Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dreams Of Big, Evil-Looking Muskies

imageIt’s already started. A dream came wandering through my brain last night, and there I stood, knees braced against the stern, and a rod bowed almost double from the force of a big muskellunge. It was taking line, and then began circling back to stare at me with an evil look on his toothy shovel-shaped face.

The dream had some basis in fact, and it was three years ago when I first fought and lost a huge Lake St. Clair muskie that wouldn’t come up off the bottom for the longest time.

Muskie dreams are just what they are: dreams of big nasty-looking, toothy fish. Most dreams have some basis in fact, and occasionally my muskellunge dreams contain combined elements from two or three different unforgettable fishing experiences.

What causes these dreams? Beats me, but I suspect it comes from thinking of fishing for them.  Two years ago, I tipped an old buddy—Larry Ramsell of Hayward, Wisconsin—off to a Michigan hotspot I’ve known about and fished for 30 years. I couldn’t go because I was recovering from one of many eye surgeries, so I gave him a clue.

The general locale was the St. Marys River in the eastern Upper Peninsula, which encompasses a large chunk of watery real estate. He and two others fished the first day and caught a 42-inch fish.

The next day one man landed and released a small fish, another one hooked and lost a large muskie, and then Ramsell nailed a 53 1/2-inch muskie that weighed approximately 45 pounds, and they missed my hotspot by 30 miles.

Ramsell is a great muskie angler, and perhaps the most savvy of all. He recognized good muskie water, and fished it hard and caught fish.

A photo of Ramsell and his trophy fish appears above, and I’ll probably dream of it tonight. However, to illustrate how fickle muskie fishing can be, Ramsell returned the following year and never caught a fish. A cold front moved in, and he and I fished in high winds and rain for two days without having a strike.

The odd thing about muskie fishing is the reason we fish for them. It becomes a personal quest for a trophy fish. The above fish isn’t Ramsell’s first 40+-pounder, but very few fish of such honest sizes will tip the scales that far. He admits that the quest, the enduring search, for an even larger muskellunge is what drives him and many others to travel widely and to fish often for a larger fish.

Satisfying that quest does occur, but not for everyone. I’ve hooked three or four 40-pounds in many years of fishing for them. The trick is to fish all the known big-fish waters but never fail to try other lesser-known lakes. Nearby Long Lake undoubtedly holds 40-pound fish or even larger, but very few are landed. Most are hooked by accident by people fishing for other species, and invariably the fish breaks off and gets away.

Years ago, I boated a big muskie on Dale Hollow Reservoir, on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. That fish weighed 36 1/2 pounds, and it is the biggest muskie I’ve landed. But this type of fishing is an itch that always needs scratching.

The only thing that relieves the itch is to go again. And always, lurking in the darkest corner of our brain, is the thought of our biggest muskellunge. A quest to top that fish, and not necessarily to keep it, is what keeps us pounding the water when others have quit.

The Lake St. Clair fish I hooked three years ago was never seen. Fish hooked while trolling, and this holds true with big fish, is the muskie will stay deep. It may roll on the surface toward the end of the fight, but they normally stay down until they get wore out.

My unseen fish hit a down-rod on the corner of the boat, with the lure in the prop wash, and it ripped off yards of line. We cleared other lines, and that fish and I tussled for more than 20 minutes. I’d move it up off bottom, and down it would go again, and take out more line. Back and forth we went until I could sense the fish tiring, and it rolled under the surface where it was impossible to see the length and girth, and then it rolled again, and the lure came free.

Then there was a muskellunge hooked while fishing after dark. The lake was Murphy Lake in Tuscola County. Me and another guy were casting huge plugs that sputtered along on the surface with gurgles and small splashes from our muskie-size Hula Poppers and Jitterbugs.

“Blub-blub-blub” would come the sound as we retreived the surface lures with an occasional pause. My partner got a big backlash when his lure was near the boat, and a big northern muskie chose that moment to strike the lure and it broke the line.

An hour later as we lamented the lost fish I had a massive jarring strike. I’d worked for an hour on those hooks, and they were razor sharp. That fish hit, and I pounded the hook home twice. That fish took out 30 yards of line, and I played her with a cool hand.

Even at that, the fish was a monster. One develops a sense for big fish after hooking a number of them, and I’d triggered that fish quick and hard. It was hooked well, and I played it under the light of a moon. Nearly 20 minutes into the fight, the fish ran toward the boat, rolled over, splashing us with water and we came undone.

I suspect the prolonged fight and the big hooks wore big holes in that fish’s jaw, and when it rolled, the heavy lure fell out, and the giant muskie swam free.

I remember another big muskie that followed a Suick twice in three days on Wisconsin’s Tomahawk Lake. It looked half as long as the 16-foot boat but I know it wasn’t quite that big, but it was well over 50 inches long. Could it have hit that magical weight of 40 pounds?

Perhaps. My buddy from Wisconsin, who had seen and caught several large muskies, estimated the fish at 55 inches and at least 45 pounds, perhaps more. That ‘lunge still appears in the my dreams.

Another time on Ontario’s Lake of the Woods near Kenora, I had a savage strike at boat-side from an unseen muskie. The fish had missed the plug as I lifted it out for another cast.

The next thing I knew there was this enormous muskie camped three feet behind my Bobbie Bait. I kept the lure moving, plunged the rod into the water at the boat, and kept it moving. That fish followed it through several Figure-8 and J-stroke rod movements, and then it sank slowly out of sight without offering to hit the lure.

How big was it? I had caught a brief glimpse, and it was well over 55 inches. Was it one of those legendary 60-inch fish? Beats me, but I know I saw that fish in my dreams for two or three years. Writing about it now may bring the dream back to life again.

Years ago, Craig Lake in the Upper Peninsula was a hotspot for big muskies. It was a small lake, hard to reach at that time, and motors were not allowed. A good man on the oars could row around the lake easily in two hours.

A buddy was fishing a spinnerbait when a muskie struck at the fast-moving lure and missed. I pitched a Suick over there, and the fish bulged the water behind the lure but didn’t hit. I applied rod-tip English to the lure, and it followed the lure all the way to the canoe. That fish probably weighed 40 pounds but we’ll never know.

Later that day a buddy caught a muskie weighing 25 pounds at the other end of the lake. It would have been dwarfed by the earlier fish.

I’ve been privileged to have caught a great number of muskies in my life. I’ve missed some very big fish, hooked some truly huge fish, and lost all but the Dale Hollow muskie, and it remains my largest so far.

Will Lake St. Clair produce something big this year? I honestly don’t know. It produces plenty of big fish, and several 40-pounders have been taken and several fish much larger have been seen. Luck, and being in the right spot at the right time, are what anglers need.

It is very difficult to crack that hallowed 40-pound mark, and although a few do it each year, it is not a common situation. Granted, on occasion a novice will catch a truly big fish by accident or good fortune, but for dedicated muskie hunters, nailing a 40-pounder is why we chase these grand game fish.

And, if we crack that mark, we’ll go for a 45-pounder. It’s an incurable addiction.

Posted by ofieldstream on 06/16 at 12:01 AM
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