LAKE OF THE WOODS, ONTARIO – Why American angling literature has failed to celebrate the romance of muskie fishing is a question for the ages. • Dating to the days of Izaak Walton, sporting writers have commemorated encyclopedically the tiniest trout, brookies especially, while celebrations of Esox masquinongy, by comparison a blue-collar quarry, rot in publishers’ slag heaps. Perhaps the slinging of big muskie baits is less effete than the unfurling of size 20 midges. But to those knowledgeable of both, the former exercise is as enchanting as the latter, with multiple times the terror as a potential bonus. • Each day of a recent foray we were on this lake early. With me were my son, Trevor, 22, and his former high school classmate, Dominic Schneider, also 22. This being a muskie trip, few hours were wasted that otherwise could be fished. At sunup we wiped dew from boat seats and come nightfall we tied up at Big Narrows Resort in the dark. In between, we looked for big fish.
The area we patrolled was about 27 miles by boat from Kenora, Ontario, and a like distance from Minnesota’s Northwest Angle. This gives away no secrets, because we might cover 50 miles of water in a day. Like trout anglers we read water the entire time, though neither riffles nor pools. Instead, reefs, points, rocky islands and similar structures common to Canadian shield lakes were our targets, and as we pulled alongside them, killing the outboard astern in favor of the bow-mounted electric motor, we viewed each with an assassin’s suspicion.
During the previous two days, we had boated a total of three muskies, the biggest 43 inches, with Dominic and Trevor doing the heavy lifting. Now, on our third and last full day on the water, we wanted to hook one more — or two or three.
First, often, we would see them in the form of “follows,” which by definition occur when muskies (and sometimes northern pike) chase or, alternatively, slither or, alternatively, fin lazily behind a cast bait while it is retrieved to the boat.
Correctly assessing the intensity with which a muskie follows a bait is helpful. Slow followers often are merely curious, while muskies that race after a fast-retrieved bait are “hot” and oftentimes can be hooked boat side while the angler sweeps a bait in a figure 8 or perhaps a large circle. Anticipation in these instances is like being ringside in the 15th round of a title fight, punch following counterpunch, the victor uncertain, with no draw possible.
This was in the early afternoon, and we had run flat-out to a rocky point where we had caught a muskie previously.
Now Dominic had a hot fish following a bucktail-style bait. But the fish wouldn’t eat at the boat, and silently we moved further along, big baitcasting reels singing as we sling-shotted lure after lure, one after another splashing noisily in the distance onto the lake’s surface.
On the end of my line was a creeper-style duckling-imitation bait while Dominic stuck with his bucktail and Trevor cast a timeworn walk-the-dog style lure called a Jackpot that zigged and zagged like a wounded baitfish struggling atop the water.
Trevor’s lure was a gift from his uncle, and it bore the teeth marks of many strikes. More were added just then when a 41-inch muskie blew up from Lake of the Woods’ tannic-colored waters and ate on the retrieve.
Gaping jaws. Head shakes. Tail walks. Boiling water.
However poetic — or not — the scene, this was no trout struggling against a dandy’s four-weight, the brim of his fedora cocked just right.
Net! Net! Trevor said.
On it, Dominic said.
Bending parabolically, Trevor’s rod pulsed as he and the muskie dueled, knots and equipment straining.
A minute or so passed as the hooked muskie sought refuge in the depths. Then Dominic was under it with the net, the bait was excised from the fish’s mouth and as quickly it was freed to swim again, hook-smarter but otherwise unharmed.
Now the weather was changing and low gray clouds enveloped the sky horizon to horizon. Also, the wind picked up, and raindrops dimpled the lake. These and the accompanying cooling breezes suggested the coming of fall.
Putting the boat on plane, we cranked the outboard to 4,300 RPMs, miles disappearing behind us along with our neat wake.
• • •
In a fishy looking bay where we cast again and again and again, Dominic hooked a good muskie and fought it alongside the boat for perhaps 15 seconds before it shook the bait from its mouth.
Whenever this happens the angler second-guesses himself, wondering whether the bait had been set aggressively enough, the hooks should have been sharper or perhaps whether another strategic mistake was made.
But in most instances credit is simply due the fish, a reluctant biter and, once hooked, a worthy opponent.
Relentlessly we kept casting, but when we had no more follows we rigged spinning rods with sliding-sinker outfits and dropped night crawlers into 29 feet of water.
Walleyes could be seen on our sonar unit lurking near the bottom, and we wanted a go at filling our two-fish limits.
“There’s one,” Dominic said as he reeled in a nice fish.
In 40 minutes, we had our walleyes.
• • •
In the shank of this final day, as the sun bled crimson across the western horizon, we had five muskies to our credit and wanted one more.
Soon upon us would be the dark of nighttime and, along with it, clouds of mosquitoes.
Casting to a point where previously we had follows and blowups but had never hooked a muskie, we saw the biggest fish of the trip.
The fish was hot, but the instant it saw our boat it darted away.
“Let’s come back for that one,” I said.
We would boat one more muskie that evening, six for the trip, before we tied up at Big Narrows.
But this type of fishing, like trout fishing, is as much about the ones that get away as it is about the ones that are caught.
Returning at last light to the spot where we had seen the big muskie, I cast a creeper bait as far as I could and retrieved it slowly.
Soon behind it the monster muskie’s entire back crested the water’s surface, its mouth open.
Smashing the bait powerfully, the muskie dove once.
Then it broke the surface as if catapulted, contorted itself head to tail … and crunched my bait in half.
Slack, my line lay on the water a long time.
Somewhere just then on Lake of the Woods a loon laughed, a moose languished in shallow water, a black bear roamed an island and a bald eagle was perched on a pine limb.
As contented as any of these, but more excited, Trevor, Dominic and I set course for Big Narrows, the boat’s running lights beacons in the dark.