It started innocuously enough – this Muskie Madness. Knowing I like to fish streamers, guide and friend Jon Ray says, “I’m starting to do a muskie program in the U.P. I think you’d like it…” This quote may be the biggest understatement of my fishing career.
From my first day on the water with Jon and my Dad, the signs of Muskie Madness begin to show. From the moment I hooked up on the first one, I got it. Pure savagery. None of this tap-tap-tap bullshit you get while fishing steelhead that causes, “Was that a fish?” reactions. This is a fish that hits like the alpha predator it is. And though I hooked up on four fish that day, I didn’t boat any. This is how muskie fishing goes. If you’re a “counter”, this pursuit isn’t for you. But at day’s end, Dad hooks up and lands a girthy 40”. A fitting end to a first day. And the beginnings of the insanity.
Last Fall’s outing went a bit better. I hooked and landed a little guy – my first muskie on the fly. But, I also got to SEE my first follow and eat. Holy shit – not very eloquent for a word guy, but that’s precisely what it feels like. To watch that monster fish following the fly, pushing a wake is amazing. And then…
Talk to any muskie fly angler and they’ll quickly get to the eat. This is the pure power of the top of the food chain selecting and hammering its lunch. But at the same time, there’s deliberation. You can almost hear the internal fish dialogue. “Hmmm, I’m hungry. Hey, that little flashy splash perchy looking thing is interesting. I think I’ll follow it for a bit. Ah, screw it, I’m hungry…” and then CHOMP! Without hesitation, and with full commitment, it’s ON.
The fight’s pretty solid – though certainly nothing like the insanity of a jacked-up Fall steelhead or an atlantic salmon. And, you’re bending a 10-weight rod in half at times. The fight is solid and strong, but this isn’t a fish that runs or tail-walks down the river. Just a steady chug; like it knows it can beat you. Because most of the time, they do just that.
This year, with Muskie Madness fully in play, I decided it was time to up my game. I needed to learn more about my adversary, their environment, and the strategies that work – and don’t work – to pursue them. In short, it was time to go to school. This year a few pivotal things helped. Muskie on the fly is a game of confidence. You have to believe. In your head, in your heart, and in your soul. When you’ve spent 6 hours throwing a soggy muppet into a 20mph wind on a 40 degree day, you still have to think that on every cast, you might be due. And for me, I really found this confidence in knowledge.
It started with attending Musky University in the Spring. Put on by Capt. Brian Meszaros, a Lake St. Clair muskie/smallmouth guide who’s probably boated more ski’s than anyone around and was one of the earliest guys to chase them on the fly. An intense, intelligent guy, Capt. Brian takes this stuff seriously. He’d recruited a rock star group including northern Wisconsin guide Chris Willen, expert tyer Eli Berant, and many others. During the morning we learned muskie habits, how to read water and weather, casting and fishing techniques. In the afternoon we moved to a local metropark for casting practice, and some on-water demo time to perfect critical moves like water-loading casts, and the fine art of the boatside figure-8. A great day, and I left with a lot better understanding of the game. And confidence.
Next was a book that I stumbled upon (I actually don’t even recall where). Robert Tomes “Muskie on the Fly” was truly a pivotal read for me. Again, I took my knowledge of reading water, fishing tactics, and so much more to another level. And I gained confidence.
Even though my fishing thus far had been guided, and my plans for the immediate future were guided trips, I invested in my own muskie rig. As it happened, the fine folks at Scott Fly Rods were kind enough to launch the Tidal Musky/Pike Special, so I put in my order. Then the new Abel Super 9/10N was offered in muskie graphics. Do I need a high-end reel like this for a fish you seldom take to the reel? Nope. I’m a sucker for cool reels. Plus, a piece of bling like that adds that key element – confidence. I think this investment was important as it marked a transition to the belief that I was working toward being able to chase these river monsters on my own at some point in the future. Plus, I just like fishing my own rig.
Fall is when I picked up this affliction, so I was anticipating September. Did a half day with Jon when our paths crossed while I was on a UP vacation. Tough day with high winds, low water, and exploring a new spot. No connections. But a big change – swagger. Confidence.
My Dad and I had booked two days with Jon in September – upping our game from previous years. When the time arrived, I was bristling with anticipation. Would I finally get my first “real” muskie? Get my Muskie Madness ticket punched? Become one of the cool kids?
Morning started well enough. Dad and I each missed a couple of fish, including one that absolutely blew up my fly in front of a beaver dam (curiously EXACTLY where Jon said it was going to be – damn guides tend to know what they’re talking about). Wind was coming up, so we decided to head upriver into some tighter quarters to get some relief. After motoring up we anchored to afford Jon a fly change and to switch mental gears to fishing smaller spaces. From the stern, I took my first shot into a likely looking area. Jon suggested casting a bit further downstream.
A quick pick-up, a perfectly placed cast (thank you, confidence), two quick strips… and then all hell broke loose. I got to achieve muskie nirvana as I watched a BIG fish chase and then eat my fly. There was no deliberation. No pause. The alpha predator made the decision in an instant and engulfed my fly. The adrenaline this releases is indescribable. Down a case of Red Bull – that’s a start. All the while I’m tapping my experiences with aggressive fish to remember to calm down, get my head in the game and BOAT THIS ONE! But she’s solid, and she’s not happy to find that the tasty perch she was expecting was actually a mass of feathers and flash with a hook in the middle. The funny part is that I don’t have a strong recollection of the fight, other than it being a good one. What I remember is the eat. Before long, I’ve got her boatside, Jon makes a good scoop with the net, and we quickly realize, I’ve accomplished the goal in Muskie Madness; the first “real” fish landed. She tapes out at a solid 36”. After a few pictures and a careful release, I am spent. My body is still trying to process what just happened. My heart in my throat. And an amazing feeling of elation. This is why we endure hours casting heavy lines, big flies, and fighting wind and cold. All for a few seconds of powerful elation.
Later I hook up on a smaller fish and lose it. Dad turns one at the boat on the figure 8 (the first time we’d seen this phenomenon) that doesn’t eat. But it doesn’t matter. I’m still on cloud nine from that fish. That fish has been in my mind since my first hook-up two years prior. I got my unicorn.
But Muskie Madness is a funny thing. I know guys who’ve chased them for years. Once you catch it, it seldom lets go. On our second day, Dad and I have some tough sledding. Bluebird skies. A 40 degree change in temperature from the time we put the boat in to takeout. Though I do turn my first on the figure 8 and watch it follow a half-dozen passes on each side of the boat. Jon thinks he saw it eat; I missed it if it did. But it doesn’t matter. The feeling of that follow is powerful and still hasn’t left me.
What’s in the future? Another trip to Michigan’s UP next Fall. And I’m even on-board to a trip to the Muskie Mecca of northern Wisconsin in October. Four days in the center of the universe for big ‘skis. And, probably a couple of trips of my own in search of my first unguided toothy beast. Do I think I’ll ever tire of this pursuit? Unlikely. Not with a full-blown case of Muskie Madness.
I’m honored to have Patagonia Flyfishing post an image on their Instagram account , thank you Larry and Paul for letting me take a minute and play as we floated a Michigan trout stream this fall.
A photo posted by Patagonia Fly Fish (@patagonia_flyfish) on
Abel Reels Instagram Account posts an image of Sean’s biggest Muskie to date. Nice work Sean.
Sean Hickey with 2 big handfuls of Muskie caught on his Super 9/10N Muskie finish reel. Sean enjoyed watching this fish follow, and then grab the fly, but in keeping with his locally learned etiquette we could only pry out of him that it was landed “somewhere in Michigan” with guide Capt. Jon Ray of www.mangledfly.com #abelreels #craftedforchaos #musky #muskie #flyfish #flyfishing #muskieonthefly
A photo posted by Abel Reels™ (@abelreels) on
Chasing Muskies on the fly isn’t for everyone. Even the gear guys call it the “fish of 10,000 casts” (so, how many false casts is that?). But if it’s your thing, you’ll know pretty quickly. From the first eat, I fell in love. After a couple of years at it, I felt like I was putting the pieces together and wanted my own rig. As a huge fan of Scott fly rods, when the Tidal Muskie/Pike Special was announced, I knew I had my stick and placed my order. Yeah, I know, should have cast it first. But I own a bunch of Scott rods and there’s not a loser in the bunch.
Building on the very successful Tidal series, the Muskie model has a somewhat different taper, as well as an extended fighting butt (more on this later). Scott doesn’t list a line weight rating, but Scott’s Midwest rep, Jerry Darkes, told me it was rated as a 10/11 weight.
First impressions were exactly what I’ve come to expect from Scott – tight wraps, their beautiful unsanded blank, and solid, but not flashy hardware. If you need bling, these guys aren’t your company. But let’s be real – if you need bling, you’re not fly fishing for Muskie.
Last weekend I got to get in my first real outing chasing ski’s with my new stick. This was my annual pilgrimage north with Capt. Jon Ray and my Dad. JR pulled us into this crazy pursuit a couple of years back and Dad and I both took to it right away (he boated a 40″ that first year). This year I was armed with my new stick, a fresh Scientific Anglers Mastery Wet Tip Express 350 grain sink tip line, and a STUNNING Abel Super 9/10N in Muskie graphics.
The first thing I noticed when casting is that this thing is a cannon – launching a big fly and a heavy line a long distance is no problem. Back cast, wait for the load, and WHAM! But more importantly for me was accuracy. I found I could sidearm under overhanging tree limbs, hit kill holes, and generally put the fly where I wanted it with tremendous ease. As I said to Jon – “this rod casts better than I do…”. The morning of the first day we encountered some pretty serious wind and the Tidal really helped. Just by tightening up my loops I was able to maintain the control I needed. Even backhand casts gave me the same feeling of power and accuracy.
The extended fighting butt is another huge advantage. I’ve heard experienced guides say that up to 50% of their fish came from figure-eights at the boat. But figure-eighting all day is physically exhausting. The extended fighting butt enabled me to add a two-hand grip that increased rod control and gave my casting hand a break. At a recent lecture by Muskie guru Blane Chocklett, I learned another use – casting. By locking the extended but to your forearm, you spread the load out, making it easier to throw heavy flies all day. Sure enough – it works!
On the afternoon of our first day, I got to test the fighting prowess of the Tidal Muskie. We’d just moved the boat up river to a new area. On my second cast I see the perfect eat. This big girl just engulfed my fly. A hard strip-set and it’s ON! The fight is an area where this rod shines. I had plenty of power to direct the fish, gain line, and generally control the fight. The rod flexes deep to the cork without a moan, groan, or complaint. A little deft network from JR and I’m on the board!
With my other Scott rods, particularly streamer rods, I’ve found one small issue. You have to tape the ferrules. It’s the same on my Scott Radian 907/4 which I use streamer fishing for trout and smallmouth bass. If you don’t tape the ferrules, they loosen, the rod casts like pooh, and you run a greater risk of breaking a rod. I find that if I wax the ferrules once, and then tape with every use, it’s all good. A minor drawback for an outstanding rod.
If you’re looking for a great Muskie rod at a moderate price, I highly recommend the Scott Tidal Muskie/Pike Special. A solid value on a great performing rod that’s made in the U.S.A.
Good Friend Jeremy Turner shared this with me, if you can find this episode make sure to check it out. Mangled Fly has worked with Jeremy before and his music talents are first class. – www.hearjt.com
This Friday, September 11th, ESPN will premiere a new 30 for 30 film after the national moment of silence. First Pitch tells the story of President George W Bush’s ceremonial pitch at the World Series in New York, on October 30th, 2001. The film was directed by Academy Award winner Angus Wall and I was fortunate enough to compose the original score. It’s a project we’re all quite proud of and I hope you get a chance to see it.
Wanted to say thank you for the patience as Mangled Fly Media comes back on-line. No need to talk about the struggles of the past few weeks, only that new stuff will be coming on-line again soon. Bear with me as fall is a busy time, but promise to make up for it with quality content. The Muskie Adventure season has just started and already looking like it will be a great season.
Check out the new SA 2015 catalog and you might notice the cover shot. – http://www.scientificanglers.com/book/ – some really good information inside the catalog from Bruce Richards, Dave Karzynski, and Jeff Currier. Check it out! Plus the new lines that will be coming out in November are listed. Can’t wait for the new Switch line, only a few more months and steelhead will be back.