Size is not the answer, but a great presentation and being seen is. In rivers the water is very dark this year, that means you need more flash and movement, (vibrations), to get the Muskies attention. Build on the weaknesses of the fish, during this transitional time period they love a struggling or distressed baitfish in the 7 to 10 inch range for dinner.
Your gear should make your quest pleasurable and not a chore to use, choosing it wisely will save your pocketbook and your arms. You can still use your 9 weight rods until about the middle of September, take advantage of the lighter tackle and use it to your advantage. If all you have is a 10 weight rod, you can use it, the physical weight is more difficult to handle, but it will work even with lighter flies. You should purchase your equipment as follows: Rod, Line, Reel - put as much money in your rod as possible, this is the “tool” which makes your fishing more effective, next get the line that best suits your fishing style, (you will probably need more than one line, most likely three lines for fishing throughout the entire season), finally get a reel that works, if you like the “Bling” it will cost you more, but there are lots of great reels that will meet your Musky fly fishing needs.
Get the lightest weight, fastest action rod you can afford - but be careful not to get a "Saltwater" rod that is all butt and not meaty enough in the middle and tip sections. You need to generate lots of line speed at shorter distances, (25 to 35 feet). I like the Greys Carnivore Series Rods which are very good and reasonably priced, these are excellent rods for casting extra large flies long distances with little effort. If you are on a very tight budget, I think the best rod under $200.00 is the Nu-Cast Smokin’ Hot 9' 9wt. - it's a very good rod that fishes better than the price tag suggests. If you want the very best and price is no object, I think the Hardy Proaxis rods are superior in every way. They are very fast, recover rapidly, are extremely lightweight and super durable - up to 60% stronger than the best Graphite fly rods available today. The 9 foot 10 weight Proaxis X Model is lighter in weight than most graphite 9 weights and still has enough “backbone” to stick any monster Musky.
"Salmon" action rods are really too soft, they are made to protect lighter tippets and not made to cast extra large flies long distances - we don't have any lighter tippets to protect, 25-35# wire and 40# mono don't really need any "shock absorbing" softer tip or mid sections to protect them from breaking! You need a rod with enough strength to be able to “Figure Eight” at the boat without the rod wavering and spraying water all over the place - which will spook the fish. Most 8wt. rods don't have enough backbone to "stick" a big Musky hard enough to get a good hook-set, but they will work well for most Pike. I want to add, we're trying to hook and fight them, not kill them in the process, use a rod that gives you enough "backbone" to do the job well, don't skimp on the rod.
Reels are really a matter of choice. Typically Muskies will not run you into your Backing - they’re not built that way, they would rather stay by the boat and duke it out with you in close quarters. These fish are sprinters, they can accelerate up to 70 mph, but only for short distances. With that knowledge, you don’t really need a reel that can hold 200 or more yards of backing. I usually use lighter weight 7/8 Reels - as long as they balance the rod correctly. Our ultra light weight rods will balance with lighter reels these days and anything I can do to keep my “system” lighter, yet still be balanced, will help me to cast better and fish more effectively. If I can get 75 yards of 30 pound test Backing on a reel that has a good Carbon Fiber Disc Drag, then I will have a reel that can beat any Musky anywhere.
Leader Design: I make my own leaders, I use 40 pound test Maxima Ultragreen for the butt section, which may be between 2 and 7 feet long, (depending on the water depth and clarity), the shallower the water the longer the leader needs to be. I put a small Perfection Loop at the fly line and Loop-to-Loop connect the leader to the fly line, then I tie the Bite Tippet section to the Invisible Swivel with a 5 wrap Clinch Knot. My Bite TIppet sections are about 18 inches of 25 or 35 pound test single strand Knot-2-Kinky Nickel-Titanium Wire. I tie the fly directly to the wire using another Perfection Loop, this lets the fly “swim” better adding to it’s action. I don’t use any snaps to attach the fly, they will fail and probably on that “fish of a lifetime” you really wanted a picture of! This is by far the best leader system I have come up with, the wire is so small in diameter the fish don't see it, and it lasts much longer than anything else out there, also because it is single strand, it doesn't give off as much reflection under water making it even more invisible to the fish.
Leader length depends on water depth and time of year. In the early spring I use a longer length because of water clarity - I lengthen the mono portion to as much as 7 feet, giving me a total length of almost 9 feet with the Titanium Tippet. Conversely, in the late fall when I'm fishing very large flies on heavy Sink-Tip lines and I want to keep them on or near the bottom, I go to a very short leader only about 2 to 3 feet plus the Titanium Tippet section giving a total leader length of about 3 to 4 feet. Under normal fishing conditions throughout most of the season I use a total leader length of about 5 to 7 feet, this allows the fly to turn over well and still provides enough distance between the line and the fly to not spook the fish.
Fly Lines: I mostly use clear Intermediate lines, I prefer the Rio Outbound Short for most of my river fishing and the regular Outbound for lake fishing. This is my “go to” line for summer and early Fall fishing, it will go between 1 and 3 feet deep in most currents and I can use a floating fly with it when it is absolutely necessary. My next choice in rivers is a 10 foot Type 6 Sink-TIp, this line will get my fly down 4 to 7 feet in moderate currents. In lakes or deeper river areas, I prefer a 24 foot Type 6 Sink-Tip Line with an Intermediate running line, this line gets down fast and stays there, I use this line later in the season when the water is colder and the fish are not coming to the surface very much. The last line I use late in the season or when I’m fishing rivers directly in the outflow of a dam is a 30 foot Type 6 Sink-Tip with an Intermediate Running Line, this line gets down deep and fast, it is made for deeper water or heavy currents, it also works very well for fishing lakes later in the season where the fish are deep in 15 or more feet of water.
All Muskies are opportunistic binge feeders, they go on a rampage one day and then settle in for a couple of days while they digest their meal, this is why they seem to be everywhere at certain times and then suddenly you can't find a good one anywhere, they simply aren't hungry. Weather events tend to get them fired up, cloudy skies and changing conditions will trigger feeding responses most of the time. They feel more secure and are not as easily spotted in the darker conditions as they stalk their territories in search of prey.
In rivers Muskies are almost always on the move, they tend to follow baitfish migrations much more than do their cousins in lakes, (with the exception of those Muskies that feed almost exclusively on Ciscoes). Most of the time they will be located in pools where they have more depth and a concentration of food. River Muskies tend to stalk shallower waters more often than their brethren in lakes. Since most of our rivers here in the Upper Midwest have more shallow water this only seems natural, even the pools in most rivers have modest depths compared to most lakes, so river Muskies are much more comfortable in shallower areas than those in lakes. Most river Muskies will spend the majority of the summer in water less than 4 feet deep, using weed beds, log jams and other structures to conceal their movements. Since river Muskies move quite often, a key component to their location is their food supply, the number one ingredient for locating Muskies is: MUSKIES NEVER GO FAR FROM THE BREADBOX! If you can locate a good supply of baitfish, you will find actively feeding Muskies nearby. This mantra also holds true for Muskies in lakes, but they may be in much deeper waters than they are in rivers.
I use my sonar to locate the depth ranges where baitfish are holding in lakes, then I fish the edges of these schools keeping my fly a foot or two above the main parts of the baitfish schools.