The Fish of 600 Casts

The Fish of 600 Casts

Fly-fishing for musky

  • By: John Gierach
When my friend Chris Schrantz and I went to northern Wisconsin in late spring to fly-fish some rivers for smallmouth bass, we were told that there could be muskies in the mix, but we honestly didn't think we'd see one. After all, Chris and I both grew up in the north country--just across the border in Minnesota--so we knew the mythology: Muskies can grow to enormous size, but they were said to be all but impossible to catch. They were called "the fish of a thousand casts," and that was putting it mildly, since there were true stories of musky fishermen having fishless weeks, months and even whole seasons.The prevailing notion was that a big musky could be the fish of a lifetime provided you didn't go insane before you caught it. Of course neither of us had fished for muskies while we were growing up. We were just kids with short attention spans who needed to catch a fish now and then to stay interested, while muskies were reserved for gray-haired guys with thousand-yard stares, Zen-like patience and no visible means of support. It was one of those serious adult things that we were told we'd get to soon enough, so don't be in too much of a hurry. If we'd been paying closer attention, it would also have been our first hint that fishing could become less of a pastime and more of a chronic condition. I don't know if my dad ever fished for muskies. I don't remember hearing about it, and of course I didn't bother to ask while he was alive and I still had the chance. I think he might have though, based on a single piece of evidence. Among all the bass and pike lures in his old tackle box, which I still have, there's a single 14-inch-long jointed musky plug, an antique wooden one that I'm told would be worth a bundle to a collector if it weren't for the chipped paint and teeth marks. So anyway, when one of the people we'd be fishing with, Mike Janeczko, said we might catch a musky by accident while fishing for smallmouths, I assumed this would be about as likely as spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker: just barely within the range of possibility, but not something you could count on. But then something else Chris and I didn't count on was how pervasive the musky vibe would be. We were staying in a borrowed apartment over the fly shop in Hayward, Wisconsin, a place that could qualify as the musky capitol of the world. The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame is in Hayward, and its centerpiece--for better or worse--is a perfectly proportioned, 41/2-story-tall fiberglass musky that looms over the small town like something out of a 1950's horror movie. More to the point, many record-book muskies were caught nearby, including Louie Spray's 69-pound, 11-ounce behemoth that has stood as the all-tackle record since 1949. There's at least one reproduction of Spray's musky at a local resort, and the skin mount of the actual fish is hung in a place of honor down at the Moccasin Bar. In fact, we never went into a bar or cafe in the area that didn't have multiple large muskies hanging on the walls. (There were also a few 20-inch plus smallmouth bass that were damned impressive in their own right, but which, given their surroundings, couldn't help looking a little like bait.) The regional aesthetic seems to be that it's pointless to mount a musky weighing much less than 40 pounds, if only because it would be dwarfed by the competition. The majority of these big fish came from lakes, but even when you were fly-fishing rivers for smallmouth bass, the musky business was always in the air. For one thing, you can adequately fish for smallies with something like a six- or eight-pound-test tippet, but because there are muskies in the rivers and they're known to eat the same flies, you have to attach your bass bugs to your leader with some sort of bite guard or shock tippet. I tried the 40-pound-test hard mono that I've used successfully in the past for pike, but my first unexpected strike from a musky sliced it cleanly and I lost my bass bug. It was early in the trip and, if nothing else, I didn't want to spend the rest of the week feeding swimming deerhair frogs to muskies at the rate of $6 apiece. The people we were fishing with (Mike, Wendy Williamson, Larry Mann and Mike Sergeant--a.k.a. "Sarge") all preferred bite guards of 65-pound Power Pro, a woven material that stands up well even to a sharp pair of scissors. I borrowed some and it worked a little better. That is, I lost the next two muskies that hit, but at least I got my fly back. Still, in the course of a week we lost several more flies to muskies that, as Chris said, bit the Power Pro in half cleaner than any of the tools we were using to cut it. Most of the gear guys use wire leaders for muskies and it works well--although some say it cuts down on strikes--but I'd once tried wire leaders while fly-fishing for pike and came to the same conclusion as a local fisherman who said, "I'd rather just lose flies than try to cast wire on a fly rod." Clearly, further research is called for. Another difficulty with muskies is the strength of their jaws. They can grab a fly and hold it so tightly that, however hard or often you pump the rod, the fly won't slide in the fish's mouth, which of course is how you set a hook. (Plug casters say a big musky is strong enough to crush a treble hook.) Muskies are tenacious predators, and they'll sometimes hold onto your fly through a good run, during which you can assume they're hooked. But when they finally decide that this thing they've attacked is more trouble than it's worth, they'll simply open their mouths and let go of the fly. Your bite guard held, you'd hit 'em "hard and often" like you'd been told to by the guides and you'd even played them briefly, so you couldn't help but feel cheated. I should say that the smallmouth fishing was excellent. The fish catching was steady, if not non-stop, and they were wild, pretty fish of all sizes, including a few pushing 20 inches, almost all caught on topwater bugs. It was what we came for and what we spent most of our time doing, but after several strikes from muskies without even trying, things began to take the inevitable left turn. Before it was all over, we'd spent two days floating a river that's known as good musky water. I won't mention the river's name because we were kindly taken there by friends and it's not my place to publish its location, especially since musky fishermen are about as secretive as you'd expect. While we were there a guy got a big musky from a local flowage, a trophy in the 50-pound class. He posted a photo of it on a Web site, but he had obviously superimposed the image of him holding his fish over a postcard view of the Canadian Rockies in order to disguise the location. We heard about this from several people who all thought that was fair enough. The nuts and bolts of fly-fishing for muskies turned out to be fairly straightforward. Muskies are said to like riffles--and I did get one vicious pull in fast water--but these are placid rivers that don't have many riffles. We actually moved most of our fish in knee- to thigh-deep bankside water, usually with a jumbled, rocky bottom, a nearby drop-off and some kind of good cover like large rocks, sunken logs or brush piles. They came to the same flies you'd use for smallmouth bass--patterns resembling minnows, crawdads and frogs--and those critters were exactly what we saw while wading that kind of water at pee stops and coffee breaks. I'd always assumed that musky lures had to be as big as that old clunker in my dad's tackle box because most of them are. On our first night in town, Chris and I went to a local bait shop to buy our non-resident licenses and to look at displays of musky plugs costing upwards of $30 each, bristling with treble hooks and bigger than most of the trout we catch back home in Colorado. I know these things work because they've been in use for generations, but the smaller flies that worked for us made a kind of day-to-day sense too. After all, there's no reason to think that your average musky is any different than your average wolf. Biologists say that wolves might prefer to bring down full-grown deer, but in order to stay fed they spend most of their time eating mice. I have a photo of Chris holding a 45-inch musky--a smallish musky, but still a big fish--and wearing that mildly dazed expression you sometimes see in snapshots of fishermen. He's slightly amazed that he caught the thing and, in a larger sense, amazed that they can be caught at all on a fly rod. But then I never trust people who try to act as if catching a nice big fish is no big deal for a sportsman of their caliber. After all, fishing is nothing more than the often-successful search for something genuine in a world where we're increasingly comfortable with things like coffee "creamer" that's guaranteed to contain no actual dairy products. We're so used to the fake and the packaged that encountering something real can amount to a borderline religious experience. That day, Chris and I landed three muskies between us and missed or lost at least that many more. (So they're not the fish of a thousand casts after all. I'd say no more than six hundred casts per strike, tops.) In the course of a week on several different rivers, we got strikes from maybe two dozen muskies, most of them on those two 10- to 12-hour days when we were actually fishing for them. Some bit us off and many of the others simply came loose. Still, we landed just enough to prove that, although fly-fishing for muskies isn't exactly mainstream even in this part of the world, it's not that unusual either. The locals were always excited when one of us would land one, but they weren't the least bit surprised. This literally happens every day. At this late date it should come as no surprise that some fishermen somewhere are successfully doing whatever you can think of, not to mention plenty of things you can't. (Once a guy called to say he'd perfected fly-fishing for prairie dogs. As soon as I determined that he wasn't joking, I told him not to call me again.) So when I got home and someone said, "Really, muskies on a fly rod?" I said, "Well, yeah, why not?" Naturally, it wasn't lost on us that there were much bigger fish in the river than the ones we were catching: the gnawing truth that eventually dawns on all fishermen, and musky anglers in particular. If the mounts back in Hayward weren't enough, we saw one jump in a midstream riffle that was better than twice the size of anything we'd hooked, and I landed a yard-long musky with half-healed bite marks on him that were seven inches wide. Larry said that was probably from the recent spawn, which can get a little rough I guess. Like all fishermen, I have some sympathy for the fish, and getting nearly bitten in half makes my own troubles with love look tame. During the course of landing, admiring and releasing the first musky I actually got to the boat, I got pretty excited and somehow lost the long-handle hook disgorger my dad had given me some 45 years ago while we were pike fishing. This was the oldest piece of fishing tackle I still used, and when brand new it couldn't have cost more than 50 cents. It probably went over the side, since it wasn't in the boat when the commotion died down and that was the only other possibility. I had a brief Dad's-gonna-kill-me moment before remembering that he's long past caring, and even if he wasn't, he'd be proud of me for holding onto the thing for so long, only to finally lose it in action. This is how time occasionally works. One minute you're a 13-year-old drowning worms for bluegills because muskies are among the countless things that are out of your league; the next minute you're a decently preserved 58 and finally landing a musky. Sure, all kinds of things have happened in between, but for the moment you can't remember any of them.