Hours into the float already, we’d chucked green and yellow, chartreuse and pink, and black and purple—some with big reflective eyes and others with barred feathers that enticingly slip and slide behind the body of the fly. Nothing was working. Brett, my musky copilot, and I weren’t moving fish like I thought we would, considering the cold mornings that fall had been delivering.
So we anchored our raft among a toothy, log-infested section that we’d both come to love and hate over the past year. We then went about the task of choosing a new fly from several I’d tied a few nights earlier. Our simple process was based on three factors: Does it look good in the water; is the hook sharp; and is it big enough?
“This one looks juicy, dude,” I’d say to Brett, as I spun the fly around in my fingers, stroking it into that perfect fish profile. For every confident statement like this I’d ever made about a fly while it was in my vise, I’d contradict it with another one once we got on the water. “Actually, it looks like shit now,” I’d say aloud to myself, when just hours earlier I was showcasing it at the boat launch as if it were made of gold. When hunting musky, doubt comes with the territory.
One thing I did know is that my ‘little’ natural fly had moved my last four fish in these sections.
Those fish were in March. It was now late September. More than five months had passed since anyone in our group had thrown at these fish. There’s typically a seasonal change in fly selection, but in this case, I thought this spring-tied beauty would work.
I confidently grabbed the eight-inch fly—a successful pattern eventually stolen by my brother on a musky trip to Pennsylvania. It is considered small in musky circles, and maybe even poorly tied, since it had no bulkhead—a feature viewed as essential on most musky flies for its ability to displace water in front of the fly’s head. Musky can feel this displacement on their lateral line, the sensory system running from head-to-tail that fish use to detect when prey is close. The fly’s wispy tailfeathers were repurposed from a trout streamer, and its natural tan bucktail was sweetened with yellow, orange, and crystal flash that quivered as it moved. It was everything I remembered the old fly being, but half a foot shorter than patterns used by other anglers.
The average musky fly can be upwards of twelve inches, getting as long as eighteen, with the general rule being to build bulk without adding weight. The single hooks used in flies are large, allowing your thumb to slide into the hook gap without nicking your skin on the barb. As with patterns for other fish, confidence in a musky fly can greatly affect results. The difference with musky is that your confidence must be strong enough to keep you casting a foot-long fly into a cold and rainy November wind, through the pain of sore shoulders, wrists, and forearms. During those moments when physical depletion is imminent, perseverance requires more than a friendly reminder that “it only takes one.”
I’d run more than fifty float trips in the past year, totaling more than four hundred hours on the water—equal to flying eighty times from L.A. to NYC. I’d spent at least a hundred more hours in tying and travel, plus thousands of dollars on musky-sized rods and reels, bucktails, hooks, licenses, gas, beer, food, lodging, and giant nets impractical for anything but musky. I’d crossed three state lines fishing with anglers who knew those waters and had dozens of musky in their nets to show for it. They’d taken me to their secret spots, places that have taught them to understand musky like I wanted to understand them. Yet there are still so many things I don’t know about this fish, and it’s the kind of knowledge that only comes with time on the water.
I’d been playing the probability game: I knew where they lived and what they’d eat, so—the theory goes—I’d have to connect with a fish eventually. I’d had them on my hook for split seconds. They’d followed my flies for thirty feet, and then dropped off. I’d even managed to go tight on a big one and fight it to the boat, only to have it swim right through the bottom of my net like its teeth were hot knives in butter. I was so close, but so far away.
The musky is a fish of contradictions: powerful, yet lazy; incredibly elusive but periodically social; sensitive and picky, yet dangerously predatory. Musky will occasionally commit cannibalism on juveniles, or eat baby ducks or frogs off the surface. A musky will bring its duck-shaped bill of a mouth right to the backside of a fly, stalking it so closely that a single thrust of its tail would allow her to inhale it. They can also ambush from the depths, shooting a fly into the air like a great white ramming a seal.
I’ve seen musky explosions three feet from the side of a raft, their unhinged aggression fearless of our presence. I’ve also seen them gently breach the surface like a tarpon gulping for air, the crest of their mossy-green and pale-yellow backs glistening in the sun. They can actively hunt from morning to night, or will suspend themselves all day against the banks, or in the backs of eddies, or beneath log jams looking for redhorse suckers, bass, and trout. The way I figure it, musky are predictable one percent of the time, a hundred percent of the time.
The chilly weather is partly why I’d chosen to go out that day. I could see my breath, and water temperatures were cooling—meaning happy musky ready to feed. I’m not saying I saw into my future, but I felt and proclaimed at the launch that our session was going to produce. I’d even given a big speech in the shuttle over about how serious we would take this season—not letting any opportunities go to waste. But regardless of motivation level, sometimes you just hit the wall.
There’s never really a break with only two anglers on a musky float. Someone is always rowing and the other constantly chucks line. Camaraderie helps compensate, as the sport’s real struggle is forgotten in lieu of deeper relationships built on the water. Still, denial after denial with nothing but a glimpse from these fish will wear on any angler’s psyche. It takes good boatmates to make it through a day, much less a week.
By this point we’d been on the water six hours, with slowly lowering expectations of seeing and moving a fish. Fatigue was setting in for us both, as we were just getting back into musky shape after taking the summer off, allowing the fish to survive seasonal stresses beyond angling. Brett had started in the front of the boat, with our new fly clipped onto an eighty-pound fluoro leader. He’d made cast after cast until his feeble arms wore out. Now visibly drained, he simply looked back at me, dropped the rod into the well of the boat, and said, “Gavin, you’re up.”
Halfway into my bow time, we were approaching a section of river where, coincidentally, our mentor had solo-landed a fish of a lifetime. Brett had walked down the bank to find Alan holding a fifty-inch female—what most consider a game-ending catch. As one of the few double-doglegs on the river, it’s an easily identifiable stretch, with enough water to work a fly deep from top to bottom. It feels very fishy.
While stripping in from the bank, I saw a musky trailing just inches behind the fly. “She’s here, Brett, she’s here!” (He later told me I repeated that line several times, louder as she got closer. Sometimes the adrenaline rush causes me to black out.) During these moments, reality in the boat suddenly shifts. If you’re drunk, you’re now sober. If anyone’s eating a snack, they’ve dropped it. Everyone is up, alert, and watching the fish behind the fly.
Great flyfishers eventually graduate from being a responsive angler—merely reacting, usually improperly, to chaos unfolding in front of them—to being a predictive angler shaped by experiences and time on the water, able to read the scene and be prepared for the next move before it happens.
I’m still a responder with musky. I have time on the water, but not time with musky on my line. This is why so many anglers lose hard-to-catch fish: They’re hesitant in the fight because hooking one is so rare, but by treating the fish like a precious metal, they actually decrease the chance of landing it. Generally speaking, the longer any fish is on your line, the lower your chance of landing it becomes.
As the musky neared the boat I kept my strip-cadence in rhythm to help prevent it from turning off of the fly. I heard the audible click of my flyline-to-leader connection sliding through the first eyelet. It’s a sound all musky fly-anglers listen for, because it’s the sign to begin phase two of the show—the famous figure-eight—requiring me to transition the fish from swimming gracefully behind my fly to racing aggressively after it. Around and around the fly goes until the musky either attacks or fades back to the depths. These fish will stay in a figure-eight pattern from mere seconds to—from what I’ve heard—up to ten minutes. It’s the sport’s iconic move, and hailed as the top predatory trigger for musky. When done wrong, the jig is up right there and then—mark it on the board as a lost opportunity.
I’d missed fish by screwing up this scenario in the past, but I’d visualized its success hundreds of times, creating countless scenes that could play out for me or a client. It’s no different than when I’m actually fishing: Every cast is affected by my imagination the moment the fly hits the water.
“She’s in the figure-eight, Brett!” I yelled, probably also more than once. I ran my rod below me with sweeping turns, making sure to give the fish plenty of room to turn around on the sides. For once, I was doing everything right. The fish was staying with the fly. If someone had taken a picture of me at that moment, my facial expression probably looked like a crazed hunchback stirring a giant cauldron.
She’d already tried to strike the fly three times, at one point disappearing off the side of the boat for a few seconds while my rod frantically swirled to keep her engaged. She returned with murder in her eyes, and with one more turn of my rod, she opened her mouth and ate. My rod ripped across the water as I strip-set, and the line went heavy.
She was the first musky I’d put into a net in the year since I’d started my hunt. I know what happened that day was a mix of preparation, pursuit, and pure dumb luck. But it still felt really good to know that all that work wasn’t wasted.