Musky are curious critters. If you follow this column, you know that I spend what probably amounts to an unhealthy amount of time considering what makes them tick. They’re a mysterious fish with a swagger that doesn’t always match their predatory physiology. They’ll break you, mentally and physically, only to show up when you’re least suspecting it. They’ll make your week and make you question why you fish. They also seem to back my plate when it comes to female accosting, which, if you follow this column, you know I took a fair amount of back in October when a certain lady of mine caught a nice brown trout, despite my naysaying (see “Murphy, Your Girlfriend, and Salmonid Aggression”). Or, that is to say they did that once, which, in the world of musky fishing, means it’s something they do.
A friend of mine, Clint, who guides for trout on the South Holston River in Tennessee, has been musky fishing with me three times. The first time, he hooked and lost a fish, and his buddy lost half of the rod he loaned him, and then proceeded to catch a giant musky. The second time, he had about 12 fish follow to the boat, and then when he was gracious enough to row and let me fish, I caught a giant.
On our third trip, Ali, unlikely brown trout slayer and my girlfriend, accompanied us, and they were chatting about their past musky experiences at the put-in while I ran the shuttle. Ali was hoping to see her first musky, which did not bode well for Clint.
Despite her skepticism, she’s decidedly bad luck when it comes to musky fishing. According to pirates, women on boats are bad luck. I don’t subscribe to that notion, but in Ali’s case, it’s either true or Murphy’s law was designed specifically for her. Whenever we float together, the weather takes a turn for the worse, conditions aren’t as advertised (drastically), or she falls out of the boat (it happened once). The last time I tried to take her musky fishing, conditions were perfect when I launched the boat, and by the time I returned from running the shuttle, the river had risen two feet, turned to chocolate, and was full of more debris than a tornado’s path.
But we were avoiding such luck on this fine, winter day. Or so we thought. On our way to the river, the flow picked up about 2000 cubic feet per second and the river grew dirty. It was Ali’s fault, or so we were forced to believe, but when we arrived, the water didn’t look to bad, so we didn’t deviate.
In dirty water situations, musky fishing is truly feast or famine. Rarely can you see a follow or a fish that doesn’t end up in a fly getting eaten and a fish hooked.
The first bit of large, riverine life we spotted was brown, swimming across the river in front of us with its head just above water. Ali had never seen a river otter before, but it was at the top of her bucket list, particularly given how often I report otter sightings on the days she’s not floating with me. So I pushed downriver to try to get a closer look.
As we approached, it looked as if the rodent ran up onto a small island bordered by a piece of productive musky water. A worn path about as wide as an otter confirmed what we had suspected from a slight distance, and so I offered to let Ali onto the island with her binoculars on otter safari, and she accepted.
“Are you going to wait for me?” she asked?
“No, Clint and I are going to go catch this musky, over here,” I replied, rowing away from the island.
On his next cast, Clint was stripping his fly back to the boat, and his rod tip began to bend just a little extra on each strip.
“That’s different,” he said.
Despite low visibility, the rod tip’s behavior betrayed a fish that had eaten the fly and was swimming at the boat like a mud slide does an otter.
“Strip, strip, strip!”
When Clint caught up to the fish, it turned and broke about 20 feet from the boat, head thrashing, turning the water white. A short, no holds barred battle later, a giant fish was resting in the net.
We hailed Ali, and rowed over to the island to show her and snap some photos. She hadn’t seen the otter, but, despite earning us high and dirty water with her presence, she had afforded us a brief window of opportunity to get the job done for Clint on his first musky by stepping out of the boat for five minutes, and for that we were all grateful.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian