PAIN, SUF­FER­ING & MUSKIES

Outdoor Life - - FISHING - BY DAVID KARCZYNSKI

Bring­ing life to a huge fly, watch­ing the preda­tory strike of an enor­mous fish, and bat­tling it to the boat. Some call it fish­ing. I call it com­bat.

When peo­ple ask me what flyfishing for muskies is all about, I tell them it’s like sad­dling up a griz­zly for a hot minute, or wrestling an al­li­ga­tor in a tele­phone booth—ex­cept you get to live. Once fall rolls around, there’s noth­ing I’d rather be do­ing than drag­ging gi­ant flies past the faces of mon­ster fish. But flyfishing for muskies isn’t only about fun. There are times when flies will sim­ply out­per­form con­ven­tional lures. Just ask my brother, Jeff.

It was late Oc­to­ber, but the north­ern Wis­con­sin weather felt more like mid-win­ter. Frozen wa­ter bot­tles rolled around the bot­tom of the boat, and we had to windmill our arms ev­ery dozen casts to keep blood flow­ing to our dig­its.

Jeff was catch­ing a few pike but zero muskies on his buck­tail, while I was mov­ing a few muskies on my flies and gen­er­ally get­ting one of them to eat. It was clear that fish were key­ing onto large, slow, neu­trally buoy­ant of­fer­ings—pre­cisely the def­i­ni­tion of a muskie fly. Af­ter watch­ing me boat two mid-40pound fish, my brother fi­nally asked if he could try a fly. I rum­maged through my se­lec­tion un­til I found a black-and-pur­ple be­he­moth I call Large Marge, the big­gest muskie fly I’ve ever tied. To make it castable with his bait­caster, we crimped eight large split shot about a foot above the eye­let. Twenty min­utes later, he fired it into the mouth of a feeder creek, where a Subaru-sized piece of wa­ter heaved just un­der his fly. He didn’t catch that fish—just a case of shaky knees—but it made me won­der what would have hap­pened if he’d been throw­ing flies the whole time.

BARE NE­CES­SI­TIES

To get in on this muskie game, you’re go­ing to need a ded­i­cated big-fish rod in the 11- to 12-weight class. Stay away from ul­tra-fast rod ac­tions. Slightly slower rods— medium to medium-fast—of­fer a bit of for­give­ness while you get your tim­ing down. A rod I highly rec­om­mend for be­gin­ners is the Red­ing­ton Preda­tor. It was de­signed with a slightly softer butt sec­tion to make cast­ing over the course of a long day eas­ier—and when you’re muskie fish­ing, you want all the help you can get. What­ever rod you end up go­ing with, make sure you prac­tice with it in the weeks lead­ing up to a muskie trip. You can al­ways tell which guy hasn’t been get­ting his reps in: He’s the one sit­ting down in the boat, to­tally wiped out, with half a day of fish­ing still to go.

Reels are the least im­por­tant part of the muskie setup—you need one ca­pa­ble of stor­ing your line and bal­anc­ing your rod, but that’s about it. Don’t ever de­lib­er­ately fight a muskie on the reel un­less he forces you to. I once watched in hor­ror as a guy cleanly but­toned his first muskie ever, then, in­stead of im­me­di­ately put­ting the screws to the fish, spent 10 sec­onds reel­ing in his slack line. He was a steel­head an­gler who’d been trained to do that, not know­ing that in muskie fish­ing, con­stant, bru­tal ten­sion is the only sure way to keep a fish hooked. Sure enough, his fish threw the hook in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion boat­side, break­ing all our hearts. Muskies are tug-of-war ad­ver­saries—fight them with all the strength you’ve got in both your arms, and reels be damned.

For line, don’t even think about a floater. Sink­ing lines are nec­es­sary be­cause muskie flies are to­tally un­weighted—if you were to build enough weight into a 12-inch fly to sink it, you wouldn’t be able to cast it. I rec­om­mend RIO’S In­touch Out­bound Short WF/10 with ei­ther a slow (I/S3) or fast (I/S6) sink rate, de­pend­ing on how deep you want to fish. It’s an easy-cast­ing line with no stretch, which will come in handy on hook­sets, and at 425 grains, it pairs per­fectly with the 11-weight Preda­tor. At­tach 2 feet of straight 60-pound mono and 1 foot of wire leader to the end of your line, and you’re ready to choose a fly.

BUCK THE TREND

While bass and pike flies come in a va­ri­ety of ma­te­ri­als, when it comes to muskie flies, the range of fea­si­ble ma­te­ri­als is nar­rower. Tie a muskie fly with rab­bit strips and you’d have some­thing im­pos­si­ble to launch and painful to re­trieve. For that rea­son, use buck­tail. It doesn’t ab­sorb much wa­ter, and the stiff fibers make for a great pro­file in the wa­ter. Fish these flies with long, slow strips and plenty of pauses—these aren’t trout stream­ers that you need to rip back to the boat.

Sourc­ing qual­ity muskie flies can def­i­nitely be a chal­lenge. While big­box stores and mass fly dis­trib­u­tors do a lot of things well, pro­duc­ing qual­ity muskie flies is not one of them. Your best bet is to con­tact a muskie-coun­try fly shop and ask about their of­fer­ings, or search out a cus­tom tyer online.

SPECIAL MOVES

Prob­a­bly the hard­est skill for a new muskie fly an­gler to learn is the hook­set. A 9-foot fly rod is just too flimsy to drive a big hook home into a bony mouth, so you have to de­ploy what’s called a strip-set. While keep­ing the rod pointed at the fish, use your line hand to make one or two very hard, very fast pulls—like you’re try­ing to start a lawn­mower. One se­cret to a good strip-set? Don’t rush it. You’re more likely to fum­ble your line.

Need more depth than your fly and fly line is giv­ing you? Put that 9-foot rod to work by jam­ming the tip a few feet be­low the sur­face. Got a cu­ri­ous fish that isn’t com­mit­ting to a slow pre­sen­ta­tion? Try a high-speed re­trieve by tuck­ing the butt of the rod un­der your armpit and strip­ping as fast as you can with both hands. And don’t for­get to fig­ure eight—you never know when a shovel-headed beast is track­ing your fly just out of view. It’s this will­ing­ness to eat boat­side that makes the muskie such a great fish.

Make no mis­take: Catch­ing a muskie on a fly rod isn’t the eas­i­est thing to do. But the thrill of be­ing teth­ered to one is well worth the pain—and then some.

A north­ern Wis­con­sin muskie taken on a black-and-red streamer. FLYFISHING

A fly-caught muskie makes its fi­nal boat­side surge.

From top: A Dou­ble De­mon, a Big Foosa, and a Chunka­munk.

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