Outdoor Life - - 10,000 STRIPS -

It’s the gill flare that Luke Swan­son re­mem­bers most. He was 12 years old, fish­ing with his dad and grand­fa­ther, when the 47-inch muskie in­haled his live sucker. Hav­ing al­ready learned how to fly­fish, it was at that mo­ment Swan­son knew that see­ing that gill flare be­hind a streamer was some­thing he needed. By 15, he had landed a few muskies that broke 30 inches. By 17, Swan­son says, ev­ery­thing started to click, from pat­tern­ing to pre­sen­ta­tion. The funny thing is, this wasn’t very long ago. Swan­son is only 22, though the young gun’s rep­u­ta­tion as a muskie fly guide on the Mis­sis­sippi in his home state of Min­nesota is flour­ish­ing. He’s al­ready put lots of anglers on their first muskie, and even led renowned au­thor John Gier­ach to his big­gest.

“It took me seven years to top that 47,” Swan­son says. “But even to­day, I don’t like to fish top­wa­ter flies be­cause I love to see that gill flare be­low the sur­face.”

Swan­son spent a sea­son guid­ing in Alaska when he was 18, and al­though he loved it, he missed muskies and small­mouths too much. These days, he’s run­ning well over 100 guide trips per sea­son, more than half of which are de­voted to muskies. Of those trips, in 2018, Swan­son says he blanked maybe 10 times. That’s im­pres­sive, con­sid­er­ing not all of his clients are flu­ent in the tech­niques re­quired to catch these fish.

“You never want the fly to have the same ca­dence,” Swan­son says. “You’re not try­ing to walk the dog. Every re­trieve should be er­ratic, and you need to con­stantly change strip speed, pause length, and the num­ber of pauses. Er­ratic ac­tion is what’s go­ing to trig­ger muskies most of the time.”

Get­ting in­ter­est—and hope­fully a take—is only the first part of the bat­tle. The real tech­nique kicks in af­ter that chomp. Noth­ing costs more fly muskies than the dreaded “trout set.” Lift the rod to strike, and the fish is gone. Strip-strik­ing low and hard is im­per­a­tive for drilling fly hooks into a muskie’s rock-solid mouth. Ac­cord­ing to Swan­son, many of his clients have trout fly­fish­ing or con­ven­tional fish­ing back­grounds, mak­ing that need to strip-strike tough to re­mem­ber in the split sec­ond when it counts. It’s equally crit­i­cal to have min­i­mal line off the rod tip dur­ing a fig­ure eight to help get a pos­i­tive set if a muskie eats close. Swan­son prefers 15 inches, not­ing that if you’ve got a hot fish swirling next to the boat, it doesn’t care about your rod tip. It’s not go­ing to spook.

Even if you do get a muskie pinned, you still haven’t won. Swan­son says many anglers want to raise the rod to fight, which can be al­most as damn­ing as trout­set­ting. “I al­ways tell peo­ple, you never want the rod at eye level,” he says. “It should be low and to the side, bent as hard as you can bend it through­out the fight.” The need to keep up the heat is one rea­son why Swan­son uses two-handed fly rods made from medi­umheavy con­ven­tional rod blanks. The other is to save your shoul­der. “I tie on an 18-inch fly, and us­ing that rod, you can cast it for two days straight and not be sore.”

Luke Swan­son with one of the many tro­phies that have helped build his rep­u­ta­tion as a hotshot guide.

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