Outdoor Life - - 10,000 STRIPS -

Ab­so­lutely noth­ing had hap­pened for four hours on Novem­ber 9, 2015. Robert Hawkins will ad­mit that cast­ing and strip­ping heavy gear, look­ing at scenery that never changes, and hop­ing your fly gets in front of a muskie on gi­ant Lake Mille Lacs in Min­nesota is painfully mo­not­o­nous. It’s very easy to lose fo­cus. Luck­ily, even af­ter those un­event­ful four hours, his eyes were still glued to his fly.

“There were three of us on the boat, but I’m the only one who saw it,” Hawkins re­calls. “All of a sud­den, it just looked like the open end of a white 5-gal­lon bucket be­hind my fly.”

The fight lasted less than a minute, but the no­to­ri­ety that came with land­ing a 57-inch muskie es­ti­mated to weigh more than 50 pounds will stay with Hawkins for­ever. He says at first he was too scared to go look at the fish in the net. The Fresh­wa­ter Fish­ing Hall of Fame cer­ti­fied it as the largest muskie ever caught on fly, and al­though Hawkins had only been chas­ing these fish for a few years, he was fast-tracked to ex­pert sta­tus in the muskie fly scene. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s still got much to learn. But ever since he nailed the record, he’s been learning a lot about still-wa­ter muskies.

“In rivers, the spots where you’re go­ing to find muskies are a lot more ob­vi­ous than they are on a lake,” says Hawkins, who moved to Min­nesota from Mon­tana in 2013 to take over Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop. “Not that they’re easy to catch in a river, but they’re a lot more pre­dictable. I’ve fished rivers my en­tire life, so lakes are a new challenge for me. I’m also a tech­nol­ogy geek of sorts. I want all the cool new elec­tron­ics.”

Hawkins cer­tainly didn’t start out by lean­ing on side-scan and lake-map­ping soft­ware. His first stabs at muskies on the fly were taken blindly, walk­ing around lo­cal Twin Cities lakes and hop­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Hawkins, the av­er­age an­gler com­ing into his shop for ad­vice is do­ing the same thing, though these days he tells them that putting even the in­ex­pen­sive Navion­ics app on their phone can in­crease their chance of suc­cess tremen­dously. A picture of a lake’s con­tours, re­gard­less of its size, is in­valu­able to help you at least fig­ure out where the holes, dropoffs, and reefs these fish fre­quent are lo­cated. Hav­ing that in­tel is a con­fi­dence booster, and Hawkins says you need all the con­fi­dence you can get when fish­ing lakes, be­cause the muskies are gen­er­ally much harder to catch.

“Lake fish are a lot less op­por­tunis­tic be­cause they can sit in one place and let food come to them,” he says. “In a river, they kind of have to hunt their food. They have to make quicker de­ci­sions. A key thing I’ve learned on lakes is that you’ve got to move your fly fast.”

Hawkins has a the­ory that con­ven­tional gear anglers are much more suc­cess­ful on lakes be­cause of the sound sig­na­tures lures like buck­tails and swim­baits pro­duce. You can tie flies with a wide head that will push wa­ter, but mim­ick­ing that high-speed vi­bra­tion is no easy feat.

“You catch a lot more muskies in the fig­ure eight on a lake,” says Hawkins. “They’ll fol­low from a dis­tance, but it’s hard to strip that fly as quickly as you can swirl it with the rod tip right by the boat.”

Cus­tom muskie flies hang ready for ac­tion at Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop in Saint Paul, Min­nesota.

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