Text and photos: Capt. David Holmes
The Musky – a fish of too many casts
…a fish that conjures up images of razor-sharp teeth, bloodied knuckles, tackle better suited for Tuna and Sailfish, and most of all, a lot of casts. The history of angling for the Muskellunge is shrouded in controversial records, superstitions, and a healthy amount of hot tempers, dating back far before 1949 when Louie Spray set the still standing, yet fiercely debated, world record fish that weighed in at 69 pounds 11 ounces, and a staggering 63 ½ inches long. Since that day, the allure of putting hooks into a fish of that caliber has drawn countless anglers to the waters of Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and has without a doubt ended a few relationships, damaged some rotator cuffs, and caused some drinking problems.
Pursuing one of these creatures is no easy task, and even with the best tackle, electronics, boats, and hundred dollar baits a person can empty their wallet for, more days end in a skunk and a hung head than most care to admit. Now, to attempt to catch that same fish by chucking a ball of deer hair around with a severely underpowered fly rod (no matter how you look at it), fitted with line that might as well be piano wire? That’s just downright stupid.
The majority of Musky fly angler’s journeys begin about the same. An idea that you might be able to just go out and get it done in a few trips. However, this thought is typically quickly snuffed out after far too many days of endless casting, and absolutely nothing to show for it, besides a few lazy follows from a fish that probably had no intention of touching your fly, and instead felt more inclined to make you lose some sleep that coming night. At some point in that first year, or maybe first several years of attempting to catch a Musky with a fly rod, fish will be hooked and gone before they even had a chance of making it into the net, tempers will be lost, rods will be broken, and spirits will be crushed. There will be sleepless nights, too much money spent, and at some point your partner will wonder what is wrong with you as you stare blankly at your phone screen, studying moon phases, weather patterns and water levels, unable to get the image of a fish inhaling your 14 inch fly out of your head. And that borderline insanity is quite possibly the best part of the entire game. There are few things in the world as exciting and as intimate to nature as seeing a mid 40” fish follow a fly, and turn in a figure eight inches from your feet; anticipating and willing it to eat with every muscle in your body. It is in those few panicked, breathless seconds where a Musky angler is shaped, and where that angler begins to understand the fish at a level that few can comprehend. These moments, and the desire to create as many of those moments as possible in our lives is what drives any true Musky angler.
Changes or defying the laws of tradition
In the early days of fly fishing for Musky, the game was simple. 8 or 10 weight saltwater fly rods, single hook deer hair flies, and a drift boat on a remote tannic river. Since then, as in fishing in general, things have gotten more complicated. Or more fun perhaps. Today, par for the course is a minimum of a 12-weight musky specific fly rod, flies with 2 hooks in combination with custom shanks, triple density lines, and if you really like to party, a jet boat. Now, while some people would shake their heads at this transition in the sport and relish in the “good ol’ days”, it is important to remember that without people continuing to push the boundaries of this sport, it quickly turns into a monotonous game of cat and mouse, void of fresh blood and that childlike excitement that all of us as anglers are trying to find again.
Learn, Enjoy, Protect
In the last decade, as more anglers begin to pursue these creatures there has been a significant emphasis put on conservation and protection of the species as a whole. In many of Minnesota’s waters in the mid 1900s’, Musky were harvested in the hundreds, to the point of almost complete population collapse. One such event named the ‘Leech Lake Massacre’ of 1955, resulted in the killing of 163 Musky in a single, unseasonably hot September day. Since these days, Minnesota and Wisconsin fisheries programs have aided in the stocking of countless lakes and river systems, and as a result, Musky populations are exceeding any previously recorded survey data. Now, as more anglers than ever set their sights on these fish, the concern lies with angler education in regards to fish harvest, and fish handling. Although large and seemingly tough, the Musky is a relatively delicate creature, easily damaged or killed by a careless or perhaps just uneducated angler. Proper release tools, a good net, and keeping the fish in the water as much as possible are essential to a healthy release, and for the longevity of the fish.
In short, pursuing one of these fish with a fly rod is a stupid, painful, half thought out idea, that rarely goes the way you think it will. Yet, there are few things in life as rewarding, exciting and fulfilling as putting your first, or your 100th Musky in a net. With Musky specific fly gear pouring into the current market and fish populations exceeding expectations, now is the time to start throwing a fly at these creatures.