muskie story

General musky fishing discussions and questions.

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muskie story

Post by Duke » Sat Mar 28, 2020 1:09 pm

So I wrote an article for the Michigan Out of Doors magazine with the intent of reaching an audience mostly unfamiliar with muskies. I wasn't satisfied with the changed version that the magazine editor published, so I'm putting my version up here. I hope it didn't suck.

As sportsmen and women in this great country we are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue a multitude of game species, in all kinds of habitats, using many different methods. We can thank our preceding generations of conservationists for this wonderful fortune, and ourselves for continuing to carry this legacy on. Having all these options allows us to dabble, sampling new and different things from the smorgasbord of sporting pursuits, or maybe to home in and specialize in a niche that really fits our personal preferences. And when it comes to angling opportunities, few have it better than we do here in Michigan. Of all the diverse and renowned fisheries we have, one species that tends to get overlooked- and sometimes even maligned- is the muskellunge. Capable of reaching sizes typically only surpassed by the lake sturgeon, it seems like muskies would be difficult to overlook. Add to that the facts that Lake St. Clair boasts probably the most productive muskie fishery in the world and that Michigan is also home to what is called the “modern day world record” muskie, and you might think the statement is downright absurd. But outside of Lake St. Clair, which is in a category all its own that seems more like a different world, muskies get less love in Michigan than they do in the other places they also call home.

I’ve traveled much of the muskie’s range and have had the opportunity to speak with many anglers, and it seems that many Michiganders tend to have a more negative attitude towards muskies (again, outside of Lake St. Clair) compared with anglers in other states and Canada. What I’ve noticed here is that muskies are more often thought to over-eat on other desirable fish species, and that a higher proportion of muskies are harvested than you tend to find elsewhere. I’ll share some brief thoughts about these things, then switch gears to a true fish tale that left an indelible mark on my life.

The muskie’s reputation for having a voracious appetite that wipes out other fish, and the occasional toy poodle, seems to come not just from their size but may also be based on some of their more interesting eating habits. First, about their size, despite all the stories you might hear the longest muskie ever officially recorded in Michigan is 58 inches, and only a couple inches longer than that anywhere else. Fish records are historically kept by weight, and the 58 inch Michigan fish weighed a symmetrical 58 pounds and is known as the modern day world record muskie. The “modern day” distinction comes from the highly questionable legitimacy of several larger muskies caught in in the 1940s through the 1960s. It’s a well-known biological fact that the period in a fish’s life that it grows the most is after it’s dead, and during that particular time period dead muskies seem to have been experiencing particularly phenomenal growth! But back to reality, a 58 inch muskie is probably more rare than a 7 foot tall human, and is not even physically possible in all but a few places with ideal growing conditions. Muskies in many rivers and lakes might top out in the mid- or upper 40-inch range, and only a small fraction of the population will be in the maximum size range at one time in any body of water. This means there just aren’t many of those huge muskies out there to do all of this gorging on other fish that they are accused of, but do muskies of any size actually pig out more than other fish? In proportion to body size, it’s true that muskies prefer larger meals than most fish and seeing a muskie take down a fish that’s half its own length certainly gives the impression of gluttony, but it’s also true that muskies are less prone to snacking on small fish to make up their meals, so they eat less frequently instead. Other habits that can give a false impression of muskies eating everything in sight include a fearlessness of boats, often striking right under your feet or just behind a running outboard while trolling, and their kleptomanic habit of intercepting a hooked fish that is being reeled in. Not unlike a cat, muskies definitely have a hair trigger for darting or fleeing prey. Lures designed to produce chaotic movement- like a hooked and fighting fish makes- are very effective. But rather than a blindly ravenous approach to eating that it seems like at first blush, these traits actually reflect the selectivity of muskies going for a preferred meal instead.

Do any of these characteristics add up to muskies actually being a scourge on a fishery? The answer can be found by taking an honest look at any of the places with good muskie fishing, those with relatively high populations, and assessing the other fish species there too. The proof is in the pudding, not in feelings or uninformed opinions. With a little fact checking you’ll find muskies are not villains, and that other gamefish do very well cohabitating with them. Yes, muskies grow bigger than other fish and obviously have to take in more food to do it, but not to the extent that their curious habits and the resulting fanciful folklore would suggest. But don’t take my word for it, check the facts out for yourself and then go enjoy the good fishing for bass, walleyes, panfish or others that you’re likely to find right along with the muskies.

The biggest reason muskie fishing isn’t more popular is that it’s difficult, and the biggest reason it’s difficult is because there aren’t many of them. History has shown that the harvest rate of muskies by successful anglers has a dramatic impact on their populations because they are relatively low to begin with. With higher harvest rates, we only shoot ourselves in the foot and make that rare catch even rarer. Muskie regulations have been adjusted in reaction to our high harvest rates, and to the dwindling muskie populations that result. Current regulations now restrict anglers to keeping just one muskie per year on their fishing license, with a mandatory requirement to report a kept muskie to the DNR. The fish doesn’t have to be brought to a DNR check station, only a phone call to the DNR or an online registration is required. But even with these strict harvest restrictions, most of our lakes and rivers actually depend on voluntary catch-and-release of muskies in order to maintain their population. It’s easy to understand the desire to keep a big muskie, or to enjoy the sport of winter spearing (Michigan is the only place in the world that allows non-tribal spearing of muskies), but unfortunately many of our muskie fisheries suffer even with limited harvest. In many places their populations are small enough that the effect of losing even one fish can be significant, whether from the loss of the spawning stock or just the chance to catch that same fish again. Tagging studies have proven that muskies can be released and caught again and again, and with muskies living up to 20 years or more there’s a good chance the only way a lucky angler is able to enjoy the thrill of a big muskie is because another lucky angler carefully released it before them. So, with that big fish landed we literally hold our conservation legacy in our hands, and we can choose to carry it on, or choose to carry that big fish out instead.

Still, even at its best potential most anglers understandably aren’t going to take up muskie fishing. But deep down, most people are instinctively interested in big fish at least as a curiosity. But as for me and a relatively small number of diehard Michigan muskie anglers, their intrigue and excitement spark a passion that is unmatched by the pursuit of any other fish. Now, I thoroughly enjoy fishing for every fish species under the sun, but there’s something special about muskies. Their ways are mysterious, often maddening, and pursuing them is more like big game hunting than it is fishing. Part of their draw is certainly the extreme challenge- the long hours between encounters, the physical toll of casting large baits on heavy tackle, or the agony of a long-awaited encounter that ends with a fish so tantalizingly close, but that is ultimately unwilling to accept your generous offering. Muskies love to follow baits back to the boat and typically do this tease more often than they strike. Apparently I enjoy this form of punishment, because it comes with the territory yet I keep coming back. But oh, the strike… When they finally do strike. I live for the strike.

Many years ago, still wet behind the ears in my muskie life but showing symptoms of falling under their spell, was one of those moments that would end up changing me forever. The day before had been a grind, eleven hours of casting and hoping for a muskie with a couple small pike to show for it. A near carbon-copy of the day before that, too, and typical of the many days I had fished in this developing interest of mine. But I was waning, starting to think people were right and that pursuing muskies was foolishness and there were better things I could do with my free time. Not completely without success though, for I had landed a few small muskies and a few more had showed themselves trailing behind baits, but the big fish I dreamt of were just mythology.

It was an idyllic summer morning on a quiet river in the U.P., where every fishing day dawns with great hope and with great gratitude just for being there. But thoughts of another long drive back to home and to work, defeated in my quest, were already creeping in. At first light I motored upstream from camp for several miles, then started drifting with the slow current and pitching short casts toward the bank. This is a remote stretch of river, no cabins or any sign of human disturbance, and wide enough that two anglers can just reach each bank with long casts from a boat in the center. But on this morning I was alone, taking in the sweet solitude while methodically placing casts into the fallen cedars and spruce that cover the bank, with the hopes of luring a muskie out to play- or better yet to fight. Under the right lighting such as this morning, the tannic river appeared virtually black in the shade of the high banks, like a bottomless swath cut through the forest, verdant green in its early summer stage. It was perfect stillness, making the water appear even less like that which typically invites children and adults alike to splash in, and more like an ominous ink that makes you stiffen up and want to keep your safe distance.

Using a hand-carved homemade bait of my brother’s serendipitous creation called The Snake because it swam seductively like a water moccasin across the surface, the 9-inch jointed wakebait silently returned to the boat cast after cast. By the time The Snake was finally retired years later it had accounted for many fish, including my very first muskie. That momentous occasion two years before crossed my mind on this day, and every time I snapped The Snake to my line. But right now my thoughts were getting increasingly antsy, fixated, wondering if I would ever see a fish of the monstrous proportions I had read about and seen in pictures. I craved the experience of seeing, catching, holding a giant muskie beyond what words can describe. So many hours had been invested. I knew it was just a fish, I knew it wasn’t rational. Only those of us with a passion that borders on obsession can truly understand.

I was only an hour in on this day though, with no sign of life anywhere on the river. Still perfect silence physically presses in on your senses in times like these, if you let it, surrounding you and gradually increasing until it becomes a presence, a party to your hypnosis. The Snake was carving its way back to the boat yet again, its bright orange painted back standing out against the coffee-no-cream. Intently staring it down, scanning for the myth tracking the bait from behind. My umpteenth repetitive action hoping for a reaction different than just empty water. Now six feet from the boat as I was readying to transition this cast into seamless placement of the next, the river’s silence was finally broken.

Like a Polaris missile launched from a Navy submarine, the huge muskie erupted from beneath The Snake with absolutely no warning, no chance to see it coming. In a rush of sound and fury I instantly had a full-length view of the fish, the bait crossways in its jaws just below my eye level, its tail clear of the now-shattered surface. Seemingly frozen in mid-air for what felt like minutes- you know that cliché that really isn’t cliché- but actually without nearly enough time or the wherewithal to do anything but clench my body and bug my eyes out at the spectacle. The fish crashed back down tail first into a now-frothing whitewater swirl. Upon re-entry, its head never went back under as it thrashed, open mouthed, back and forth two times in half speed, until the bait floated harmlessly away from it. The beast gave a menacing pause in apparent smug satisfaction at its work and offering one last glimpse of it, then left me, disappearing into the blackness with one smooth slow turn.

Before my heart could even start beating again, the river had returned to perfect silence. It took several more seconds for the surface to settle back into an unblemished sheet of glass, but while it did I still hadn’t moved a muscle. In shock, gripping the rod and reel, a few feet of line trailing to The Snake, I just stared at it until it stopped bobbing, then lay still. My brain, slowly beginning to function again, unscrambled flashing thoughts so that I could separate the one rational one that mattered. And it flickered into focus: It’s gone. It’s not coming back. Now resigned to this realization, motor function ability gradually resumed in my body too. My first action was to mutter, out loud for all of the river and Hiawatha and nothing else to hear, “O-o-o... K-a-a-y...”
Last edited by Duke on Fri Apr 10, 2020 5:48 am, edited 4 times in total.

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Re: muskie story

Post by Revinchev » Sat Mar 28, 2020 1:38 pm

Awesome read duke! Thank you for sharing!

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Re: muskie story

Post by BMF » Sat Mar 28, 2020 4:47 pm

Gave me chills. Thanks Duke.
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Re: muskie story

Post by Scott Williams » Sat Mar 28, 2020 7:44 pm

Thanks for sharing Duke. One of the best articles/stories about these stupid fish that I have read!

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Re: muskie story

Post by FIP » Sat Mar 28, 2020 8:48 pm

Great read!
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Re: muskie story

Post by Cyberlunge » Sun Mar 29, 2020 6:03 pm

Makes me wanna go pound some river right now!! Stupid fish! Great writing I enjoyed it very much.
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Re: muskie story

Post by robhj » Sun Mar 29, 2020 10:45 pm

Great article Duke! Thanks for sharing in the forum. I usually check out the fishing mags when I go to Meijer, but I just haven’t been out as frequently as usual. I’ve been on the lake 4 times the last 2 weeks bass fishing, but I’m thinking this week will be the week I actually get out and target muskies.
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Re: muskie story

Post by MattG_braith » Mon Mar 30, 2020 9:20 am

Love it Duke. Those are the moments we live for, even when they don't end as we would have hoped for. Reading this makes me want to get back out there immediately...

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Re: muskie story

Post by vano397 » Mon Mar 30, 2020 9:37 am

Good read! Thanks Duke
“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things-trout as well as eternal salvation-come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

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Re: muskie story

Post by Chris Allen » Mon Mar 30, 2020 11:38 am

Thanks for sharing

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Re: muskie story

Post by Fishead » Tue Mar 31, 2020 7:44 am

That’s awesome! Thank you, Duke!

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Re: muskie story

Post by swanezy » Tue Mar 31, 2020 11:44 am

Sweet story duke, so would you say you would invest in a bait like the savage gear snakes? Lol..

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Re: muskie story

Post by Duke » Wed Apr 01, 2020 10:57 am

Sure did! That thing is so cool

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Re: muskie story

Post by swanezy » Wed Apr 01, 2020 11:28 am

It does look good, thought about buying both sizes

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Re: muskie story

Post by jawtag » Mon Apr 06, 2020 10:10 pm

This was a good read, are you going to write a second one?
A fish in the sewer is better than none in the pool, or something, I think -Duke

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