UP NORTH – A year ago about this time Gabe Schubert was on Mille Lacs along with Ben Olsen, both muskie guides. Over many months, the two had laid plans to catch a monster muskie on a fly, and for days they had attempted just that, casting pool-cue-like 11-weight rods that powered sink-tip lines and big, homemade flies. Cast after cast, they bid for a lifetime fish.
Then a friend showed up, Robert Hawkins, owner of Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop and, like Olsen and Schubert, a muskie hunter.
Also using a fly rod, Hawkins cast once, and again and again. A couple of hours passed. Then he laid a fly onto 10 feet of water and hooked up with a 57-inch muskie estimated to weigh more than 50 pounds.
The fish, which was released, was a world record, caught on a fly.
A week ago, I joined Schubert and a friend of mine in Schubert’s drift boat, also looking for muskies that would take a fly.
Catching one of these fish in this manner is uncommon. Muskies don’t eat often, and their locations can be difficult to determine. Still, at this time of year, muskies are fattening up for winter, and in some cases when the stars align, they’ll take a fly, or what Schubert calls a “bug” — some of which, vastly unlike the “bugs” that are cast to trout — are more than 20 inches long.
“These flies aren’t the easiest thing to cast,” said Schubert, of Stillwater. “But muskies in the mood will hit them.”
Schubert crafts his flies by hand, each a delicate combination of deer and other hair, along with flashabou and whatever else he deems necessary to effect the look of a sucker or other baitfish undulating through water.
Buoyancy of these attracters is critical, and one reason years of experience are required to fashion a fly that rides not on the water’s surface but not too deep, either.
Pushing away from shore, Schubert rowed my friend and me to a quiet patch of water, where we began casting. The bulky flies, together with the heavy lines strung on our rods, precluded long-distance throws with picture-perfect loops and neatly unfolding leaders.
Instead we fairly heaved the flies toward their destinations.
Half-standing and half-sitting as he rowed, and bound, as my friend and I were, in warm clothes, Schubert, 37, was in his element. It also was a perfect fishing day, with a low, gray sky hanging over mirror-flat water.
A broadly experienced angler, Schubert migrated west after high school, fishing in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and picking up whatever work he could find to support his angling habit. “I ski as well, and ride mountain bikes, so the West was an attraction,” he said.
But his move wasn’t permanent. As a kid on the St. Croix and other rivers, he had fished for smallmouth bass, a species he held dear, and one the West didn’t offer. He also missed the lakes back home, and the rivers, and the boundary waters. So he came back, and in time developed a new favorite fish: the muskie.
“The attraction of these fish is that they’re big and tough to catch,” he said. “And they’re fickle. They can be on or off. And figuring out which fly they’ll eat on a given day is a challenge.”
My friend and I cast to a couple of dozen or so likely muskie haunts before I laid my fly over a shallow underwater point. Stripping the line once, and again, I was shocked to see an oversized fin soon breaking the water’s surface behind my fly.
Instantly, my line went tight. I set the hook, and for a long moment I was one with the fish beneath the fin.
But as quickly, we were apart. “I blew it,” I said.
We would have other chances. A big fish followed my friend’s fly and, similarly, mine. Then a good muskie — not a heavyweight, but an admirable fish — broke the surface and attacked my fly viciously on a retrieve. In time, I fought the prize to the boat, where Schubert waited beneath it with his net.
It got better a short while later when my friend hooked a massive fish on a retrieve, its back as thick as a curb, with a head like an anvil. This muskie, the three of us agreed, pushed 50 inches.
Bending my friend’s rod nearly in half, the muskie fought as if its life depended on it, diving deeply beneath the boat multiple times.
Forty-five seconds passed, or perhaps a minute. Then the fly popped out of the muskie’s mouth, disappointing each of us, but allowing us again, finally, to breathe.
Thus, as Schubert said, was the attraction of fishing muskies on a fly: They’re big, and tough to catch.
Gabe Schubert can be reached at Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop in St. Paul or Lund’s Fly Shop. Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org