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A Musky Fly Fishing Primer

by Dave Karczynski
photos by Dave Karczynski

More hair than a Whitesnake reunion.  Anyone need a toupee?

We were about an hour into our float—that “we” being me, my dad, and rising musky star Chris Willen of Superior Outfitters—when the first fish materialized.  The way it gradually appeared, it’s shadowy umber just a few shades darker than the tannin-stained water, made me think the river itself had magically coalesced into an evil darkness skulking slowly behind my fly.  Quickening my strip, I was overwhelmed by the wildness of the moment–not in the “Hey, isn’t this crazy and awesome!” sense, but in the “I’m in the house of a natural predator with bad intentions” way.  My fly—and, by extension, me—was being hunted by a mean customer, a bad seed, a creature with a long history of violence.  I ran out of water, unfortunately, and figure-eighting didn’t bring him back.  But it’s that first musky, even though we moved a few other, bigger fish that day, that haunts me.  And looking back I realized that what I saw in the musky–the river coming alive–was not only figuratively, but literally, true: the Musky is what America’s Northwoods rivers funnel all of their life and energy into–north country microfauna feeding the nymphs that feed suckers and smallmouth that feed the Toothy Emperor, the King of the North.  It’s a fish–and a way of fishing–that has fast become my obsession of the year.  Here’s some of what I learned from tapping into Chris’s fishy brain that day.

Happy Anglers Practice

There’s a difference between the ability to cast a huge fly and the ability to do so cleanly and with the kind of efficiency that allows for a pleasurable day on the water.  “Practice is key,” Chris says.  “Get yourself a musky set-up–or even put a big fly on your 8-weight–and head down to the pond or parking lot to get your timing down.  Casting a huge fly is different–there’s air resistance and weight–and musky fishing is essentially 8 hours of non-stop big-fly casting.  Sometimes a client will book a trip having never cast a huge fly: half-way through the day they’re sitting down in the boat, completely worn-out.  A couple hours of practice per week in those weeks leading up to the trip will make sure this does not happen to you.”

Rods

Something special from Wisconsin. Chris grunts under the weight of a healthy river musky.

You need a rod that can take a beating–because it will. There will be times when you need to jam your rod (note that I said “rod” and not just “rod tip”) as deep as you can in order to get extra depth with your streamer. On rocky rivers like those of Wisconsin and Tennessee, there are going to be some scrapes on the bottom. And then there are the boat-side attacks. “A lot of times a fish is going to slam you while you’re figure-eighting, and that rod blank is going to whack down hard on the gunnel.  You need a stick that’s going to take a lot of abuse.”  Chris likes Beulah’s Blue Water Series in the 8/9 and 10/11 weights.  They come with an extra tip.  “In cast you have an extra good day on the water.”

Flies

Musky are big, hungry, and efficient.  They eat big prey, which means you’ve got to throw big flies.  “You couldn’t tie them too big if you tried,” Chris explains.  “There are guys in these parts that use 30-inch northern for bait on a quick-strike rig.  No joke.”  Musky are also lateral-line feeders, so those big flies must push water.  A lot of water.  The end result?  You’re pulling against tension all day long.  It might start out feeling like stripping a streamer, but as the day wears on, it’s going to feel more like pulling a boot.  Know what  you’re getting yourself into.  And have a game plan–and back-up gameplan–for the stripping fingers of your rod hand.  That kind of heavy, all-day pressure not only cuts into flesh and other materials, it burns it.

Change of Direction

One prime musky trigger is change of direction, a feeling that the prey is going to escape.  It’s why one of the most successful musky patterns out there, the Buford, curls around to show it’s profile at the end of every strip when fished correctly.  “You want to give it time to fall back on a slack line so it can show itself.  Then, with the next strip it straightens up and takes off.  That change of directions is what gets them interested.”

It’s also the reasoning behind the classic figure-eight.  “Muskies have  a blind spot in front of their face.  They’ll be watching that fly, then it will change directions and disappear.  Then reappear.  That pisses them off.  They’re on it.”

Setting the Hook

How hard and for how long does should you set the hook?  According to Chris, “As hard as you can and as many times as you can get away with it.”  There are a number of reasons for this.  One is the fact that muskies have a variety of eats.  Predators like smallies and browns typically swipe at a moving fly.  They take it and steal off with it.  Muskies will do this as well, but they’ll also sometimes eat and keep coming.  And coming.  “That’s a tough hookset.  You’ve really got to be stripping and slamming that hook home.”  When to stop setting the hook?  “When you can’t set the hook anymore because the fish is taking off.”

The Fight

Fighting a river musky is like boxing an alligator in a telephone booth: a close-quarters, short-line game.   “We don’t ever let fish get on the reel,” Chris says.  “Once we’re hooked up, we keep it snub.  Let the fish run left, let the fish run right, but keep it tight.  If he runs straight away from you, you can give a little line, but otherwise you’re right there with him.  If you go to the reel your rod starts bouncing and more often than not you’re hook set is going to be gone–especially if you go barbless, as we always, always do.  The name of the game is staying in control of the fish–if you feel that fish start to come up from the deep, jam your rod tip into the water, strip hard, pull that fish back down.  Don’t let it do what it wants to do: make it do what you want it to do.  That’s the way to actually get a fish to hand.  This is regional, by the way.  We fish rivers up here–there are always rocks and trees just a few feet away.  On a lake things might be different.  But here on these rivers you play a fish for too long on too long of a line and you’re going to lose.”

There you have it.  A big game primer for one of the biggest and baddest games out there. If you’ve been curious about the King of the North, now’s the time to throw your hat into the ring.  For the next few months, these toothy rulers have nothing to do but eat their subjects.  Good luck getting bit.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Dave Karczynski's writing has appeared in The Flyfish Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, The Drake, Fly Fusion and others. A Robert Traver Award winner, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.
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