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.