THE YOUNG GUNNER
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.