Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Lake Champlain Region on the Fly: Muskellunge


The muskellunge is about as iconic a fish as exists in the world. They are uncommon, large, and generally impressive looking creatures. Even in the most densely populated watersheds, muskie are one of if not the least common predator fish. That is very typical of apex predators: they reproduce slowly, they grow slowly, they never completely fill out an ecosystem or they'd destroy it and themselves in the process. Another trait of apex predators is a lack of shyness. Muskie simply don't care that you're there most of the time. They'll eat boat-side without hesitation. Find a laid up muskie, if it decides it doesn't want to be seen it won't spook and run like a trout or a bass, it'll sink deeper into the weeds or slowly cruise off. If a muskie isn't taking a fly or a lure, it's mostly because they run on a slow metabolism and only eat in tiny windows. Present something to a muskie outside those feeding windows, they'll follow without committing or just remain unseen. This behavior earned them the much deserved title of fish of a thousand casts. Many, many anglers are willing to make all those casts to catch one muskie because they are phenomenal specimens: thick, muscular, big, toothy, mean looking.

Hours and hours of work. A violent eat. A short but extraordinarily chaotic fight. An impressive fish in the net. That is muskie fishing. 

Aside from spending what many would consider an irrationally large amount of time on the water, muskie have driven anglers to do some crazy things. With such an iconic species, there will always be some dramatics. Hayward Wisconsin is the epicenter of musky country, and the final resting place of one of the most emblematic figures in angling history. The words that open this essay grace Louis Bolser Spray's tombstone. To this day, Louie Spray remains controversial. Did he actually catch three record muskies? Did he even catch one record fish? Was the almost inconceivably large 69lb 11oz muskie Louie claimed to have caught in 1949 actually real, or could it have been an exaggeration or even physically altered? And if it was real, was he the one that actually catch it? Claims that Spray bought fish from other anglers and that stomachs were packed with ground fish to increase weight have come out for more than half a century. The reality is, we may never know for certain. But the history runs deep in Wisconsin. When a new record in 1994 was discredited, to many it was the record coming back home. A muskie mount on the wall of a Hayward building is just as natural as a light switch. 

Miles from Hayward Wisconsin, in a place were musky are really just starting to become a blip on the radar, and fishing with tackle Louie Spray would probably have scoffed at, I moved my first musky with a fly. 

The day was slow anyway. Noah and I were frustrated, not sure of what to do or where to go, just grasping at straws. We found carp spawning. We marked fish in different areas that just wouldn't eat. We tried to find a non-existent bait and tackle shop.

Then, on a whim, we pulled into a random little park, looked briefly for worms to use for drum, then took a look at the river and found the sign found in my last post. I had a thought... if we were going to have such a hard time catching fish anyway, we might as well target big pike and musky. And so I did. 

I made a sacrifice to the fish gods.  Just a little bit of whiskey to the river powers that be. Give me a sign.

A sign.

Less than 100 yards from the launch, I laid out a 60 foot cast under an overhanging tree and alongside a sunken log. As the leader got to the tip of the rod, I began to L-turn the fly next to the kayak. When I'm streamer fishing, I don't focus on the fly. I look behind it. I know what the fly looks like, what I need to know to adjust my retrieve is if and how a fish is engaging with it. On this occasion, while peering into the murk behind my huge black fly, I saw a monster silently rise out of the depths. For a second time just stopped. I was looking at an alien monster, and it was looking back at me as if to say "Really dude? I'm not eating that". 

The amount of shaking my knees did for the next two hours was rough. 

Did either of us end up catching a musky? No. Did we need to? Not really. But the image of that fish coming up out of the darkness, more to check me out than to pursue the fly, won't leave me until I hold one of those fish. 

The afternoon was not without fish though. I caught a very good looking carp in deep water, Noah caught the only smallie of the weekend. 


  1. A great read! My money is on you connecting with a Musky sooner or later.

    1. It'll happen. May be a few years bit it'll happen.

  2. Very entertaining Rowan! I can picture the scene.

  3. Good read Rowan. If and when you catch a Muskie and you are in your kayak, you better hang on. I have caught river Muskies and I'm glad I was on the bank. They will test your line and rod.
    Tie, fish, write, conserve and photo on...

    1. I've caught enough big fish in the kayak to know I'm in for some mayhem whenever I do connect with my first ski.