Up North in Wisconsin, living in the many lakes, rivers, and streams is an elusive fish properly called a muskellunge. Most people, me included, just call them muskies. "Get any muskies this year?"
Muskies grow quite large, but are not North America's largest fresh water fish. Still, record-breaking muskie push 60 inches long, 30 inches in girth, and tip the scales at 50 to 60 pounds. There are lakes with legends of giant fish, and tales that go back into the dim past.
Muskies have many teeth and the larger the fish, the larger the teeth. Putting a finger into the mouth of a muskie is to risk losing it, and yes, it has happened to a few foolish fools.
The lake on which our family cabin resides was once listed a Class A Muskie lake by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Indeed, muskie fishing was good and something I enjoyed a lot back in the day. My mother was considered one of the top muskie fishers on the lake and people called her Muskie Mary. She had a tackle box full of lures that would choke a lessor fish, and when casting one of them, it felt like casting a log.
Our lake had its very own legend fish called Big Ben. Ben was rumored to be 69 inches long and capable of eating small dogs and unwary humans. He had teeth that would leave a Mako Shark jealous and allegedly, his mouth was so full of lures he had broken off fishing lines, you could open a tackle shop―if you caught him.
Once, Dad and I were motoring along to go fishing and thought we saw a log in the water. We stopped and were going to pull it to shore since drifting logs are a hazard. As we drifted up alongside the log, it rolled over, the tail fin lifted out of the water and it was gone.
I ain't saying that was Big Ben, he was just a legend, but that was one big fish, almost certainly a record-class fish (50 to 60 inches in length and over 50 pounds).
Muskies are mean. They will attack and eat other fish out of pure meanness just for trespassing on their favorite hangout. When Mr. Muskie enters the neighborhood, all other fish go on alert and into hiding, regardless of size, species, or disposition. If the fishing is good, and suddenly stops faster than a mosquito on a biker's front teeth, there's a good chance a muskie has entered the location. They have been known to attack boat-motor propellers, although of course this proves fatal.
When I was about 16 or 17, I was fishing a bed of reeds with a Suick Muskie Thriller―a chunk of wood about seven inches long with three big treble hooks. At that time, the Suick was my favorite muskie lure (and still is) and that particular one had a few teeth marks on it. I'd been fishing about ten minutes when I felt a tug and set the hook.
At first, I thought I had missed the fish. Then I felt a little tug and kept reeling the lure in. Sure enough, it swam left, then right. I knew there was a fish on it, but it seemed small.
I promise you, this may be a fish story, but this is the honest truth. I had caught a muskie that was just barely seven inches long―the same length as the lure I was using. Only one point of a treble hook had caught it in the lip. I released it unharmed and watched it swim away to fight again another day.
Fast forward about five years or so. I was at the family cabin with Mom and Dad and we were going out fishing one evening. I was interested in walleyes for dinner, but there are just a few places in the lakes we fish where you can catch them with any regularity. We were headed upstream to a narrow place in the river. To get there, you have to pass through a large culvert from our lake into the next lake upstream, and then into the river.
We were leaving at the same time, them in the larger boat and me in a small boat. I had my Springer Spaniel Autumn with me. We loved to fish together, and if I wasn't looking, she'd steal a fish or two and eat them. That's okay, there were plenty of fish for both of us.
I pulled away from the dock, but at that moment Mom realized she had forgotten something. Dad said to go on ahead and I motored away. I reached the fishing spot about fifteen minutes before they did.
When they arrived, Mom said, "I had a muskie follow by the culvert, pretty good sized fish."
"You didn't fish for it?" I asked.
"You wanted to fish for walleyes," Mom replied.
She told the story of how they had stopped so she could cast her line out with a heavy lure straighten the line and wind it tightly back onto the spool. A good-sized muskie had come out of the lily pads and followed her lure back to the boat. When it saw the boat, it simply sank out of sight in the dark, tea-colored water. I was surprised she hadn't thrown the lure after it a few times.
We fished for a few hours, caught a few walleyes, and as it grew dark, Mom and Dad headed back to the cabin. I hung back to fish just a few more minutes, but then Autumn and I cranked up the motor to make our own way back in the quickly darkening twilight.
As we reached the culvert, I decided to make a few casts. It took me a minute to gear up for big, toothy fish and I decided to use a seven-inch Mudpuppy lure. (As an aside, the mudpuppy lures were hand crafted by a man my mother knew from her home town in Wisconsin. They are still a hand-crafted, popular muskie lure.) I made several casts over to the lily pads where my mother had said the fish came out of, but nothing rose or followed.
I'd only stopped to make a few casts and it was nearly full dark, so I cast the lure one more time, over near a stump in the water. I let it sit a few seconds to let the ripples dissipate, then twitched the lure.
The water exploded.
At the mere twitch of the lure, the fish struck. A mudpuppy floats, but they entice a muskie to hit from behind and above. The fish came out of the water and lunged onto the lure, carrying it down into the water. I was completely startled and for a good five seconds did nothing. The line was cutting a Vee in the water when I finally came to my senses and hauled back hard on the rod.
It was a good, solid take and I set the hooks several times. The fish went around the front of the boat and pulled it in a circle! The reel was complaining loudly as the fish stripped off about thirty feet of line. For twenty minutes I battled the fish. He went one way, then the other. Sometimes down to the bottom, other times he headed for the lily pads and I had to stop him.
The battle was epic and the ending not sure for either of us.
Eventually I got him close and stood up in the narrow, tippy boat, but I couldn't see a damn thing. No moon, only a dim running light, and the stars to show me the fish. To add to the excitement, Autumn managed to get between my legs so she could see the action better.
Somehow I managed to get my small flashlight out of my tackle box, turn it on and hold it in my mouth (it tasted like a tackle box, in case you're wondering).
There I am, standing with legs apart, trying to balance in a boat that would rather tip over than let you stand in it. The dog is watching the fish and following its every move, which isn't helping stabilize anything. I've got the rod in one hand, trying to control the fish, the net in the other hand to scoop the fish up, and the flashlight in my mouth so I can try to see the fish.
If only Norman Rockwell were alive to paint it.
After an eternity, the stars all aligned at the same time the fish made a fateful mistake. I shoved the net under the fish and lifted, set the rod down and lifted with both hands. Shaking and thrashing, the fish finally threw the lure which tangled the net up really nice. I nearly fell over when the dog decided to abandon her post and head for the other end of the boat and away from the monster that knocked over my tackle box, the beer cooler, and the minnow bucket.
Note to Readers: When Muskie fishing, always close your tackle box and keep one section of the boat clear for placing caught fish in.
I had to get control of the fish because I didn't want it to injure itself. I managed to trap it between my feet and got a hold of it behind its head. The net handle had a measure on it, and the fish was a respectable 38 inches long. Not bad. After admiring it for a moment, I held it in the water to recover for a moment. It gave a powerful surge with its tail and was gone.
A moment to treasure for a lifetime, and surely an adventure worth telling.
A true story by MJ Logan
Save the Magic. Catch and Release Your Muskies.