Midwest Muskies

Catching Midwest muskies takes time, patience and, according to the experts, a full moon. For the author and artist Bob White that dedication was rewarded with two muskies in a day on Wisconsin’s Flambeau River.

Painting of man fishing
A fall float in Wisconsin offers the best of the season—meaning colored leaves, crisp air and hopefully a musky. Painting by Bob White
By John Geirach

I thought it was an eloquent juxtaposition of scale that the streamers I was casting for muskies in northern Wisconsin were the same size as the trout I’d been catching back home in Colorado just a few days before. Sometimes fishing tackle alone tells half the story, and when the guide hands you an 11-weight fly rod with a wire leader and a fly the size of a squirrel, you begin to get a sense of how the next few days could shake out.

These were guide flies in the finest sense of being nicely tied and with some subtle touches but a lot simpler than some and therefore more expendable. Musky flies—like those for other fish that are notoriously hard to catch—can go off the deep end as fly tiers try to use imaginary anatomical features and unlikely color combinations and materials to trip a predatory switch in the dim brains of their quarry. The patterns can be works of art, but there may be something else at work here too. Some musky wonks have gone so far as to tie flies that look like ducklings, complete with cute little beaks. They probably work, but they also double as testimony that these fish are big and murderous enough to eat a duck.

This wasn’t my first experience with muskies. When I’d gone smallmouth bass fishing on the Flambeau, Chippewa and Namekagon rivers in past years I’d learned to tie my bass bugs onto 65-pound PowerPro shock tippets to keep the muskies from biting them off. (A Whitlock Swimming Frog costs $6.95.) In the course of those trips I landed a few muskies—not quite by accident, but not entirely on purpose either—and saw one grab a bass a friend was playing and bite it nearly in half. None of these fish were especially large as muskies go, but if they weren’t a qualitative step up from a two- or three-pound smallmouth bass, they were at least something entirely different: the big fish that eats the fish you’ve been catching, sometimes right off your hook.

So when Bob White asked me to join the musky trip he puts together every fall, I realized this was something I’d been wanting to do and this would be the way to do it. Bob is a sporting artist with a shadow career as a fishing guide and a talent for organization. For this trip he’d put a small group of experienced anglers who were new to muskies together with some hardcore musky guides, rented an old lodge on the Chippewa River that’s rumored to have once been a speakeasy, and billed it as “Musky Madness.” For that matter Bob is one of those friends I don’t get to see often enough—and life is too short to either fish with people you don’t like or to not fish with people you do.

One of the guides, Russ Gontarek, picked me up at the airport in Minneapolis on a rainy afternoon, and we escaped the city together in the beginnings of a wet rush hour. Russ was coming from his day job and was still wearing a tie, which reminded me of an old riddle.

“What do you call a fishing guide wearing a necktie?” I asked.

“What?”

“The defendant.”

It was about a three-hour drive from Minneapolis to Ojibwa County, in Wisconsin, during which the roads got narrower, the trees got thicker and the towns got smaller and farther apart until finally they became coherent towns in their own right instead of just places to sleep for those who worked elsewhere. These villages aren’t at all timeless or backward—they have all the modern conveniences, from the Internet to methamphetamines—but the pace seems more human. In the city you can’t get your errands done because of crowds and traffic; up here locals can’t get their errands done because everywhere they go someone wants to stop and talk. Even strangers just dropping by for gas and coffee can get drawn into long conversations about the coming deer season or the recent sighting of a wolf.

I grew up nearby in Minnesota, and although I’ve been known to listen to Garrison Keillor, I don’t get overly nostalgic about my youth in the Upper Midwest until I find myself back there. It’s not exactly a homecoming—I moved away eagerly more than 40 years ago and never thought about moving back—but there’s still an overwhelming sense of recognition. More than anything it’s those flat Middle American voices, still sometimes brightened by the Swedish lilt that fades a little more with each generation, as well as the attitude that goes with them: long-standing rural pride seasoned with a dash of defensiveness. I remember a certain kind of Midwesterner who’d say things like, “Look, I know the score; I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck,” which meant that whether he knew the score or not, he actually had just fallen off the turnip truck in some symbolic way.

Neither of us had ever been to this lodge before, and we were up in the woods now where the map function on Russ’s cell phone—deprived of cross streets and numbered addresses—didn’t quite know where it was. We pulled in at one large-frame building, but then saw in the wan, late-afternoon light that it was abandoned and woebegone with boarded up windows and a sagging roof. But then a little farther down the same road we came to another big, rambling place with a light on in the kitchen window, drift boats parked in the yard and a small crowd of people who could only be fishermen loitering outside. We didn’t see the Chippewa River Lodge sign until we’d already turned in.

Muskies are large fish by nature. If you want to keep one, it has to be at least 40 inches long just to be legal, but if you hope to impress anyone with a trophy, you’ll have to aim higher. A casual survey of restaurants and bars in this part of the country suggests that a fish 50-plus inches long and with some girth is about the minimum size you could mount on a wall without risking ridicule. And for added perspective you can always drive over to the Moccasin Bar, in Hayward, to see the official world-record 67½-pound musky caught by Cal Johnson in 1949. This fish isn’t really as big as a canoe, but in the confines of the small, low-ceilinged tavern that’s how it looks, and the sight of it could save you a fortune in taxidermy bills.

Any angler with a specialty naturally thinks his chosen fish is far and away the coolest thing that swims, and he’ll go on and on about it with his voice gradually rising, his hand gestures getting broader and his eyes taking on an unhealthy-looking shine. This usually happens on the first night in camp, and it’s possible to get pretty pumped up with advice, which is all good but sometimes hard to keep straight. One thing is clear, though: As with other famously difficult fish, the work ethic it takes to get one of these things to the boat becomes a point of pride, and there are no meat buckets in musky fishing, just individual fish. It also occurs to you that although this isn’t especially high-concept stuff, it’s also not something you’re likely to get right on the first try.

Once you’re out on the river the guide will choose your fly, tell you where to cast and coach you on the retrieve, so the emphasis is on hook-setting, which is where beginners invariably screw the pooch. A musky looks like a short, fat snake with the face of a goose (something only a fisherman could love), and those wide, strong jaws studded with hundreds of needle-sharp teeth can hold a fly so securely that it won’t move enough on the set for the hook to sink. I’d been the victim of this before when I’d set as hard as I thought I should on a musky and played it more or less confidently for 30 seconds or more, only to have the fish decide this thing was more trouble than it was worth and simply open its mouth and release the fly.

Like any other apex predator, they’ll eat what they can get, but they’re really out for something on the order of a large sucker or a muskrat.

The trick, they say, is to wait until you feel the weight of the fish (there’ll be no mistake about that), and then with the rod still pointed at the fly, strip set by yanking as hard as you can with your line hand and then set just as hard with the rod. And I mean hard. One of the guides said, “First you try to break the line, then you try to break the rod.” Some fall back on the traditional advice that you should set hard four or five times in quick succession; others say once or twice is good, if you do it right, but no one claims either method is foolproof. This comes easier to saltwater fishermen who are used to setting hard on big fish but not so much to us trout guys whose muscle memory insists on lifting the rod tip just smartly enough to sink a size-16, light-wire hook.

Musky fishermen describe these fish as moody, brooding, elusive and unpredictable, as if their reticence about biting flies came from a character flaw, but I think a large part of it is that you never know where they are. As big as some of them get, you’d think you’d be able to spot them, but they’re magnificently camouflaged with mud-color backs and cryptic markings on their flanks that make them invisible in just a few feet of clear water. (People do see them from time to time but usually only when they move.) So you’re reduced to systematically working the slack currents with structure like deadfalls, brush piles and rubble bottoms where they like to lurk and hoping for the best.

Something else that makes these fish seem moody is their preference for large prey. Like any other apex predator, they’ll eat whatever they can get, but they’re really out for something on the order of a large sucker or a muskrat. A musky is less like a trout that’ll eat hundreds of mayflies a day and more like a lion that eats an antelope and then sleeps for a week.

Given this fish’s behavioral profile, you assume that most of the muskies that see your fly just ignore it until it goes away, although there’s no way to know that for sure. The ones that don’t ignore it usually do one of two things: They’ll either strike as suddenly and unexpectedly as a cobra, or they’ll follow the fly like a curious puppy, sometimes right to the boat, and you can’t always see that happening. So you learn on every retrieve to figure-8 the fly when it’s still a couple of rod lengths from the boat, sticking the rod tip underwater to make the fly dive and climb and speeding it up on the turns so the fish will think it’s getting away and lunge. Maybe. If there’s even a fish there. Which there usually isn’t. On the morning of the first day you do this with a sense of great expectation; by lunchtime, if you haven’t gotten a follow, it becomes a rote maneuver.

Getting a curious follower to take the fly calls for creativity under pressure. I heard a story from one of the guides about Gabe Schubert, who I fished with one day. He saw a large musky following his fly to the boat and went into the figure-8, but however much he changed the depth, direction and speed of the fly, the fish shadowed it but wouldn’t strike. Finally he stopped the fly—which they say you should never do—stood it up vertically in the water and wiggled it with the rod tip, and then picked it up and slapped it back down on the surface, at which point the musky ate it.

Sometime later Bob hooked a musky that measured 42 inches and landed it after a short-but-appallingly violent battle. It was essentially a big muscle with lots of teeth . . . .

The story ended there, and I never learned if he hooked or landed the fish or how big it was, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the spectacle of skill and intuition it took to induce the strike. It’s because of minor miracles like this that Gabe has come to be known as “Musky Jesus,” a nickname he told me he doesn’t care for.

And then there’s the whole lunar thing. Musky fanatics believe that, regardless of what’s happening with weather, stream flow and water temperature, these fish bite best under a full or new moon with smaller bumps in the action at the first and last quarters. This is such an article of faith with some that they plan their fishing trips accordingly, and some of these guys are gone so often during the full moon that their wives have begun to think they’re werewolves.

That sounds like superstition, but there’s statistical proof. Two musky-fishing scientists in Wisconsin (where else?) poured through hundreds of thousands of catch records covering 43 years, correlated the time and date of each catch with moon phase, and found that if you fish at the right time in the lunar cycle, your chances of catching a musky increase by 5 percent. That may not seem like much, but if you knew what you were doing, a dependable 5-percent edge at the racetrack or in the stock market could make you rich.

So that first night at the lodge we talked muskies for hours (or the guides talked and we listened), and in the morning we launched on the Flambeau and proceeded to keep our meat wet, the phrase a musky guide uses when he means you should keep your fly in the water. Relentlessness is important, because muskies are known as “the fish of a thousand casts” and even someone trying to sell you on a guided trip will admit that a couple of follows and maybe an eat constitutes a pretty good day of musky fishing. Then again, the night before someone encouragingly said that they’d done the math and it was actually only about 675 casts on average between strikes.

Frankly, I don’t have the patience to count casts and wouldn’t know how to go about it even if I did. Does a flubbed cast count the same as a perfect one? If you cast and retrieve furiously in order to get to 675 casts sooner, do your odds improve? It’s probably best to just bear down, put in your time and work out the technical stuff.

I spent an hour or so the first morning working out how to cast a foot-long fly that looked like it had taken an entire bucktail and part of a rooster to tie. I found that I actually could keep a quarter-pound of wet hair airborne through a backcast or two, but it was exhausting and didn’t seem like something I could keep up for days without blowing out the tendons in my shoulder and elbow and making myself useless.

So I resorted to the time-honored water haul. After the required figure-8s at the end of the retrieve I’d flip the big fly behind me, shooting a few extra rod lengths of line, and then use the surface tension of the water as an anchor for the forward cast. Viewed objectively, an angler performing a water haul looks like he’s trying to recover from a mistake, but as clunky as it looks, it’s damned efficient and you can keep it up forever.

I blew a strike that day in the usual amateur way. I’d been chanting to myself, Strip; don’t strike, but when a fish exploded on my fly, I came unglued and my arm automatically raised the rod tip even as my mind shouted, No, no, no! Then, with nothing useful left to say, all three of us in the boat observed a moment of embarrassed silence.

Sometime later Bob hooked a musky that measured 42 inches and landed it after a short-but-appallingly violent battle. It was essentially a big muscle with lots of teeth designed for speed and concealment, and it was amazing to see a thing like that lifted out of the water in broad daylight. Bob handled the fish confidently, but he was careful to keep his fingers away from the business end of it.

Not long after that I landed one that was just shy of the benchmark 40-inch minimum but still a yard-long fish I couldn’t turn up my nose at. One of the guys took a photo of it, and the three of us leaned in to look at an image of the fish on a two-inch screen even as I still held the actual, non-digital musky in the water at our feet. It was a distinctly 21st Century moment.

We were not only fishing under a full moon that week (another example of Bob’s knack for planning), but there also was a total eclipse one night, so we all piled outside after supper to watch it. The moon was floating above the tall pines along the Chippewa River, scudding out of fast-moving clouds often enough for a good, clear view. This was predicted to be a blood moon, but at the crucial moment when the shadow of the earth completely covered the moon, it turned more of a dusty rose color that was too delicately pretty to make me think of spilled blood. I thought that Bob would be able to describe the color exactly, but when I looked for him, he was deep in conversation about something with two of the guides and by the time he was free I’d forgotten about it.

I also wondered if this rare astronomical event would have any effect on the 5-percent advantage of a full moon. No telling, although musky-fishing statisticians somewhere in Wisconsin were, no doubt, crunching the numbers at that time.

Late the next day I was retrieving another one of countless uneventful casts and went into the obligatory figure-8s at the boat, straining in the low light to spot a large shape following the fly and not seeing anything. But then when I lifted the fly for the next cast, there was the briefest instant, like the flash of a camera, when I was staring straight into the open maw of an enormous musky that I didn’t know was there until it was too late. I didn’t think the fish ever actually had the fly, but Gabe was on the oars that day and said he’d seen the rod bend briefly. I don’t remember feeling anything, but maybe there was just too much information for me to absorb at a spit-second’s notice. Anyway, whatever happened, the fish was there and gone and that was that, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was a chilly fall afternoon with the leaves changing, the current whispering and a pale moon in a daytime sky. The river was inscrutable but alive with possibility.

And so it goes. The big one that gets away has always been an amusing cliché to people who don’t fish, but to those of us who do, it’s the stuff of sleeplessly staring at a dark ceiling wondering why you didn’t just stay home to binge-watch “The
Walking Dead.”


John Gierach
About John Gierach 8 Articles
John Gierach's latest book is All Fishermen Are Liars (Simon & Schuster).

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