Before I left for the trip I had to prepare myself for the challenges of pursuing a musky with a fly rod. While there is a cult of avid anglers seeking one of the ultimate high-risk, high-reward species in the sport of fly fishing, there aren’t many of them, and they’re not normal. Musky fishermen are nuts, plain and simple.
Muskies are the largest member of the pike family, and their name is an abbreviation for muskellunge. This fish can grow to intimidating sizes, depending on age (they can live up to 20 years) and food source. The average musky in most waters today is 30 to 38 inches in length and about 8 to 16 pounds. Thick-bodied fish in the upper 40-inch range or larger can tip the scales at 30 to 50 pounds.
Finding muskies generally involves locating ambush points or hiding places in deeper pools of water. Known as the fish of 10,000 casts, a good day on the water for a musky fisherman often includes just seeing a fish; a great day could be witnessing some fish follow your fly or strike at it; and an exceptional day of musky fishing means you actually caught a fish.
The right equipment is paramount, and I upgraded big time when I chose to go out with my friend and guide, Matt Miles (mattmilesflyfishing.com), a true musky junky. Matt spent his entire 20s as a guide and trout bum in Colorado before moving back home to Virginia where he now guides for freshwater striped bass, smallmouth bass, trout and musky. Most of his guiding is done out of a Boulder Boat Works drift boat, a welcomed treat for any fly fisherman. This boat has it all.
Matt is also a crazed musky fly tier. His fly box can be daunting for the first-timer.
The approach I use to cast these big 12-14 inch flies is the water haul. Instead of false casting and double hauling, I simply threw one back cast about half of my desired cast length, and let the fly sit on the water for just a second, followed by a forward cast. The added drag from the water on the fly loads the rod and makes it easier to cast accurately at shorter distances. An adequate fly rod and line for this situation makes all the difference: on this day I was using a Beulah Blue Water Series 9’ 11wt with a 300 grain sinking line.
Our morning started out slow, not seeing a fish for a few hours. Keeping in mind muskies are window feeders, we were hopeful the afternoon would yield some action.
The first fish I saw came out of nowhere and struck my fly. After a hard strip set and rod lift, I realized there was no tension on the line. He left as quickly as he came, and the hook never went in his lip. Shit. Musky have poor vision (and a blind spot between their eyes to boot), and often times they rely on the mechanoreception from the lateral line to locate prey. This can lead to short-striking, of which I was now very aware. It was painful to behold.
After that miss and another follow from a bigger fish without hooking up, the morale was visibly low, and my arm was killing me. I came into this trip with a troubled elbow, and throwing heavy musky flies with an 11wt rod for hours on end was not a part of the treatment plan.
I was now in a deep hole and needed to get my fly down in the water channel to get their attention. An old tree trunk lay at the bottom of the river, and I felt confident there might be some fish in the area. I sensed the strike before I ever saw a thing. On this retrieve my fly was overcome by the fish… and I knew it was a musky.
Thankfully, the hook did its job, and I was able to get some great photos with this 40” 20 pound fish.
Seeking this top-of-the-food-chain predator is known to push the limits of fly fishing sanity. Though I was fortunate not have to throw all 10,000 casts, it’s certain I will never forget my first musky on the fly. When it comes to pushing the envelope of physical and mental anguish - size matters.