Interview: Robert Tomes on the Hunt for Muskie

Robert Tomes

Robert Tomes. Photo by Walter Hodges

Direct download: MidCurrent Interviews Robert Tomes on Muskie Fishing

Marshall Cutchin:    I first met Robert Tomes when I took him fishing on the flats of the lower Florida Keys in the late 1980s. He’s been in the paper business for many years now but his love of fly fishing has intensified as he sampled a huge variety of fishing opportunities. Tomes is a former shop rat, Alaska guide, and longtime writer and editor. His latest passion is muskie fishing. In 2008 he completed his book, “Muskie on the Fly,” which is now considered something of a bible on fishing for these fish. Welcome Robert.

Robert Tomes:   Thank you. Great to be here.

MC:    Thanks for joining us. Tell us a little about how you got started fishing for muskies in the first place.

Tomes:  I grew up in the Midwest and anyone who’s fished around these waters knows that the muskie is kind of an iconic species here. If you’re gonna eat fish it’s gonna be walleye but if you’re a real fisherman you’re gonna chase muskies. Most of that takes place, of course, north of Chicago where I live, up in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Michigan. I was lucky to have the opportunity to go to places like Boulder Junction, Eagle River and Hayward, Wisconsin when I was a young man, to fish for everything. But I always wanted to catch a muskie.

One day I got a chance to go out on a lake near Boulder Junction. I was with a guide, a classic North Woods muskie guide, who handed me a bait casting rod with a giant spinner on it called a Mepps muskie killer and started casting away. That first flat, that first day I actually hooked a small fish in the 30-inch range. At that time any muskie that was caught was basically … legal muskie was caught and killed because it was such a coveted trophy. That was pretty exciting. We kept fishing on. We put that fish back and I ended up catching a really nice fish that same day. Two muskies in one day was pretty spectacular for a first try and I was, of course, imprinted for life with “muskie-itis.”

MC:   You wrote a 240-page book about how to fly fish for muskie so it certainly seems to be one of those, as everybody says, arcane types of fishing, but obviously there is an art to it. There is a great deal of technique that’s grown up around it. Is it one of those things though that’s just inaccessible to the average angler? Is it something that people can say, “Hey, I want to get good at fly fishing for muskie,” and be serious about it and have a reasonable chance of success?

Tomes:   No, I think it is accessible to everyone who’s got an interest in fly fishing and has the skills and can cast. The fish itself is an apex predator. It’s at the top of the food chain and their densities in numbers are low compared to other species. That is a challenge for a lot of people who hope to go out and just get a fix, get a hook up. I think you have to go in with a healthy dose of humility and be prepared for some slow periods. On the other hand the muskie populations today, thanks to catch and release which is practiced, just like trout anglers, by most of the muskie fishing fraternity.

Conventional guys are releasing most of their fish. There are now very long length limits for keeping fish, even 45 and 50 inches in some waters, which is an incredible size of a fish for a minimum in freshwater in particular. The fishing is good now as it’s ever been and certainly better than when I started doing this back in the ’70s. I tell most people looking at giving this sport a try, “don’t be intimidated by what you hear but be prepared to work real hard and know that the payoff is well worth it.”

It takes a certain mindset. I talk in my book about the “mind game” for the sport and some people may breeze by that but in addition to basic casting skills and perseverance it’s really a critical part of enjoying the sport, much as you know well and we know together from our days permit fishing in the Keys. Same idea. A lot of work, low percentage results, but very satisfying days when it happens.

MC:  I’m assuming that as it’s gained in popularity, the techniques—and certainly you’ve been experimenting for a long time—the techniques have gotten a bit more refined and the gear obviously. There are manufacturers who are making gear specifically for this type of fishing now whereas back in the ’70s and ’80s you pretty much had to make do probably with a saltwater setup. Is that right?

Tomes:  That’s right, yeah. What I did was pull together the available resources at the time. This was five years ago, back in ’08. The resources, those guides that were pursuing this, the equipment that I knew worked from my years of doing it, the materials and the fly patterns that I knew worked and the techniques that I basically adapted with a fly rod from the conventional world, primarily retrieve speeds and the classic figure eight, which is the boat side maneuver that all muskie fisherman must know to keep a fish interested and possibly hook them right at the boat right off your rod tip.

You mentioned equipment. Even in ’08 when the book came out there was very little in the way of species-specific equipment for chasing muskies with a fly. To my delight and great enjoyment I’m now seeing multiple manufacturers offering, for instance St. Croix’s got basically a muskie rod, the Legend X. Sage has got its pike/musky rod series out now. Scott has a muskie rod. There’s a number of manufacturers doing species targeted equipment and that goes right on through to fly lines as well with new lines that are easier to cast, large, wind-resistant, bulky, flies repeatedly and longer distances, and to retrieve them with great speed.

There’s all kinds of stuff going on that makes this sport—you never want to use the word easier and muskie in the same sentence—but makes it a little more efficient and practical. The basic skills for this sport, the casting skills, really have to be honed before you can enjoy it because you can’t hope to be successful without making repeated casts and making consistent and varied retrieves with some authority. If you can’t do that and can’t do the hook sets, which are very different from trout fishing. They involve much more of the saltwater set. Not exactly a tarpon set, but a strip set that drives a larger hook into a very solid muskie beak, is what it essentially is. Those things are all just part and parcel of the joy in this sport.

MC:   Will a muskie come back and eat a fly more than one time or does he just more or less make one big explosive strike and give up if he doesn’t come tight?

Tomes:   I get asked that question a lot. The one thing I’ve learned about pretending to be an authority about muskie fishing is that it’s a very dangerous game. Muskies will do that. I have seen it. I’ve seen it multiple times, that is, a fish miss a fly and then come back and eat again. You can reasonably expect that could happen on any given day on any given water. On the other hand, if they feel metal, if they have a hook and it’s a poor set but they lose it, odds are they probably won’t. Although, as some of our listeners might know, they’ll also do that. They’ll also come back and grab it again when they’re that fired up. It’s incredible. I liken a muskie attacking a lure or a fly to basically a pit bull on the attack or just your dog when you’re throwing stick with them. When they want to hold on to that thing they just hold on because that’s what they do.

MC:  Are they a moody fish? In other words, are they all different? Let’s say you’re in a spot with a fairly large population of muskie. Is every fish you cast to different or are they pretty predictable? Is it a case where you can find the fish, and you know what you’re doing, usually you can get them to grab the fly?

Tomes:   Yeah, ‘moody’ is the word that gets used a lot in the world of muskie fisherman. That goes for both the anglers and the fish, I guess. They’re highly unpredictable with this caveat: seasonal patterns can be anticipated and predicted on certain waters. That’s where a really good guide or local knowledge comes into play. The seasonal pattern of the fishing often involves a post-spawn period when most of the seasons open, when you have a lot of aggressive, smaller fish, primarily smaller male fish, in the 30 to 40-inch range, and then large females, all hungry again and all on the bite. They’re particularly susceptible at that time because their structure options are more limited.

You have smaller weed beds. You have forage in specific areas. You don’t have to work as much water. For the fly angler that’s key because working large swaths of acreage for one muskie is physically impossible for most people. Making them bite is another thing. What we say is muskie fishing is either you had a decent day because you saw a few fish and you may have had a hit, or you maybe landed one, but seeing fish is almost right up there with catching them in terms of success. Once you see them odds are – that is, get a follow from the fish, have them follow right to the boat or have them swirl – once you know where they are it’s highly likely you can go back. Different weather conditions, different barometric (and lunar) conditions, those factors might convert them from being simply a following fish to an eating fish.

That’s that moody part. One day you’ll see them and you’ll be like, “what the heck? I didn’t have a single fish swing on my fly but they all looked at it.” Then other days it’s cast, strip, bang! Fish on.

MC:    True.

Tomes:  That happens often with weather changes. Summer water temperatures can change things significantly because the waters get awfully warm in some muskie areas. You’re looking for early and late bites in the summer. Big frontal system changes, that triggers fish. There’s a photo in my book of a gentleman standing with the beginnings of a funnel cloud in the background and it’s well known that even pre-tornadic conditions can be great muskie fishing, but I don’t recommend it. Same with lightning. That’s how crazy muskie fishing can be, because that will trigger them from following to eating.

In the fall, we’re kind of in prime muskie time right now. The fall fishing is just spectacular both from the general aggressiveness of the fish, that pre-winter feeding binge that they go on, whether they know it’s turning cold or they need it for egg development or whatever. They put on a lot of bulk and they are extremely aggressive. You’re more likely to get hit than followed in the fall season. I spend a lot of my time and catch a lot of my biggest fish in the late season, right up through the close of the season and beyond in those places where there is no closed season. You can fish for them as long as you have open water in some states.

MC:   Gotcha. Let’s go through the basics of what it would take to put a rig together to fish. Let’s say you want to go out and fish for a day with a guide. What would you want to bring?

Tomes:   That’s a great question, Marshall. Basically we’re looking at a nine foot, nine or 10 weight, graphite rod, preferably a faster action rod because you’re fishing larger patterns, both streamers and top water divers or poppers. A fighting butt is really nice simply because you can use it for support against your wrist and also even against your chest if you’re fighting a fish and you’ve got him on the reel. It also helps with the figure eight. When you’ve got a fish close at the boat you can actually use it to hold on to with the other hand on the main handle, something people don’t always think about. Some waters are very prone to figure eight fish and you’re gonna catch your fish right at the boat. You’ve gotta be able to do that.

Reels, large arbor, lightweight large arbor reel. You can spend as little or as much as you want but you’re gonna want something that certainly has the capacity for at least a decent amount of backing, 100-150 yards. You’re not gonna get long runs from these fish but I like to get them on the reel when I can. It’s not always possible. It just depends on the fight.

MC:  What I hear you saying though is the drag is not critical.

Tomes:    It does not need to be a tarpon or a bonefish type drag system, no. That’s correct. As far as lines, I’m using, and most anglers today are using, several different lines depending on what kind of patterns they’re throwing and what kind of structure the fish are on. A weight forward floating line, particularly some of the extreme weight forward lines for big flies are very helpful for getting the pattern where you want it on a consistent basis. Intermediate lines are excellent as well.  Keep it in that mid-zone.

You’re fishing primarily with a fly from the surface down to 15-20 feet. When you start to go really deep with a fly, getting the right retrieve and getting the hook sets and everything else is a whole different game. Those aren’t the fish you’re targeting. You’re targeting generally shallow water fish when you’re fly fishing for muskies. The third line that I’m always carrying is certainly gonna be some kind of fast-sinking, short shooting head, anywhere from 200-300, even up to 400 grain. What that’s going to do for you is two things. One, it’s gonna make it easier to pick up and shoot some of these larger streamer patterns without the same amount of effort as you would need with even an intermediate or a floating line. Also it puts that fly with the short leader in the zone very quickly. Once you learn to throw a shooting head like that and manipulate a fast-sinking head you can really improve your odds.

I fish with a number of different patterns. There’s some great new stuff out there by a number of different tiers that look fantastic in the water, breathe in the water, articulated patterns that swim just like the real thing. But all of those are worthless if you can’t get that presentation consistently and efficiently into the zones where muskies are.

MC:  Let’s get back to another topic. You mentioned the word “crazy” earlier and my impression of kind of the culture of muskie fishing is that it attracts a lot of colorful people. I know a lot like tarpon fishing or permit fishing in the Keys. What is it that gets people so wired and so amped up and so competitive? I mean it’s just a fish for god’s sake, right?

Tomes:   I keep reminding myself that, and obviously I’m a little touched as well since I’ve pursued this for my entire life and even wrote a book about it, so I might not be the most qualified person to talk about it. The fact is throughout history, Marshall, this fish has attracted all kinds of colorful characters. It’s the biggest game fish of note in freshwater. It is the source of legend and myths throughout the North Woods of particularly the Midwest and into Canada.

The competitiveness among those hoping to catch the largest or the most of this species creates all kinds of rivalries and a lot of great stores. I’ve chosen to kind of follow what I’ve seen in this sport on the, shall we say, fictional side of things with the beginnings of an interesting novel. I’m not the first to pursue that, because there’s just so much great stuff that comes out of this sport. Primarily it’s the size of this fish and its status as the fish of 10,000 casts.

Catching one is always an event. Catching a really big one makes the angler who did so an instant expert, so to speak, even if it’s the only one they ever caught in their life. That alone draws a lot of attention. It is akin, I guess, to some of the saltwater species because of the size and the difficulty of pursuing them. As we both know there are hundreds and thousands of tarpon on good days that you might see and you might catch more than one. It’s not impossible to catch tarpon on a fly rod. Some days it does seem impossible to catch a muskie on a fly rod. There’s just so fewer of them. It’s more like, I guess, the permit in that regard.

MC:  I imagine it’s also true that you can have a great day of muskie fishing, just like with the tarpon fishing or fishing for laid up tarpon or for tailing permit of something and actually not catch a fish and have a great day.

Tomes:   You can indeed. There are always things happening during a day of muskie fishing that create indelible memories. I like to say, it really can’t be possible, I like to say I remember every one that I ever caught because each one, each hook up, is so memorable. The visual takes, whether it’s when the fly hits the water or halfway back to the boat, or right at the boat. It’s just one of sport fishing’s greatest events in my mind. I’ve got to do a lot of different fly fishing around the world for different species and it’s incredible, the take. That’s why I encourage everyone to try it. The other aspect of fly fishing for muskies is that the fish, no matter what size, always thinks it’s a 50-pounder. Even the small fish strike aggressively and do all the same maneuvers that the big fish do, and that’s pretty fun.

MC:  Yeah, that’s wonderful for sure. Before we go I do want to ask you about your books because this is, I believe, the fifth anniversary of your giant and very popular book, Muskie on the Fly and then I heard a rumor that you have a couple of new books coming out, right? First, are you doing a second edition of the “Muskie” book and then tell us about what you’re working on now.

Tomes:   Yeah, thank you for asking. It is, believe it or not, the fifth anniversary. Boy, if you had told me six years ago that a publisher would approach me and ask me to write a nearly 300-page book about my muskie fly fishing I would have thought you were totally nuts. But as it turned out it actually became a wonderful project, thanks in large part to Tom Pero, the publisher, and Greg Smith, the graphic designer, and Chris Armstrong, our illustrator on the book, and a lot of people who contributed a lot of information and photographs and things to make it a beautiful book.

Five years later now this book has sold steadily over the years. That’s nice, obviously, but there is no other book about fly fishing for muskie and it served its purpose, which was to bring together all the known information about the sport and get people thinking seriously about how to do this. The second edition is in the works now. We’ve sold quite a few over the five year period and hope to have a second edition as soon as we can get that accomplished.

MC:  Are your new books also about muskie or are you doing something completely different?

Tomes:  My new books are with Stonefly Press and they’re basically guide books about destinations to pursue both muskies and pike on the fly. One is 25 Best Places to Fly Fish for Pike and the other one is 25 Best Places to Fly Fish for Muskie. They’re beautiful little books. I grew up in a time when you had to work long and hard on specific areas and tap into local knowledge to figure out where the good fishing was and all those things. Today we have the internet and we have all kinds of access to information.

These books are focused on the places that I feel are the best for anglers to start and pursue some of the most quality fishing for these two species, pike and muskie. The muskie book covers basically the U.S. and Canada because muskies are indigenous to that region. The pike book covers the U.S., Canada, and also some hot spots in Europe where pike fishing is very popular and very, very good.

MC:  Sounds like a great addition to your more technical book. Thank you so much for being with us and for anybody out there who’s even thinking about fly fishing for muskie, pick up Tomes’s book, Muskie on the Fly. We look forward in the coming months to seeing those two new books come out. Robert, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Tomes:  My pleasure, Marshall. Thank you.