In Pursuit of the Esox King: Part 1

This is an article by a novice musky fly fisherman written for other beginners.  After fishing for salmonids throughout most of our lives, two friends and I decided to pursue the baddest freshwater fish on the North American continent.  Esox masquinongy, or the muskellunge, is known as one of the most difficult, but rewarding, freshwater fish to catch on the fly.  We chose Wisconsin as our destination, with its reputation as the heart of musky country.  Since then, we traveled back several times, and each journey provided valuable lessons.  Rivers felt more natural to us, and the vast majority of our fishing took place on the flowing waterways of the region.  I intend to share some of these lessons with other trout fishermen who harbor ambitions of spending a moment with one of these leviathans.

Hunting the hunter

While described as the “fish of 10,000 casts,” musky do not necessarily deserve this imposing moniker.  An intelligent angler may whittle this number down to something more manageable through identification of prime musky habitat.  To a trout angler, the low-gradient, tea-stained musky rivers of Wisconsin seem relatively featureless.  The discerning eye picks up on subtleties of these waterways.  During my first day of musky fishing, my guide described the four main features of musky habitat: depth, current, weed beds, and structure. 

With eyes on top of their head, musky will often strike unsuspecting prey from below, making the deepest holes a perfect spot for them to lurk.  Current provides oxygenated water, and musky frequently favor the most turbulent areas found in the river system. Weed beds attract baitfish, and baitfish attract musky.  Like almost any predatory freshwater fish, musky use structure as cover for ambush.  An encounter with a musky almost seems likely when these habitat features combine at certain wonderful places.

 

Fly line choice

Fishing a huge popper with a floating line may represent the pinnacle of musky fly fishing.  Could anything prove more satisfying than watching a musky come out of nowhere to crush a pattern imitating a baby duck?  Poppers and floating lines excel during warmer times of the year and when small birds proliferate.  An intermediate line is the workhorse for the rivers of Wisconsin, especially when fishing from a boat.  These lines offer the most versatility for different types of musky water. Additionally, most anglers possess the ability to cast these lines comfortably.  If I could only choose one line for fishing the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I would choose an intermediate line.

I must pause to dedicate space to sinking lines and their utility when fishing for musky. Especially during a walk-and-wade trip, sinking lines often mean the difference between failure and success. Consider three of the habitats described above: structure, depth, and current. When these features combine, a predatory musky usually lurks on the premises. Frequently, one can access these fish only by getting the fly deep and getting it down fast. The first time I cast an 11 weight with a full sink line I wondered what pathological condition forced me to subject myself to such brutality and embarrassment. But with practice, I now find satisfaction when casting these burly sinking lines. A weight-forward sinking line shoots well, resulting in some accurate and long casts.  When depth and current combine with a sinking line, a musky encounter often results.

 

Bring your “A Game”

A musky neophyte does not naturally possess the casting ability required to efficiently chase these apex predators. Casting a 10 weight rod requires practice, especially for the trout fisherman accustomed to throwing 40 foot dry fly casts with a 5 weight. Imagine putting a heavy, full sink line on that 10 weight.  Consider the force required to cast a 12” fly.  This fly needs to travel accurately through 60-100 feet of air, landing next to structure.  Do it backhand.

Are these skills absolutely necessary? Certainly not. I once had a musky guide tell me that when clients lack the necessary casting ability, he will instruct them to leave their lines in the water to “troll” while he rows.  Under certain circumstances these anglers will do well. Undoubtedly however, casting is an important part of the musky game.  During the grind of musky fishing, anything to minimize the number of casts will go a long way to preserve one’s rotator cuff.  That means making long casts to reduce the number of casts overall, choosing a rod with a relatively low swing weight, and possession of a strong double haul.  When fishing from a boat, casting big musky flies over the head of the rower is taboo due to the risk of impalement. Without a decent backhand, half of the opportunities will be missed.  In my experience, the better casters with these beastly set-ups tend to enjoy more success.

Many fly fishing experts recommend casting practice before attempting their particular discipline. This advice never seemed more pertinent when considering fly fishing for musky.

 

Keep your head in the game

The psychological aspect of musky fly fishing supersedes the physical challenge of the endeavor. When planning a musky trip, put on your permit hat and accept the realistic possibility of total failure. During my first musky trip, I landed a grand total of zero musky and engaged only three fish during the entire four-day effort.  During my last trip, I went nearly 72 hours without encountering a musky.  Maintaining focus during these barren periods proves arduous but remains essential.  Every retrieve requires full focus and attention.  The momentary admiration of a loon, the slapping of a mosquito on the back of the neck, or the fumbling of fly line during retrieval may determine failure versus a successful day.  In Wisconsin, encounters with other enterprising gamefish like smallmouth bass, pike, and walleye certainly help to maintain focus with occasional ambitious strikes on the large musky flies.  These smaller battles only help so much, and the best musky fishermen find other ways to stay dialed-in on every cast.

Keep the line in the water

In reality, a proportional relationship exists between the time the fly spends in the water and the number of musky caught.  Some experienced musky guides actually calculate the number of casts required on average to catch a musky (actually more like one musky for every 300-500 casts, not 10,000).  I fish as hard as I can for as long as I can.  It’s a numbers game, and you never know if the next cast might be the one.

 

The Figure 8

Anyone who has experienced even a little musky fishing likely knows about the Figure 8 technique.  To the trout purist, this tactic sounds preposterous.  In short, the angler will leave a couple feet of line between the fly and fly rod tip at the end of retrieve, and then circle the fly in a figure 8 pattern for several moments or longer.  This takes advantage of a musky’s tendency to follow the fly all the way to the boat, and in a sense “lengthens” the cast.  Additionally, it takes advantage of the musky’s impulse to hit the fly broadside, as the technique changes the orientation of the fly.  Bring an extra pair of underwear for the first time a 3.5-foot behemoth inhales a fly at your feet.  I almost fell out of the boat the first time I saw a musky appear inches away from me during a Figure 8.

As far as I am aware, two considerations create a better Figure 8.  First, slow down.  Allow the musky ample time to examine the fly in every orientation as the fly completes the Figure 8.  Additionally, change the depth of the fly during the Figure 8.  This supplies a change in orientation on a different axis, which may be the key to producing a strike depending on the approach of the musky.

Battle strategy

When a musky hits a streamer, strip setting is the favored approach to hook the fish.  However, I do not strip set once, but as many times as is feasible until we reach an absolute stalemate.  I botched my first several musky encounters with trout sets and weak strip sets.  I strip set the first musky I ever landed all the way to the bank with several violent pulls before the fish realized its predicament and started thrashing.  Once the hook is solidly in the musky’s mouth, every effort should be made to shorten the fight.  The heavy fluorocarbon leader allows the angler to refuse the yield of line to the fish under most circumstances.  Accomplish a quick battle by stripping the fish in, thereby keeping it off the reel. This will decrease the chance of the hook sliding out of the musky’s nearly impenetrable mouth, and reduce the fatigue of the fish and chances of mortality.  Rather than line-blistering runs, musky usually fight with violent head shakes, acrobatic cartwheels, and brutal, short charges.  I cannot think of a convincing reason to prioritize putting the fish on the reel.

 

Leader construction

While plenty of anglers opt for a wire tippet when designing a musky leader, I like a heavy fluorocarbon bite guard.  Experienced musky fishermen recommended this set-up to me, noting the favorable natural action provided by fluorocarbon relative to the wire.  The vast majority of my leader is 40 lb fluorocarbon looped to the fly line.  To that, I tie about 12“ of 25 lb fluorocarbon as a “weak link.”  More confident anglers may omit the weak link, but I prefer this component for the rare moment when the fly is hopelessly stuck on a log or rock.  A 10 weight fly line provides the equivalent of 30 lb test, so the weak link is just slightly more breakable than the fly line.  Better to lose only a 30 dollar musky fly than the fly plus an expensive fly line.  To the end of the weak link, I tie a perfection loop.  To this I connect my terminal 60 lb fluorocarbon attached to the fly.  The 60 lb test serves as a bite guard, and I have yet to experience a musky that inflicted substantial damage to this type of bite guard.  I leave 8-12” of 60 lb fluorocarbon attached to all my musky flies so I can loop them directly on to the leader without tying any knots when changing flies.

Ask for help

Personally, I have experienced guided musky fishing for three long days.  During those three days, I had one musky on my line, and landed none.  Many may consider these outings a waste of time and money, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Those guided days taught me the skills and lessons I needed to successfully catch musky on my own.  Even a proud do-it-yourself er like me concedes the importance of expert guidance with a species as difficult and rare as musky.  Wisconsin’s musky country boasts several impressive fly fishing guides.  One of these options is Weston Thier of Fontinalis Fly Fishing.  Weston is an accomplished fly tier and guide, specializing in musky of the Wisconsin Northwoods.  He also guides for steelhead, bass, and trout.  If you want to get your musky pursuit off to a good start, contact Weston through his website, fontinalisflyfishing.com,  Weston was extremely helpful to my friends and me when we started to fish for musky.  I recommend him highly as a musky guide in northern Wisconsin or as a source for quality, proven musky flies.

 

For Part 2 on this topic, look for an interview with Weston later this summer.  We will discuss more advanced concepts related to musky fly fishing…thanks for reading!

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