Green, Mean Fighting Machine
Fishing for musky in northern Wisconsin
MY HUSBAND, RONNIE, grew up in Boulder Junction, a tiny fishing village/resort town in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. (Merge the movie Fargo with the TV show, Northern Exposure and you’ve got the picture.)
Years ago, Boulder Junction was a mostly male bastion of fishing days and drinking nights. After a day on the lake, crusty fishermen in flannel shirts gathered to tell fish stories to leather-skinned lumberjacks at the Guide’s Inn or the Boulder Beer Bar. Lucky anglers might run across the late, great barefoot guide, Porter Dean, at one of the bars and find out where the fish were biting. (Check out the statue of Dean in front of the Fisherman’s Wife or the classic photo displayed at Wittig’s Point Resort, where he is pictured napping on the bar.)
The atmosphere is somewhat tamer these days — the taverns having turned family friendly— but fishing is still king. Several kinds of fish populate the 200 plus lakes in and around Boulder Junction. Anglers catch trout, perch, northern pike and walleye. But the adventurers, the competitive, bragging rights kind of anglers, come to town with muskies in mind.
As a huge, block-long painting on a gas tank in town proclaims, Boulder Junction is the Musky Capital of the World. Years ago the town battled for the title with nearby Hayward, Wisc., which eventually backed off and settled for “Home of the World- Record Muskies.”
No freshwater fish has more allure than the sometimes ferocious musky, which according to many rural legends, has been known to utilize its big, sharp, backwardsfacing teeth to eat any fish smaller than itself as well as squirrels, loons and even small dogs.
Ironically, these olive green monsters — on average three-feet long, 15 pounds with nasty attacker reputations — are unpredictable, making them among the most difficult freshwater fish to catch. It takes patience to pursue muskies, also known as “the fish of 10,000 casts.” Anglers spend years or even a lifetime in pursuit of one trophy musky.
During a late summer visit to Boulder Junction, Ronnie recruited his dad, nicknamed "Musky Milt,” and fishing guide John Beda, for our own musky hunt. We were a little early for prime musky season (late October) but Beda reminded us that muskies can be caught from May to November. He also warned us, as any good guide would, that he “can’t make ’em bite” (number four on “The Guide’s List of Excuses,” directly following, “You should have been here yesterday.”) On a gray and cloudy morning, we met at Wildcat Lake and climbed into Beda’s tan Alumacraft. He motored out about 200 yards before stopping and anchoring near a small island. While he began arranging rods and picking through a box of yellow, red and green-painted baits, each as big as his hand, Beda explained the two basic approaches to musky fishing:
1. Soaking a sucker: A five-to-six inch long live baitfish (sucker) is placed on the hook and dragged or trolled through the water in order to attract a hungry fish. Musky Milt employs this method religiously. In fact, he was employing it several hundred miles from home the day Ronnie was born, but that’s another story.
2. Casting: The angler flips a switch on the reel, rears the rod back and throws out the line with a fake bait attached. When the bait breaks the water, the angler flips the switch back into place and reels in the line quickly.
Repeat 9,999 times until fish is hooked.
Casting appealed to me the most. I liked the fact that frantic splashes and clumsy movements are not only allowed but encouraged. For most of my casts, I chose to use jerkbaits (pieces of painted wood that mimic the movement of wounded baitfish) mostly because I liked saying, “jerkbait.”
Since muskies are so elusive, anglers consider it a good day if they have a few follows” — incidents where a fish trails their bait. Since it’s difficult to see if a fish is following your bait until you’ve almost pulled it up to the surface, it’s smart to always anticipate that a musky is nearby.
“Make a couple of figure eight movements with your rod tip before you pull in your bait,” said Beda.
“The last thing you want to do is whip your rod out of the water if a musky is about to hit.”
So, for the next three hours, Milt soaked a sucker while I made cast after cast followed by a series of figure eights. I was practically dozing from the repetitive motion when all at once, I saw it. The shadow of a big, dark green musky, only inches from my bait.
“Ah!!” I panicked and ripped the rod from the water, big splash, bait and all. Everyone on the boat became silent as the
big shadow slipped out of sight.
“Everybody does that the first time,” said Beda.
Then, we all turned as Ronnie yelped, “Oooooh! Got him!”
“My musky?” I could only hope.
“Nope,” said Ronnie, pulling his fish from the water. “A big,
At least I’d have a good shore lunch to take the sting out of
all those fruitless casts.