It began the way many adventures do, a late night and several frosty tops, which inevitably led to fish tales. Simple as that, this narrative had shifted to drive. That was eight years ago, when I first heard my close friends back in the North Country had taken up musky fishing... The wheels had been spinning ever since hearing their stories as they described their success up in Canada’s pristine waters, it definitely seemed as though they had become quite adept. If their stories weren’t enough, their photo documentation was all the confirmation that this tail chasing glutton needed. The fish they showed me were behemoths and from the conversations it seemed as though they really knew how to target them. Their most fruitful destination was on water I had previously fished regularly, over a decade ago for walleye and pike. And so, as time went by, my thirst grew stronger and stronger till I had the chance to pull the trigger. Once the dates were set I simply had to figure out how to do it. Then I had to figure out how to do it the way I wanted to. ON THE FLY.
Anyone born and raised in the North Country knows the mystique these pure strain fish carry.. They are legendary to say the least and up north most people fish, but only true masochists chase these beasts. It’s not uncommon to go a season without hooking one. It was with that in mind along with months of anticipation we left from home, just north of Minneapolis. We arrived in International Falls close to midnight, immediately crashing at a seedy motel. When the alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. it didn’t feel like close to “enough sleep”... After crossing the border it was time to lock down licenses, launch the boat, and start flinging line. As I learned, a musky fisherman pushes for as many casts as humanly possible. More so than any other fishermen I have run across. The mentality seems to be, “Hell, if I huck this feathered hook the size of a chicken 10,000 times, some dumb sumbitch will eventually tug on it.” In response to that general philosophy I would respond with my own, “I’m dumb enough to cast these 10 and 11 weights till my arm falls off so let’s get it on.”
It’s hard to describe the emotions that come with searching for a musky, on the fly, in a giant lake... Almost immediately I came to the realization the the more manageable waters of Hayward, Wisconsin would better suit my fancy, but shit, I was there for 5 days and shooting line was all I could do.. If nothing else, the scenery was phenomenal. The big lake had the nostalgia flowing each and every time the Yamaha blasted us across the big empty glassiness. Fishing for the big momma can be agonizingly slow. There are times you feel like there is literally not a fish, let alone senorita grande, in the great blue lagoon you’re parked in. Lucky for me, my first 14 hours on the lake were pretty much as expected, not a single sign of a fish. It was as if the lake was asking, “How bad do you really want this?”
“I’m a stubborn bastard”, I think in reply. You’re so jacked up off the first adrenaline rush that you hardly notice until it’s time to hit the sack, you just casted for a substantial amount of time without so much as a touch, tug, follow, or even visual. So it goes, and as my head hits the feathers I realize I’m in mental and physical boxing match with round one going unequivocally to Mamasita musky. All tomorrow needs to consist of is picking yourself off the mat and landing a couple left-right combos. I might not get the knock-out, but I’m sure as shit, not getting KO’d just yet.
The bell rings for round two and I drag myself to the middle of the ring and raise the gloves to chest level, let’s go. I couldn’t yearn more for a giant tug on my foot long feathered contraption. The mother musky is such a mysterious and solitary creature, but like a fox, her curiosity sometimes gets the best of her. It’s that moment we wait and pine for. The first follow came as an accident as my gear tossing pilot pulled one off a sandbar, more than likely sunning herself after a big meal, After losing interest, she then came back for the fly from the darker water. As she sits at the side of the boat, gills pulsing, I dangle a fly dubbed, “Country Time Lemonade” in her face. Continuously she loses interest, yet comes back for look after look. A dance of sorts with her having zero fear of the 20 foot boat, mere feet from the artificial prey. As I peer down over her contemplating my fly I notice I could literally touch her head with the nine foot rod. Several times I see the whites of her mouth flare open and wonder if she’s going to inhale the fly. After 5 minutes of this, she simply decides not to and retreats to the comforts of the darkness. I can tell she is mesmerized by the natural motion of the fly, but her mood is ever so slightly off. Perhaps she has just eaten a wood duck or two that inhabit the bay, though it’s really impossible to tell. With my heart racing and head spinning I curse her and the fishing gods. Damnit, was that my best chance or worse, my only chance?
Hour after hour passes and not so much as a glimpse of another big girl, let alone a fish… musky, pike, smallie… nothing. As day turned to dusk I made yet another cast. This time to a pile of outcropped rocks on the south side of a small wooded island. Strip, strip, strip… Back to the boat, followed by the monotonous figure 8. Tug the fly out of the water and do it again. Boom!!! This time just before the last figure eight finishes she explodes from under the boat like a Louisiana gator. I can already hear Troy Landry screaming, “She ain’t no baby!!!”. It’s so loud and alarming that I can’t remember if she ate the fly in the water or if it was actually in the air when her mouth wrapped around the bucktail, hackle, and tinsel flash. Either way, the only thing I could think to do was bass masters smash the 5/0 steel home, with a strip set out of the equation at that proximity... The hookset felt firm and this 45+ incher was mine for a moment longer. A few minutes later I stared into the island’s strewn emptiness shaking my head. What happened? How did she come unpinned? After a brief silence, my cohorts gently explained the structure of a musky’s mouth and the fact that hooks can hit areas of almost pure bone, hence the reason they use baits with 3 trebles. Losing that fish could have been inevitable they persist... Perhaps… though it feels like more of an intervention strategy to keep me from tying the anchor to my ankle and taking a plunge in the depths of the big water. Round two in the books and I realize there’s no unanimous decision out here, just knock outs. Who’s it gonna be, her or me?
Down two rounds to none, the mental state is feeble. I do take solace in the knowledge that it’s possible to hook one of these beasts on the fly. I have had 2 solid chances and I feel this giant piece of water will likely yield another opportunity. The question remains, can I seal the deal the next time?
As noon approaches the following day, we sit down for a shoreline lunch. It sure as hell doesn’t feel like that chance is coming any time soon. The boat hasn’t seen a fish all morning, which makes the lowly fly fisherman in the back of the Crestliner feel less than confident round three is going to be the one. I hear one of my seasoned veterans from the front of the boat mutter, “You think it’s ever been this slow?”
The other returned shortly after, responding plainly, “No”, as he continued to peck away at his stale sandwich. “Good Lord”, I think to myself as I continue to slob down on the few calories available. As time passes I realize exactly what I signed up for. After a few brewskis and a cup of joe, I feel like Aaron Rodgers after a pick six, the experience hardened short term memory loss wins over. Per usual, there’s only one thing to do. After all, “The next cast might be the one.” Suddenly, in a deep corner bay near some developing lilies the fly gets hot as a pistol. A giant swipe and miss by a senorita grande, with a small pike boated moments later. The adrenaline rises and the casts get a bit more precise. Another pike smashes the fly. Their mood must be just right for the speed and movement of the fly. Are we in the wheelhouse, the sweetspot? Keep going I think to myself, she’s in here! A few moments later, another fish blasts the perch imitation like a torpedo from the dark depths. It’s on. I get a few pictures with my first musky on the fly, a baby for sure, maybe 28 inches. I get it right back in the water and start pushing more line. If it’s going to happen, the time is now. Their moods are so instinctual and drastic. One minute they don’t show themselves and the next the feed bag is on. Perhaps they want the noise of a giant topwater plug or maybe the sweet movement of the fly suits their fancy. I feel like the fly is the ticket right now. We finish the counter clockwise loop through the bay and throttle down to another similar piece of water. Lilies with depth and structure near by.
Having lost the perch pattern on a deeply rooted log, I tie on the closest imitation I can find. An orange and black fly deemed “fit for the trashcan”, from the master tier Stickboy. I tie it on hoping it does the previous fly justice. Midway through this bay the fly strips past yet another patch of lilies. Pow! Right in the kisser! The jerk feels like my line is tied to the ass end of a quarter horse and someone just stuck it with a hot brand. Immediately she runs and porpoises, it’s her, it’s the one. One of my fishing partner mutters silently, “She might go 50”. Though I’m sure it wasn’t his intent, the comment doesn’t help my nerves. I stuck her with a solid uppercut, but there is plenty of fight left in her. She wants to run so I give her some space and then it’s time to bring her back to the middle of the ring. Like jabs to the gut, the hard strips of line bring her closer. Keeping the fight in the butt section is key. My first hookup taught me the front half of the rod isn’t enough for the sheer mass of these creatures. Continuously she pulls, but the Julian Edelman like 10 weight does her part. After a long battle, this grande mama is in the net. A scream to the heavens and fist pump to my net man ceremoniously ensue. My jubulation is not containable. This moment has been so long in the waiting. To the average joe, it seems juvenile, but to the addict it makes so much sense. Perhaps even emotional... After snapping some photos and releasing her, I crack an ice cold Old Vienna and soak in the moment. The shear magnitude of this moment needs to be relished as they really do rarely happen.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth doing or having, unless it means effort.” When it comes to chasing musky I’m not sure there could be a more relevant statement. To that end, the hero shot becomes more of a symbol of the greater effort. Over the course of five days I landed three muskies, two over 44 inches. Those two were slovenly old ladies whom I’ll never forget, living wildly and freely in these waters for years upon years... I’m thankful for the chance to hold these dinosaurs, but the journey was by no means easy. I can’t begin to explain how easy it would have been to pick up a bait caster or say let’s go drink beer and walleye fish.. If you have the chance to chase these leviathans, make sure to do so, but make sure you have the mindset for it. Good intel, quality flies, stout rods, and proper lines are absolutely ESSENTIAL! But above all, it takes persistence. As I mentioned above, a couple days consisted of 15 hours of casting with no glimpse of a fish. In fact, most days did. I remember a week after I was home from the trip thinking I can’t twist my wrist outward.... like at all. I’m sure I could have prepared myself a bit better physically, but the fact remains that casting these rigs that many times is going to wear you down. Especially if you’re competing with bait caster length. Add to that, the psychological toll of not seeing a single fish and it’s enough to put you next to Frank Reynolds in the loony bin. On two separate occasions I gave myself 20 minute timeouts solely to get my head right. I had become so negative from the grind I knew I needed to right the ship. It’s an emotional rollercoaster where the highs definitely give you a good push to keep casting, but they also seem to create an urgency that inevitably becomes the source of depression no other type of fishing can compare to. For that I suggest a nice, even flowing Canadian lager, in my case, the “OV” or Old Vienna. If you’re ready, go find some of these grandes, but proceed with caution. The addiction that follows seems to have haunting dreams down to a science.