The Great Muskie Challenge
The strike of a muskie is jarring, sudden and powerful, a tremendous and exciting event. And, I've been told, when you boat one of these big, brash, brawny, beautiful fish, you've captured a memory that will stay with you forever.
Pure hunters, muskies balance confidently at the top of the food pyramid in the waters they frequent. They're the maned lions of the savanna, the polar bears of the ice cap, the jaguars of the jungle.
When you're at the top, everything that moves around you is potential food, and for muskies that includes muskrats and ducks. Muskies have even gulped small swimming dogs.
And muskies grow to huge sizes. Goodness, if your interests ran that way, you could easily stuff a melon into a muskie's toothy maw. A 50 pounder? It's been done, lots of times. Muskies over 80 pounds have been captured in nets. Who knows what the upper limit might be?
Heck, a muskie has to be 30 inches long just to be considered a keeper. In one of the state lakes, the minimum size limit is 42 inches, which translates to nearly 20 pounds.
Imagine having a beastie like that on the end of your line!
That's what I've been doing throughout my fishing life, imagining. You see, although I've always been extremely attracted by the prospect, I've never actually caught a muskie.
Not many people have. Muskies aren't everywhere and where they are, they aren't easy to catch. Among those who dissipate their lives fishing for them, muskies are affectionately known as the fish of a thousand casts.
Let's see, 1,000 divided by 25 casts per hour, which allows adequate time for fetching retrieves, equals 40.
Amazingly, that's getting close to the number of fishing hours a Conservation Department fisheries biologist told me it takes an average angler to catch a muskie. They calculated this figure using creel surveys - as if a muskie could ever fit into a creel!
I no sooner heard that figure than I wondered if I could beat the odds. Certainly, I'm as average an angler as anybody; in fact, I may excel at average. Could I catch a muskie in less than 40 hours?
Here was a challenge I couldn't resist. Mostly because it was fun. I wasn't challenging myself to lose weight, clean the garage or mow the lawn before the buffaloes returned, I was going to go fishing.
I had nothing to lose. Surely my ego would survive a day without catching a muskie, since other anglers have reputedly gone years without hooking one. Meanwhile, I would be spending time on the water in search of a dream fish.
It took less than an hour of office daydreaming to fashion The Great Muskie Challenge, a grand and noble crusade, in which I would test my mettle, as well as my plastic lures.
I chose Pomme de Terre Lake as my destination.
Other possibilities included Hazel Creek Lake, Pony Express Lake and Thomas Hill, which also contain muskies stocked b y the Conservation Department, and Lake of the Ozarks, where a few muskies may persist, left over from stockings that occurred years ago.
I wanted the absolute best, though, and anybody who's even casually glanced through fishing magazines - local or national - knows that Pomme de Terre has been providing topnotch muskie fishing since the Conservation Department starting stocking the fish there in 1966.
Muskie fishing is so popular at Pomme de Terre that the lake has its own muskie club, hosts muskie tournaments and has a fleet of guides eager to take clients out on the lake to catch trophies.
I thought about hiring a guide, but that would seem to be reshaping The Great Muskie Challenge to whether a guide, who has spent his life on the water and has encountered thousands of muskies, could lead me to a fish. I preferred flying solo.
I wasn't going unarmed, of course. I have a 14-foot aluminum fishing boat with a depth finder and troll motor, possess at least a dozen favorite fishing poles and have graduated to a third tackle box, although I only owned one bona fide muskie lure, a big, bulky, black bucktail spinner, that has actually spent time as a desk paperweight.
In the office, I was pretty confident that I could catch a legal muskie, especially after I read a couple of dozen magazine articles, with titles such as "Life Styles of the Big and Fero- cious."
Muskies, most of the articles suggested, are essentially food processing machines. They are eating or digesting. No authority dared speculate they did anything else - socialize, play sports, hold down jobs, etc.
In short, if you are interested in muskie, you need only look near the food when the muskie is feeding. It's that simple.
No sweat, I assured my co-workers, and I'll be sure to take pictures.
To learn as much as I could about the water I'd be fishing I bought a map of the lake and studied it hard. As my magnifier followed the contours of the lake bottom, I discovered Muskie Cove.
Too obvious, I decided, and moved on.
What I was looking for was rocky points. At least three articles out of four mentioned them as prime muskie spots. My map didn't tell me what was rocky, but whenever I came across a place where it looked like a pimple was trying to bust through the contour lines, I circled it with a red felt tip pen.
I planned to fish a day and a half, about 12 hours overall, allowing myself some time to stretch, eat and take refuge from the worst of the mid-May sun.
In person, Pomme de Terre turned out to be a grand amount of impounded water artfully contained by rolling, lushly wooded hills. At the risk of appearing less than rugged, I will describe the lake as, well, lovely.
My first stop was a local bait shop, where I informed the lady tending of my determination to catch a legal muskie. She suggested bass and, after I shook my head, crappie.
"Nobody's fishing muskie with the lake so high," she said, although she'd heard that a muskie followed a plastic worm a guy was using for bass fishing.
"It was a purple worm," she advised.
In the corner of the shop, I gazed upon a selection of the lures I had read about in magazines and picked out a jointed plug no less than 11 inches long and almost as wide around as a beer can. It came with a long list of professional references. I also selected an equally prodigious spinnerbait and another plug, which I'd never heard of, but which somehow seemed charismatic.
Only when I reached the former launch ramp did I understand what the lady meant by the lake being high. A fellow caretaking a nearby park said the pool was 23 1/2 feet above normal, a result of a wetter than average spring in the watershed.
Undeterred, I launched from the flooded and empty parking lot and motored toward every angler's favorite secret spot: the side of the lake opposite the launch ramp.
My depth finder soon convinced me that I would have to revamp my plans. All the points I marked on the map were now 35-45 feet down, instead of the 10-20 foot depths I'd hoped to fis h. Almost every bit of water shallower than 25 feet was literally forested, and, wet or dry, forests are difficult to run lures through.
"No reason to despair yet," I told myself, and started trolling over 25 to 35 foot depths near the edges of the woods.
I ran three lures, one directly behind the boat, and two on planer boards.
Planer boards are a great invention. The boards, which are usually made of some stiff bright-colored plastic material, attach to your lines and, when towed, wedge themselves well to the side of the boat's path, taking the trailing lures with them. Hypothetically and hopefully, you can use them to present lures to fish that haven't been alerted by the boat or those that, having been alerted, have moved away from the boat's path.
It's a bit of a problem, letting out lures, attaching the planers to the line and feeding the planer boards to the side but, once set, the boards follow like geese in formation. When I see them ranked behind me, mimicking my every move, I always feel like the head goose. It's very comforting.
As you might expect, my anticipation was high. I was on prime muskie water, the lures were running well. I expected at every moment something significant to happen and completely change the atmosphere in the fishing boat.
Nothing did. The stats: 2.5 hours of trolling from 6:30 to 9 p.m. produced three hits and two fish, both white bass of non- spectacular proportions. All action depended on a bumblebee- colored crankbait towed by the interior line.
TIP: If fishing a lake you're not familiar with, don't wait until dark to begin your search for the launch ramp.
At dawn, the water was so smooth you couldn't spit without sending waves to every shoreline.
Rather than start the outboard, I trolled with the quiet electric motor, following the old river channel that wound near shore, while casting a third lure toward indentations in the woods.
Big fish were crashing on the surface everywhere. Most of them unseen in the flooded forest, but there were also a few top water splashes above the 85 foot deep channel. The depth finder showed oodles of baitfish below.
I stared at the waterline and finally caught sight of a thick bronze back knifing through the lake's surface. I'm a bit superstitious and figured it was a sign, and not a good sign, since the fish was clearly a carp.
At 6:18 a.m. I heard a terrific whoosh, as my shoreline planer board was pulled across the water toward the boat's wake.
When I reeled in my line I felt no resistance, no fish. The whoosh was all I got.
Amazingly, I trolled for about six more hours and all that came to the boat were a few small bass - largemouth and white.
I also hung a crappie. Imagine a car-chasing dog getting its collar caught in the bumper of a motor home and you have a good idea of how the 8-inch crappie looked at the end of the 11-inch wonder lure.
Trolling gives you time to think and I pondered for a long while what traumatic events had occurred in that crappie's youth to make him overcompensate so.
I also thought about bowling, which I hadn't thought about in a long time, making me wonder if, perhaps, I hadn't already trolled too long.
"Still no reason to despair," I reminded myself.
That evening began the casting segment of The Great Muskie Challenge, which was prompted in large part by my outboard motor quitting in mid putt and resisting all my efforts to resuscitate it.
Fortunately, it was calm and the small amount of juice left in my batteries allowed me to maneuver the boat into a small cove near the launch ramp, which I began saturating with lures.
The episode taught me that man, uncustomized, or as he comes out of the box, so to speak, is not built to cast muskie lures for several hours at a time. The joints send a few warning pains, then just give out, starting with the wrist, working up to the elbow and shoulder and back. Toward the end of the evening, I was trying to relieve some of the pain by changing the shape of my casts from the traditional one- handed wrist snap to a sweeping two-handed over the head toss, a blend of a Thor's hammer throw and Chris Everett's backhand stroke.
There's a bit of tomfoolery connected to muskie fishing that I should mention: The figure 8. Most muskie anglers perform this maneuver, which involves putting their rod tips in the water and pulling their lures around in a figure 8 pattern at the end of every cast, to entice a fish into hitting.
They do this because muskies frequently cruise after lures without striking, to the point that muskie fishermen count "follows," when they are telling their fishing stories. That's a pretty good ploy, I think, when you're trying to fascinate an audience with an essentially fishless tale.
I must admit that, although I was the only boat in the cove and probably visible only to songbirds and owls, I still felt foolish performing the figure 8.
But I still recommend the maneuver, because the biggest thrill of the night came when I was swirling my lure next to the boat in a figure 8 - or 5 or 6 or something - pattern. No, I didn't have a hookup, but a huge fish swirled near my lure. It didn't exactly erupt from the water or drench me, but it did swirl. I think it was a muskie.
I was excited. It was a great swirl, I decided. A legal swirl, I concluded. Things were looking up. There was certainly no reason to despair yet.
There was time to squeeze in one last go in the morning, after my battery was charged. The outboard was officially kaput.
I chose to fish along the dam, staying far away from the hole where the flooded lake was draining out with a rushing sound.
Although I again spotted baitfish, cast to every rock and cranny site along about 2 miles of shoreline and trolled until my battery acid turned to distilled water, I never raised a fish.
It was time to go home. Fortunately, and no fooling, I had borrowed from the library some audio cassette tapes of books to listen to in the car while driving to and from the lake. They included a self help tape on transactional analysis.
On the way home, I was a little discouraged until I put that tape in the player. It helped me look at my situation rationally. I had tried under difficult conditions and against unfavorable odds to catch a trophy . That I didn't catch one didn't mean I never would or could. When I return next year for another segment of The Great Muskie Challenge, I might - heck, I almost certainly will! - catch a dozen muskie.
I felt at peace with myself, with Pomme de Terre and with the elusive muskie. Essentially, I came away with the message of I'm OK, the fish are OK.
And although I still hadn't felt the strike of a muskie, I could say with certainty that the swirl of a muskie is a tremendous and exciting thing - especially when that's all you've got