Gene Miller was spitting mad back in 1994. That's when his U.S. Postal Service boss told him he was being transferred from Duluth, one of the state's largest cities, to Isle, one its smallest.
"I couldn't believe it. I actually ripped off my tie and threw it at him," Miller recalled. "I said, 'What in the world are you thinking, and where in the heck is Isle?' "
"It's on Mille Lacs lake," his boss replied.
Instantly, Miller felt better. Much better.
"I had been given a gift," said Miller, a most unusual and successful fishing guide. "I went from supervising a hundred workers to five, and when the day was done, there was all this wonderful water to fish. It was a dream come true."
Retired for seven years and a Mille Lacs muskie guide for 20, Miller is both an angling innovator and outright character. Possessed of a boyish devil-may-care attitude, Miller, 65, guides from the comfort of a 25-foot pontoon boat equipped with a powerful stereo, 8,000-song playlist and soft $1,000 reclining chairs that are within easy reach of trolling rods mounted aft, starboard and port. When a muskie strikes, Miller reels into action by cranking up AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." After the muskie has been released, Miller will take down the boat's yellow flag, which denotes a skunk, and replace it with a red flag that signifies a fish has been boated.
"This year we've caught 15 muskies [of] 52 inches or longer, eight muskies 55 inches or longer, and two 58-inchers," Miller said. He calls such lengths and numbers "unheard of in the muskie world," and his bravado is not without basis. He knows this because he monitors the websites of many of North America's best-known muskie fishing guides and fishing resorts, including those on Ontario's Lake of the Woods. "Facts are facts," Miller said. "When it comes to size, what I catch on Mille Lacs in one year often exceeds what some businesses have yet to accomplish in 20."
Miller credited his success to his father. Like many anglers during the 1990s when Mille Lacs muskie fishing was taking off, Miller could see muskies on sandy shallows or atop weed beds but not catch them. "I'd cast like crazy, yet nothing," he said. "Finally, I phoned my dad. He was a Lake Superior fisherman. He showed up with salmon rods and planer boards. The first time we trolled the north end of the lake we caught five. That was the ticket."
Miller's fishing style isn't for everyone. In fact, he acknowledges that trolling rubs some purists the wrong way. That's because traditional muskie fishing involves long hours afoot hurling hefty baits, then winching them back to the boat over and over again. This time-honored technique wears mightily on legs, shoulders, arms and wrists for the "fish of 10,000 casts" (as it's called) is often that and more. Meanwhile, Miller sits in a captain's chair while puttering hither and yon at a leisurely 4½ miles per hour, a speed that takes his clients' lures on an 18-mile tour over weed beds, rock reefs, gravel bars, mud flats and the "no man's land" of a 132,000-acre lake.
"To casters, I am nothing but a road hunter," Miller said. "And to me, they are like deer hunters sitting in a stand. We both have the same goal but approach it differently. I cover big areas. They cover small areas. To each his own."
Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Miller:
On learning the lake
I arrived at Mille Lacs in October of 1994. I was living at McQuoid's Resort, and soon got to know Terry, Kevin and Karen McQuoid. They were great. They and others helped me learn the south end of the lake. A launch captain up at Fisher's Resort on the north end, was a big help, too. I got to know Merv before GPS and lake maps were common. We'd sit at a table and he'd draw these detailed maps of the mud flats on paper napkins. That's how I started … heading into the abyss with a tackle box full of napkins.
On the early years
I started guiding in 1997. One of the first things I did was approach the Isle Lions Club about starting a take-a-kid fishing program for muskies. And sure enough, the first time I took out two loads of kids one of them caught a 48-incher. Back then a fish that size was news all around the lake. Ron Schara of Minnesota Bound heard what I was doing and did a television story, which was good publicity for the lake, the club and me.
Later, I started a take-a-senior muskie fishing program. This time Jason Davis did a story. Now my guiding calendar was getting full, and many of my customers were kids or little ol' ladies who never believed they could catch a big fish.
On muskie fishing strategy
Even though the muskie season opens in June I don't start guiding until I see people splashing around in swimsuits. That tells me the surface water is finally near 75 degrees, which is when fishing starts to get good. As for lure color, I am a big fan of perch-colored lures. Where I fish depends upon who I am guiding. For those who simply want to catch a muskie, I troll smaller lures closer to shore because the chances of success are greater there. For those whose goal is catch a truly huge fish, I troll bigger lures in deeper water. I fish until the weather stops me or the season ends. I am the guy out there in November wearing a snowmobile helmet and suit still trying to catch the biggest muskie ever.
On dreams of catching that 30-by-60-inch muskie
I honestly believe there is a muskie out there with a 30-inch girth and 60-inch length. This spring, an angler found a dead muskie floating on the lake that measured 59½ inches. That's close. Muskies were first stocked in Mille Lacs in 1984. So, the oldest muskies have had more than 30 years to get big.
On fishing karma
While I was in Costa Rica, which is where I spend my winters, I launched a playground fundraiser so the local village kids could have nice equipment to play on. As part of this, I posted a Facebook message that said the next person who donates $8.88 will win a free, guided muskie fishing trip. The winner turned out to be Richard Holloway, a lure-maker from down by Isanti, Minn. When we met he told me how great his lures were, and I am like, " 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, now go away.' But turns out his 8-, 10- and 12-inch lures were awesome. Most of my biggest fish have been caught on Richard's creations, some of which I fish 30 feet deep. These days he uses my boat as a lure-testing laboratory, and I benefit from this because I get to see which lures catch the most fish. Funny how we both chose to do something nice for kids far away and it worked out for us locally.
On the good life
I am blessed and I know it. I collect a pension. I live on Mille Lacs. I get paid to go fishing. I actually have so much fun guiding that once I start in summer I don't leave Malmo, Minn., until deer season. You know what that means? It means I don't see a traffic light for three months. And if that's not the good life I don't know what is.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.