Late-season muskie anglers pursue their sport nearly invisibly. Long after swimming beaches have closed and cabin owners have pulled their docks to shore -- and about the time deer hunters take to the woods with rifles -- these cold-weather fishermen are backing boats into lakes and rivers, ready to do battle.
Not only with big fish, but with the elements: snow, rain, wind and finger-numbing low temperatures.
But the payoff can be big -- as in state-record big -- as muskie guide Jason Hamernick (www.muskiebreath.com) of the Twin Cities can attest.
"Most muskies are caught in summer, during the warm months,'' Hamernick said. "But the true giants come super late in fall. Although it can be slow fishing at that time of year. In November, you're looking at an average of one bite a day.''
One can be enough.
On Nov. 3, Hamernick and a client, Roger Ecklund of the Twin Cities, were on Mille Lacs looking for a monster.
One of his favorite lakes, particularly in late season, Mille Lacs, Hamernick believes, holds muskies of unique dimensions -- long and with disproportionately fat girths.
Both Hamernick and Ecklund were throwing "rubber,'' Double Dawg Pounders, baits that over time are big enough, and heavy enough, to wear out wrists, shoulders and elbows.
"I pretty much stop throwing blades [in-line spinner bait-style lures] when the water temperature falls below 50 degrees,'' Hamernick said. "Rubber baits you can slow down a lot more.''
At 12:30 that afternoon, "right on the moon rise,'' a big fish hit Ecklund's bait just after it splashed into the lake.
A slashing fighter, the behemoth when finally boated measured 56 inches long with a 29-inch girth.
"I kept talking to Roger about whether he wanted to keep it,'' Hamernick said. "But he was adamant he wanted to let it go.''
Using a formula that has proven accurate, the fish would have weighed nearly 59 pounds, or about 5 more than the state record, set in 1957 and taken from Lake Winnibigoshish.
Weather is Hamernick's most critical consideration when choosing fishing times, but moon-rise and moon-set times also are important.
"If you're going to be on the water every day, you want to fish during the best times.''
Seven days a week
Now 39 years old, Hamernick has had the muskie bug for more than 20 years. He was a teenager fishing for bass on Forest Lake just north of St. Paul when he lucked into his first muskie.
He's been chasing them ever since, first as an obsessed angler, then as a part-time guide and for the past 10 years as a full-time guide.
"I try to be on the water seven days a week,'' he said. "I go at it pretty crazy for about five or six months.''
Ecklund's wasn't the only potential record breaker brought aboard Hamernick's boat last month.
On Nov. 9, two 20-something anglers from Iowa had been casting on Mille Lacs less than half an hour with Hamernick when one of them, Ryan Becker, hooked into a muskie that would measure 57¾ inches with a girth of 28¼ inches.
That fish likely also would have broken the state record, weighing more than 56 pounds.
"When we were motoring onto the lake that morning, I said to the guys, 'If one of you catches what might be a state record, are you going to keep it?''' Hamernick said. "One said he would. The other said he would let it go.''
It was Becker who said he'd release such a fish.
Though Hamernick casts while his clients cast, he does so from the stern of his boat, allowing his customers the first crack at prime spots.
He'd rather have a client catch the next record muskie than catch it himself.
"It's better for business,'' he said, adding that his customers come from all 50 states and from countries as far away as Sweden.
Each is drawn to Minnesota for its muskies, competition for which is keen, day and night, summer and fall.
And not just on Mille Lacs, but on other big-water lakes up north such as Vermilion and Lake of the Woods.
Minnetonka and other metro lakes get hit even harder.
For one simple reason: People like to catch big fish.
Sometimes to hang on a wall, a record-breaker for all to see.
Other times, as Hamernick can attest, to be set free, perhaps to be caught again.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org