The muskie has stolen a Duluth angler's heart.

"There is nothing that feels more fulfilling," said Karen McTavish, whose romance only figures to deepen.

A shore angler since her youth, McTavish said something clicked in the last year. Where to fish. What to fish. The idea of getting on the water suddenly seemed possible after she saw a fishing kayak.

McTavish began watching YouTube videos and reading articles and dug into fishing apps. She bought a pedal-driven, 14-foot Hobie Pro Angler by June.

It was time to move the passion outdoors. The second time out in the kayak, McTavish was in between landing smallies when a muskie followed her lure dangling for a moment next to the kayak. She pulled the lure from the water, but she said she was changed by the experience, excited by what she saw.

"It was just that weird encounter with the muskie," she said. "From that moment on, I decided my bucket list is going to be conquering my fear over a muskie and landing one."

McTavish hit the St. Louis and Cloquet rivers among other places. "I fished every chance I could. I would fish after work. I fished all weekend long," said McTavish, who runs a quilting business. "I would research muskie lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin. … I knew I had to put in the hours because I knew that's what it takes to catch these things."

She invested in different rods and baits. She worked on technique, she learned where the Department of Natural Resources stocks, she learned from mistakes. She had trouble bringing muskies into the kayak because she struggled to use a net and operate in such a small space.

McTavish, 55, joins tens of thousands of Minnesota women who have a passion for fish. The exuberance, however, remains at odds with license sales and trends in Minnesota. More demographic details about who drove the increased sales in 2020 are expected in July, but it's known new anglers fueled a spike not seen in decades in Minnesota. Still, the number of anglers overall is declining, according to state data, while the number of women buying licenses is projected to remain flat through 2035.

McTavish is doing her part to change that narrative. In her quest for knowledge, she turned to the community of Women Anglers of Minnesota (WAM), which has 950 members and growing and thousands more following its active social media. McTavish said the support — even private messages — has inspired confidence she is needed.

"They celebrate your accomplishments. They feel your heartbreak with you," she said.

WAM President Michelle Morey finds McTavish's feedback heartening. She said the mission, driven through a variety of tournaments, meetups and social media platforms, is to provide a peer group, "a sense of belonging."

Women find others who like to fish as much as they do or a place to feed a dormant interest. Some women want to be more independent; some want to build skills to share with their male counterparts who are anglers; some like the social aspects; and some like the competition.

"Women join for all different reasons," Morey said. "We all share the common love of fishing, but how we get to that point is different."

McTavish was invited to participate in WAM's Toothy Team tournament in September. She caught a lot of fish and would have landed her first muskie, but her net wasn't big enough. "I was in a depression for three days," she said.

Then in October, on her last outing of the year, she netted a 32-inch muskie from a northern Minnesota lake. It was her first.

WAM's flagship open-water tournament is in June, a month McTavish is waiting on. The muskie opener is June 5.

"I can't even describe how fulfilling [fishing for muskies] is," said McTavish, who said she gets almost teary thinking about the months to come. Peace is a kayak and a muskie rod. • 612-673-7899