Trophies in Bone

In Tennessee rewards are found in water, sand and brick walls.

Musky Jaw Bone
Finding the business end of a musky is a reminder that you’re pursuing an apex predator . . . and that it’s good to have been born human instead of a duckling.
Story and photos by Tom Hazleton
So what brings you to town, my man?” asks the rental-car guy at Nashville International. I enjoy his Tennessee accent, which I’ve come to associate with musky fishing.

“Musky,” I tell him.

“Never heard of ’em,” he says. “How do they taste?”

“Oh, we let them go.”

“You what now?” he says.

Inadvertently, I’ve created yet another human who can’t understand the angling mindset.

The drive east toward McMinnville is familiar, and not just because I’ve done it before. Early May/middle Tennessee could almost be late-June/middle Minnesota. Flat cropland turns to rolling, and freeway turns to winding two-lane—ever steeper up and down, into tree tunnels, and then bursting into sun-sparkled reservoir valleys, cliff-rimmed and deep green.

This edge of the Cumberland Plateau and the Driftless Area back home in Minnesota are both karst countries, bluffs and valleys ribboned and shaped by clear mineral water that rises from mysterious limestone sources and sometimes disappears back into them. Yet while the Driftless is all hills and spring creeks, the rim of the Cumberland Plateau is by comparison mountainous, and its waters, here dominated by the Caney Fork River system, are much more than creeks. And the fish are bigger. This is not 3-weight country.

Angler check-in for the Hardly, Strictly, Musky Southern Classic is 7 pm at the Foglight Foodhouse, on the bank of the Caney just north of McMinnville. There are two-dozen trucks in the lot from as many states. Judging by the decals, I’m in the right place.

There’s a fine line between tying a musky fly that’s big enough to capture a fish’s attention yet light enough to cast.

Tournament host Todd Gregory is giving the rules speech to an army of anglers decked out in trucker hats, tech shirts, flip flops and neck-hung polarized glasses. Last year this tourney drew about 50 anglers, but a few years ago such an event wasn’t even plausible. Sure, a few people had been catching muskies on flies for years, but they had been a niche within a niche.

But then some scattered eccentrics found each other on social networks. A community was born. A knowledge base evolved. The ranks swelled. Organic growth in a digital petri dish. The niche within a niche became a trend. Suddenly the old guard was singing, I was musky when musky wasn’t cool.

A few dry-fly snobs started buying powerboats and sinking lines. Tarpon rods were purchased that would never see the salt. Wide-gaped hooks were sourced from the soft-plastics aisle, and prime bucktails were hoarded by the Rubbermaid binful. For a few years the grizzly-saddle-hackle supply dried up completely, pitting musky-fly tiers against hairstylists while leaving traditional dry-fly tiers bewildered.

In a way we musky anglers are the Bronies of the fly-fishing world: obsessed with mythical creatures in which we can’t quite decide whether or not to believe. Like Bronies, the Internet brought us together, and we’ve self-legitimized and grown our community, regardless of mainstream approval. And today, in middle-of-nowhere middle Tennessee, in the parking lot of the Foglight Foodhouse, is a true congregation: MuskyCon.

Most of us haven’t met in person, but we recognize each other from profile pics and know each other’s Internet aliases. One face I recognize is Pile Cast’s—I mean Dave Hosler’s. I’ll be fishing in his boat for the next two days. He’s a skater IT manager turned Indiana smallmouth guide who wears his heart inked onto his right forearm next to a fanged musky rictus. He’s standing in the bed of his truck taking photos. I hop up next to him just in time to hear the last of Gregory’s brief tournament rules: “Don’t be an asshole,” he says.

Below, perhaps, is a pale and razor-rimmed mouth, on the verge of biting, on the edge of visibility and plausibility.

The Foodhouse is over capacity and over-loud, and Calfkiller Brewing Company’s kegs can barely keep up. Introductions are being made; laughter and handshakes are universal. There is a subtle diversity: Ironic hipster flannel and skinny jeans meet “unironic” flannel tucked into Wrangler relaxed-fits. Giant lumberjack beards and trimmed dad mustaches. The common language is Esox.

The Pig Farm Ink team is handing out Hefty bags for a side game called Get Trashed: The most river garbage collected wins. They try to start an Iron Fly tying competition, but it fizzles. Nobody wants to sit at a vise. “Where are you guys putting in?” “What color flies did you bring?” “What line are you throwing?” The rough-sawn Foodhouse rafters ring with laughter, fish stories and strategy.I find Hosler outside by the bonfire.

“Official start time is three in the morning,” he says. “A group of guys just left for the boat ramp. Gonna sleep in their truck.”

“I guess they’re taking this pretty seriously,” I say.

“Ha,” Hosler says. For he knows that taking a musky tournament seriously is like playing the Powerball seriously. While you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket, buying two tickets doesn’t move the odds much in your favor. In musky fishing buying the first ticket is having a fly in the water. Beyond that the math breaks down. Fly design, casting accuracy, retrieve speed, water conditions, moon phases, lucky underwear, that extra early morning hour on the water—these can help, but it’s hard to know how much.

Most of us stayed up too late last night. Buddy McMahon, an angler and painter from North Carolina’s Blue Ridge, did not.

“Morning,” he says factually from the table with a cup of coffee. His long, red beard exaggerates jaw movement.

I ask which team he’s on, but he says he’s not fishing; instead he’s painting a building-size graffiti musky mural in downtown McMinnville. Buddy assures me that graffiti art is a thriving art scene, if a bit obscure. It’s a community that began underground and over time has legitimized. Today there are

expensive coffee-table books depicting graffiti art. It’s another niche within a niche. Buddy has three cases of German-made Montana Gold acrylic graffiti spray paint in his truck.

I think of the musky flies hanging from the rearviews of every truck outside—fluffed and glittering, barred hackles perfectly curving. From a common bucktail-streamer ancestor have sprung a thousand variations, from tooth-worn-guides’ favorites to overstuffed and unswum newbie efforts, each aimed at the sweet spot: big enough to interest a musky yet light enough to cast. All are art. After all, if we weren’t into art, we’d fish with baitcasters and pounder rubber Bulldawgs.

I step onto the porch and rub the grog from my eyes. On the sidewalk is an eight-foot musky drawn in pastel chalk. It’s like prehistoric pictograph art on a cave wall. It glares at me from the concrete and tugs me toward the river.

The Caney Fork River system drains a large chunk of the Cumberland Plateau and tumbles off of its rim into the Nashville Basin. Back home river names are straightforward—Native, French, Finnish—here they are Anglo, and names like Barren Fork and Calfkiller lend a bit of instant character to otherwise unknown waters. Each has its own feel: pastoral and meandering, gorge-bound and roaring, or somewhere between. Each is its own shade of viridescence, and all are home to the unique and native strain of Tennessee river muskies.

Hosler, Trigg and I drop the Towee into the main branch of the Caney, and Hosler starts out on the sticks. I’m fishing. My fly is swimming. It feels good.

This fly was tied on a dark winter night—just dead hair and feathers until today. Below, perhaps, is a pale and razor-rimmed mouth, on the verge of biting, on the edge of visibility and plausibility. You might get only one chance per day, per weekend, per trip, per season. It’s not the 10,000 450-grain casts that wear you out—vigilance is exhausting.

The rhythm of casting and taking turns rowing blends the day into an impression—devoid of actual muskies but punctuated by moments of laughter and framed by shades of the dappled green foliage we’re immersed in.

At sunset we are back in McMinnville parked behind the Collins River BBQ. The lot is littered with gold-labeled spray-paint cans. On the rear facade is an enormous musky—black outline, white teeth and a basketball-size eye. Buddy climbs down from his ladder, stretches and regards his work.

He is massaging his right hand, which is clawed stiffly from gripping spray cans. He probably should be using an ergonomic snap-on spray trigger; the thousands that will see this mural won’t know the difference. But he will. Kind of like the flies I’ve tied and the casts I’ve made. Does the musky care that I’ve chosen to do this the hard way? Cast flies instead of throwing hardware? My wrist cracks faintly. Art is not easy.

In a musky tournament there’s always a chance that nobody catches a fish and nobody wins. But not this year. Inside the Collins River BBQ there are fish on the leaderboard, and Gregory’s characteristic half-smirk is edging toward full grin as he arranges tables for dinner. He was born on the Caney Fork, builds Towee boats and knows that not all of us will see, let alone catch, a musky but that all it takes is one boated fish to keep 99 other fires burning.

Anglers trickle in, and drooped shoulders and sunburned faces perk up with dinner, beer and plenty of laughter. The band fires up—“local talent” within two hours of Nashville is high-caliber stuff.

On day two breakfast is at The Smoke Shop, an otherwise normal gas station on the edge of town wherein a pack of grandmothers cook breakfast on electric hot plates and sell it for $2.95. A long line, dirty aprons, no exhaust fans. Hosler grabs a grease-laden translucent paper sack that contains the best sausage, egg and cheese biscuits we’ve ever had.

Trigg meets us at the upstream launch of what is called the Tweaker Float. This stretch of the Barren Fork runs right behind town—the “bad” part of town that, supposedly, harbors most of McMinnville’s meth labs. The “watched” vibe makes me glad I left my rental truck downstream for the return shuttle.

When we shove off, all thoughts of small-town social decay are wiped out by the crystal current, logjams and upswells that suggest ideal ambush points. I loop a purple-and-gray double 6/0 fly onto my leader. I tied this one last year, having seen a photo of a musky draped across both gunnels of a Towee skiff dripping this same emerald water beneath these same limestone walls, its mouth furred with purple-and-gray bucktail.

Miles slip by. Bridges, cliffs, dripping springs and miniature waterfalls, and deep shaded undercuts. Giant trees lean impossibly. The strip mall that’s a few hundred feet up the hill might as well be a thousand miles away.

We stop for a late lunch on a gravelly inside bend. Hosler produces a bottle of Maker’s Mark, which we had intended for a fist-bump musky celebration.

“Muskies suck,” says Trigg, twisting off the cap.

We pass the bottle. Barren Fork, indeed.

With an hour left on the water, Hosler beaches us hard on another gravel bar. This one is recently eroded, half-exposing a decade’s worth of detritus.

“We might as well try to win something,” he says, snapping open a Hefty trash bag. From the slumped gravel bank we unearth plastic bottles and six-pack rings. A corroded baitcasting rod and reel. Random bits of twisted metal. Gnarled nylon anchor rope. A hundred beer cans, each filled level with sand. Three flips and two flops, none matching. Cow and deer bones. A car’s wheel-well liner. A plush loveseat we can’t budge from the gravel. From a clump of sand I dig out what must be a musky’s saber-toothed reptilian-like bottom jaw. Northern pike don’t swim here. No alligators. No velociraptors. A quick rinse exposes ivory dental work and a delicate piscine jawline that belies a musky’s deadly clamping strength.

Back in the lot behind the Collins River BBQ, Buddy outlines the last lettering—the massive fish, now colored and shaded, is framed by a furling banner that reads HOME OF SOUTHERN MUSKY.

Buddy climbs down from his ladder. The back of his neck and the backs of his calves are badly sunburned.

“Well, boys,” he says. “I think I’m about done.”

The third night begins much like the previous two, but the excitement of a trip just begun is replaced by the rhythm of familiar faces and fish stories.

Pig Farm Ink announces that Hosler, Trigg and I have won the Get Trashed contest. Lots of teams collected trash, so we share the prizes around the room. Besides, I have my musky jaw. A rare actual trophy in this catch-and-release game.

Later I’m in the back of the bar with Buddy, phones out, showing off photos of fish and boats.

“Hey, man,” he says, “if you’re ever in my neck of the woods, let me know and let’s fish.”

I tell him I’d love to, of course, and likewise invite him north. A little later Trigg extends the same invitation, and I note invites happening around the room. Anglers are proud of their home waters and love to share them—with the right people.

After dinner Gregory presents the grand prize: a vintage Epiphone guitar, gloss black and emblazoned with a hand-painted musky fly—orange and chartreuse and obsidian glittering in stage lights. Turns out the winning fish was caught tonight with minutes to spare: 49½”. The young dude who accepts the guitar could be any of us: a bit weathered and fatigued, decked out in a trucker cap and sun shirt. He is Alan Broyhill of Team Southern Culture on the Fly. He holds the guitar sheepishly amid jeers and applause, saying nothing. Catching a fish like that would have me acting weird for a while too.

Fifty inches is considered the “really big musky” threshold. But 49½ is a lifetime fish. A better-than-lifetime fish for most, statistically speaking. It’s a fish, we all understand, that could have eaten our flies—our pieces of art—on any cast.

Tom Hazelton
About Tom Hazelton 1 Article
Tom Hazelton is a musky-fishing junkie who lives in Minnesota. This is his first story for Fly Rod & Reel.

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