How to Slay Your Dragon
“Before you can come fish with me again you have to get one on your own. There’s too much pressure now.”
It was said with a half-joking half-smile by my good friend and fly rod musky guide Chris Willen at the end of a hot, hard-fishing day on which no muskies were caught. The late summer Wisconsin sun was still high, warm yellow columns angling through the Norway pines, and we were sweating and trailering the boat. And until that point, we had managed to avoid talking about how I still had not caught a musky on the fly.
I had become a hard case for him. He is a musky-medicine-man-for-hire who has probably counted coup on every riverine musky north of Madison at least once. Never, however, when I was along. And I’m sure it frustrated him, but really, the pressure was on me. All he could do was put me on muskies, which he did routinely. It was up to me to get them to eat, and I was not doing it.
I’d spent nearly two years seriously fly fishing for muskies without catching one. I started and struck out on my local mid-Michigan musky waters. I fished the Motor City Musky Factory known as Lake St. Clair. While the Midwest was Polar Vortex-bound, I went south – twice – to the year-round growing season and Prestone-green rivers of Middle Tennessee. When I moved home to Minneapolis and the land of 10,000 musky lakes, I bought a boat and rigged it for musky fishing and fished the musky-managed metro water, between pilgrimages to Hayward. I had shadowy follows and unseen eats; a few straight refusals from sight-cast fish. Two unforgettable heart-stopping white-mouth fly inhalations. But no fish to hand. Not even close.
Social media was getting away from me – everyone knew I was chasing muskies and seemed to assume I was catching them. Random people began to contact me for advice on rods, lines, and flies. How long before I slipped from beginner to poser? How many “musky trips” could I go on without catching a musky before I had to stop calling them “musky trips”?
Soon I would have to either quit musky fishing or take it underground. Well, that, or catch one. I knew – had to believe – that more time on the water was the only thing that mattered. But my mind had begun to theorize in wild and superstitious ways. Was I wearing the wrong fleece pants under my waders? Holding my mouth wrong on the retrieve? Was I being punished?
Friends kept telling me I was “due” for a fish. But that’s not how it works. Banked casting hours do not count toward some future musky. It’s like the old statistics trick: if you toss a coin and it lands heads 99 times in a row, what are the chances it will be tails on toss number 100? So goes musky fishing, but with longer odds. The musky is not really a fish of 10,000 casts, as if it’s a countdown; it’s a fish of one cast. For some people it’s cast number one and for others it might be number one million. Some, I was beginning to fear, may never get that cast.
The musky is often compared to an alligator or a wolf; for me, it had skipped right over those natural toothy metaphors and become a full-blown dragon: mythical, maybe not even real. The object of quests that often end with the knight burned out.
One thing had become clear: I did have to get one on my own. Not to relieve the pressure on my guide friends, but because I’d worked so hard. After all this, someone else’s boat or someone else’s fly or someone else’s river beat – each would diminish my triumph, if it were to come. I had to set my jaw and fish on my own terms.
* * *
My terms are north: a marginal musky fishery with difficult access and plenty of solitude. The country is big, breathtaking, and unforgiving. Abandoned summer cottages erode in the windblown grit of a generation’s winters. Overgrown farm buildings decay, the timbers returning to the very earth from which they were cut. The river itself weaves serpentine through a broad open marsh where wolves haunt the sparse high ground, not deer or some other, more optimistic creature. In the fall, a high, dark, raining overcast settles in and green is rinsed from the landscape. My musky has to come from this desolate place, where few others go at all and none throw flies.
Three companions and I are camped for the second night on a small sandy rise. I sit staring into a fire that spits and hisses in the October rain. Despite tin-cup rye whiskey and good company, I am troubled. That afternoon a bronze-green tooth-filled head had swiped at and missed my fly boatside: its unblinking eye, large and reptilian, looked into mine for an instant. It is all I can see as the wet wood burns fitfully.
Presently we are stumbling from our tents, already in our waders, into another grey, wet morning. It seems that on this river all mornings are grey and wet, the only color being the bright yellow birch leaves, on the ground or headed there. We heat water for coffee, bail the night’s rain out of the boats, and warm up the outboards.
An hour later: ten strips from the bank, my fly stops. I strip set, hard, the line stretching, and the hooks stick. It is obvious from the headshakes that it has a big head, at least. As he rolls by the boat, I can see the mottled green flank and know that it is not another northern pike. He is strong and angry and even with the eleven-weight I am following his lead for a while.
But soon enough he is in my hands, emerald and copper with a duck-eating mouth full of glorious teeth, gaping at the camera – and so am I, both of us amazed. Him at the dry, blinding alien universe, and me by the slow, surreal comprehension of a dragon finally slain. The barbless hooks are out now, and without pausing to rest, the musky thrashes back to the main river channel.
Dripping, grinning now, on my knees in the icy tannic water. I have never worked so hard for one fish, nor fished so long without success; never felt such triumph and relief afterward. The shadow is gone from all the excellent musky trips I’ve had, the friends, laughs, the spectacular places – they remain, now in sharper relief, as steps along a path to this day. I think, now, that in a thousand years I would never have caught a fish on one of those trips. It had to happen here, in this place, on my fly, in my boat. Nothing to diminish the victory. No asterisk.
That night, the last precious percent of phone battery percentage is spent to send a text message to Chris Willen:
“I GOT ONE.”