These Wisconsin fish-heads are mastering muskie on the fly.
- By: Brad Bohen
- Photography by: Tosh Brown
I used to be a blissfully happy trout angler living a normal life in southwest Montana, catching dozens of fish a day on tiny dries or great big streamers. I had a job, a life, a routine. Now I’m a bachelor living in the Wisconsin northwoods, packing a fly box the size of a briefcase, and I’m happy when I boat a single fish in a long day on the water. My only routine is treating chronically slashed-up hands and healing my pride after it is trounced by what has become the focus of my life—the muskellunge.
So why did I give up trout and take on this highly predatory and confounding fish? The answer is this: The pull of my home state was too strong to ignore, and I wanted to rediscover myself, find my soul, on the water, while mastering what many considered an impossible task—regularly taking muskie with flies.
My first couple years in Wisconsin were lessons in modesty. To keep my dream alive I flipped burgers and poured cocktails, cleaned disgusting porcelain thrones and pounded nails in blowing snow and 20-degree weather. I had to dig deep. I will not lie. The muskie proved to be a challenging fish on the fly, a beast that wasn’t impossible, but was a lot more likely to refuse a fly than eat it. I couldn’t buy one with regularity. Worst of all, only a few anglers pursued muskie with flies, and those who did were far from enthusiastic about sharing their experiences and knowledge. In fact, I was told by one old sage muskie angler, “Brad, you need to go away and study hydrology for about 15 years before you and I can even begin to discuss my muskie flies.” Other people weren’t so kind.
There were times when I was nearly ready to chuck it all and go back to whatever a normal life can be called these days. And, naturally, I was pissed off at those attitudes. But I was also motivated. I didn’t go away. I dug deep, focused clearly, and really dedicated myself to the pursuit. Relationships came and went, personal and professional. But kindred spirits showed up, too, in the form of muskie fishing partners and guides that I now call “the Muskie Tribe.” Surely, over the past decade, with thousands of days invested on the water, myself and this band of muskie brothers have learned that these aren’t the mythical, unattainable beasts they’ve been touted to be. Instead, we’ve learned timing and tactics that make them reasonable quarry for average fly casters. We now spend our days between May and December on the great waters of the upper Mississippi Basin—the Chippewa, Flambeau, Wisconsin, St. Croix and Namekagon rivers, along with many lesser-known feeders—where we target fish ranging between five and 40 pounds. We do so from McKenzie-style driftboats and prams, casting to the banks and brushpiles down miles of unfettered river. I can now say that muskie are the ideal flyrod fish. And I call to proof our numbers from last year, not as an ego boost, but as a demonstration of how things have changed; during the 2011 season our clients landed almost 350 muskie on flies, or roughly one muskie for every five hours of fishing, with all the missed strikes and lost fish going uncounted. And we’re not the only ones doing this. The muskie lightbulb has ignited in the brains of some of the baddest anglers on the planet, and they are visiting our area in bigger numbers each year.
Muskie are in reach of a large proportion of you. Pure-strain and hybrid “tiger” muskie are found in at least 36 states. You don’t have to travel halfway around the world to catch a big fish with teeth; you can do so on a blue-collar budget. But I didn’t say muskie are easy. Muskie can be slashing and vicious at times, but they can also be subtle, slipping up on an angler, taking them by surprise after six hours spent casting a stiff 10-weight into a severe left wind. You look away. You think about a girl. You rub your head because of those whiskey shots at Bogies last night—you let your guard down for an instant and you’ll be yelling into the crisp northwoods air, “That’s when the son-of-a-bitch decided to eat?”
But this endeavor is addicting, from the first time that a four-foot-long “shark” inhales your fly. That’s why my life now consists of this: I get up before dawn every day between June 1 and freeze-up, to study the weather and river flow charts, trying to decide which beat will be the one. Then I pair the appropriate guide to our clients and send them to a prime piece of water, a lake or river that offers the best conditions—that day—to take a muskie on a fly. I usually don’t get to sleep until after midnight. Thinking back, muskie fishing either saved my life or ruined it. And, beware, it could do the same to you.
When muskie fever strikes it strikes hard. And not just because they’re a classic flyrod fish—being part of the Muskie Tribe brings fellowship like I haven’t found anywhere else. And being on the rivers with brethren is a balm for us, an escape from a world that doesn’t always understand drive and passion. Muskie Tribe is a world that feels like a secret place where myself and others finally fit in. Fly-fishing for muskie puts me in a place where I am balanced, and spending time on the water with people who see the world similarly is what life is all about.
There have been times I’ve been browbeaten, but nothing will keep me from pursuing these fish and building on what we’ve created—a group of likeminded anglers searching for 50-pounders and all that the capture of that fish requires. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still fish for trout and almost anything else that swims, but the muskellunge, and especially the muskie country of northern Wisconsin, is part of my soul. When a fish embeds there, you better take notice.
Brad Bohen grew up catching fish on the St. Croix River, and now runs Muskie Country Outfitters, in Hayward, Wisconsin.