The musky craze continues to amaze me. Fly anglers from around the country want to experience the thrill and excitement that is musky fishing. I see lots of people coming up to Minnesota with no real clue about what it takes to catch a musky on the fly. Musky fishing with a fly rod is not for the faint of heart. It takes dedication, patience, and stamina to accomplish this lofty goal. I have made a list of the top ten things that can make this goal a little bit easier to attain, but always keep in mind it is a lofty goal, and muskies don’t come easy.
- It’s all between your ears. The hardest thing to convey to new musky fishing clients is the amount of mental toughness it can take. Staying in the game for hours on end without ever seeing a fish is a daunting task, to say the least. This is where staying focused separates the men from boys. The minute you let up is when the big girl is going to decide to eat. You have to have the confidence that this is the cast that is going to get it done. It might be three days of washing flies when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere that 45-inch beast decides to eat. If you aren’t ready and focused, you can kiss that fish goodbye.
- Set Goals. What are you looking for? Do you just want to catch a musky, or do you want to catch a large musky? The latter can take years and force you to endure a lot of disappointment. When it does happen, however, the reward is spectacular. If you just want to catch a musky to say you did it, that is an entirely different proposition. Let your guide know what you are looking for, and he will do his best to make it happen.
- Fish where there are fish. Once you’ve set your goals, you need to determine what kind of water and locations that you will want to fish. If you’re after that trophy, that will limit the number and locations of the waters available to you. Do your homework or trust a guide to put you in the waters that hold the kind of experience you are looking for. I take clients to different rivers depending on what they are looking for. If a client just wants to take a nice musky, I might take them to a certain river. But if they are looking for the true trophy, I still might take him on the same river, but it might be a totally different section.
- Fish peak periods of the year. I only guide for musky in the fall. I like to hunt trophy fish, and this is the best time to make that happen. They have had all summer to grow and now are looking to put on the feed bag for the long, hard winter here in Minnesota. The other great thing about the fall is that the fish seem to be a little less moody than normal. Muskies are notorious for following your fly and then turning away, leaving you breathless with disbelief. I’m not going to say this doesn’t happen in the fall, but it happens less and the big fish are very aggressive this time of year.
You don’t catch big muskies with slender streamers. You need something big that pushes a lot of water. photo courtesy Kip Vieth
- Big flies = Big fish. If you look at conventional musky baits, the size of them will amaze you. The idea of a big bucktail spinner is to make as much commotion and flash under the water as possible. Getting a fly to do this is difficult at best. Casting these monsters is even worse. You have to push as much water as you can, and I like a lot of flash, too. Give that musky a reason to come and move to your fly. Pushing water is a great way to cause the disturbance that will most likely trigger a strike. I know that most of you are fly anglers, but if you are serious about chasing musky, look and even cast a conventional musky rod to get a feel for what is going on under the water. I think you will be amazed by what these baits can do.
- Get into casting shape. Casting a 10-weight all day is no small task. Now put a half of a chicken on the leader with a 15-mile-per hour wind, and you’ll quickly learn a lot about your casting abilities. You would be amazed how fast anglers can burn out. I have had anglers come up for a three-day trip, and they are almost wiped out by lunch the first day. Practice and know what you’re getting yourself into. When you do, pace yourself. It’s a long day, so take it easy and cast wisely.
- Dress for success. It gets cold here early in the North Country. We have fished in major snowstorms and cold fall rains. Nothing can make you as miserable as no fish than being cold and wet. It may sound simple, but you’d be surprised how many anglers come ill-prepared.
- Keep your fly moving. If you were being chased by a lion, would you stop? Well, if you’re a bait and a big musky is behind you, I don’t think that you would stop and look around to see what is happening. I have seen it time and time again, when a big musky appears behind a client’s fly, and the angler just freezes. They can’t believe a fish that big swims in the waters they are fishing, and they stare in disbelief. This is where the guide begins to scream frantically to keep the fly moving. Once the client awakens from their daze, it is often too late. Now , this doesn’t mean that you can’t tease and twitch your fly to get the musky to eat. That usually happens after the fish gets behind it and hasn’t committed to it. Then you can tease and twitch the fly to try and entice a strike. This comes with experience. Don’t be surprised if the freeze happens to you on your first big fish, and don’t be surprised when your guide or fishing partner begins to yell to keep the fly moving.
- Strip-set and then strip-set again. Don’t think the trout lift or rod strike is ever going to get a fly hook set in that fish’s mouth. Once again, I go back to the conventional gear anglers. If you look at their rods and the lures that they cast, the light will go on, as it did for me. Feeling very frustrated for years at the number of fish that clients and I missed, I talked to an employee at a very good musky store. He said to me, “What makes you think that you should be any different than anyone else? Look at those rods and lures on the shelves. We can’t get a hook in them sometime with those broom sticks and all those hooks.” That’s when it hit me. The fly caster has a big disadvantage when it comes to setting that all important hook. If the conventional tackle guys can’t do it with that big stick, what makes you think you can with your flimsy fly rod? The only way to put a hook in a muskies mouth is with a strip-set followed with about ten more. I’ll say it again: strip set, strip set, strip set.
- Learn from experience. Use the resources around you. There are plenty of them out there: guides, fellow anglers, the DNR, and your own experience. When many of us were first learning about muskies, there wasn’t a whole lot to draw from. I was fortunate to have a fellow guide teach me a lot of what he knew. It was just enough to be dangerous. Nothing takes the place of time on the water. You can read this brief article, scour some books, pick the brains of other guides and anglers, but nothing compares to spending your time chasing the freshwater version of a permit. Take the challenge and relish it. Nothing is more rewarding than accomplishing one’s goals by doing a lot of hard work and having the toughness to see it through to its conclusion. Just get out there and cast.