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  • Matt Reilly


Fish enough, and keep track of the weather and conditions, and certain patterns begin to emerge. Like, for example, when it’s worth going fishing, and when it’s not.

When the South Fork gets a bit of rain in the winter and the clouds hang on for a few days after, and when the air (and water) isn’t frigid, it’s a good time to go fishing, and you can usually find me wet, but warm, coffee on my hip, plying frog water for a big brown trout.

On the South Fork, “big” means anything over 12 inches, and though there are some near-30-inch fish hidden in the dark, heavy water, 18-inchers are much more numerous (though still rare), and I’d be happy with just one. An 18-inch brown trout is a great fish anywhere in the world, but they are, relatively, predictable.

The 30-inchers, however, are not. They’re a different fish than an 18-incher, and they play by their own rules. Their very nature makes them predictably unpredictable.

Every musky is a 30-inch brown trout, so I tell myself, to put myself in the mindset necessary to capturing one with a fly and rod. A favorable moon phase; cloudy, but not dirty, water; low light; slightly elevated flows; and warm enough weather to facilitate fishing proficiency tip the odds in your favor, but don’t guarantee anything.

But, sometimes I just go because I want to, despite “bad” or “unfavorable” conditions, because I’m hardheaded, and because “you don’t know unless you go.” Particularly in musky fishing.

Such was the case one early winter day. We were under a generally tough moon phase with bright skies, gin clear and very low water. Great conditions for seeing musky. Not so great for catching. And I kinda hoped we wouldn’t.

My car’s thermometer read 15 degrees when I got to the boat ramp, and the temp stayed in the low 20s for most of the morning. My boat was frozen, solidly, to the trailer, and only after pouring hot coffee on my buckle straps could I get them to open. My boat box was frozen shut, and my anchor line wouldn’t roll through the pulley system because the rope was frozen in coils like wire. My wading boots, once wet, froze almost instantly to anything I stepped on.

Not catching a fish would make it ok for me to forego fishing in such conditions in the future, and I’d be fine with that. But maybe we’d at least see a fish, and that’s really what I was in it for—feeling out a piece of moderately familiar water while the water was low and clear.

And see we did. Twelve musky we saw, following flies to the boat, over the course of about four hours. More still just cruised by the boat in plain sight. One followed a half dozen times, and each time hung up about ten feet out, likely because of the incredibly clear water.

By mid-afternoon, ice wasn’t forming so quickly in the guides, and I could stand in one place for about a minute without my felt soles freezing to the boat floor. I had rowed the morning, and I swapped out for a casting position with Clint, a trout guide on the South Holston River, and my fishing partner for the day.

It had become abundantly evident that we were not going to feed a fish boatside. They’d have to eat at the end of a cast. So I began making the longest casts that I could to spots I knew fish to be sulking, starting with a slow retrieve, and revving it up to high gear quickly, trying to engage and trigger a fish into eating before the fly got halfway back to the boat.

About a half hour into my stint on the casting deck, I made a long cast across the belly of the pool we were working, started dancing my fly slowly, and then began increasing speed. A white gill plate exploded on my fly just a few feet below the surface. I strip set. Hard. Multiple times. And kept stripping. A few seconds later, a beast was bagged.

And quite a beast it was. The tape measure reported that it was one of the longest musky I’ve caught to date. Nearly 50 inches of lean river monster, and on the unlikeliest of days.

It’s hard to resent such an experience, and I surely wouldn’t give that fish up for a warm day at the vise or on the couch. But I’m really not looking forward to stripping musky flies in unfavorable conditions and sub-20-degree weather, again. But then again, I kinda am, and you can bet I’ll be out there working to make it happen, because you don’t know unless you go, and I know a lesson when it eats my fly like that one did.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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