Jul 5, 2017
MUSKY MOMENTS: Memories of a Lifetime
By: Lawrence H . Balleine
My eyes widened as I peered into the large metal cooler sitting along the sidewalk in downtown Eagle
River. There, at the base of the cooler, lay the largest fish I had ever seen. The previous fall
I had shared the excitement of a neighbor who had landed a 37 ½ inch northern while fishing in the
Kewaunee River. Now, I was staring at something much larger, exceeding that prized northern by nearly
a foot in length, and sporting a girth almost twice the size of the well-remembered northern. My dad
leaned over and whispered into my ear, “That’s a musky. Wouldn’t you like to catch one of those?” He
did not need an answer. My grin sufficed.
I was eight years old when this, my first “Musky Moment,” occurred. Now, nearly sixty years later,
the image of that monster fish remains firmly imprinted in my memory.
The occasion of this first musky sighting? We had stopped in Eagle River for supplies on our way to
Aunt Marie’s cottage, an Adirondack style log home built years earlier by my great aunt and her late
husband on the western shore of Big Crawling Stone Lake. We were going to spend the weekend
visiting Aunt Marie and her housekeeper, and yes, do some fishing.
We did not catch a musky on this weekend visit to Vilas County. Having neither a boat nor
the proper musky gear, we were content to fish from shore and catch a bucketful of bluegills and yellow
perch. Nonetheless, on that weekend, the “cooler” musky had given me a case of “musky fever.” A
fascination with muskies had been ignited and continues to this day.
Two years prior to the “musky cooler sighting” in Eagle River, I had had my first fishing experience.
Like the “musky in the cooler,” I have not forgotten this first day on the Kewaunee River. Armed with
bamboo cane poles that we retrieved from their storage place under the eve of our garage, Dad,
my brother and I walked from my childhood home to the Kewaunee River – a distance of less than 100
yards. Using angle worms from our garden as bait, we spent a leisurely Sunday afternoon catching rock
bass from a hole under the County Highway C Bridge. It was my first fishing venture; and I was hooked.
My adolescence found me fishing from the banks of this nearby river. Knowing that it did not
support muskies, I was content to pursue a close relative of the musky; a large northern pike. All
the while I continued to imagine those “top of the food chain” muskies menacingly patrolling the water
in the northern part of the state. So I began to read in earnest about muskies and their habitat, and to
learn the stories of those who caught these prized game fish. I was pleased to learn that in 1955 the
muskellunge (musky) had been named the official state fish of Wisconsin. I was elated when I
discovered that Louis Spray was credited with landing the World Record Musky – a 63 and ½ inch, 69-
pound specimen. The reason for my excitement? His record catch occurred on October 20, 1949; and
my birth had occurred merely hours earlier, in the evening hours of October 19, 1949. How
could I not feel a special connection to this fish of 10,000 casts?
Then, nearly ten years after viewing that first musky in the Eagle River street side cooler, I was a
freshman in college and attending my college’s first home football game of the 1967 season. “Muskies!
Muskies!” (pause) “Muskies! Muskies!” yelled the six cheerleaders clad in Lakeland College blue and
gold as they strolled the sidelines of the football field. And, I realized for the first time, “I am enrolled in
a school whose mascot is the musky. How cool is that?!” I soon joined the college’s cross country and
track teams and thus found myself even more deeply embedded in the “Musky” tradition. The
designation – “Musky” – is one I continue to proudly wear some fifty years later. For one with a musky
fascination, I could not have chosen a more appropriate school for my undergraduate education.
(It should be noted: Although Lakeland College – now Lakeland University -- is bordered by the
Sheboygan River on the west, the Sheboygan contains no muskies; and even though muskies prowl in
nearby Elkhart Lake, the mascot came from the college’s first athletic director who, in 1933, had to
quickly come up with a mascot as the college entered athletic competition. He quickly remembered
fishing on a northern Wisconsin lake and fighting a spirited musky, and thus for over 80 years,
Lakeland’s athletic teams have been known as the Muskies.)
Now, nearly sixty years have passed since the Eagle River cooler musky sighting, and I still have not
caught a musky of any substantial and, I might add, legal size. That’s probably because I have fished
exclusively for muskies only a couple of times over the years. Several years ago, I ventured out with a
friend from college who lives on Dardis Lake, near Phillips. The weather on that last Sunday
afternoon in October was bitterly cold and we had no success. About five years ago, I joined another
friend who had contracted with a guide. Fishing the Wisconsin River, our foray for walleye and
smallmouth bass was successful, but our attempt for a musky netted no results.
Yet, I have not gone “musky-less” all these years. I have landed and released two; one in the later
80’s while fishing on Adams Lake in northeastern Indiana. Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources
had planted a number of fingerling muskies in this 300 acre lake in the early 80’s. One evening near
sunset while fishing off the dock of our rental cottage, a musky attacked my jitterbug. Having a fish
strike topwater bait is always exciting, and the feistiness of this musky did not disappoint me. After
landing, measuring and releasing the 17-inch catch, I imagined the thrill of those fortunate to battle a
larger musky. In succeeding annual stays at this cottage, I would periodically see larger Adams Lake
muskies. They would often appear just beneath the water’s surface. Yet I was never able to hook into
Then in the early 90’s my wife, two teenage children and I drove around Lake Michigan. During this
two week “circular” journey we spent a couple of days in Rapid River. Having earlier lived
and worked in this small Upper Peninsula community, I knew many of the fishing hot spots. One
afternoon I ventured off for a location near the mouth of the Rapid River where I hoped to land a couple
of nice early summer walleye. Within a few minutes, I reeled in my first fish. I immediately thought it
was a small yellow perch. But upon closer examination, I discovered it was an immature musky. “A
musky? Here?” I thought to myself. Then I remembered that Little Bay de Noc did indeed contain
muskies that often spawn in the weedbeds of some of the bay’s tributaries. The Rapid River is one such
tributary. Evidently, this particular musky had yet to venture into the water of the larger bay.
After residing in Indiana for fifteen years, we moved to south central Wisconsin in the mid-90’s. We
now spend our “cottage week” in either Vilas or Oneida County.
And yes, whenever we head “Up North” we schedule a stop in Boulder Junction, “The Musky Capitol
of the World.” There, on Main Street, on the left side of Northern Highland Sports store is a white
cooler – not unlike the cooler I peered into in Eagle River nearly six decades ago. I always look to see
what fish it might contain. Most recently I saw a nice walleye, while on other occasions I have seen
some good sized largemouth bass and even a crappie or two. But I have yet to see a musky like the one
I saw back in 1958 in Eagle River. Obviously, with the practice of “catch and release,” fewer trophy fish
end up in coolers for public viewing. I am grateful for that.
Will I ever catch a good-sized musky? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that I am content even if I never
land the large musky I dreamed of as a young boy looking into the cooler in Eager River six decades ago.
For my experiences with muskies, although seldom on the end of my fishing line, have been rich and
have filled my life in unforgettable and significant ways. And, the recollection of looking into that cooler
in 1958 with my late father standing beside me and whispering into my ear, “That’s a musky,” will
remain one of the “coolest” memories of my life.