Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Tale of Two Muskies

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

I'll start with a spoiler: we caught more than 2 muskies (I'll get to the title later), and it was pretty epic, especially for a first serious attempt at the water wolves of musky country. But there was something bittersweet in the final moments. 

Dave K. of Urban Assault Fly Fishing and Chi-Tie and I headed north to the Park Falls, WI area to meet my buddy Jordan who was staying in a cabin for the month of October. Jordan spends his Octobers here chasing muskie every year after returning from guiding all summer at a lodge in Alaska. I couldn't make it happen last year, but this year I lucked out and Dave was able to get the time off work, so we put it together last-minute. The goal was to get our first real muskies on the fly. The time and place certainly seemed right. 

We rolled in to the cabin at 12:30 AM on Weds morning. It had been pitch black on the road for the last 40 minutes, including when we pulled up. We saw Jordan through the door window still tying flies at the table. We stayed up til 3am catching up and playing with the pile of giant flies he had produced. In fact, when we showed him our attempts at muskie flies, he said, "Those are nice pike flies," implying our offererings were small despite their 5/0 hooks and 3/4 of a foot length. 

Day 1 began with scraping the drift boat of all the ice that had formed overnight. It was about 28 degrees outside. 

I tied on a 4/0 articulated pink deceiver that Jordan thought was too small. He tied on a ~14" blue and chart articulated 6/0 thing in hopes he could fish after Dave or I caught one. Minutes into the float, with my hands unacclimated to the sub-freezing temps, I was freezing. But Jordan kept telling us about how this log and that log had produced fish in weeks past--it could happen at any moment, on any cast. "Just keep your fly in the water," I told myself, and that helped keep me warm. We turned a fast corner, maybe 30 minutes into the float, and Jordan said, "Oh, I know there's a muskie in here." Standing in the bow, I lobbed a cast past the seam and began to strip. It came tight. I stripped and stripped again into the slow-moving mass. Sure enough, my first muskie on the fly thrashed about and came to the net--around 32". Not a giant, but not a dink--a first muskie nonetheless! We were all stoked! 


We pressed on but miles of water and hours later we were only freezing with no more signs of life. This is muskie fishing--a whole lot of work and cold with little reward; the reward, when it comes, is unpredictable in timing and size. Fortunately, Jordan's father had given him the gift of a portable propane heater for the drift boat, which got so hot it could melt your wading boots. Not long after switching to a tandem blue/purple fly with doll eyes, I got a vicious surface strike as the fly landed. Another muskie! However, Jordan faceteously guessed that this one was the smallest one he'd ever seen. It was a cute apex predator. 

I switched to an articulated perch pattern deceiver and got an uncommitted follow from a 30"er. I rowed us to the take-out, where on the very last cast, Jordan set the hook like it was Bassmaster Classic. He nailed a decent pike on the over-foot-long fly. 

We went out to get groceries that night and spent the evening tying 10" articulated flies, including a jiggy thing I came up with, over DiGiorno frozen pizza and Sara Lee cheesecake. 

Day 2 saw some different water. This was a very long float. Jordan had warned me that I'd be waiting with the boat for over an hour after take-out while he and Dave ran the shuttle. This water was gorgeous musky water. Lots of high banks loaded with pines, tons of curves and corners with slow, deep logjams and laydowns for muskies to hide in. Early in the float, Dave scored a rat of a pike. Not long later, right as Dave accidentally cast his fly right onto where mine was mid-retrieve, a high 20"s muskie took 2 swipes at my fly. Figure-8 but no dice. Around a corner along some twiggy brush, I had a pike smash my new pink-white jiggy deceiver creation. 

Jordan told us to duck as we went under an overhanging tree way close to the bank. When I popped my head back up, I heard an enormous splash and looked back--Dave was hooked up to his first muskie! This fish at a blue-purple articulated deceiver 8' from a steep bank in somewhat swift water. It was around 34-35". We were completely stoked now since our goals for the trip had been met and exceeded. Pressure was off. Let's have some fun. 

My favorite muskie portrait ever.
Jordan started theorizing about how he thought he pounded the banks too much; all the area guides seemed to say that the giants come from mid-river, behind unseen boulders in unpredictable and barren-looking places. With that in mind, I let a backcast slip behind me into swirling depths. I watched my giant pink jiggy bug swim into visibility, when suddenly a wide, curved head appeared behind and below it. The water is so stained with tannic acid that the fish's head appeared, disembodied, like the Cheshire Cat. Before I could process it (thankfully), the fish ate the fly, and gave me a good tussle. He ran under the boat, around the boat, upstream, downstream, and every other way. I jumped from the back of the boat to the top of the Yeti cooler, and Dave yelled something as he cleared my trailing line away from the portable furnace. Soon enough, we netted the fish, and in the shallows we were able to get some pics. This one was somewhere closer to 36 but maybe not fully. 

Let's recap. I caught 3 muskies on the fly and Dave caught 1, respectable fish at that, plus some pike, in our first 1.5 days on the water. 

Now I'm rowing, and we're all jazzed. Jordan is jazzed about his theory of mid-river giants. The next one will be bigger, he's sure, and he will get it without pounding the banks. He rigs up a type 6 sink-tip line and a fly hand tied by Matt Grajewski. Within minutes, he does set the hook, Bassmaster-style again, as the fish hits at the boat. It's a low-20"s fish, and Jordan turns to me says, "doesn't count, keep rowing." Dangling the fly in front of the boat, Jordan gets another hit several minutes later, the fish runs around the bow, jumps, reveals its 20" body, and throws the hook. These little musky are nuts. 

And that's how day 2 would end, fish-wise. 4 muskies hooked, 3 to the boat, 1 for each of us, plus a pike for me and Dave. We wondered if we should even try again tomorrow or if we'd be pressing our luck. The trip's success was already in the bag. Back at the cabin, Jordan made us spaghetti with meat sauce and we sipped Fat Squirrel. 

I swore I'd perfect my jiggy articulated thing by tying another that night in rainbow trout colors. Might look crazy to you, but it's fishy as hell underwater. 

Day 3, final float. We needed to be back in Chicago by midnight, so I begged Jordan to find us a short float. He said he really didn't know a 4-hour float, but had a 6-hour one we could push through a little quicker than normal. Fine--let's do it. Oh, but wait, Jordan added that the caveat is that this stretch of water has skunked him every time. That's not to say he hasn't seen and moved and hooked fish, but he'd never brought a fish to the boat on this stretch. In some sense, it seemed to have a curse. 

At the ramp, there was a pair of fellows unloading a canoe and beginning to float the exact same stretch. Jordan quietly cursed this fact, as what would be the odds that someone does this same float at the exact same time as us, and other fly guys no less? It was the first day of the World Musky FlyFishing Championships, too, and we expected crowds. But we got an early start, which we thought would get us ahead of the tourney. Well, I have to tell you, the odds were slim, and yet even more coincidental, the pair of canoe anglers happened to be fellow Illinois Smallmouth Alliance member and friend Ryan Kral and his buddy Pat! We only realized this when we passed them on the float and chatted them up at a distance. We met up again at lunch break. Ryan had hooked a small fish but it shook loose at the boat. 
Ryan and Pat
We cast into every lair that Jordan said he ever had seen a fish. Trust me, it looked fantastic. Nothing. No signs of life. The wind picked up and began to roar upstream. If we didn't paddle downstream, we'd stay completely still. I was convinced we'd move upstream. Pushing through, we passed an island 300 yards upstream of the takeout. Jordan yelled, "That's it. We're done, fellas. Fuck this stretch--I've now been blanked on it 3 times! Fuck it. I'm never doing this float again." Dave and I mumbled in frigid agreement. Still, Dave made a halfhearted cast to the seam below the island. Halfway back, a fish struck and rolled on the surface. It was a little fish, but we got it in the boat. Jordan's words lost their meaning. I had to photograph this little musky that had the surprising power and audacity to turn this float around. 

After releasing Dave's fish, I was re-energized. I knew we only had a few minutes left on this final day, but I began to shout an inquiry to the musky gods, "Where's that little muskie's grandma? Where's big momma's house?" I remember it being only 2 casts later that I couldn't eye my fly in the middle of the river when my strip came tight. I could tell immediately it was unlike anything we had hooked so far. It was SOLID. It moved toward the boat, and I kept setting the hook. Jordan joked, "You snagged a sturgeon!" I replied, "No, dude, this feels good. I think it's a big big muskie." I kept the line taught, and the slow writhing fish moved away from the boat in short bursts increasing in speed and distance. The fish was now on the reel, and going bizerk, but not showing itself in the wind-stained and tannic water. Finally, the fish rose, and I saw that it was easily 6" wide at the shoulders. The fish bombed itself below the boat several times, and each time we could see its length. We hadn't seen anything this large the whole trip. Jordan began to shout, "That's EASILY over 40", dude! Holy Shit!" Dave was holding the net--an old, cheap black rope net but all we had--and I led the fish to it. As expected, it took two tries, but we bagged the giant fish! Holy crap what an amazing feeling! We exchanged high-fives and fist-bumps and screamed in elation to the sky. My first musky trip, I had caught a 40+" musky. What an epic time, and what a way to stick it to Jordan's perceptions of this stretch of water. Two fish had now come to the boat since he swore off this water, including the best musky he'd ever had in the net. It was a thick fish that I'd guess was 43". 

With the net still over the gunnel and the fish covered in water, Jordan paddled to shore to take pics. All of the sudden, something kicked into his frame of mind and he could no longer bear the thought of that big musky in that course old net. Nevermind that we just poked a hole in it's face with a 6/0 hook or two, Jordan parked the boat some 15' from shore in knee-deep water. He hopped out and grabbed the net from Dave, walking toward shore. With the netted fish still connected to my fly, I hopped out too and followed with the rod. Jordan stopped some 3-4' from shore, with water up to mid-calf and deeper water behind. He reached into the net with his right hand, grabbed the fish's tail, still holding the net with his left hand. The fish was greener than he estimated, and it barrel-rolled its way out of his hand, falling outside the net. Instead of landing in the water still attached to the fly, the articulated fly was still attached to the net, and the muskie dropped free. The monster swam right at me, and I dove in and tried to bear-hug the fish. For a split second I pinned the fish against the bottom with my left hand, but being a 20+lb 40+" fish in fear of its life in calf-deep water, it won the odd interspecies battle. I screamed, "FUCK!" and threw my hat into the woods. I walked over and laid down on some grass in silence. The whole scene was silent, a deep void of sound juxtaposed with the gleeful hollering just a moment before. No one looked at each other. Dave picked my rod and reel up out of the water where I had tried to stop the fish. A few words were exchanged about bittersweetness and sucking, but it's all a blur. I tried to retrospectively reason--"The bank was only another 3' away." "What's another 3 seconds in the net?" "Why couldn't I take the fish out of the net?--it's my fish!" But the moment had passed. I had caught the fish. The release hadn't gone how or when we intended even if it was what we intended. But we, and I, had broken the 40" mark, hadn't we? Why did this feel like a loss? 

From that moment until this one right now, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the overwhelming photocracy we live in these days especially online. It truly feels as if something didn't happen if there are no photos of it. We take photos of our food, and way too often of ourselves doing nothing but making faces. I'm convinced that this generation believes if they don't constantly take pictures of themselves, they cease to exist. But I digress. Fishing has had a long relationship with photographic evidence, but this trend has exacerbated with growing catch-and-release ethos and increases in photo technology and accessibility. And I take full part in this epidemic. 

It's for that reason that this trip was the best of times and worst, a tale of two muskies. Even though we boated some nice musky and several tiny ones, managing to keep our lines fairly tight everyday, there are only 2 muskies that occupy my mind--the ~43" fish that I caught, on my own fly, and fought to the net, and the ~43" fish that got away, avoiding digital capture--where she'd be stuck in the turbines of search engines for all eternity. 

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