Sometimes, only a muskie will do
When the earliest signs of spring appear, I develop a strong case of fishing fever. Big trout and bass should be enough to pacify the most dedicated angler but as the weather improves I occasionally get an urge to fish for a giant. Fishing for any large fish is rarely a numbers game so difficult fishing is an accepted part of the challenge. To increase odds for success this early in the season the target species should be active in cold water, tolerant of changing conditions and accessible in reasonably shallow water. There is a fish in some of the reservoirs and rivers in this region that grows to impressive size and meets this list of conditions, the muskie. Muskies are at the top of the freshwater trophy list in North America and rank as the most difficult fish to catch. “The fish of ten-thousand casts” as they’re commonly called, is a befitting name to all but experienced muskie hunters.
We’ve all heard that before. What many don’t know is muskies are capable of altering your psyche. Of course, any increase in adrenaline flow can leave you trembling and breathless. But muskies have a way of taking you over the top in ways you wouldn’t expect. As an example, they have a predictable habit of following lures to your rod tip. Sound exciting? Imagine a fish that looks like a railroad tie scant inches behind your lure, darting side to side as it moves closer. Adrenaline? Don’t forget your heart pills. A single incident like that can turn a quiet man into a mumbling mess for hours. Others become stoic and stare. Some quit their job so they can muskie fish full time.
Muskies are top-of-the-line predators so fish density in the best bodies of water is low compared to other species. Add the fish’s preference for large prey, meaning large lures, and muskie fishing becomes a sport of patience, covering water and physical effort. Nonetheless, when the urge to tackle a big fish strikes, muskies offer plenty of challenge and the rewards often produce lasting memories. But because they’re muskies, the content of those memories may vary considerably. My first big muskie exploded off the bottom beneath the boat and shot through the surface like a missile. Only feet in front of me, the fish reached peak elevation, paused, and stared me in the eye; a look of pure evil. I stared right back but must admit my knees began to tremble. It was a classic battle filled with jumps and line-stripping runs. In stark contrast, my first fifty-inch muskie shot through the water’s surface with my topwater lure like a bottle-nosed dolphin, sounded, and began ripping line from my reel as she rushed up river. When she went as far as she could, she turned and swam toward the boat like a poodle on a leash. As she passed by close to the boat, my companion lowered a net in the water and she swam right in. Victory cries cleared wildlife from the area. So each muskie is a unique fish with its own idea how best to handle meeting you.
I recently took a trip to Melton Hill Reservoir near Oak Ridge Tennessee to fish for muskies. This 5470 acre lake is a river-run reservoir on the Clinch River north of Knoxville. TWRA has done a great job of building a trophy muskie fishery there with a current minimum length limit for kept fish set at fifty inches. A fifty-inch muskie is considered a trophy anywhere and Melton Hill has already produced many this size and larger. On this trip to Melton Hill my friend Rodger Davis and I were able to squeeze in a couple days of fishing, though weather and water conditions were less than ideal because of scattered heavy rain and muddy water in some areas. We found water temperature varied from forty-six degrees in the primary channel to above forty-eight degrees in some sheltered coves. Temperatures in this range are ideal for pre-spawn muskies because they spawn in temps a few degrees higher, depending on moon phase and other conditions. So muskies are active and can be caught is this range of temperatures if presentations are slowed to match the fish’s lower metabolism.
The first morning, I arrived at the ramp before Rodger so I had time to test retrieve some new lures I’d put together. They were proto-types made by replacing the bucktail body on an inline spinner with a large grub or swimbait rigged weedless. Melton Hill is full of shallow areas with brush, rock and other cover so I made them for work in the thickest places. I was admiring the flash and color of a chartreuse and black model when a thirty-six inch muskie suddenly appeared behind the lure, nipping at the tail. I was so stunned by the sudden appearance of the fish, I forgot to figure-eight as the lure approached. Forgot? How could I do that? I hadn’t started trembling yet. That’s muskie fishing. The muskies response to the spinner was encouraging but somehow I felt I’d been cursed by the fish. It was true; that was the only follow I had the remainder of the trip. When Rodger arrived, we loaded up and began fishing. Soon after it started raining and we spent the rest of the day dodging heavy downpours with no further success.
The following morning in very dense fog, Rodger spotted a small muskie following his crankbait. The curious thirty-inch fish devoured a slower moving jerkbait on a follow-up cast and was quickly released. Counts as one in the muskie world. With the curse obviously lifted, or at least postponed, we began casting and covering water feverishly. A few hours later the skies cleared and sunlight bathed the shallows. Rodger continued to cast his favorite jerkbait while I followed with a large inline spinner. Out of nowhere I heard water splash and Rodger grunt as he set hooks on a nice forty-inch class muskie. As the fish thrashed on the surface, I could see golden highlights, distinct brown vertical bars and an impressive girth. He fought the fish to the side of the boat but as I scrambled to get my camera, the fish came loose and disappeared. He later admitted “horsing” the fish a little too much beside the boat. When I asked why he did that, he couldn’t explain it. That’s muskie fishing. We weren’t disappointed by the premature release because carefully releasing the fish was our goal. When fishing for muskies, the challenge is finding fish and coaxing them to strike. But I wish the fish had stayed hooked a few moments longer so I could get some quick pictures. Perhaps the curse had been revived?
By early afternoon the winds increased to unmanageable levels and we were forced off the lake. To many, this would seem a disappointing report for two days of fishing. However, when fishing for muskies, every follow, missed strike or caught fish counts as one. I’ve spent days on top muskie waters without seeing a single fish. To visit a new lake in late February under adverse conditions and raise three fish, including one good-quality fish, is a story of success with inviting promise for the future. I’ll visit Melton Hill again soon, after the muskies spawn and weather improves, for another chance at these incredible fish.
For those who decide to visit Melton Hill and try fishing for these mysterious giants, I’ll offer some advice. Shed your previous ideas about what makes a fishing trip special. Forget how many fish you’ll catch because when muskie fishing, you’re fishing for one fish; each additional encounter is considered a bonus. Bring a large dose of patience, the heaviest tackle you own, a net large enough to hold a small child and your heart pills. And above all, be prepared to release the largest fish of your life. Muskies, with all their size and power, are extremely delicate. They burn all their energy during the fight and many are difficult to release in good condition without special care. Unhook and hold the fish in the net while you search for your camera and try to stop trembling. Carefully lift the fish for a quick picture while supporting it’s lower body, then immediately put the muskie back in the water. Hold the fish upright, roll and move it gently, not back and forth, until it shows signs of recovering and tries to swim. When it does, let the fish swim from your grasp. Watching a big muskie slowly swim away is one of the most rewarding moments in fishing. If you’d like to mount a muskie, measure the fish’s length and girth while it recovers and have a graphite replica made. It takes a long time in ideal habitat to grow a big muskie so no other fish in freshwater deserves more to be released.