bust out of a seam and crush a fly. If you’re a structure junkie presenting a well-placed fly and have it eaten is the real rush.

This leads to another reason to start the downward spiral into a musky addiction. The angler might start thinking about what it would be like to have a large musky devour your well-placed fly. Once these thoughts start creeping into your mind, it might be the beginning of the end. Learning these haunts and places where predators live can help produce and make you a much better angler. This is where the angler becomes the hunter. Predators are predators whether they have four legs or fins. Learning how they ambush and seeing them be successful is where the addiction might just grab you.


The author’s new “white whale” is a 50-inch muskie on a fly.
Photo by Kip Vieth

Reading the Fish
The smallmouth angler, with some experience, soon learns how to read and react to their quarry. They soon learn when to twitch a popper, pause a minnow pattern, or just let the fly dead-drift. They can see the fish and almost instinctively know what they are looking for. They have studied their target and have learned over the years a smallmouth’s predictable behaviors, still knowing in the back of their minds that the smallmouth can be a very fickle species some days.

Knowing how to read a musky is an art unto itself. They are perhaps the most moody and fickle fish that swims. Learning to read them is something the really effective musky angler masters, if you can do such a thing. I know that you will always be learning this part of Musky angling. Each year, I see something that is totally new, and it leaves me scratching my head. Seeing if the fish is hot, just following, or somewhere in between can make a big difference in putting fish in the boat. Having a good idea of what to do with your fly and how to give the musky what he is looking for is huge. Even if you think you know what they want you’ll still probably be wrong.

Experience is the key. The more experienced you become, the better you’ll be and probably become even more frustrated. Watching fish after fish peel away from your fly when you were sure they were going to eat can leave the angler with more questions than answers. My friend, Jim Lampros, a well respecting Ohio Steelheader, summed muskies up pretty well. This might be the perfect description of them.

I don’t care what you hear from the Permit freaks: no fish says “@$%& %$#” with more sass than a muskie. They possess a truly remarkable ability to shatter an angler’s spirit and leave him questioning everything. I suppose in that sense, the analogy to the human female holds up pretty well.

With all of this being said, there is nothing quite like a musky eating your fly. That first one might be the one you chase the rest of your life. You might start the downward spiral of the musky addiction. Always looking for the next adrenalin rush, the next big fish, or the magic number. I have caught a fair number of them over the years. Now I’m chasing a number, 50 inches or better on the fly. I’ll spend countless hours tying flies looking for the magic bullet. I’ll pore over maps, Google earth, rumors and innuendoes of beasts lurking in some place no one knows about. If that isn’t enough, I spend days casting to what will sometimes be considered a fictional beast in cold, wind and snow.

Is it worth it? Sometimes, I wonder. Ask me when I boat the 50-incher, and I’ll let you know. Just think, all this started from a big smallmouth eating a popper. Choose your path carefully, my friends, you never know where it may lead! And that, my friends, is why the smallmouth is the gateway drug to a Musky!!

Kip Vieth owns Wildwood Float Trips, in Monticello, Minnesota. Check out his excellent “10 Tips for Catching a Musky on a Fly.”

One thought on “Pro Tips: Smallmouths as a Gateway to Muskies, Part II”

  1. Nice two part article.

    Last year I caught my biggest fly rod smallmouth ever on the Menominee River on Wisconsin’s UP. It measured 20 1/4″. Along with that I also caught my biggest Northern ever on a fly rod, which measured 36″. Although there were muskys in the river we did not see or experience any chasing our flies. So, I don’t have the addition…….yet!

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