The Way It Should Have Been

The story of one great fish, and a thousand adequate casts.

[article by John Gierach • paintings by Bob White]

A LATE SEPTEMBER MORNING ON THE NORTH FORK OF THE FLAMBEAU RIVER in Wisconsin: cool, drizzly, and windless with a low, pewter-colored sky. You couldn’t ask for better fishing weather. At the put-in, I was feeling the expansiveness that comes when things look promising until our guide, Luke Swanson, asked me the loaded question, “So how big a fly can you throw?” I knew that fall muskies like big flies—the bigger, the better—and that the wrong answer could get me a sissy fly that would be easier to cast all day, but less effective. So I said something like, “I can throw whatever you got, kid.”

Luke opened a custom-made fly box the size of a suitcase, in which large flies hung vertically like coats in a closet. He selected one that was heavily dressed with bucktail and saddle hackles and about a foot long. After clipping it to the wire leader on a 12-weight fly rod, Luke handed it over with a blank look, calling my bluff.

These fish are notoriously difficult to hook, and raising the rod tip to set in the usual way is useless.

This was my second trip here in two years, and I was convinced that I’d learned a few things about fly fishing for muskies—nothing that would revolutionize the sport, but maybe enough of the fundamentals to save me from making the same mistakes all over again.

For instance, if I hadn’t exactly mastered casting these big flies, I was at least getting what I thought of as passable distance and accuracy, having developed the muscle memory for how a good cast should feel. Specifically, it should feel as awkward but satisfying as lobbing a dead sucker with a nine-foot slingshot. The breakthrough came when I got over thinking that muskie on a fly was ever going to be pretty.

Setting hard enough on a strike would remain to be seen. These fish are notoriously difficult to hook, and raising the rod tip to set in the usual way is useless. Even the stiffest rod has too much flex to impart a yank vicious enough to sink the hook point, so you have to strip-set as hard as you can with the rod pointed straight at the fish. One sharp, solid pull is good, two or three is better; whatever you have the time and the nerves for. Only then can you lean hard into the stiff spring of the rod to control an angry fish that could be as long as 50 inches. Every guide has his own way of imparting the importance of this to sports who are new to muskies. The morning before, I’d overheard one of them telling a client, “If you break a rod on a fish today, I’ll be proud of you.”

Autumn Reflected by Bob White

You also want to keep the fish close, play it hard, and land it quickly. Long runs are pretty, but they only give the fish more room to get you in a snag, and they also take time, during which it could throw the hook. I’d heard that same guide say, “If you hook one, don’t give it any line at all.” In my limited experience, I doubted that was strictly possible, but I understood the strategy. If you tell someone not to give the fish any line, he at least won’t give it much. And there was something revealing in that if. If you hook one; not when.

The year before, I’d done everything right once and remembered how good it felt. I’d also done it wrong once and learned that even if you weren’t entirely skunked, it’s still possible to fly home from a muskie trip feeling the sting of a failed seduction. Naturally, the time I did it wrong was on the biggest muskie, and these fish are so moody and elusive that you can cast for hours, days, or even weeks without seeing one. Any encounter at all is newsworthy, so not only is a blown strike a tragedy, but everyone in camp will hear about it besides.

My artist friend Bob White talked me into this the first time, but it didn’t take a lot of talking. There’s a kind of fatal attraction to fishing that demands infinite patience and grace under pressure. You know you’ll be inept at first, and you hope to learn the ropes before you lose heart. Then, on the flight home, you sift through the wreckage of that big missed fish, not wondering what you did wrong because you know what you did wrong, but pondering why it happened when you knew better. You won’t make the call for months yet, but this is the precise moment when the return trip begins.

Muskie fishing has been a big deal in northern Wisconsin for as long as people have been fishing there, including the people of the Ojibway Nation. (The fish’s proper name, muskellunge, is said to be an Anglo mispronunciation of an Ojibway phrase.) If you look through the world records, you’ll see a long list of Wisconsin locations with token appearances from other places, such as Minnesota and Ontario, scattered here and there. And although nearby Hayward isn’t the only town in the state that bills itself as the Musky Capital of the World, it’s the only one with a four-story statue of a muskie that you catch disconcerting glimpses of from a distance.

Most of that fishing was done with conventional tackle and either big plugs or big bait. Fly fishing for muskies is a fairly recent development, but that’s not to say no one ever tried it before about 25 years ago. In his book Muskie on the Fly, Robert Tomes reproduced a sepia-tone photo from the 1920s of one William Vogt holding what Tomes says might be the first muskie ever caught on a fly. The rod is identified as a three-and-a-half-ounce split bamboo with “a light test line,” so you have to wonder if this was either a stunt or a mistake. The fish weighed 30 pounds, and in the photo, Vogt looks not only happy but also a little surprised.

Muskies are ambush hunters that sense the vibrations of prey with their lateral lines, organs that amount to long ears running the length of their bodies from gills to tail. 

People fly fishing for pike would have inevitably hooked muskies from time to time. The same goes for bass fishermen, especially early in the season, when muskies are more likely to feed on the same things a bass would eat. It’s easy to see how that could get a certain kind of hairy-chested fly caster thinking about stepping up to saltwater fly rods and billfish flies, which is supposedly how all this got started. But much of that went on in the golden age before social media, when fishermen who were onto something good were smart enough to keep quiet about it, so records are scarce.

By now fly fishing for muskies is well known enough that most fly fishermen have heard about it, although they’ve probably never done it and may not even want to. It’s gone mainstream enough that some tackle companies are marketing 8-, 9- and 10-weight muskie rods, although most of the muskie guides I’ve talked to like to have an 11- or 12-weight in the boat.

Some of the fly patterns I’ve seen for sale as muskie flies also seem a little on the small side, but that’s probably just because of this bunch I’ve been hanging out with. (The first time I went, I took my biggest pike and lake trout flies but was told they were way too small.) Most of these guys want the biggest flies they can cast, and while some have been reengineering large flies to make them lighter, others have been loading heavy fly lines on big spinning rods intended for surf casting so they can throw flies up to 20 inches long.

Earlier that month, back home in Colorado, I’d hiked in to a mountain creek with a friend and caught an 18-inch brown trout—an unbelievable pig for that small, high-altitude stream. I was still bursting with the news when I got to Wisconsin, but when my chance came to tell the tale to some of our guides, I realized that people who cast 20-inch flies for 50-inch fish might not be the best audience for a story about an 18-inch trout. So fly fishing for muskies is beginning to be a thing, with articles in the magazines and new converts every year. Although the fly fishing guides working today aren’t the first to put clients into fly-caught muskies, they may be the first generation that has been able to specialize in it. On the other hand, the sport still has a fresh, exclusive feel to it, and some practitioners have adopted the gonzo attitude of those who feel misunderstood even by other fishermen. So far the rivers aren’t crowded with fly fishers casting for muskies, but you wonder how much longer that can last. The fishing that week seemed slow, but was only normal. Many of us had fishless days without so much as a sighting, but every day, fish were seen, moved, or caught by someone. On the first day out, one guy landed a whopping 49 3/4-inch muskie, a truly beautiful fish that was only a quarter inch short of the coveted 50-inch mark. I overheard one of the older guides saying that if it were him, he’d have rounded up that fraction to 50 inches. No one would have argued, least of all his client.

But then the poor guy who caught that fish didn’t have much of an appetite at dinner that night, and the next morning he woke up sick. Pale, shaky, feverish, couldn’t keep food down—the full catastrophe. He stayed in bed for the next two days with the flu, and as soon as we were sure he wouldn’t have to go to a hospital, we started kidding him about how landing that big muskie had damn near killed him.

In some ways muskie fishing reminds me of Spey casting for steelhead or Atlantic salmon. It’s not so elegant and lacks the stodgy sense of tradition, but it does involve the same kind of attentive repetition that demands pacing yourself, sort of like digging a long line of identical postholes. The idea of hooking a fish never leaves your mind, but the job at hand becomes one of covering water with a seemingly endless series of adequate casts and retrieves.