Name any fisherman out there, and Larry Dahlberg is better. That’s not according to me; it’s according to all the biggest names in fishing––from the top pros, to the savviest outdoor writers, to the diehard guides who spend 300 days a year on the water. I asked them all “Who’s the best in the world?” And the answer was overwhelming.
Dahlberg’s the undisputed champ not because he’s caught fish in every far-flung corner of the globe––landing trophies in more than 86 countries––but because even in those countries I can’t pronounce or place on a map (like Sao Tome, Africa and Suriname, South America) Dalhberg’s caught fish when the local guides couldn’t. No matter where he goes, he simply knows how to hook 'em.
And so, when I waited to meet the man at a muskie expo where I’d heard whispers he might appear, I expected to see a character from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” burst through the doors, wearing a necklace of tiger fangs or lugging a pair of elephant tusks on his back. Not so. Instead, I had to strain to see the diminutive Dahlberg as broad-shouldered muskie anglers clamored around the legend who conquers the object of their excitement, the notoriously fussy muskellunge, with a fly he invented.
He revolutionized fly-fishing, in fact, by inventing dozens of flies, the first of which was inspired by dropping tinsel while helping his mother decorate a Christmas tree.
His father was harsh. He refused to take Dahlberg fishing until the boy could cast a big muskie lure across the yard, under a bar on the swing set and into a small box eight out of ten times. After a summer of relentless practice, Dahlberg developed deadly accuracy, passed the test and was allowed on adventures down the St. Croix River … as a rower.
By age 11, Dahlberg was guiding clients and bucking conventional wisdom with his homemade flies that caught more and bigger bass than any bait the river had ever seen. In-Fisherman offered him every angler’s dream job, but he bolted to feed his insatiable appetite to chase exotic fish across the world. He self-funded the first two demo episodes of his now-famous “The Hunt for Big Fish” TV show on his credit card before ESPN picked it up 16 years ago; then Dahlberg began whipping around the world at a pace of 350,000 miles a year.
He’s caught more than 50 line-class world records, including a 220-pound Nile perch that may still be the largest freshwater bony fish ever caught on a hook and line. His daring bravado and obsessive desire to overcome insurmountable obstacles by sheer force of will beg comparison to Teddy Roosevelt. But even Roosevelt wasn’t this crazy.
Dahlberg’s tangled with tarpon off the Western coast of Gabon, Africa. He’s tamed wolf fish with a fly rod in Suriname, South America. He’s battled sailfish on the volcanic island of Principe, a 136 square-kilometer dot in the Atlantic Ocean where Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was proven true during an eclipse in 1919. Dahlberg’s dramatic flair and exotic escapades inspire everyday anglers to consider the unfathomable. It is, perhaps, his greatest accomplishment.
And yet, he remains modest––unwilling to call himself the best angler alive, but very willing to welcome me into his home near the St. Croix River to talk about fishing and faraway places. As we stood in front of his private pond, where he tests out his newest fishing lures, I asked him a somber question: Does he ever feel his life in danger when he’s in some God-forsaken country with not much more than a fishing pole? “When I’m out there fishing,” he said, “I feel invisible.”
I thought back to the first time I met Dahlberg, at Josh Stevenson’s Blue Ribbon Bait & Tackle muskie expo. When I wiggled my way to the front of the crowd to shake his hand, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘How in the heck does this little guy catch all these colossal fish?’
“I only weigh 170 pounds,” admitted Dahlberg, a damn good guitar player and gymnast who’s caught 8-foot Amazon catfish. “You have to think like the Egyptians. Use your mind, not your muscle.” Then off he went, explaining intricate details about leverage and angles and physics to fishermen who nodded eagerly. I laughed. Physics and logic? Dahlberg defies such rules.
Apparently Dahlberg understands the laws of nature, he simply chooses to ignore them.