The Muskellunge or “Musky” is a fish of legend and almost mythic story. Find a musky fisherman and you have found someone with persistence, loyalty, and toughness, who may be a little off. They are storytellers or yarn spinners. Yes, “fishtales” are big with musky fisherman, and I am one.
Where do I begin? I was always a fisherman. That is a little like the person who says, “I grew up a Christian.” On further inquiry we find that their mother or grandmother attended mass every day and dragged them to church. That does not mean that they are Christian. But that’s another story. I grew up in a family where my father had stories of muskies and photos to go with it. In fact, we have a special shelf honoring him and his exploits. It includes his bronze star and purple heart for bravery resulting from a nearly fatal injury from a German 88mm artillery round that left him full of shrapnel and under a jeep at Monte Casino, Italy, from which he was rescued by his gunnery Sergeant. It also includes photos of his early adulthood successes musky fishing in Northern Wisconsin, particularly the Chippewa Flowage and Ghost Lake. It is from this latter reference that my musky journey and legends begin.
I was 12 years old in 1958 long after the World Record Musky of a 69 pound 11 once tiger musky had been caught on the Chippewa Flowage by Charles Sprague of Hayward. I was taken to “Suick’s Muskie Bar” by my father, who was not any longer able to participate with me in sports because of his war injuries, but he could introduce me to the musky and its legend and history. Outside the bar was a 20-some foot model of a musky to represent Hayward, “The Musky Capitol of the World.” Inside the bar were dozens of mounted muskies in every fighting pose possible. And then I saw it, the world record. The fish was enormous. The bar owner saw my shocked face and recognized an opportunity to tell me the story and my responsibility or opportunity to try to beat the record. I took the bait and I was hooked. “Can you catch Leviathan with a hook or put a noose around its jaw?
Can you tie it with a rope through the nose, or pierce its jaw with a spike?
Will it beg you for mercy, or implore you for pity?” (Job 41:1-3 NLT)
After a couple of successful days walleye fishing on the Chippewa Flowage, I was introduced to throwing musky lures. These artificial lures were huge and had beguiling names like the “Musky Killer” and “The Suick”, “Cisco-Kid Topper,” “Mepps Bucktail Spinners” and “Rapalas.” Yes, it added to the mystique of musky hunting. The large tackle with stout rods, with at least 30 pound test added to the story. I was given a thick glass rod with a Pflueger Supreme reel and heavy braided line. I chose a surface bait with a propeller. Bright yellow with gold spots and three treble hooks seemed like the right artillery. I began to try to cast this six-once bait. It sounded like a motorboat cruising on the surface. We tried shorelines and weed-lines, visible stumps and sandbars. After three hours I could hardly speak from exhaustion and my muscles, as weak as they were, ached everywhere from 1,000 unsuccessful casts. We saw one on a follow-up to my dad’s lure. It was a dark shape cutting a V in the water behind the bait. Dad did a ”figure-eight” with the lure along side the boat, but the musky didn’t take it as I learned they sometimes did.
Ghost Lake Greenback
The next day we headed for Ghost Lake out of our resort. We fished for bass in the morning landing a few, but headed out for musky in the afternoon. I chose a surface bait again, this time a Cisco-kid Topper. This black one with silver sequins attracted me. We headed out to a far bay where thick “Musky weed” reached up to lily pads. The guide just told me to throw it out into the pads and reel in as fast as I could. He told me the more distracting the bait, the more likely to attract a musky. We had only been in the bay for 30 minutes, cranking the baits as fast as we could. I watched the wake behind the lure with a mesmerizing attention. I was waiting for something big that I had never experienced. I knew if a musky struck the bait that I needed to strike back hard with the rod to set the hook.
The sound of the bait was like a little motorboat as the two propellers spraying water high above the surface. The explosion was beyond expectation as the splashing water hit us in the boat just 12 feet away. I reared back and struck hard with both hands. The rod doubled over to the water and the line screamed from the reel. My thumb holding down on the spool was burning, although I didn’t mind that with my adrenaline surging through me. I had hooked a green backed tiger musky and he was heading into the weeds to throw off the lure. “Give him line!” the guide shouted. “Hold the line taught, no slack!” I knew what he meant, but I was just trying to hold on tight. The fish turned and headed toward the boat. I reeled as fast as I could to take up slack line. Then down he dove pulling the line like a sounding whale. Again I gave as my thumb held tight. He headed along the boat, my line singing through the water as it pulled away. He headed out to the deeps and them just as suddenly turned back towards the boat. It was heading right at us and now the whole dark green stripped body with dorsal fin out of the water was visible. I yelled for the net and the guide yelled, “get the gun!” Gun? I thought, something I had heard from musky legends.
As the planing fish surfed towards the boat I was reeling frantically. It seemed like a WWII submarine versus torpedo movie. Thirty…Twenty feet… fifteen…ten…five feet and then an explosion in my ear as the guide leveled and pulled the trigger on his 38-caliber Ruger. The fish dove hard as I somehow was able give it line again. And then the line stopped running out. The fish seemed to stop. I began to reel and I could feel the heavy wait on my line. I was reeling it in and then it appeared from the depths, the green monster rising up to the surface. The guide could gaff it into the boat. I had my first musky. It was a 14-pound, 36 ¼ inch Tiger. We headed for the lodge, my mind and body shaking and numb at the same time. I was more than excited as we pulled into the dock and several other guides who had heard the shot waited as I held up my prize. Hoorays and pats on the back as I made my way to the lodge and the waiting dinner crowd. The owner ceremoniously announced the statistics and wrote my name and the details on the heralded Musky Log on the wall under a mounted monster musky. I was now in the Ghost Lake Lodge history books. I was also hooked, a 12-year-old musky addict, something you just don’t quit with ease or desire.
Through the next 20 years I caught many muskies. I fished primarily with a friend and High School classmate who became a musky fishing guide. I particularly remember a couple of musky moments with fondness. I recall a summer job as a counselor at YMCA Camp Manito-wish near Boulder Junction. There one evening I took a couple of campers out fishing for Walleye, when I hooked a musky on 4-lb. test monofilament spinning tackle. I somehow landed the fish after a testy fight using a small net. We took the beautiful fish up to the camp dinning center and proudly marched into dinner, late, holding up the 12-pound stripped musky and telling the tale. The cooks prepared the fish for our diner the next night to many campers envy.
As I graduated from college, I took several fraternity brothers to a famous lodge near Minocqua, Wisconsin, Dairyman’s Country Club, where my dad was a member. There I taught my friends how to fish and to my glee and surprise caught three keeper muskies of 32”, 34” and 40.” The 20-pound fish was an incredibly scrumptious dinner stuffed with French toast and stripped with bacon slices, as it came out of the 350-degree oven to hungry men. It gave me an opportunity to tell “fish stories” to a newly initiated group. They were taken.
Wolf Lake Whirlwind
For a number of years I returned to Dairyman’s catching several nice fish. However, it was not until one time I fished with my father during college, which was a special treat hearing his stories. We fished in Wolf Lake in front of the Lodge, part of the 6,000 acres private club. It was late afternoon in September when the sun was low at the treetops. The bay was bronzed in sunlight, almost blinding us. I was casting a “Billy-fin Bucktail” a large spinner with a pork rind tail. I was picking up a lot of musky weed as I tore the lure through the thick growth. My red Ambassador reel with a star drag allowed me flexibility to pull hard or let out line in an emergency. As the lure hit the water with a whack, the surface exploded as a musky lurking in the weeds was irritated and attracted by the bait. Immediately my line was not only taught, but the drag was screaming as the fish moved through the weeds. Luckily I had 30-pound monofilament line and a drag. I fought the fish for about ten minutes with no progress towards the boat. Then the water blasted in a geyser as the fish sounded like a whale and I knew why. It was the biggest fish I had ever seen, except on the bar wall. My dad was in the bow now watching the action. I yelled, “Get the net” and he said it isn’t big enough. “Get the gaff” which was in the bottom of my tackle box below my bench seat. Dad struggled to get it out and open as the huge fish cruised by the boat showing us a profile nearly the length of a canoe paddle. I worried about his getting injured. I brought the fish around again after another run of drag. Now it rested on the surface for a breather. Dad was trying to gaff it and just couldn’t get an angle on it. Just when we had it the giant fish revived and jumped fully into the air demonstrating a fish of mythical size. Water cascaded into the boat, my line screamed and then the thick musky rod snapped and the reel flew into the water. The fish ripped the line from the reel surfaced again and showered us with water. Then it disappeared never to be seen again. We sat trembling and soaked.
My son was probably 17 when we headed up the Menomonee River for smallmouth and walleyes. He had a medium weight fly rod and a black leech pattern on his line. We had caught a dozen nice Smallmouth Bass downriver and were heading up the gorge into the rapids. In a dark pool below a scalable rock face we had caught many fish. I was amazed as we landed several more bass and a couple of walleyes. Then my son hooked a nice size one. As he brought in the slack line on the double bowed fly rod, the fish disappeared. We quickly saw that it had been completely swallowed by an enormous musky that had come in from the rapids to feed. The fish was in the 50-55” category, a record for any fly fisherman, anywhere. The fish just slowly digested the fish while we waited to se the hook. After about 15 minutes he se the hook and the giant fish began to move out of the pool. I tried to reach it, but to no avail. Almost in slow motion it lipped into the fast current. My sons began to follow it down river along a rock and cedar tree covered and steep bank. He began to run and the reel began to sing as he ran to catch up. We had 30 feet of fly line and 200 yards of backing on the reel.
We came to a rocky promontory where we couldn’t go further. So my son dove in and brought his feet up and pointing downstream while holding the rod high above his head. The line continues to run from the reel as the fish picked up steam. Over several level 1 rapids he bounced still holding on. We were probably a full hour into the battle when my son was able to stand on a rock in the middle of the roaring rapids and try to hold the fish. The line screamed out, the drag as tight as possible. Fifty, then one hundred yards it kept swimming downstream. The 150 yards out we could still make out the giant musky escaping for open waters. At 200 yards, the rod still held high, the line snapped. It was one and a half hours into the long battle. My son just drifted downstream to a safe take out place where I met him in an embrace. Tears of loss and joy mixed as we communed about the fight for future legends to be told.
This was the last musky memory I have as I gaze at my first musky mounted by Owen Gromme, a world famous artist, handing on the wall in my basement man-cave. It beside the mounted head of a 6 ½ foot long Barracuda I caught in Cozumel, Mexico in 1967 and smuggled home in newspapers under my shirt. But that incredible battle off a Mayan fishing boat is for another time. Suffice it to say, the musky is held in high esteem in our family.