For muskie fanatic Benjamin Knutson of Inver Grove Heights, a good day on the water is locating fish and seeing fish. A great day on the water is catching fish.
He's still searching for words to describe the extraordinary day last month when he caught two massive muskies, each weighing more than 50 pounds.
"It was such an insane day, I don't think it will ever happen again,'' Knutson said. "I was in shock.''
Neither of the two fish — one 56.5 inches long and the other 53 inches — was a state record of any kind. But it's nearly inconceivable — especially on Mille Lacs — to catch a pair of bucket-list lunkers in the same outing.
"Catching two 50-inch muskies in one day is quite a feat,'' said Tom Heinrich, Mille Lacs fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. "They're just not that common.''
When the DNR last captured and tagged muskies in the 207-square-mile lake, less than 1% of the fish were longer than 50 inches, Heinrich said. DNR keeps the population going by stocking the waters every other year with 3,000 muskie fingerlings.
"We consider it high quality but low density,'' Heinrich said. "Those fish have the genetics to get quite large.''
Knutson, a 28-year-old bartender and college dropout, can vouch for it. He's nearing his dream of becoming a full-time fishing guide and he's attempted for years to hook into a monster on Mille Lacs in late November. At that time of year, the lake's tullibees are bunched up and muskies are prowling for them. If you can find schools of the fatty baitfish, hungry muskies are likely in the neighborhood.
Mille Lacs was like glass on the day before Thanksgiving, and Knutson's baitcasting reel was free of ice. The air temperature was in the mid-30s. Two hours into the morning, he stood on the roomy deck of his 20-foot boat, retrieving yet another cast. He felt a heavy tick in his line and set the hook on a muskie that was about 45 inches long. Spirits were high.
Continuing to cast 1-pound Bull Dawg rubber lures, Knutson felt a strike. When he set the hook, his braided line was loaded with a higher-caliber fish.
"It felt like I was stuck and I said, 'That's her! That's her!'' Knutson recalled. "I knew right away.''
The Bull Dawg "pounder'' is Knutson's go-to lure for fall muskies, but their heaviness makes them difficult to cast and susceptible to falling out on retrieval during headshakes by the fish. Knutson reeled in at top speed and the muskie's lone counter-move was to jump once near the boat, landing squarely in the net held by his fishing companion. It was Knutson's first-ever 50-plus pounder on any lake.
"I thought, 'Oh my God. I did it,''' he recalled. "I've been hard-core fishing fall waters the past four years and this was the one. I called my buddy and said, 'Dude, I did it.'''
Adept at quickly returning his catches to the water, Knutson measured and photographed the muskie as fast and safely as he could. It swam straight away. For the next half-hour, he moved photos to his friends and family. His wife, Sarah Nicole Knutson, was elated. She's a critically acclaimed painter and curator who runs her own contemporary visual arts studio. She understands her husband's ambition to make a living at fishing.
"I was trying to compose myself to get back at it,'' Ben Knutson recalled. "I was on cloud nine.''
He thought of another spot on Mille Lacs, 10 miles away. He and his fishing companion blasted across the water to cast Bull Dawgs again. In less than 20 minutes, Knutson stunned himself by setting his hooks into an even heavier muskie. It measured 53¼ inches long, with a bulbous girth of 28½ inches. Its estimated weight of 54 pounds was 3 pounds heavier than the longer muskie.
"I have it all on film,'' Knutson said. "I've never heard of it… one guy catching two fish like that.''
Angelina's Kitchen in Woodbury is the family-owned restaurant and bar that has provided Benjamin and Sarah with the day jobs they've needed to foster careers in art and fishing. The Italian bistro is owned by Sarah's mother, Angela Verrastro, an entrepreneur who is surviving the Minnesota restaurant shutdown with a loyal takeout business.
For Ben, COVID-19 complications in 2020 robbed him of bartending hours but freed him to fish. In a normal year, for instance, he would have been working on Thanksgiving Eve, not launching his boat into frigid Mille Lacs.
The roots to his passion were formed at a family cabin in Luck, Wis., where his grandfather handed him a rod and reel at age 3. As a teenager, he fished with buddies from Woodbury High School. They were angling for walleyes after graduation in 2010 when someone in the boat suggested trying for muskies.
That fall, they spent time on Bald Eagle Lake and on Forest Lake, discovering the adrenaline rush of catching one of Minnesota's largest and most elusive game fish. Knutson left for Minnesota State Mankato but dropped out and bought a fishing boat. "I just got so addicted to muskie fishing,'' he said.
After eight years of hard-core muskellunge fishing around the state — often sleeping in his truck at night — Knutson's pattern is to end each season on Mille Lacs. This fall, his guests included Doug Wegner, an established muskie guide from the Green Bay area. Wegner was so impressed by their single-day catch of two 45-plus-inch muskies that he made an episode out of it for his YouTube fishing channel.
Knutson intends to build his own social media presence and his "Epic Muskie Day'' post on the Fishing Minnesota group Facebook page has attracted 1,300 "likes.''
"Those two catches kind of blew up my name a little bit,'' Knutson said.
The notices should be good for his fishing guide business. His fall calendar included nearly 20 outings with customers, and he would like to expand in 2021, even while returning to bartending. The muskie season opens June 5.
"It's a lot of work, but that's what I love to do,'' he said.