Experts disagree about the origin of the name muskellunge, but it apparently derives from an Indian language—Ojibway or perhaps Cree—and is a combination of moshk (great) or mas (ugly) or mashk (deformed) and knoje (pike) or kinnonge (also pike) or kinonge (fish). The French Canadian word for the fish is maskiononge, which, quite bluntly, means "ugly fish." When a mighty muskellunge swims just beneath the surface of the tea-brown water of a northern Wisconsin lake, it has the sinister appearance of a stalking submarine, silent and menacing. But not until the fish broaches the surface—revealing its hideous bulging eyes, its forest of needle teeth set in a mean green snout, and a body as thick as two pythons and as long as a truck bumper—does it become the embodiment of such raw violence that grown men have been known to wet their pants at the sight.
There is no other fish like the muskie. It is diabolical in its cunning, maniacal in its rage, unpredictable in its habits. It is the most awesome of all freshwater fish, a creature that captures the imagination, fires the spirit and—alas—breaks the hearts of fishermen by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands every year. And sometimes year after year after year after year.
The Moccasin Bar on Route 77 in Hayward, Wis. is a typical north-woods drinking establishment. A deer head hangs on a knotty-pine wall, the men's-room door is marked "Bucks," the women's, "Does." But unlike hundreds of similar bars in the north woods, the Moccasin Bar is a bona fide tourist attraction. In summer a stream of parents shepherds children in out of the sunlight. They squint in the tavern's beery brown gloom as they look about for what they've come to see. The drinkers at the bar rarely glance up at the tourists. And the tourists don't always notice the drinkers because once their eyes adjust, they pretty much stay fixed on a display of mounted fish. This is what they've come for.
Each fish is boxed in glass, each has its own gallery light, each its own explanatory legend. The Moccasin Tavern is a sort of Louvre of lunkers in that for years and years it has featured a stunning display of mighty muskellunge.
May 11, 1980
Half a dozen of these beasts are on show now. The centerpiece is a monumental fish that is 59½ inches long and weighed 67 pounds 8 ounces when it was caught in the summer of 1949. It is a frightful-looking thing, thick-bellied, with angry walleyes, a snout not unlike that of a crocodile and a protruding lower jaw filled with teeth. Even though it is 31 years dead, it is as wrathful and glowering as it was when it became aware it was hooked. All in all, it is not a creature most fishermen would care to share a small row-boat with. And, sure enough, the legend beneath it explains that this fish was never boated but "fought for one hour, then had to be landed by beaching."
At the time it was hauled ashore from Lake Couderay, eight miles south of Hayward, this was the world-record muskellunge. Barely three months later, the record was broken when a 69-pound 11-ounce muskie was caught in the Chippewa Flowage, also only a short distance from Hayward. Thus, for many years the tank atop the Hayward water tower has borne the slogan HOME OF WORLD-RECORD MUSKIES.
Technically speaking, this is no longer the case: Hayward is the home of former world-record muskies. This is a painful truth that the citizens of Hayward prefer to ignore, but there is no denying the facts; the world-record muskellunge was caught on Sept. 22, 1957 in the St. Lawrence River, roughly 1,000 miles east of Hayward, by an upstate New York refrigeration mechanic named Art Lawton. He was not casting, as most Wisconsin purists do; he was motor-trolling with a big wooden plug at a depth of about 25 feet when his line tightened up against what he thought was a deadweight snag on the bottom. It wasn't a snag at all, it was the world record....
Even now, almost 23 years later, no one in Hayward—or anywhere else in Wisconsin muskie country, for that matter—has ever stopped grieving over the loss of the world record to New York. Be it sour grapes or some kind of fisherman's intuition, the mourners cannot discuss the record muskie without raising suspicion of a Big Lie.
As recorded, the New York fish was a true monster—64½ inches long, 69 pounds 15 ounces. Once Lawton had it hooked, his strategy was to let the brute swim wherever it wanted, until it wore itself out. That took about an hour. Lawton and his wife, Ruth, hauled in the exhausted fish, returned home to Delmar, N.Y., put it on ice in the refrigeration plant where Art worked and then went home to bed as if it were the end of just another fishing day. The Lawtons had caught dozens of other big muskies, including at least four that weighed more than 60 pounds, and they were not particularly excited over this one. It was not until the next afternoon that Art and some friends got around to weighing his catch. They found that, by gosh, it was a world-record fish. They were apparently not particularly excited by this, either. They took one blurry, slightly off-center snapshot of Lawton holding the monster in the front yard of someone's house. That done, Lawton cut the fish up and passed out the meat to his friends. The world-record muskie was never mounted. It was eaten for supper.
Perhaps it is not so strange, then, that two decades later, people in Hayward still question the record. Albert (Ubbie) Bloom, 70, owner of a sporting-goods store and a fishing guide around Hayward since he was a boy of 15, squints suspiciously and says, "Why didn't they mount it? There was something fishy about the whole thing. You'd think if it was a world record they'd have done something besides eat it."
Bloom is not alone. Over in Sayner, Wis., some 100 miles east of Hayward, though still in that tier of northern Wisconsin lakes that abound in muskies—or at least the idea of muskies—Marv Heeler, 60, a guide, shakes his head. "Most people, if they think they've got a world record, they'll get six priests, four nuns and a circuit-court judge to vouch for the fish," he says. "Here they took one snapshot, then ate the fish, and it still went in the record books. I don't get it." And Milt Dieckman, 48, Hayward-born, a muskie fisherman since boyhood and now conservation warden for the Department of Natural Resources, says, "A world-record fish is great publicity for an area. We sure hated to lose the record, and I have my doubts now whether there'll ever be a fish caught big enough to break the record they set out in New York." He pauses, then adds, "I also have my doubts as to whether that fish was ever real."
This is all local prejudice, of course, purest chauvinism and unbuttoned regionalism. Yet, despite the loss of the world record, Hayward remains the mecca of muskie fishing to thousands of fishermen—me among them. To my mind, the town is quite right to call itself the Muskie Capital of the World. But, as you will see, I am as hopelessly prejudiced as Ubbie Bloom or Milt Dieckman because I, too, am one of those muskie fishermen who was bred and raised to believe that Moby Dick still lives—as he always has—in the fresh waters of Wisconsin lakes and nowhere else.
In 1942 my family built a small cabin on Upper Clam Lake, about 35 miles east of Hayward but still in Muskie Country. The nearest town to our cabin was about a mile away, a wide spot along Route 77 called Clam Lake (pop. 35). It contained a tavern run by a man with a wooden leg, two gas stations, a small grocery store and a one-room post office. Clam Lake was sleepy almost beyond belief. My father, a wry and fun-loving fellow, would often pretend to organize expeditions to go into town and witness the big event of the day. "Hurry!" he would cry, "hurry, it's time to go in and watch the bread truck unload!"
It was true. The unloading of the bread truck was just about the pinnacle of excitement in Clam Lake—except, of course, for muskie fishing.
Until we built the cabin, we had never fished for muskies; indeed, the first time most of us laid eyes on a muskie was during a ritual visit to the Moccasin Tavern in Hayward. I was a small boy then, intense and excitable, and full of dreams of my own prospective heroism in a variety of pursuits ranging from Big Ten football to hand-to-hand commando combat in World War II, which had just started. The sight of those beasts behind glass gave rise to another dream of personal bravery, which involved a series of watery conflicts that ended, of course, with my having my own beautifully mounted denizen of the deep. This, like playing Big Ten football and fighting in World War II, never happened to me. In retrospect, the odds against my catching a muskie were as astronomical as were those against my fulfilling my other big dreams. But I didn't know that at the time, thank God.
When I refer to my "family," I mean a rather large crowd of relatives. My maternal grandparents, four uncles and four aunts, and my parents owned the cabin together, and there were a number of small boy cousins and slightly larger girl cousins, plus a couple of dogs. All but the dogs were of purest Scandinavian stock. The adults were born to life on the corn and tobacco farms of southern Wisconsin. All were early risers, hard workers, good Lutherans. Yet they were also high-spirited and full of humor. On vacation at Clam Lake, they relished beer with a shot of whiskey at day's end, and they enjoyed long, noisy nights of playing cards, their game being Five Hundred, also known as Farmer's Bridge.
But their true game was fishing. Every one of the men and most of the women were enthusiastic anglers of a certain type. They had spent most of their fishing hours in rowboats on tranquil residential lakes in southern Wisconsin and Minnesota, seeking the gentle walleyed pike, the slightly livelier northern pike, the occasional bass, the tasty and numerous (but uninspiring) crappie, sunfish and bluegill. Most of this angling was done with worms or minnows while slowly trolling with oars or still-fishing with bobbers. With one exception, no member of my family had engaged in any of the more sophisticated forms of angling, such as deep-sea fishing or dry-fly casting or muskie "hunting."
The exception was Uncle Bill who ran a men's clothing store in southern Wisconsin and owned a fortune in hunting and fishing equipment. He was the family's most intrepid, most obsessed sportsman, and it was certainly he who first spoke the word "muskie" to the family, and it was he who led our clan up the jack-pine path to the cabin on Upper Clam Lake and, from there, on to the maddening and seemingly endless hunt for muskies. No one ever held it against Uncle Bill, as far as I know. Maybe that was because we all knew that he suffered more bitterly than any of us in the quest for the elusive Esox masquinongy immaculatus for so many years.
Esox masquinongy is by far the biggest member of the pike family. Indeed, there are only two larger species of freshwater fish. One is the sturgeon, the bony-backed monster that provides caviar, sometimes lives to the incredibly advanced age of 75 years, and can weigh as much as 2,500 pounds. The other is the paddlefish, a comic-looking thing, also known as the spoonbill cat or the shovelnose cat, a soft and relatively boneless fish. The record spoonbill went 200 pounds, but the biggest that one is likely to encounter will weigh about 90.
There are said to be three subspecies of muskie. Esox masquinongy masquinongy is found mostly in the Great Lakes basin, particularly the St. Lawrence River and Lake St. Clair in Michigan; it is usually spotted. The principal range of Esox m. ohioensis is Chautauqua Lake, N.Y. and down through the Ohio River drainage; it usually has barred markings. Esox m. immaculatus is faintly marked and is found primarily in lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin. For decades a lively debate has gone on among ichthyologists as to whether there is enough significant difference among these three to regard them as separate species. In a 1932 article, one of the most authoritative outdoors writers of the day, Robert Page Lincoln, wrote snappishly, "It is ridiculous in the face of present-day facts to separate the muskellunge because of varying marks and spottings.... The fact is that a muskellunge striped like a tiger or a zebra does not fight any better necessarily than one that is spotted, blotched, immaculate or mud-colored."
It is generally agreed that the muskie was once a saltwater fish, perhaps having its prehistoric origin in seas that covered southern Europe. Fossil species have been found there, but the muskie is purely North American now. Its natural distribution in the U.S. is pretty much a result of the ebb and flow of glaciers over North America. Muskies probably entered the Mississippi from the sea, moved upriver and then were isolated in the lake basins of the upper river region after the glaciers retreated. Seven-thousand-year-old muskie teeth have been discovered as far south as Oklahoma. Today, thanks to artificial propagation, muskies are found—or at least sought—in 23 states.
People have at times made something of the similarity between the muskie and the barracuda—pointing mainly to their long snouts and their needle teeth. There is no taxonomic relationship. Yet the mighty muskie rarely fails to produce wide-eyed and farfetched comparisons with other wild and wily species of fur and fin. One dazzled angler wrote in an article entitled Tiger of Fresh Water, "When caught, the muskellunge provides a thrill comparable to that of a sailfish endowed with the ferocity of a barracuda and the cunningness of a fox."
Of course, exaggeration is the underpinning of all fishing stories, and the muskie is the subject of more exaggeration than most fish. On May 1, 1902, The Minocqua (Wis.) Times printed a front-page photograph—eight columns wide—of what the accompanying headline called THE LARGEST MUSKELLUNGE EVER CAPTURED! It was netted by none other than a superintendent of the State Fish Hatchery, and it weighed 102 pounds. Obviously, it couldn't qualify as a world record, having been netted, but considering who caught this monster, it would seem that the weight was authentic. Except that 102 pounds is an unbelievable figure. There are other, even wilder tales. In 1884 it was reported that a 110-pound muskie had been taken from the waters of Lake Court Oreilles near Hayward, and in 1886 it was said that one had been caught in Lake Michigan off Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes. It supposedly weighed 162 pounds and stretched more than seven feet from tail to snout. The skull of this brute still exists in Glen Arbor, Mich.—13" long and 20" around. Experts who have studied it guess that even though it once was attached to one hell of a big fish, the muskellunge's weight was probably closer to 62 pounds than 162.
There is scarcely a muskie lake that does not have lurking in its depths a mythical monster of some kind—an Old Iron Jaws, an Old Long-Snout, an Old Mossback. On the shores of Plum Lake, the Sayre Lodge offers a $2,000 reward and a month's free vacation to anyone able to catch Old Mossback, which is reputed to weigh upward of 70 pounds. There is a creature named Old Bismarck—after the World War I German battleship—that supposedly hangs out near Elephant Rock in Red Gut Bay of Minnesota's Rainy Lake. This monster has been hooked twice, it is said, and witnesses swear that it is eight feet long and weighs 100 pounds. Old Bismarck reportedly was last hooked by an Indian guide seven years ago. It played with the treble-hooked plug for an hour and then glided past the guide's boat, giving him a clear view of its dark and slimy length, before breaking loose by simply turning on the power until it had yanked the hooks straight.
Milt Dieckman claims he saw a muskie of similar size a few years back. He recalls the occasion in the slightly breathless tones of a man telling a ghost story. "I was guiding a fellow on the Chippewa Flowage," he says. "It was toward evening, and there was lots of action around. I was using a Crazy Crawler lure. Something hit it hard. It seemed normal enough. Then all of a sudden the water opened up 20 feet behind the lure. It was like I could see the bottom, and there was this scene: a fairly big muskie, maybe 15 pounds, had hit the lure, and then this other one, this monster, had hit crossways on the other fish. It looked as big as a man in the water. The commotion was like a horse thrashing around. I never saw anything in freshwater like it. I've seen 30-, 40-pound fish, five feet long, in the water. This fish was a freak. It was like a 300-pound white-tailed deer. It was like Wilt the Stilt!"
It is thought by some pessimistic muskie fishermen that the day of the superlunker—the 60-pound Wilt the Stilt—is over; that the extraordinary increase in muskie fishermen, in fishing clubs, in the use of fancy equipment such as depth finders, simply won't allow muskies to live long enough to become monsters. For a muskie to reach the size of a 30-inch keeper, he must survive at least five years in the ferocious world of underwater predators. When he gets to be old and big, he can rule any territory he chooses; he is king of the lake. But when he is small, he is as vulnerable to attack from small perch as he is from his own slightly larger brothers and sisters. For a muskie to reach 25 pounds, he must live to be at least 15 years old. That world-record brute of Lawton's was a true muskie Methuselah: according to a count of the number of rings on his scales, which, of course, were not eaten, he was 30 years of age. The odds against a muskie living so long are now longer than ever.
Ron Schara writes in his book, Muskie Mania, that the 1957 world record has held up longer than any previous record going back to the early 1900s. It is rare, if not unheard-of, for a 60-pound muskie to be caught these days. Indeed, as Schara writes, there has not been a 60-pound fish caught in Wisconsin since 1949. In 1975 a fisherman caught a 51-pounder in Flambeau Lake; according to Schara, it was the largest recorded in Wisconsin in 22 years.
It was in the summer of 1942—long before real lunkers became so scarce—that my family first wetted muskie lures in anger. The lures themselves lent an aura of big-game hunting to muskie fishing. They were big plugs, six to 10 inches long, bristling with two or even three triple hooks. Some of these lures had propellers that churned and spat water fiercely. Others had rudders that gave them a kind of spurt-and-stop action in the water. Some were a sinister black with gashes of red. Others were fiery red or glaring yellow. They had names that were kind of silly but oddly exciting: the Muskie Minnow, the Muskie Monk, the Skunky Minnow, the Cisco Topper, the Mud Puppy. And these were hefty plugs, four or five times heavier than lures used to cast for bass. Even a small boy could toss them across 100 feet of water and drop them—glug!—on a dime next to a likely snag or shore log. And during retrieval these lures performed all sorts of exotic maneuvers that we just knew no muskie could resist, whatever it was that each lure and its tantalizing movements were supposed to simulate.
In truth, any honest fishing guide will admit he really doesn't always know what the different lures actually look like to a muskie. Popular theory had it that the twirling propellers on a yellow lure seemed like a baby duck's feet paddling; that the flashing spoon and hank of deer hair on a bucktail looked like a small fish being pursued by a small muskrat; that the Suick, a roughly fish-shaped lure that is jerked and worked unsteadily through the water, appeared to be a sick sucker. But who knew for sure?
The fact is, the muskie is so capricious and so mean that it will respond with anger—or hunger—to an unbelievably diverse list of edibles or enemies. Besides small fish—including their own young—muskies have been known to devour ducklings, grown muskrats, loons, beavers, gophers and blackbirds fluttering too close to the water. They have attacked the blades of motorboat propellers, oars with copper tips, and rowboats, which they seem to enjoy ramming into with the force of a sledge hammer. They have bitten at fingers, feet, red-painted toenails dangling from a dock and—on one photographically documented occasion in Michigan's Lake St. Clair—the leg of a fallen water skier. There was also a strange incident, undocumented except by the participants, in which a muskie attacked—and was ultimately caught by—a window-sash weight. As the story goes, two fishermen were dragging a sash weight across the lake bottom to locate rock piles where walleyed pike might gather. Suddenly a muskie hit it so hard that the weight was driven through his mouth and out a gill, allowing the astonished anglers to drag him to the surface as if he were attached to a large stringer.
In the summer of '42, we never tried a sash weight, but we did fling what must have amounted to a ton of muskie lures—over lily pads, into weeds, smack dab on a dime next to water-soaked logs, into lovely dark brown niches adjacent to the shore, occasionally up onto woodsy banks from which we could yank the lures so that they plopped gently into the water like frogs hopping in. We fished before dawn, after dark, at high noon, in chill drizzle and under a sweltering sun. We fished Upper Clam Lake, Lower Clam Lake, Little Clam Lake and dozens of other non-Clam lakes and rivers of untold variety and relentless beauty. This is classic north-woods country, with glistening necklaces of lakes and rivers strung through cool acres of pines and birch and poplars. The water is cold, pure, strewn with lily pads and thick with weed beds, and it is the tea color that makes a perfect, gloomy environment to conceal the lurking muskie. The lakes looked so ideal for muskies that we could feel them everywhere. But we caught none.
There were, however, exciting signals, proving that they existed. Hits and strikes occurred—meaning that we occasionally saw fierce swirls of water and felt a big fish smack at a lure.
These near-misses created a certain delicious trepidation among us. One of my uncles, a skilled walleyed-pike fisherman but with no previous experience at going for muskies, recalls a night in the summer of 1943: "It was black as pitch and I was alone, rowing in to the dock in a little duckboat. I could hardly see where I was, but I decided I'd make one last cast. I threw it way out in the dark. I couldn't see the plug hit the water, but I could hear it. I reeled it in fast, not paying much attention, and right up by the boat, all of a sudden, there was this terrible splashing. Something big—the size of a man's leg—took a swipe at the lure. It missed and was gone. I stared at the water and it was still, as if nothing had been there. But I could feel that thing waiting. I retrieved the lure. I knew I ought to throw it in again and try to catch him. The boat felt so damn little, but I knew I had to throw it once more. Finally, I did, though I prayed the whole time I reeled it in that the fish wouldn't hit it again."
Of course, it didn't hit again. But it was this kind of bedtime fish story, this high-tension litany of near-misses, that kept us going back.
When it does strike, a muskie is a sight to behold. Though it usually swims at a leisurely one mph, it can explode into sprints as fast as 32 mph. Just before it hits its prey, the muskie winds its body into a sinister S-shape. Then it springs forward. It clamps its jaws on the middle of a fish's back, turns it and consumes the head first. That is what it usually does.
But as Marv Heeler says, "Nobody knows what these fellows are going to do. Some say vibration in the water attracts them. Others say they only hit what they can see. Others say a muskie will never hit an object that isn't moving—but I've seen one hit a lure that was tangled in the boat motor."
Milt Dieckman adds, "The muskie is a moody fish. It's neurotic. It might strike its own brother and not even eat him. It might hit a lure, crunch it and mouth it and play with it like a lion toying with its food. Ordinarily, they don't school up, but then again, when food's scarce, you see 'em running together like packs of wolves. There's no way to chart them. They're like no other fish. About the only thing you can say for sure is that they'll move with thunder. When there is a bad summer storm brewing, you can always get some muskie action. You also always take your life in your hands being on a lake at a time like that. Only damn fools go out then."
My family was beginning to feel a little like a bunch of damn fools—rain or shine—toward the end of the summer of 1944. We had fished and fished and had nothing to show for it, nothing at all. We still had plenty of hope—and, some of us, a little fear—that we would catch a monster, but we had stopped anticipating a mad assault by a maniac muskie at the end of every cast. We did, however, try to make certain that every time we went out in a boat, even to fish for walleyes, we had a log, club or small bat along. This was standard muskie-fishing gear for battering a big fish senseless before it could get in the boat and batter you senseless.
Actually, this precaution wasn't all that ludicrous. An anti-muskie weapon was de rigueur, and many people even carried pistols to shoot any outsized muskie that came near the boat. Indeed, the mystique of muskie fishing in the early 20th century was such that shooting them before boating them became a standard part of the thrill and theater of the sport. Brian Long, a young guide from Glidden, Wis., tells of the days when his grandfather took out parties of "swells" who traveled from Chicago to northern Wisconsin by train years ago. "Muskie fishing was like a big-game safari to them," says Long, "and the guides always added some extra excitement by shooting every big fish with a pistol. You'd get the fish by the boat and fire one shot in its head—the coup de gr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢ce. To the swells from Chicago, it seemed as if they had just been involved in a fight with a ferocious jungle beast. It was good for business."
It wasn't all that good for fishermen, however. A few years ago, the Wisconsin legislature outlawed pistols in boats because too many excited muskie fishermen had fired too wildly too often—putting holes in their own boats or frightening people on shore by peppering lakeside cabins with stray bullets.
In the summer of '44 pistols were still O.K., and my family was not without its own mini-arsenal. Uncle Bill had a gleaming black .38 in a beautiful leather holster. There was also a much tackier gun that was introduced by two uncles, Arnold and Ted, who spent less time at the cabin than most other members of the family. Uncle Arnold was a partner, with Uncle Bill, in his men's clothing store and was not a particularly fanatical fisherman. Uncle Ted worked on the family farm and could rarely get away in the summer.
However, they did come to Clam Lake in August of 1944 (before the tobacco harvest, when things were quiet on the farm), and Uncle Arnold brought along an old .32 that had been kept in the men's clothing store for many years as protection against potential holdup men. It may never have been fired—no one knew or really cared. Given the family's luck with muskies in its first two summers at the cabin, it also seemed likely that the gun would never be fired at Clam Lake.
Though their arrival did not seem especially auspicious at the time, the appearance of Uncle Arnold the haberdasher and Uncle Ted the farmer was to mark the pinnacle of muskie fishing for the entire family—for all time. On Aug. 3, 1944, one of the first days the two brothers had ever even tried to catch muskies, they were casting steadily on Lower Clam Lake. It was a bright day, tranquil and relaxed, when wham! Let Uncle Ted tell about it; it was his fish:
"It was about 8:30 in the morning, and I was using a Muskie Monk. It was a black-and-white plug with bristly black fur on it, like a shaving brush, and I threw it way in to shore. It landed in about six inches of water and hit what I thought was a log. The log rolled over. There wasn't a jerk or any kind of a strike that I could feel, but the log disappeared and the line started racing back to the boat. The line was going slack at a furious rate. I reeled as fast as I could, but it kept getting slacker and slacker. Finally, the line passed right under the boat, and on the other side, the fish broke water. I yelled. Arnold had been trying to pull the anchor up. The line was under the boat, but the fish reversed its course, and now the line was sort of around the end of the boat, too. Arnold had the anchor up by then and had got the boat turned right with the oars. The fish seemed to play himself out all of a sudden. I reeled up the slack and the fish looked tired.
"Arnold picked up the pistol. I hollered at him, 'Don't shoot! They'll say I never caught him!' Arnold didn't want to fire the pistol anyway. He was afraid it would backfire and blow up in his hand. So he put down the pistol and took an oar and hit the muskie on the head. Wouldn't you know? That oar made the neatest little hole in the fish's head, just like a bullet."
Bullet hole or no, this was a keeper, all right—a lunker. In Wisconsin a muskie has to be 30 inches long or it must be thrown back. That one measured 43 inches by 23½ pounds! Uncle Ted and Uncle Arnold hauled it into the boat. The muskie was apparently unconscious from being hit, and Uncle Ted held it up to take a good long proud look, when "He gave a little shake, and, my God, he dropped loose off the line into the bottom of the boat! I had made my own leader that day, a copper-wire one I twisted up myself. The whole damn thing unraveled just when I held the fish up, and it fell off. Thank God he was too groggy to jump back in the lake!"
Uncle Ted's heroism was underlined a few moments later when the two brothers went ashore on the pier of a nearby resort, carrying the big muskie. A man saw them and came running to the dock, shouting over his shoulder, "Ma! Ma! Come look!" His wife, followed by four children, rushed out of a cabin and gathered in awe around Uncle Ted's big fish. The man asked apologetically if he might have his picture taken with the fish, and after Uncle Ted assured him it was all right, the man, holding the lunker, lined up next to his wife and children, and Uncle Arnold snapped the strangers, using their family Brownie.
But that wasn't the end. On Aug. 11, Uncle Arnold landed another honest-to-God keeper. This one, snagged on a pork-rind-baited Johnson minnow, a spoon usually used for bass or pike instead of muskies, stretched 34 inches long and weighed 12 pounds. It was the kind of fish that most veterans would glance at for a moment and then throw back into the lake. In fact, there is today an enlightened campaign being conducted by an organization called Muskies Inc. that urges muskie fishermen to throw back every specimen they catch except those they intend to mount as trophies.
This was no trophy, but Uncle Arnold wouldn't have given a moment's thought to not keeping his keeper. And neither of my uncles had his fish mounted. They just kept their muskies—for so long that after a few weeks, even on ice, the fish got "a little wrinkled" and had to be thrown away.
But two muskies in one week! There was reason for the family to gloat, to preen, to feel enormous confidence in its ability to conquer the mighty muskie. Such confidence, however, was misplaced. We came to wonder, in the years that followed, if our bad luck was a special curse but this is not the case. We were far from alone in our failures.
In the ongoing battle—Esox masquinongy immaculatus vs. Homo sapiens—the odds are so lopsidedly long in favor of the fish that one might wonder what sort of man would even bother to enter the game. Marv Heeler says in a sad, flat voice, "No one should feel bad if he doesn't catch a muskie right away. I've known men who fished all their lives for muskies—20, 30 years for muskies—and never caught a keeper, poor devils. My own son is well into his 20s, and he has been fishing for muskies since he was a foot shorter than his fish pole. He has never, not once, caught a keeper. In the long run, I'd say there are more people fishing for muskies who have never caught one than people who have."
Ron Schara in Muskie Mania cites the case of one Ellen Ramsell of Blaine, Minn.: "It was on Sept. 1, 1974 that Mrs. Ramsell landed her first legal-sized muskellunge," Schara writes. "She will always remember it well. She had already fished a total of 20 days that year before she hooked the 13-pounder. But she had fished for 25 years before that, averaging 24 days a year, without bagging a keeper. By her own calculation—fishing 25 years for 24 days a year for eight hours a day—she had made at least 500,000 to 800,000 casts for a single legal muskie."
An isolated case? Perhaps. Yet there are few freshwater fish—perhaps none—as difficult to catch as the muskie. Some people call it the $10,000 fish because they figure an average cost of $10,000 in equipment, travel, lodging and food for every keeper caught. Brian Long has kept records for two years of his fishing. "There are hot streaks and cold streaks, 10 days at a time without a keeper," he says. "On the average, I've found it takes 12 hours of hard fishing per legal muskie caught per boat. That's two people in the boat, casting constantly for a full day and a half."
A hardworking, aggressive muskie fisherman probably casts on the average of three times a minute, which is 180 an hour, which is slightly over 2,100 casts in a 12-hour period. But Long's average is based on two people per boat, which means it takes no fewer than 4,200 casts for every keeper muskie boated.
Long swears by that average, but Heeler, who does his guiding 100 miles farther east in Wisconsin, where lakes are more residential than they are around Hayward, says Long's ratio is too optimistic. Heeler says that his average cast-per-fish ratio is about double that of Long's—more than 8,000 casts per keeper. And those are the averages of two profoundly seasoned and highly imaginative fishing guides—professional muskie hunters in every sense of the word. For a hack, who's throwing out his lures with far less knowledge of lake terrain, water temperature, seasonal conditions, etc., the number of casts per fish might climb to a figure perilously near infinity.
Much—much too much, perhaps—has already been written about the type of man who spends so much time in the vain pursuit of the muskie—cockeyed optimist crossed with stubborn Stoic is the usual diagnosis. But Neal Long, 55, father of Brian and an articulate and talented artist and fisherman who for 36 years has made his living as a taxidermist in Sayner, speaks to the subject with rare insight. "The muskie is Moby Dick," he says, "and anyone who fishes muskies very long becomes as driven as Captain Ahab. There is a maddening individuality about each muskie that is absolutely unpredictable. This makes the focus of a true muskie fisherman's mind different from that of other fishermen. He is after a specific fish, a personality—not a species. No other fish has quite that sense of self—not the king salmon, not even the trout. Only the muskie."
Through the 1940s and much of the 1950s, my family continued to fish for muskies. There was never anything like that dramatic week in 1944 when Uncle Ted and Uncle Arnold caught two, but the constant pounding of lures along shoreline went on for days on end during the vacations we spent at Clam Lake. Granted, it was rarely more than two or three summer weeks in a row that any one group of uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents or parents was actually fishing. But each summer the cabin was occupied by some family contingent almost every day—and that meant the boats were on the lakes and tackle was flashing for at least a few hours almost daily in the ongoing pursuit of a keeper muskie.
There were moments of hope. In 1948, my grandmother and grandfather were fishing for walleyes in Upper Clam Lake when suddenly a muskie flung itself up out of the water and soared across the rowboat, directly between them.
In 1951, my mother and my grandfather were trolling for walleyes when she hooked a powerful fish, obviously a muskie. Convinced that it would be foolhardy to bring such a monster into the boat with them, my grandfather rowed rapidly toward a nearby island in hope of beaching the beast. Near the shore he jumped, fully dressed, into water up to his waist and hauled the fish on my mother's line onto the beach. It was a muskie, all right, a mean and angry thing, but it was only 22 inches long. They had to release it.
In 1952, my father, a lifelong fisherman, though by no means a religious one, finally hooked his first muskie during a trip to the Chippewa Flowage with Uncle Bill and my grandfather. He recalls the scene: "I finally had a keeper, I was sure. We got it in the boat, but we didn't have a gaff or a club, so we hit it with a beer bottle." The fish was out cold, and as they gazed at it, they realized it was not an absolute lunker, though it was pretty big. My grandfather suggested they should measure it to make sure it was legal. My father confidently agreed, and they held the unconscious fish against a yardstick nailed to a boat seat. The first measurement came up 29½ inches. This couldn't be. That left it half an inch short of being a keeper. "It seemed bigger than that," my father says. "We turned it the other way around and pulled slightly at each end and measured again." The fish was 29½ inches long every time except one, when it was 29‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö‚à´.
There ensued a brief but heated discussion of the philosophy and morality of fishing. My grandfather was a strong-minded and notoriously honest tobacco farmer, and he led the debate. The result was that my father gently held his prized non-keeper in the water by the boat until it began to flutter weakly, then slowly righted itself and swam off, no worse for a beer-bottle blow to its bony forehead.
As the empty muskie years rolled by, our priorities were rearranged. For most of us, the relentless shore pounding abated and then stopped completely. However, my father and Uncle Bill kept on flinging muskie lures regularly for a couple of weeks each summer well into the 1960s. The sum of it all was, in the words of my father, that "The ones who fished the most caught the least." He and Uncle Bill certainly fished the most. Uncle Arnold, who had caught that keeper during the famous week of August '44, scarcely ever went fishing for muskies again. Uncle Ted caught only one other, smaller keeper, though he fished whenever he could get away. My grandfather never caught one but, wise man that he was, he hardly ever tried after he realized how phenomenally long the odds were. My Uncle Bill finally did catch one keeper in 1947 and another in the early 1960s—two, after 30-plus years of casting.
Whatever his success, or lack of it, Uncle Bill fished for muskies with a fervor that was eventually fed as much by anger as by the love of the sport. He had burning black-brown eyes, and a tireless, often humorless, approach to fishing. He was graceful and accurate with his casting rod, patient and hardworking in his quest for muskies, but he was occasionally foul-tempered and often sulked silently for an hour or more after he came in from the lake—skunked again. I suppose that if there were any logic to muskie fishing, Uncle Bill certainly would have been rewarded far more than he was. No one passed more hours in cold, damp boats than Uncle Bill, and no one spent more money on quality equipment than he. But both mathematics and justice seemed to be against him when it came to muskies. He lived into his 80s, and one felt he might have enjoyed a happier old age had he been blessed with a few more memories of boating big muskies. But he wasn't.
Nor was my father. He never even caught a keeper. He hasn't let the onus of living an entire life without a muskie spoil his perspective, but he has never been a man content to watch bread trucks unload, either. So, futile though it obviously was, he never really stopped trying to catch a muskie until he grew too old to spend more than an hour or two in a boat. Then he quit—empty-handed. However, our family did not entirely abandon the quest. Two years ago my 11-year-old son, Tom, and I fished Upper Clam Lake for muskies again. We started one morning when mist was rising from the surface, and we fished until the sun had risen high enough to burn off the mist and make the water glisten. Tom was casting a Mud Puppy, a gray plug shaped vaguely like an eight-inch whale with a gash of red in its throat. This lure was about 20 years older than Tom was, and it had traveled miles by air and water over the years, been flung toward shore tens of thousands of times, then reeled back, making its provocative weaving motions all the way to the boat. It had been bitten by muskies from time to time, but it had never hooked one. Now, the still, sunny water broke in a fluttering, tentative splash, and then a great swirl gurgled as the fish dived to the bottom. Tom cried in his soprano voice, "I got one!"
The muskie swam mightily toward shore. Tom's rod bent sharply and jerked savagely. He held it high to make the fish work against it. He began reeling in, and in no more than three minutes he had the fish at boatside. Amazingly calm and efficient in the face of this miracle, I scooped it into the boat with the landing net. It writhed angrily in the netting, and I fell backward over a seat, landing with my rear end in the open tackle box. I felt the hooks through my pants, and I began to laugh. So did Tom. We whooped and guffawed while the muskie flipped about in the net. There was some kind of generational justice to all this: my son had caught a muskie, and it was as if all the hours and days spent in vain pursuit by me and my father and my uncles and the rest of my family were suddenly justified. Happiness was rampant in that boat.
Then, of course, we had to measure the damned thing. It was short by two inches—28 inches long and a nice big fish by any standards but those applied to muskies. We threw it back and watched it swim away, flicking its tail in triumph.
Last summer Tom and I again went muskie fishing in northern Wisconsin. And we pounded the lakes ferociously. We hired guides, rented the finest equipment, fished at least eight hours a day for the better part of a week. We cast constantly, vigorously, as grim, determined and relentless as convicts breaking rocks. We cast some 4,500 times a day. We threw lures into deep water near submarine banks, among lily pads and lush weeds, into promising stands of partially submerged dead trees and next to tempting snags. We fished at dawn and at dusk, until after dark and through the noon hour, in drizzle and in baking sunshine. We didn't catch a thing.
On the last day, we came close. It was on Little Arbor Vitae Lake near Sayner. I retrieved a bucktail, swished it in the prescribed figure eight at boatside and watched with growing excitement as a sinister brown shape—a muskie at least three feet long—rose by the lure. I gently moved the bucktail again. The spoon flashed, and the big fish hit as I watched. I set the hooks with a firm yank, and the fish turned, slightly bewildered, swam across the line and dived for the bottom. I pulled again to set the hooks more firmly, and my line came up limp—hanging empty in the air. It had apparently been cut on the muskie's sharp gill cover or jawbones. The fish was gone, the lure still hooked in its mouth as it rushed away to safety.
Again we had nothing to show for our work. Esox masquinongy immaculatus trounces Homo sapiens once more. We returned to the family cabin on Upper Clam Lake. It had been 37 years since our family started coming here. Thirty-seven years! Only God knows how many eager and expectant casts we made for muskies in those years. Possibly a million? Could that be? A million? It hardly seems that it could be less when each six-hour day of casting might represent some 1,000 casts per man—to say nothing of casts per dream-filled boy.
Whatever the total, the return was small, infinitesimal, microscopic. Five keepers in 37 years! And there would be no more—that would be the final tally out of the cabin on Upper Clam Lake.
The family had decided to sell the place. Everyone still alive from the original crowd that came in '42 was either too old or lived too far away to use it often enough. As we left the cabin for the last time, Tom and I drove to the grocery store in Clam Lake village. We waited outside the store for a while. Then I went in and asked the proprietor a question. I should have known. Our luck hadn't changed: the bread truck had already come and gone.