THE RECORD HOLDER
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.