If you’ve spent your outdoor life with flycasting for trout or chasing elk out here in the New West, you might be asking: What’s a muskie?
Steelheaders might object to this answer, but to me, the muskie could be the ultimate freshwater game fish. It’s sort of like the great white shark of freshwater, a mythical and mysterious apex predator that fascinates us–some of us, at least, those of us with a fishing problem.
Catching a muskie has always been on my life list, and this was the year I decided to do it, but it didn’t quite turn out as I expected.
If you’re an experienced muskie hunter, you might want to log off and head downstairs and sharpen your hooks, but if you have the same little problem I do, a passion for going after one of the most elusive game fish on our planet, read on.
First, a little vocabulary enhancement.
It isn’t really “hunting,” of course, but fishing for muskies so resembles big game hunting–so much time spent searching for your quarry and only few minutes actually bagging it–that such references have become commonplace. The biggest magazine on the subject, for example, is called Musky Hunter.
As for, muskie or musky? I prefer “muskie” because it sounds more like a fish and “musky” reminds me of the pile of dirty fishing clothes down in corner of my man room, but either spelling works. Actually, I’ve been told it’s merely a colloquialism. The two primary states with large muskie populations are Minnesota and Wisconsin. Most Minnesotans say muskie; most Wisconsinites say musky, but whichever you use, you’re still welcome in either state.
Most anglers believe in the 80/20 rule–20 percent of the anglers catching 80 percent of the fish. When fishing for muskies, though, 2 percent catch 98 percent, so what does a rank beginner like me who just bought his first muskie rod do?
That’s easy. You team up with one of the 2 percent, which in my case was Paul Pollock, a 42-year-old former Marine who owns Pollock Guide Service on Lake Vermilion, Minnesota. Paul agreed to take my fishing partner, Gene Colling, and me out to catch our first muskie, and we jumped at the chance.
Casting, casting, casting….Actually, it almost seems like they should call it “muskie casting” instead of “muskie hunting” because, as Paul explained as soon as we showed up at his doorstep, that’s what you do; you cast and cast and cast. That’s how the muskie earned its moniker, “The Fish of Ten Thousand Casts.”
“How can that be a big problem,” Gene and I quipped, silently thinking it had to be an exaggeration; “most fish fit that category for us.”
We arrived at Paul’s place in late afternoon, and immediately learned that muskie hunters aren’t normal people and sure don’t keep normal hours. We sort of expected to relax and get to know each other and then get up early to go after our first muskie, but instead, Paul asked, “You ready to rip some lips.”
When you go to a fishing lodge or hire an outfitter to fish for anything except muskies, you normally fish something close to an 8-5 schedule. With muskie hunting, it seems, it’s more like 5-8, and I mean 5 pm to 8 am.
Casting, casting, casting….We started casting around the time we’re usually ready to quit fishing and break into the beer cooler, and we just kept casting, casting and casting. We watched the sun sink into the horizon, but does that stop serious muskie hunter like Paul Pollock? Hardly. They don’t’ even think about missing happy hour or dinner or Monday Night Football. They just keep on casting. I’m surprised they don’t have to immobilize their arm when they finally get to bed to keep it from instinctively continuing the casting motion.
And muskie casting isn’t like any other casting; it’s work. Maybe “musky” would be better, now that I’ve tried it, because that’s how you smell after a few hours of casting.
You use a big rod (two-handed, heavy power, 7-8 feet in length) and a baitcasting reel (no spinning reels) that’s suited for saltwater species (with the drag turned so tight you can’t pull out the 80-pound-test superline). And the baits (don’t call them lures) are breathtaking (check out the photos).
“A couple more days of this,” Gene said on our second day, “and I’ll be a wisp of my former self.”
Casting, casting, casting….I used to view the muskie as an oversized northern pike, and true, they’re closely related, but comparing the two is like saying a steelhead is a nice-sized rainbow.
Pike are much more numerous than muskies. Both pike and muskies have big appetites, no doubt, but muskies are much harder to catch perhaps because the average meal for a 50-inch muskie (considered a trophy fish) is a 30-inch “bait fish.” That’s why some muskie baits are so massive (up to 14 inches) and heavy (up to 16 ounces) and with daunting treble hooks (nothing smaller than 2/ought, often 5/ought). And nobody among the 2 percent would ever use store-bought baits without filing the hooks to hypodermic-needle-like sharpness to make sure they make it into the muskie’s extra-tough lips.
Casting, casting, casting….Not that muskie hunters can’t be female, because some are, but muskie hunting sure seems more suited for men because we’re so used to rejection. Cast after cast, rejection after rejection, in a zone, fighting to stay focused, and then, suddenly, you have a “follow.” in muskie hunting, you get points for follows because sometimes that’s all you have to show after a hard day’s work. But when you see that first alligator-like shape with its nose on the trailing hooks of your bait, well, it’s buck fever big time.
Paul explained it thoroughly for us before we started–the half-dozen things you need to do when you have a follow–all in two seconds in the proper sequence—if you want to hook the fish.
Keep that bait moving (stop for a nanosecond and the fish flairs off), reel all the way up to the leader, and then smoothly transition into what’s called a “figure eight.” If you get a strike, set the hook as hard with all your might (but don’t forget to loosen your drag), and hang on.
Well, what’s the chance a first-timer doing all that just right when he gets his first follow? Close to zero, at least in my case, as I proved on my first few follows, which I summarily botched.
The figure eight is difficult maneuver, unique to muskie fishing. You stick your rod tip in the water and smoothly make a figure-eight movement. Sounds crazy, huh? But guess what? At least 25 percent of muskies are caught on the figure eight. When lured to the boat, muskies have a weird habit of hanging around for a few seconds before swimming off looking for lunch elsewhere, and the figure eight can close the deal.
Casting, casting, casting….While spending four and a half days in Paul’s boat and talking muskie most of the time, I grew evermore amazed with the dedication of real muskie hunters, people like Paul. They have a single-mindedness about them. They’re either on the lake or thinking about it. Nasty weather or nightfall doesn’t stop them, and they even give up real hunting to go muskie hunting because October and November are the prime time for big muskies.
Paul, for example, has a day job. He drives a “production truck” for Hibbing Taconite, a large mining operation. You’ve seen those immense trucks with 12-foot tires and the drivers sitting 17 feet above the ground. That’s Paul. On some days, he finishes his shift at the mine and heads right for his boat and casts for muskies into the depth of the night.
In fact, Paul has been one of the pioneers of night fishing for muskies, which was quite the experience, I might add. It’s easier than you think. We were lucky to have a three-quarters moon, and you could actually see adequately to fish. We fished mainly around rocky islands and points, and the only serious problem I had was getting that cast up next to rocks, where Paul wanted it, without hooking an island.
Night fishing is more productive, according to Paul, who catches about half of his muskies after the sun goes down. If he sees a fish during the day, he goes back to the same spot at night because “the change in light seems to turn a follower into a fish that hits your bait.”
Don’t try night fishing yourself, though, unless you know the lake better than your backyard, like Paul does. Anybody can cast at night, but navigating a boat around hundreds of rocky points and islands, well, that isn’t for beginners. Instead, hire a pro, like Paul, who steered his big Lund around Lake Vermilion like it was sunny day.
Casting, casting, casting….I actually kept track. I spent about 55 hours muskie casting. I averaged 2.5 casts per minute, so that means I put out about 8,250 casts on my first muskie hunting trip.
But not enough, obviously, because no muskie for Bill or Gene.
Paul, on the other hand, re-proving the 2 percent rule, landed a nice 44 incher. Not a trophy, but I’d taken it.
On the last day a guy doing creel census from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources came by and helped soothe my ego. He told us the muskie Paul caught was the only one recorded in the past four days. So, a lot of other muskie hunters, pros and amateurs alike, also went without a fish that week.
Sometimes they just “turn off,” Paul explained. “Not sure what does it, but it can be frustrating,” (Yep, that’s an understatement.)
“But that’s muskie fishing; there no other fish like it.”
And all it does is make you want to come back for more. I had my chances, several follows and amateurish figure eights. So, lucky me, now I get to try again. It’s bound to be easier this time. I know the gear and the lingo and I can crush bones with my casting hand. Plus, I only have 12 hours of casting to go before I get to 10,000 casts.
Casting, casting, casting…., long into the night. You have to ask why we do it, right? On second thought, don’t ask. I don’t want to know the answer.