You can often recognize a muskie fisherman from a long way off. You can tell by the size of lures being cast, visible because some can be almost as long as your forearm. By lure size, and by the slower, more deliberate casting rhythm necessary to heave lures large and heavy enough to cause tendinitis, or worse.
The lake on whose shores our family cabin sits is muskie water; not by the designs of nature, but by the management hand of the state Department of Natural Resources, which has introduced this top-of-the-food-chain predator by stocking them here. The recent extended holiday found some of the muskie angling faithful pitching those big lures in temperatures that soared into the high, humid 80s. They were doing their best to dodge an abundance of boats towing skiers, tubers and wakeboarders, and the usual complement of slow trolling walleye anglers.
Not everyone has been an advocate of muskie stocking here, since this lake is also popular among walleye fisherman. Not all are onboard with the logic that the muskie’s favorite meals are prey fish other than the lake’s walleyes. But there are numerous lakes where walleyes and muskies co-exist. Not to mention the fact that a large northern pike – a fish native to most Minnesota lakes, including ours – is a predator capable of feeding on the same size prey as most muskies.
I’m not a muskie hunter, having fished for them “on purpose” just once, with an angler who was a summer fishing guide. They call the muskie a fish-of-a-thousand-casts, due to the difficulty of catching them compared to — for example — largemouth bass or northern pike. One reason is a simple numbers game. There are always fewer fish at the top of the food chain. Muskies also have a reputation — deserved or otherwise — as moody, finicky fish. My one experience did nothing to alter the conventional wisdom.
The alternate reality, probably closer to the truth, is that anglers who learn the muskie’s habits and pursue them intelligently are likely to be far more successful than the “thousand-cast” reputation suggests. Although I don’t fish for muskies — despite their presence 75 feet from the cabin door — I’m sympathetic to the mystique and the mania because I do fish for migratory Great Lakes rainbow trout — steelhead — the catching of which is equally unpredictable. Each of us has our angling Holy Grail, the pursuit of which often defies logic.
This year’s hot, humid July 4 holiday weather brought to mind the most famous of Minnesota muskie legends, one that spawned more fishing-related newspaper ink and sold more fishing resort postcards than any before or since. That event also occurred in July, on Leech Lake, which lies in Cass County within the boundaries of the Chippewa National Forest.
Leech Lake is so large that its size is often described in square miles, not acres — 160, and then some; its acreage is actually 111,527. The watershed of the Leech Lake River, which flows out of Leech Lake and eventually to the Mississippi River, contains roughly one-half of Minnesota’s naturally producing muskie lakes. This watershed alone is said to hold 25% of the native muskie habitat in the entire U.S.
I’ve saved an old postcard from long ago, when my family stayed at a resort near the town of Federal Dam. Its namesake is the government-built structure that regulates water levels in Leech Lake itself, and thus also the waters downstream. One of my mother’s school chums had married into a family that owned a small resort and fishing guide service there. Arrayed along that postcard’s long dimension is a line of 15 men — a few young, but most middle-aged or older — standing behind a row of muskies hung from a pipe supported by wooden two-by-four cross braces. Many of the fish extended from the men’s shoulders to their shins.
The photo was taken in 1955, during a two-week mid-July period that has come to be known as the “muskie rampage.” During that time Leech Lake became the fishing equivalent of a Klondike gold rush, with anglers descending en masse when word got out about the number and size of muskies being caught. In the Federal Dam area alone, more than 160 muskies from 18 to 42 pounds — pounds, not inches — were recorded.
Muskie fishing success of that magnitude has not been repeated since. There are theories as to the “why” of it, but proof is naturally hard to come by. Weather during that period was hot, humid and still; dead-calm, some reported. Others noted that there had been a recent die-off of tulibee, a primary prey of muskies, and suggest that hunger triggered the feeding frenzy. Some have speculated that in prior years there had been unusual spawning success that contributed to the muskie’s abundance, and competition for forage was a factor.
But if the cause was uncommon muskie abundance, why the fishing success only during this brief July period? As with all uncontrolled experiments, “We’ll never know” is probably the only real answer.
During my high school years, several friends and I stayed at the same resort on a summer fishing getaway. One of the men pictured in the postcard was still guiding fishermen, and we were privileged to fish from his launch on the storied lake. We were after walleyes, not muskies, and as the first day unfolded we experienced a mystery of our own.
Though much of launch fishing is done with live bait rigs, on this particular day the only real success any of us had was trolling a green-toned diving bait I had purchased in a hardware store at a cut-rate clearance price. It so conspicuously out-produced anything else that we took turns using it.
Back at the landing at afternoon’s end, ours was among the most successful charters. That evening we drove to Longville and looked for more green plugs to arm ourselves for a Sunday slaughter, figuratively speaking. You’ve no doubt heard this story before: the next day not a fish would touch one of our trolled green plugs!
Though pursuing muskies is not one of my outdoor passions, there is something about the leviathan lures, the industrial-strength tackle and the crusade-like motivation of the muskie quest that appeals to those who do not yet count themselves among the faithful.
Not yet, anyway.