The Way It Should Have Been

Sometimes accuracy is helpful because muskies like to tuck up next to brush piles, logs, and rocks. The splat of the big, soggy fly hitting the water is unavoidable, but even if it weren’t, you’d still want to make some noise. 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. The noise the fly makes hitting the water could be the struggling of an injured sucker or something helpless falling into the river, and it sometimes draws a kind of false charge called a reaction strike.

The standard strip is a series of short, hard pulls, each one followed by a rest long enough to let the fly begin to sink and the materials seem to breathe. Most of the fishermen in this bunch prefer big flies with flat faces made of loosely spun hair that is intentionally trimmed slightly off center so that with each pull, the fly darts sideways to mimic a wounded or disoriented baitfish. What you get is that angular scoot, followed by a slow, rolling sink with the saddle hackles trailing like a silk scarf. It really does look like something dying overdramatically in the third act of an opera.

I knew I still had plenty to learn and tried to stay open to it. I had my beginner’s simple opinions about flies, but if a guide suggested one I didn’t think much of, I’d fish it hard anyway, hoping to learn something new. You have to have faith in your guide. He might hand you a new fly that’s never caught a fish before, but unless you’ve really rubbed him the wrong way, he won’t give you one that he absolutely knows won’t work.

It was all going smoothly until one night after dinner, when some people started discussing the election. There’s an unwritten law at fish camps that politics and religion are taboo, and for good reason. Everyone there has two opinions in common: that trying to catch fish is a worthwhile way to spend your spare time and money, and that how to go about catching them is an endlessly fascinating and inexhaustible subject. There’s a fair chance that few of you will ever see each other again, and none of you came on the trip expecting to defend your beliefs, so why muddy the water? That was especially true in September of 2016, when everyone’s politics, like the campaign itself, had gotten nasty and personal.

I didn’t want this trip to turn into Fear and Loathing in Northern Wisconsin, so I decided it was best to step outside for a literal and figurative breath of fresh air.

Still, someone who just couldn’t help himself piped up with something mildly provocative, and a visible wave of discomfort circled the table. People shifted uneasily in their chairs, throats were cleared, the man next to me stared into his three fingers of Maker’s Mark as if he’d just found a fly floating in it.

I don’t remember the particulars—it had all become white noise by then— but I do remember that those who spoke up first seemed aware they were breaking a cardinal rule and were careful to the point of being apologetic. (That’s how it always starts.) Others kept quiet, including the guides, who understood that inadvertently pissing off a client would not only be pointless but could also adversely affect their tips.

I kept quiet myself, although I nearly had to chew off my own tongue to do it. And my photographer friend Mike Dvorak, knowing I have a short political fuse and opinions eclectic enough to let me pick a fight with anyone, kept glancing at me as if I were a hand grenade whose pin had just been pulled. I didn’t want this trip to turn into Fear and Loathing in Northern Wisconsin, so I decided it was best to step outside for a literal and figurative breath of fresh air.

Autumn Light Reflected by Bob White

I walked down to the bank of the Chippewa River and listened to the purling of its current for a few minutes. There, that’s better. I read that once, in India, insane people were tied to trees on the banks of rivers so the sound of moving water could draw out their madness. I wondered if we had enough rivers and enough trees to give every registered voter in America the same treatment.

It had all blown over by the next day when I fished with Dan Boggs, who taught me a neat trick for my figureeight. This is the maneuver you perform at the end of every retrieve, swimming the fly around right at the boat while changing its speed, direction, and depth, hoping any muskie that shadowed it this far will think it’s getting away and be induced to strike. It happens more often than you’d think.

I told Dan that last year I’d been using the final swing of the figure-eight as a water haul to pick up for the next cast, but at one point I had inadvertently snatched the fly away from a huge muskie with jaws that could have swallowed a cantaloupe. Dan said to make the last swing from deep to shallow, and then stop the fly right at the surface in what he called a “death stall.” If there is an unseen muskie following the fly, he might grab it, or at least loom up out of the depths and reveal his presence while the fly is still in the water so you can try something else.

Her presence, actually. The big muskies everyone is after—the ones over 40 inches—are almost always females.

I went out with Luke on my last day. I was fully aware that in the morning I’d head down to the airport in Minneapolis and fly home, where I no doubt had important things to do, although I couldn’t quite remember what they were. But I don’t recall feeling any particular urgency. It’s possible to reach a point on a fishing trip where time no longer matters in the usual way, and that’s especially true when you’re after what people like to call a “fish of a thousand casts.” Or sometimes they say ten thousand, just to drive the point home. You simply make each cast with the identical sense of purpose as the last one, not feeling the least bit misunderstood, but aware that you could never explain how beautiful this is to someone who doesn’t already get it.

By early afternoon it was raining just hard enough to have the hood up on my rain slicker. I’d made yet another cast with that same big fly and was figure-eighting it at the boat when the line came tight. There was no live thump or yank; everything just stopped. And even as I set the hook hard as I could, I thought, This feels like a snag, but better safe than sorry.

She seemed so big and unwieldy that at first I didn’t know how to hold her for the obligatory photos that would be shown around camp as soon as we got back. I wanted to look heroic, but I felt more like a monkey wrestling with a firehose.

On the muskie’s first run, it pulled out all the line I’d stripped off for my cast, along with a few more turns off the reel before I got it stopped. From there on out, I never gave another inch and began to gain back line. A good-sized muskie looks like a fish that could be too big to land, but in fact they’re built for short, predatory bursts of speed, not endurance. So if you fight them as violently as they’re fighting you, it’s possible to get them to the boat pretty quickly.

Bob White and Mike Dvorak had been following along in another boat, fishing the opposite bank, and by the time Luke got the fish in the net, they’d rowed over to have a look. (Catching a muskie is such a unique event that it draws whatever crowd is available.) This was a female that taped out at precisely 47 1/4 inches. She seemed so big and unwieldy that at first I didn’t know how to hold her for the obligatory photos that would be shown around camp as soon as we got back. I wanted to look heroic, but I felt more like a monkey wrestling with a firehose.

That evening at the lodge, with my bags packed to go in the morning, Mike and I were lounging in big easy chairs, having the usual last-night-in-camp conversation. A fishing trip is more about the process than the result, but the end of one still demands a final paragraph that begins, “And so, as the sun sank slowly in the west . . .” There was still a knot of guys lingering at the dinner table with drinks, and I overheard one of them say, “Just goes to show that even a guy who’s fished as long as he has can still come unglued over a big muskie.”

They couldn’t have been talking about me, could they? The way I remembered it—and the way I had told it more than once that evening—I’d more or less done everything right, from the awkward set right under the boat to steering the fish into the waiting net, and never once had I “come unglued.” Of course, Luke would have told the same story, and being the guide and all, his version would have rightly been taken as the true account. But truth is subjective, and whenever I hear a fish story—or tell one, for that matter—I remember an old Western movie that began with the epigraph, “If this ain’t the way it was, it’s at least the way it should have been.”

John Gierach lives and works in Larimer County in Northern Colorado. His newest book, A Fly Rod of Your Own, was published by Simon & Schuster in April of 2017. He recently booked his next muskie trip.