Call them muskellunge, musky, muskies, or the fish of 10,000 casts. By any name, there’s no fish New York’s freshwater lakes and rivers that inspires more awe or evokes a greater sense of excitement among anglers.
There may also be no fish that’s harder to catch. Just finding them is a challenge in and of itself, let alone hooking one, battling it to submission, and getting it into the boat. Muskies often swim away leaving broken lines and broken hearts in their wake.
Muskellunge are capable of exceeding 50 inches and weighing over 40 pounds. Individuals in the 30- to 40-inch range, which typically weigh anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds, are fairly common—that is to say, as common as muskies can be—in New York’s waters.
The methods used to catch them are often exceedingly simple.
Trolling outsized plugs at moderate to high speeds over drop-offs and along weed beds accounts for more muskie strikes than any other tactic. Depths between 15 and 30 feet are most productive, most of the time.
That said, plenty of people find success casting for muskellunge using spinners, spoons, crankbaits, jerkbaits and other lures. Some brave souls even fly fish for them.
The best time of year for muskie fishing varies. On many lakes, muskies are most active in late spring, while in other waters they seem to feed most aggressively during the dog days of August.
Many of the biggest fish are caught in mid- to late fall, as giant muskies feed heavily in preparation for winter. Some real brutes are hauled up through holes in the ice every winter too.
The statewide muskie season in New York runs from the last Saturday in May to November 30. Only one fish may be kept daily, and the minimum length limit is 40 inches. Some waters, particularly those that are part of the Great Lakes, have separate regulations and seasons.
The first three spots below are bucket-list muskie fishing spots in New York, but stick around for our “Honorable Mention” lakes and rivers where these ferocious game fish also can result in the fish of a lifetime.
St. Lawrence River
The Thousand Islands region in the St. Lawrence River cemented its reputation as the best muskellunge fishery in the world back in the 1950s and 60s, when a string of record-shattering muskies were caught here.
Those include the 69 pound, 15 ounce submarine that Arthur Lawton pulled from the river in 1957, and which remains New York’s long-standing state record muskellunge.
After a period of decline in the 90s, the St. Lawrence has bounced back in a big way. More 50-inch muskies have been caught in recent years than at any time since the mid-century heyday, and a handful have even broken the incredibly elusive 60-inch mark.
Part of that has to do with a strict 54-inch minimum length limit that was implemented in 2015, ensuring that virtually all muskellunge caught in the St. Lawrence River are returned unharmed.
Finding these fish can still be a challenge. Doing so often requires identifying what is known as ‘transitional structure,’ or areas that have access to a wide range of depths and structures within a small area.
Such spots include what is known as the 40-Acre Shoal near Alexandria Bay, the sandbar near the mouth of the Oswegatchie River in Ogdensburg, and waters around Morristown’s American Island.
Public boat launches are available in Alexandria Bay, Ogdensburg and Morristown (among many other places on the river) and there are also about a dozen New York State Parks throughout the Thousand Islands region.
Once you identify likely muskellunge structure, use your electronics to try to locate schools of baitfish.
Ultimately, trolling is the best way to cover the most water and put your lure in front of as many muskies as possible. Most strikes come near, but not directly in, a school of baitfish.
Jointed Musky King and Musky Killer plugs from Wiley Lures are very popular among St. Lawrence muskellunge enthusiasts. The water up here is usually gin-clear, so natural color patterns work best.
Nestled in the farthest corner of Western New York, Chautauqua Lake has been a legendary muskellunge lake for more than a century.
According to old stories from the early 1900s—impossible to verify and probably, to be honest, not entirely true—muskies surpassing 70 pounds were once caught here.
Take that with as many grains of salt as you need to. But to this day, there’s no other lake in New York that gives up more 40- to 45-inch muskies. Maybe not trophies, but respectable fish.
Chautauqua Lake spans 13,156 acres, and consists of two basins that are connected by a narrow bottleneck. The two basins are similar in size, and both offer great muskie potential, but they are also very different from one another.
Generally speaking, the northern basin is deep and clear, while the southern basin is shallower and more turbid. Both basins have substantial weed growth, but the northern basin has more rocky structure.
Chautauqua’s southern basin is a little easier to fish, especially if you’re new to the lake, because one can cover the whole water column more quickly. Watch your electronics for schools of baitfish while trolling.
All kinds of lures can be effective on Chautauqua Lake, from crankbaits and plugs to bucktails and soft plastics. Use what you’re used to and feel most confident in.
It’s also worth noting that, while trolling results in the best numbers, casting is also a viable option here.
Weed beds around Mayville Flats at the north end of the lake, along with the Prendergast and Bell Tower areas, are great for casting. There’s nothing more exciting than feeling a muskie strike while the rod is in your hands.
October and November are often the most productive months, especially for finding muskies in relatively shallow water. In summer, most of the muskellunge that lurk in shallow weed beds are smaller. The big ones will be out in open water.
Several public boat ramps are available around Chautauqua Lake, including at Bemus Point and Long Point State Park.
This lake is also home to the Chautauqua Fish Hatchery, where the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) raises all the muskellunge that are stocked throughout New York.
Chautauqua Lake is home to several other noteworthy fisheries, including excellent bass fishing and some of the best walleye fishing in New York.
Upper Niagara River
Muskellunge inhabit both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in decent numbers, but finding and catching these solitary giants in the vast open waters of the Great Lakes can be extremely challenging.
But the Niagara River, which drains Erie into Ontario, is much more manageable, and offers a greater concentration of muskellunge in a much smaller area.
The best stretch for muskie fishing is from the mouth of the river near Buffalo Harbor down to the last navigable water above Niagara Falls.
Buffalo anglers pull 50-inch muskies out of this section of the river every year. There are solid numbers of smaller muskellunge too, assuming it makes sense to call a 35-inch fish “small.”
Lots of muskellunge are caught within the first few weeks after the season opener in June. By the time the waters warm up in summer, muskie fishing slows way down, and most of the big fish are caught right at dusk or after dark.
The best trophy muskie fishing of the whole year takes place in fall. By mid- to late October, the waters have cooled, and muskies from eastern Lake Erie head into the river to hunt.
Some of the most productive water is off the southwest end of Grand Island, and around the hump known as the Sunken Island.
Of all the muskellunge caught in the Upper Niagara River, the overwhelming majority are taken by trolling. Musky Candy plugs and Legend Lures Perch Baits are locally popular, and some big fish are taken by trolling live suckers and other baitfish.
As productive as the Niagara River is, it’s also treacherous, with very strong currents and hidden hazards. If you’re new to the river, going out for the first time with a guide is highly recommended.
The Niagara River shares a 54-inch muskie minimum length with Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The rule ensures that virtually all muskies caught in the Niagara River are released, and accounts for the huge size of many of the fish caught here.
If you get tired of making so many casts to catch a fish, switch to smaller lures and enjoy some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in New York.
Muskellunge are not as widespread as many other gamefish in New York, but there are several more excellent fisheries that anglers should also keep on their radar.
According to the DEC, at least 13 lakes and 19 rivers in New York support muskie populations. Some of the best bets include…
Tiger muskellunge—sterile hybrids of muskellunge and northern pike—have been stocked in two of the Finger Lakes: Otisco Lake and Conesus Lake. Of the two, Otisco has developed into the better tiger muskie fishery.
This long, narrow 1,877-acre lake has given up countless 20+ pound tigers over the years, and is almost certainly the best tiger muskie lake in the state.
A lot of fish are caught during the open water season, but Otisco Lake is especially known for its ice fishing.
A 46-inch, 27 pound, 5 ounce muskie pulled through the ice on Otisco Lake in 2009 is recognized as the official ice fishing world record tiger muskellunge.
Live suckers and alewives are the preferred ice fishing baits for muskellunge.
Throughout the warmer months, anglers either troll or cast with oversized spinners, soft plastics and plugs.
The north end of Otisco Lake has the most substantial weed growth, and some big tiger muskies have been caught trolling right along the deep edges of the weed beds. More limited vegetation is available at the south end (north of the causeway) and in Turtle Bay.
The tiger muskie fishery in Otisco Lake has had its ups and downs over the years. As non-reproducing fish, the population is entirely reliant on stocking. That said, multiple fish over 45 inches were caught in 2021, and the lake shows no immediate signs of slowing down.
Otisco Lake’s only public boat ramp is in the southern basin of the lake, which is separated from the rest of the lake by a causeway which boaters can cross under.
The 73-mile Grasse River is located entirely in St. Lawrence County, beginning in the foothills of the Adirondacks and eventually emptying into the St. Lawrence River in Massena, a stone’s throw from the northernmost point in New York.
Muskies are most common in the lower 36 miles of the Grasse River, from Canton to Massena. This section is mostly navigable to small motorboats, but by late summer the water may be too low to accommodate anything larger than a canoe or jon boat.
Fishing the Grasse River for muskies is a unique experience, and a great one for anglers who prefer smaller waters. It would be a stretch to say muskellunge are common in the river, but there are solid numbers of midize fish, along with the occasional monster.
Muskies in the Grasse River typically use cover for ambush. Aim your casts at logs, bridge abutments, rock pikes, fallen trees, grass beds, and anywhere else a muskie might camouflage itself.
Consider downsizing your presentation slightly in these smaller waters. The Grasse River supports smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye in addition to muskellunge, and it can be a lot of fun to approach it as a mixed-bag fishery.
Numerous access points and cartop boat launch sites are available on the Grasse River. The DEC offers this handy guide to launching and paddling various sections.
Upper, Middle and Lower Cassadaga Lake are three interconnected lakes in Western New York that form the headwaters of Cassadaga Creek. Although the Cassadaga Lakes are tiny—all three collectively total just 217 acres—they offer surprising muskie potential.
The Cassadaga Lakes are located just a few miles north of Chautauqua Lake, and all three lakes are stocked with muskies raised at the Chautauqua Hatchery. They’re a lot of fun for anglers who want to beat the crowds, or simply prefer a more intimate setting.
A public boat ramp is located on Middle Cassadaga Lake, and boaters can navigate between all three lakes. The water tends to be moderately turbid with ample shallow weed beds where muskies prowl.
Try topwaters like buzzbaits and Heddon Super Spooks first thing on a summer morning along weed lines, fallen trees and boat docks that reach deeper water. Few things in life are more heart-stopping than watching a muskie engulf a topwater lure.
That being said, don’t expect a trophy here. The Cassadaga Lakes put out decent numbers, but most muskies here run small. Ten-pounders are reasonably common, but anything over 15 pounds is an exceptional catch.
The upper portion of Cassadaga Creek also gives up some good-sized muskies. There are several launch sites along the creek for canoes and cartop boats, and muskellunge are sometimes caught from shore in the creek’s deep pools.
Spanning about 780 acres in Schuyler County, Waneta Lake has an impressive muskellunge population despite its modest size. The DEC has stocked muskellunge here for decades, and the current population is sustained through a combination of stocking and natural reproduction.
A mostly shallow lake with healthy weed growth, Waneta Lake has several small points along its eastern bank that feature steep drops and are some of the best places to start looking for muskellunge.
Trolling the weed edges with large stickbaits is effective, but this is a small enough body of water that casting can also be rewarding. Jointed stickbaits seem to be especially productive.
Perch and aleves are the main forage species, so choose your lure patterns accordingly. June and July are great months to target muskies along the edges of Waneta Lake’s weed beds. Oversized soft plastics are also popular.
Trophy-size muskellunge are not common in Waneta Lake, but studies by the DEC reveal a healthy population that consists of mostly 30- to 40-inch fish. A few muskies topping 30 pounds have been caught.
Shore access to Waneta Lake is limited, but a public boat launch is located at the southern end of the lake.
Allegheny River & Reservoir
Straddling the border between New York and Pennsylvania, Allegheny Reservoir is a large impoundment on the Allegheny River. The reservoir is renowned for its muskellunge fishing, and the river itself has also been known to give up some giants.
Fishing Allegheny Reservoir for muskies requires patience and persistence. Muskellunge fishing is never a numbers game, but Allegheny Reservoir definitely cements their reputation as the ‘fish of 10,000 casts.’
But the potential rewards are significant. Multiple 50-inch fish are boated here every year, some of them pushing 40 pounds.
Allegheny Reservoir’s water ranges from moderately stained to deeply turbid, and there’s little to no aquatic vegetation. The only truly fishable cover consists of rocky points, fallen trees along the shoreline, the occasional rock pile, and a few man-made cribs and reefs.
Muskellunge more often relate to schools of baitfish than thay do physical structure. That makes trolling the go-to method for trophy hunters here.
As for the Allegheny River, the best bets for muskellunge fishing tend to be in the middle and lower sections, which are located below Allegheny Reservoir in Pennsylvania.
That being said, the DEC does stock muskies in the upper (New York) portion of the river, and the occasional monster does turn up. River monsters are most often caught on live shiners, suckers and creek chubs.