Sep 10, 2015
Hooked! The Initiation Of A Musky Hunter
I have always admired the passion in the voice of my friend, Tim, when he talks about hunting muskies in northern Wisconsin. The slight grin he displays as he speaks- it’s never a full-toothed smile, mind you, but it is similar to faces made by grizzled deer and elk hunters I know. It suggests there is something pretty special about these fish and the guys who chase them. I have secretly harbored some jealousy, since my angling experience consists of farm pond bluegills and an occasional guided outing where I have typically caught the puniest fish, and sometimes none at all. So, when Tim invited me to his cabin for an end of the season musky trip, I said sure, figuring I might learn a few things and maybe get to see him catch one.
Tim picked me up on a late fall afternoon with his boat in tow, and we road tripped to Three Lakes, Wisconsin. I watched his enthusiasm grow as the miles ticked off, relaying stories of past trips, and baits, and techniques, and personalities, some of whom I’d read about in a book he gave me as homework before our adventure. My excitement grew as well, tempered by the low expectation that I’d actually enjoy success over our two days of chasing after the fish of 10,000 casts.
At the cabin we plotted strategy for the following morning. A cold snap was in full swing, and the air temperature had dropped to about 9 degrees. There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground as we headed to the local musky shop for bait and other supplies- namely, warmer boots for me. We purchased a half dozen suckers, 14 to15 inches in size. Two thoughts occurred to me: 1) these bait fish were bigger than most anything I’d ever landed, and 2) what kind of fish would bite these things?
Back at the cabin, we launched the boat and headed to a point off an island a few hundred yards from shore. Tim rigged a sucker on a quick set and dropped the line a few feet into the dark water. I watched the bait swim beneath us on the finder, as Tim worked the trolling motor up and down a rise on the lake bottom below. Within 15 minutes the drag on the line began to click, and Tim instructed me to take up the rod and prepare to set the hook. He had coached me to be aggressive, and I lurched backward, feeling a mighty tug on the line as the rod bent to just shy of 90 degrees. Confident that I had secured the biggest fish of my life, I reeled my trophy toward the boat with a racing heart. Not surprisingly, it continued to race even after the fish spit the hook long before we got a look at him. I knew I was hooked far better than the fish I’d just lost.
For the rest of the morning we moved around a bit, to places away from the wind that Tim knew were productive spots. An hour or so later, the reel told us it was time to try again, and I made it count. My first musky! 35 inches of prehistoric muscle and scales! What a fish!
After Tim tried to show me how to release the fish, that artful code of the musky hunter that I’m still trying to accomplish without falling over the boat’s side, I observed that he seemed minimally impressed with the fish. He had accomplished his goal of getting me on a musky, but he also knew that he had created an expensive new hobby for which my wife would blame him for all of my equipment purchases henceforth. He was probably wondering if the smallish musky was worth it.
Tim added a 36 incher later that day, and I lost two more fish, novice hook setter that I am. We ate fried walleye for supper, and I had the honor of adding my name to the cabin’s official big fish roll, since my 35 incher was legal size on the lake. As the conversation moved to planning for the next day, Tim opined that there was another of his haunts that held fewer muskies, but the fish tended to be much larger. Full of the bravado that a lucky hunter effuses, I said yes to going after the monsters I knew I could claim- provided, of course, that Tim got me to the right lake, and put the sucker on the quick set for me, and told me what to do when a fish hit.
After buying a few more big suckers, we arrived early at the boat launch and found ourselves alone on the lake on a calm day with the temperatures heading to the mid-40’s. After an hour on the bigger lake, my reel clicked slowly and I was ready. I double set the hook, and immediately noted that this fish was not happy with me. He moved right, left, up, and down, and fought much harder than my first musky. As I got him near the boat, Tim deftly netted him and proclaimed that I’d caught a tiger musky. He measured 37 inches, and was stunningly striped in dark greens; the most beautiful fish I’d ever seen. Now fully content with my trip, I agreed with Tim that he should take the next strike.
Tim taught me how to cast a bit, and modern technology kept me from the serious backlash that I expected and deserved. It didn’t take long to learn that throwing musky lures is going to make for a long workout, and I decided to save my muscles for warmer days. Right now, the fish were looking for the easy meal a sucker provided, so why not let them eat?
After our own cold lunch on the boat, we went looking for a place Tim referred to as “the three humps” on the lake bottom. We found only one hump, and saw no fish on the finder, so we moved to a new place for both of us, near where a couple of loons and a flock of trumpeter swans were calling. To Tim’s eye, it didn’t look that promising until we noted a log-sized shadow on the finder as the sucker I had actually rigged myself twitched nervously. Sure enough, the log began to move, and the sucker seemed to disappear as the reel whined. Tim set the hook, and as I watched him strain, the fish came into view several feet from the boat. Tim caught my frightened eyes as he said, “That’s a big fish,” which I wasn’t sure would fit into our very large net. It was enormous. As I prepared the net for capture, the fish suddenly rolled to the left and spit the hook. Tim’s figure eights went unanswered. A monster lost.
We circled back, and I got a bite a few minutes later. I knew right away that this was a big one, and sure enough he was at the top of the weekend heap, at 44.5 inches. And fat! We realized, too, that this one was quite a bit smaller than the one that got away. Argh!
We hunted the giant for another couple of hours, but couldn’t raise him again. I felt bad for Tim, but I also now realize why he tempers his musky grin, while at that moment my smile was as wide as the lake.
That night we feasted on grilled steaks and reveled in the successes of the weekend. And about the scary monster that got away. I explained to the guys, “I’m not sure you men realize how much fun I’m having!” and was proclaimed the luckiest musky hunter ever. I’m guessing I’m in the top ten, at least.
In the past few months of the off season, I’ve attended my first musky show, subscribed to Musky Hunter Magazine, bought my first musky rod & reel and tackle box, and purchased a raffle ticket for a sweet fully outfitted boat and trailer. And I’m thinking about getting a model of the tiger musky made. I see Tim every week, and he seems pleased with my progress. My wife? Not so much.