I’ve been fly fishing seriously for three years, following a natural fisherman’s progression: first I wanted to catch any fish, then I wanted to catch a lot of fish, now I want to catch BIG fish. I grew up in Utah with access to many beautiful waters, and I took advantage of them, fishing as much as I could, averaging five days a week on the water. I learned a lot through hands-on trial and error and I read and watched anything “fly fishing” I could find. Along the way I discovered a few marquee species: steelhead, permit, Atlantic salmon…and musky. I made a goal to catch each one.
I grew confident in my abilities and believed I could catch trout on any water. I put that belief to the test time and again and proved myself. I thought this success would translate to other species as well. In 2013 I got the chance to try my luck on steelhead in Idaho with some steelhead gurus. One guy was even nicknamed The Shaman for his uncanny ability to find fish. I was warned that the chances of catching one on a first trip were slim. I nodded my head, but in my mind I was confident I would be successful. I caught two, a 26 inch hatchery hen and a 36 inch native buck, and achieved my goal. Through the experience I gained more confidence in my abilities (and luck), and caught my first marquee species.
Later that year my wife and I decided to move to the Twin Cities. I immediately began researching musky fishing, a lot of research. My wife tells me I was out of control; “Are you really watching that video about muskies again?” was an oft-repeated phrase. I couldn’t help myself. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to catch a big, toothy, 50 inch apex predator!?
My second day in Minnesota I went to Bob Mitchell’s fly shop. I carried with me a notebook with a long list of questions. Rob helped me and set me up with some flies and other musky necessities. He also invited me fishing on Lake Elmo with him and a couple buddies. I was jazzed up and deep down thought I was going to make it happen that first trip. It didn’t happen that first trip.
Three months of fishing at least twice a week followed, the result: two broken rods, two snapped fly lines, a broken pontoon, countless “you can’t catch muskies on a fly rod” conversations with coworkers, numerous pike and largemouth’s, and zero muskies to hand. It took a month before I even saw a musky (I thought it was a log and floated right over it without even casting). I started to think the fly fishing community was playing some elaborate hoax. For a Utah kid accustomed to catching numerous fish each time out, this musky business was humbling. My resolve was tested and I began to question my sanity.
I continued my research and discovered a small lake in northern Minnesota rumored to have large numbers of smaller muskies. I believed this was the place it was all going to come together. I planned an all day excursion beginning with a 3 am wake-up call followed by a four and a half hour drive. When I stopped to get gas I drew a musky in the dust on the back of my shell as an offering to the musky gods, anything to help my case. When I arrived the sun was up and a beautiful indian summer day was at hand. I quickly paddled to the shoreline I wanted to fish first and began casting to the bank and slowly stripping my oversized streamer over a drop-off hoping to draw the attention of a musky looking to ambush baitfish. I quickly found my rhythm; cast, strip, strrrip, strip, strrrip, slow figure eight at boat side, repeat. Soon, on the outside curve of a figure eight, with the fly about an inch below the surface, the water exploded.
Green scales, fins and a gaping white mouth full of teeth appeared, water spraying everywhere. I reacted with a hook set, and the fish quickly tore out the slack line coiled at my feet. I played it as quickly as I could and soon had it by the side of my kayak. I could see the fly in the corner of its mouth and as I reached to grab the leader the fish turned, and the fly popped out. I couldn’t believe it. I sat down and with adrenaline coursing through me I realized I was shaking.
I had never seen anything as violent as that eat; like a great white shark after a seal. I hadn’t seen the follow, had no idea it was around, and it scared the s*&t out of me. Fish grow quickly when you lose them, but I believe this guy was bigger than my steelhead, maybe 40 inches. I do know that at that moment all the hard work and despair I had experienced over the past three months had been worth it. That take will be etched in my mind forever. It took me about ten minutes to calm down enough to start fishing again. The rest of that glorious day was filled with more follows and eats from muskies of all sizes, but none as big as the first and no others were hooked.
Near the end of the day I stopped fishing to look around. The shoreline was lined with pines, birches and a few cabins. A pair of loons called to one another fifty yards from me. I took it all in. I was lucky to be where I was and to have experienced that day, but I really wanted to put my hands on a musky. I stood up and cast. On the retrieve a small musky followed with its nose glued to the back of the fly. It followed for four figure eights, and then disappeared. I quickly changed flies and recast. Five strips in the line went tight, I strip set, and hooked up. The spirited fish fought, but was quickly to the surface. I reached down, slid my finger behind the gill plate and lifted my first musky. It was a beautiful fish with green stripes and spots on a light grey background, a 25 inch gem. I snapped a few quick pictures and let it go. One of my fishing goals, reached.
Musky fishing isn’t for the faint of heart, or the fair-weather fisherman, but it is worth the effort. My new musky goal is a 40-inch fish. Who knows how long it will take to reach it, but, I do know I look forward to every broken piece of equipment, every new water, every follow, every “sick” day away from work, and every adventure spent with new friends in pursuit of the mythical musky.