Few experiences in fishing leave such an indelible impression as an encounter with a muskie. Just seeing the torpedo-shaped fish appear from nowhere and follow a lure to the boat is enough to leave otherwise strong anglers weak in the knees.
In some ways, it matters little if the fish smacks the lure or disappears into the depths. Male or female, young or old, when anglers see a muskie in the water, “they never forget it,” said Travis Frank, a muskie-fishing fanatic and owner of Trophy Encounters Guide Service (trophyencounters.com). “It’s the only fish we can go for that you don’t even need to catch it to leave a lasting memory.”
The walleye is the undisputed king in Minnesota, folks looking for a meal gravitate toward such species as crappies and sunfish, and most fishermen never will catch a muskie they can bring home given its 54-inch minimum size limit. What’s more, there may be more fish in one school of walleyes than the number of adult muskies in an entire lake. The question, then, is this: Why do anglers choose to pursue a fish nicknamed “the fish of 10,000 casts,” knowing even if they catch one, they’ll probably have to return it right to the water?
Two fishing guides and two regular muskie nuts talked about the allure:
Travis Frank, 32, Waconia / “It’s a bucket-list fish”
As a 15-year-old, Frank targeted muskies for an entire summer without catching one. Something clicked the next season, and a self-described addiction took hold. This was in the days of disposable cameras, which Frank routinely dropped off at a photo shop, loaded with pictures of muskies. Word spread and it wasn’t long before people were forking over cash in exchange for a fishing trip with him.
“It’s a bucket-list fish for people,” said Frank, a television producer by day.
Most of his clients know muskies “aren’t a fish you just go out and catch,” but he tells them if they “run the lure correctly, stick it out, and give it enough time, there’s a good chance they’ll leave at the end of the day with a fish. But there are no guarantees.”
His clients generally just want the opportunity to catch a muskie. But when he’s not guiding, Frank sets his sights on truly big fish. Those it might take hours — or a day — to catch. “They carry this mystique about them,” Frank said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I’m holding a true trophy.”
Dave Williamson, 42, Alexandria / “Playing a mental game”
To Williamson, owner of Musky Stalker Guide Service (muskystalker.com), catching muskies is the reward for doing a lot of things right. Locating them is part of the equation, but then it’s about being there when they’re willing to bite. And there’s the matter of lure choice. Something that thrashes on the surface? A crankbait that imitates a prey fish? A heavy jig and plastic worked seductively in front of the fish’s nose?
“It’s like playing a mental game with those fish — figuring out what triggers them and why they bite at certain times — and trying to calculate that in your head,” said Williamson, who’s been fishing for muskies since he was 17. “It’s the frustration and the sense of accomplishment all at the same time that’s the big draw.”
Many of Williamson’s clients have watched TV shows of people catching muskies, or seen mounted fish at sports shows, and want the opportunity to try it themselves. Often as not, they become repeat customers. “It’s just the ferocity of the fight; muskies are like freshwater tarpon in a way,” he said. “People get addicted to the adrenalin rush of the fight.”
Chris Hay, 41, Brooklyn Center / “The thrill of the hunt”
Hay’s entry into muskie fishing happened by accident. The high school teacher was fishing for bass and watched as a muskie followed his lure to the boat. It didn’t bite — and the next one didn’t either — but the experience left him wanting more. He has caught plenty of muskies since then, and introduced his 8-year-old son to the sport, and is a little more philosophical about the whole experience these days.
“Muskies are kind of mysterious. They’re the only fish you feel like you can interact with,” Hay said. “You get to be so present in the moment that it’s pretty neat.”
When a muskie finally strikes, the fight may last just seconds, minutes or longer, but there’s plenty of time for anglers to wonder about what-ifs. “The time between when you see one hit and you’ve got it on the line, this whole drama unfolds in your mind. Am I going to get it in the boat?” he said.
For Hay, landing a muskie paves the way for his favorite part of fishing them. “I used to do all kinds of hunting, but I find myself doing next to none anymore,” he said. “With muskie fishing, the thrill of the hunt is there, and the whole capture part is there. But for some reason, releasing the fish and watching them paddle away is the best part of the whole experience.”
Matt Parker, 36, Wadena / “The most intense moment”
Parker easily recalled the details of his first muskie-fishing trip in 1998. He and a friend, both recent high school graduates, were fishing Lake Mille Lacs from a 14-foot boat with a 15-horsepower motor. The moment that first muskie bit, so, too, did the bug.
“It was the most intense moment I’d ever had in my life up to that point, seeing the fish thrashing on the side of the boat,” said Parker, a speech language pathologist.
Muskies consumed Parker for a time. Now a father and multispecies aficionado, he fishes for them about 10 times a season but said his passion for muskies has made him a better overall fisherman.
“It’s forced me to pay more attention to the environment when I’m fishing, whether it be the moon phase, the sun period or the barometric pressure,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure your knots are tied tight, your hooks are sharp, the drag is set right — all those little things — so when you do get your shot you are ready for it and don’t blow it.”
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.