Blowing it Up

Blowing it Up

In new Muskie Nation, the 10,000-casts rule doesn't apply.

  • By: Robert S Tomes
  • Photography by: Tosh Brown
Blowing It Up    

Click image for slideshow.

Whether you realize it or not, modern fly-fishing is guided by an age-old code of conduct with specific rules that help you catch more fish and, in some cases, keep the peace. Among those rules: don’t spook the fish; don’t drag your fly; keep your tip up; let the fish run; and never, ever give away a friend’s secret spot.

That’s all true in the world of trout, but in the Midwest and its emerging world of muskie fly-fishing, anglers are smashing those rules by blending elements of conventional and saltwater techniques, including big flies and figure-eight retrieves, to take muskie, with regularity, on flies.

For those adding muskie to their angling hit-list, it’s definitely go-time; thanks to an almost religious adherence to catch-and-release among conventional and fly anglers, coupled with enlightened fisheries management and catch and size limits on many trophy waters, muskie fishing today is probably as good as it will ever get. In fact, a survey of Wisconsin muskie anglers reveals that more than half were successful in 2010.

That doesn’t mean muskie are just dying to jump in your boat. In fact, I know many experienced anglers who’d say muskie are equal in difficulty to other coveted species, such as steelhead, tarpon and permit. Yet on certain days and on certain waters, you’d wonder what all the fuss is about. Fly Rod & Reel columnist John Gierach once described muskie as the “fish of 600 casts.” He wasn’t denigrating the challenge. Truth be told, he was fishing on some rivers in northern Wisconsin where it’s not uncommon to catch and release several muskie in a day, sometimes more. Known in the muskie lexicon as “action water,” these smaller rivers and lakes offer what is perhaps the best chance at seeing, hooking and landing your first muskie on a fly.

It’s a different story on traditional muskie waters. Known for bigger forage and bigger fish, these trophy fisheries are where the majority of hard-core muskie hunters invest their time, many casting and trolling giant lures with names like Cowgirl, Bulldawg, Grandma and Creeper. Armed with high-speed boats and fast-retrieve reels, they ply the lakes and rivers of Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York and Ontario searching for the fish of a lifetime. For them, The Fish of 10,000 Casts myth is a mantra; they know it can happen on the next cast, but it’s always going to take a lot of hard work. They’re in for the long haul.

Fly-fishing those trophy waters is not for dilettantes. It requires the physical stamina to cast a big fly—usually in the wind—all day; the knowledge to understand fish behavioral patterns throughout the season; and, perhaps most important, the mental strength to believe a strike is about to happen, despite not having seen a fish all day.

The muskie’s elusiveness is based in biology—with only so much food to go around, a given freshwater ecosystem can support only a limited number of apex predators. How many? Some studies show as few as one muskie per acre, while other fisheries—typically stocked ones—support six to eight per acre. I love the trophy hunt exactly because it’s an extreme challenge with a fly rod; every fish I catch or see is a memorable event. And because every once in a while the stars align, the monster fish of my dreams eats my hand-tied concoction of feathers on a hook.

So, are muskie really the fish of 10,000 casts? The exact origins of that slogan are impossible to trace. But it’s easy to imagine the words first uttered—along with a few choice expletives—by some disillusioned angler after a long, frustrating day of casting a pool-cue-stiff rod and retrieving a bath-toy-size lure armed with treble hooks. All this effort without so much as a follow. Whoever coined that phrase contributed heavily to northwoods folklore, and the fact that the world-record muskie still stands at nearly 70 pounds (caught in northern Wisconsin in 1949) only stokes that region’s legend. For decades, rural fishing towns such as Hayward and Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, have capitalized on the toothy critter’s fable, offering a profusion of muskie-themed supper clubs, fishing tournaments and tourist traps, each laying claim to being the “Muskie Capital of the World” while tempting anglers to catch the next world record. Not surprisingly, there are numerous muskie guides operating in the territory. Some are authentic and water-tested, others are filled with helium. All are willing to take your money.

Like the obsessive pursuit of any rarely seen beast, on land or submerged, targeting muskie, especially big ones, guarantees exhausting days when you’d swear the fish doesn’t exist, and you might curse your fishing buddy all the way back to the dock for dragging you into such a quixotic waste of time and money. But then there are those remarkable days when you make that perfect cast tight along a weed bed, rock pile or logjam. A long, dark, reptilian shape suddenly appears. Your heart skips as that fish stalks your fly, all the way back to the boat, eyes fixated and dorsal fin out of the water. At the last second it charges, tooth-filled jaws agape, and destroys your fly. That’s when you realize what a great species this is and why pursuing muskie—even with advances in gear and technique—isn’t like visiting your neighbor’s stocked trout pond. Having chased the legend for more than three decades, there’s no question to me that the muskie is one of North America’s greatest gamefish, and even if you target a trophy and it takes 9,999 casts to catch the one you want, this fish is well worth the effort.

Chicagoan Robert S. Tomes is the author of the book Muskie on the Fly, the definitive work on the subject.