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Rookie Muskie Tales

Muskies – fundamentally one of the ugliest of God's diverse creatures. Why in the world do muskies fascinate men so much? If you look at other things that addict mankind – power, money, religion, sex, drugs, careers – then muskies must rank right there, at least for certain men.

And why is that a men thing? The other addictions plague both men and women. But I have yet to meet a woman muskie fiend. I don't believe there is such an animal. I have, however, met many a wife of male muskie addicts. And it's been interesting that none of the wives have ever shown any jealousy or hostility toward their husbands's muskie doings. It's as if they sense that this part of their husband's life is not – well, a threat, a competition– to them or the marriage. Compare that to the reaction another woman can produce in a wife.

But muskies sure can enter a man's life, and at times (like when the annual Canada fishing trip is at hand) even dominate it. I have stories on this, but I'll save them for later. First, I want to tell you how I myself became infected with this "Muskie Mania" disease.

Before I moved to Lake Riley, while we still lived on Black Maple, I fished frequently on nearby Bush Lake in Bloomington. Bush, with its 90 acres of clear water, had large bass and abundant sunfish. I spent many happy hours on the lake. I also caught my first muskie there. Here's how it happened......

Well, once again the wife and kids have passed on my offer to go fishing. So here I am, out by myself this fine June day. Really too early in the season for bass, the water's still cold, believe I'll work the crappies. That shoreline by the point across from the boat launch has always been good fishing, I just might try that.

I coast the boat to a stop by the weedline, check the depth – ten feet is fine, drop the anchor, and I'm set. My crappie outfit – light action rod, spincast reel, six pound test line – is just perfect for this kind of fishing. About five feet of line on the slip bobber, hook the leech.......(Say, is there a head and tail issue with leeches too? Or was that another story? Forget it.) ......plop it onto the water just out from the boat, and I'm in the fishing business.

Time passes. I'm still in business, but the crappies aren't buying. Okay, hotshot, you've always made a big deal about fishing instead of catching. So enjoy the fishing. Sun, warm breeze, a deserted lake....fishing.....

More time passes. My head is nodding, eyes unfocused, lids dropping, typical fishing enjoyment. A little catching really wouldn't hurt... And there it finally is! Look at that bobber slide down! Not real fast, of course, but that's what crappies do. Wonder how big this one is? Okay, lift up the rod......tighten the line a little..... a big, slow sweep, don't want to rip the hook out of that paper mouth.....I can feel the fish......

Well now what?.....I'm snagged......How can I snag when the bobber went straight down?.....Maybe weeds? The line is coming up.....Smallmouth bass!.....Crappies don't do this.... Or walleyes......But there aren't smallmouth in Bush!.....Are there?.....Must be a largemouth?.......But it's strong.....

All of this takes a couple of seconds, and then a tiger muskie is up in the air standing on it's tail on the water six feet from my boat. My heart skips a beat.

I recognized the muskie instantly, as it hung there, frozen in midair a few feet from my boat. I had never seen a muskie in the flesh before, but I recognized it!!....It made my knees weak, it did, it honestly did. I had gotten shaky hands from other kinds of fish, but this was different. I got weak knees.

I don't remember a lot of what followed.. The fight wasn't much, and I got the muskie to boatside without a biteoff. I kept it in the water, somehow managed to measure it – 25" – and remove the hook. The slap of water in the face from the muskie as it dove away from the boat, that weak kneed–forced–to–sit–for–a–while reaction, all that muskie stuff..... The first seeds of muskie disease.

I fished for crappies a little while longer, but it didn't matter.

That first muskie of mine, even if only a two–footer, seemed to have taken the edge off catching quarter–pound panfish. I pulled the boat from the water and hurried home in great excitement to tell the wife and kids. Their reaction to all this was considerably more subdued!

I got my second muskie much the same way – Bush lake a month later, at another nice drop–off. This time I used a jig and minnow, with largemouth bass the main attraction. I got a solid "whack" in fifteen feet of water, set the hook, and eventually brought another tiger muskie, this time 27", to the boat.

Interestingly, a crappie hook stuck out of the back of this fish – It seemed the muskies in Bush were at risk from crappie fishermen. I removed the hook, measured the fish, and lost the muskie to a biteoff without taking it out of the water.

Excitement again? You bet! But also a lot less than the first time. After all, an experienced muskie fisherman like me soon gets jaded catching under–30–inch fish! A booster shot of muskie disease.

Once again the wife and kids were not impressed with my latest fish story.

Obviously, my first two muskies were accidents. It was time to get serious, and a serious fisherman can't chase muskies with a crappie pole. I invested in better equipment – Ambassadeur reel, yellow Eagle Claw pool cue rod, 36–lb dacron line, black bucktail, etc. I also found a better muskie lake than that Bush lake hybrid rearing pond.

I organized an autumn fishing expedition a year later to Grindstone Lake in Wisconsin. Pat Kelly owned a cabin on the lake, a great opportunity for a weekend "fishing escape" trip. Although Grindstone certainly has a history of producing muskies, including Louie Spray's world record in 1939, Pat had never seen one there. He fished for walleyes and not muskies. He laughed at my muskie outfit and my plan to catch one.

Four of us – Kelly, Boettcher, Julik and I – set off with two boats on a September weekend in 1987. The other two guys, also walleye fishermen, joined Kelly in many clever and skeptical comments about my muskie ideas.

Front View Kelly's Cabin

We arrived at the cabin on Friday evening, and Pat and I went out after walleyes in his boat. I didn't do any muskie fishing that night (or any walleye catching either). Early the next morning we went out after walleyes again, and came back in for breakfast around 10 am.

Pat's cabin is on the first shallow bay north of William's Bay, with a tricky propeller–busting rock bar across the mouth. We entered the bay first, with Boettcher and Julik behind us in the other boat.....

Kelly is driving the boat as we approach the rock bar. I pick up my muskie outfit and decide to give it a quick try for the fist time on the trip. I've read that muskie fishing is best at midday, and we'll go out again and get serious after breakfast. I'll just make a couple of casts here for practice.

Pat slows down to cross the bar. I swing the pole back and cast my black "Harasser" bucktail out to the back and side of the boat: My first intentional cast ever for muskies.

The weather is misty, foggy, and calm, the lake flat. Pat speeds the boat up as we cross over the bar. I start reeling the Harasser back too fast. It flies out of the water with a small "hop – splash."

Kelly laughs at my clumsy technique. "You'll never catch anything that way, Ozols."

Before the words are barely out of his mouth – a BIG "splash!" My third muskie!

"I got a muskie!" or some more colorful words. Kelly lets go of the tiller, the boat coasts to a stop. He stands there. I'm too busy to see if his mouth is hanging open, but I wouldn't be surprised.

It's immediately obvious that this muskie is bigger than the first two. I don't know how much – my limited experience offers no guide. I've read about muskies "ripping line off the reel, burning out the drag." Is this about to happen to me?

Can't worry about that. Just work the muskie..... keep the pole high...... hope the drag is set okay...... did I even adjust the drag this morning?......try reeling now...... well, it's coming, only a little drag going.....

And oh man! There's a jump! And a swirl! And another jump! Look at the wake on that line as the fish just races through the water! I bet Kelly is dying.....

Yeah, this isn't a little hamme- handle hybrid. I can tell it's a real muskie!

Okay, reel some more..... rod still high...... he's coming in .... careful, we should have raised the motor..... I'll work him to the front of the boat, away from the motor.....

A couple of more swirls, another splash, then the fish is at boatside. Where's Boettcher and Julik? I want them to see this, the skeptical bastards! I look back toward the lake, they're just appearing through the fog, still a ways out. And they're still dragging Lindy Rigs, for heaven's sake, messing around for walleyes. Oblivious to my muskie mastery! Too bad, but forget it.

Kelly holding the net

The fish is there at boatside, looking at us, tail moving slowly, but the fight is gone. Kelly had the net ready. He scoops, and it's in! A purebred, light gray–green coloring, pale vertical strips, orange fins and tail, teeth everywhere, a real muskie!

Well, now what? I'm mostly paralyzed, all I want to do is look at it, admire it. Pat Kelly, he of little faith but eager to atone for his sins, has the presence of mind to measure it. As he fumbles around in his tackle box for a "De–Liar," I realize I better get some pictures, too.

Where's my Polaroid? I brought it along because I knew a muskie would happen. Okay, here it is, under the seat. Take it out of the case, frame the muskie, push the button, and..... I'm out of film? I can't believe it!

Well that's gross stupidity, an empty camera. Alright, I've got a spare film pack. Get it out of the case....dropped it!....pick it up.....it's wrapped in plastic.....tear the plastic.....it won't tear.....have to cut the plastic.....where's my knife?.....screw it! I'll never get the camera reloaded. Forget the pictures, there's a muskie in the bottom of the boat. I've got to get it back in the water.

Kelly's measured the fish by now – 33" – my first legal muskie. Let's get the needlenose pliers (which by some magic aren't lost in the bottom of the boat), grab the bucktail, twist, and it's loose. Great! I don't think the fish is hurt at all. Time to release it.

Pick it up, hold it over the side of the boat..... And look whose boat is here, who can't believe what they're seeing! Mr. Boettcher and Mr. Julik, charter members of The Professional Muskie Skeptics Association. If the look on Mr. Julik's face was any blanker, you could use it as a billboard for pasting advertising signs.

Neither of these two walleye fishermen can think of anything to say. Not a word. They just stare at my muskie as I slip it back into the water and it disappears.

Here's some statistics. At that point in my muskie fishing career my record stood at three muskies caught, with exactly one serious cast made. My success rate: An average of three muskies per cast. Not bad, for a beginner, not bad at all. What's this business about "The fish of 10,000 casts? For me that would be 30,000 muskies? But the law of averages eventually holds.

I fished for muskies the rest of that trip, and three more September trips to Grindstone with the same crowd. I went out to Lake Independence in the Twin Cities suburbs with Pat (he caught one). I took my boat up to Whitefish Bay on Lake of the Woods for a four–day getaway with the wife. I spent several days on Leech Lake. I went back to that famous muskie hotspot, Bush Lake.

Muskies Inc. LOGO

In desperation, I even joined Muskies, Inc.

Muskies Inc...... At my first chapter meeting I heard an astounding collection of fish stories: Forty–eight inch muskie caught! Fifty-five inch monster hooked and lost! World record fish sighted! Jaws! Heart–stopping fights! A dozen fish a day! Mehsikomer! Hartman! Lake of the Woods! Georgian Bay! Lac Seul!

Spectacular. It was obvious, based on the "truthful fisherman" principle, that these gray–bearded, pot–bellied old pros were in no danger of incurring St. Peter's wrath. It overwhelmed me. I knew I was among kindred souls.

I continued muskie fishing. I did not do any muskie catching.

However, I loved it all – muskie fishing is always, always great, even without that catching. I bought lures to an extent that the wife only dimly suspects. I read muskie books. (Gardner's "Time of the Water" ranks right up there with the Bible, in my opinion, and Sandell's "Muskie, Muskie, on the Wall" shows more insight into muskie fishing than five years of In 'Fisherman.) I started collecting the books and fishing magazines. TV shows like "Thunder on the Water" dominated my Saturday morning schedules in wintertime.

I learned enough about the early history of muskie fishing in Wisconsin, the St. Lawrence, and other places to be saddened by the documented slaughter. I became a "Typhoid Mary" (Muskie Juris) and infected a number of my friends with same illness from which I suffered. The disease is actually highly contagious, it wasn't difficult. Pat Kelly himself got a mild case, and later Rick Zieman started displaying early symptoms of a severe one.

And then the fourth muskie.

Lakeview Lodge on Grindstone

No, it wasn't a lunker. It was a 36" fish I caught on our fifth annual Grindstone trip in September 1991. This time there were six of us. Bill Molyneus, first time at Grindstone with us, caught and released a 41" fish early in the trip.

I caught and also released a 19" smallmouth bass. Al Butterbaugh at Lakeview Lodge honored both of us with "Catch and Release" pins for these two fish. We returned the favor with a hefty wad of money spent at his bar celebrating the catches. I've told you about the consequences of that. But no muskies for me.


Then, on the morning of the final day of the trip, three of us went out to cast for muskies one last time. We fished in the area to the north of the "Islands" on Grindstone, casting to the shoreline and to the rocky flats. The nonexistent action killed any optimism about muskies for another year.

As hope faded, I made a particularly long cast in some ten feet of water with a perch Swim Whiz. The lure banged off rocks on the bottom halfway back and stopped dead. I shouted "I've got a muskie!" And I did!. A last day – last hour muskie.

That muskie went through all the motions a good muskie is trained to do – splashes, jumps, drag–taking runs, all that. By this time I had upgraded to a real Muskie Outfit – St. Croix rod, Ambassadeur 6500 Synchro reel, and it was fun to battle the muskie with quality equipment. I finally got the fish to boatside.

But then it gets much less pretty. The rear set of treble hooks on the Swim Whiz had the muskie hooked outside the mouth in the gill area. With the muskie in the water, we couldn't tell how securely. I didn't want to lose it. One of my friends handled the net, and took a swipe at the fish from the front with predictable consequences. The net caught on the two front trebles and the fish thrashed, resulting in an immediate and classic net – lure – hooks – line – fish mess, with no hope of recovery.

My friend grabbed the hoop of the net with both hands and threw the whole operation into the boat. Lifting the muskie out of the water impaled it on the third set of hooks, driving them firmly into the gills.

Bloody Fish Mess

After measuring the fish I tried to remove the hooks with needlenose pliers, but failed. The thrashing fish, the shaking hands after three years without a muskie.... I found it impossible. I tried to cut the hooks with the small clipper at the base of the pliers. Also hopeless. My friend had steady hands (it wasn't his fish) and he took the pliers from me and forcibly ripped the hooks out. Blood everywhere.

As I put the muskie back in the water, it slipped out of my hands, went belly up, and floated away. The excitement vanished. Concern, and, in fact, dread struck me. As much as I had wanted to catch and bring in the fish, I wanted it to live even more. What do you do with a dead 36–inch muskie? Certainly not mount it. Eat it? Impossible. Donate it to somebody to eat? Just as bad. What do you do?

We paddled over to it, I grabbed the tail, turned it right side up, and started swishing it back and forth in the water. And somehow the fish revived. It made a lunge, broke free, and dove away. However, although it didn't die in my hands, I'm sure it didn't survive.

I've thought about it many times since. It was in my power to save that muskie. In the water, at boatside, the fish had only minimal damage. Water release techniques frequently documented in Muskie magazine would have easily done the trick, with a much happier ending. But I believe I learned more from this muskie than from the previous muskies and all the reading I had done.

Let me make some observations on lessons learned from these, my first four muskies.

FIRST

This is important.

As far as I'm now concerned a muskie is caught when it's at boatside on the end of the line. At that point getting rid of it is your sole purpose in life (so you can get through with the catching and go back to fishing). Getting it in a net, hauling it into the boat, all that, are plagues to be avoided. If it looks like it's going to break loose by itself, encourage it. You've just saved yourself a dirty job.

SECOND

Avoid panic at all costs when a muskie is on the line. The worst outcome – it gets away – is really okay compared to the alternatives, isn't it? Don't do anything that could kill the muskie. Easier said than done, maybe, but come at it that way and the mental attitude will help.

THIRD

I tinkered with the following thought after my first four muskies: At that point in my muskie career I couldn't conceive of the circumstances under which I would ever intentionally kill and keep a muskie.

FOURTH

Don't ever fish without wire cutters in the boat. Don't ever fish with an unloaded camera in the boat. Maybe don't even fish with a net in the boat, to avoid the temptation. However, I strongly recommend fishing with muskie skeptics, disbelievers, and "walleyes only" fishermen in the boat. There will come a day when they will be sorry and you will be filled with joy!

FIFTH and FINALLY

I've got this secret muskie hotspot in Bloomington, Minnesota, and am available for guide service at very modest fees.

by
Juris Ozols



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