When it finally happened, I was thinking about lunch: moose stew bubbling over the Coleman stove back at camp or turkey and cheese on a bulkie roll. I’d been casting since dawn, and both choices seemed tempting. Standing at the stern of my canoe, I gazed across the water into Canada. Large, spiky evergreens lined the far shore. The few deciduous trees were beyond peak foliage. When I turned my attention back to the all-black, foot-long streamer hovering near my rod tip, it had company. A large muskellunge lay motionless, eyeballing the fly.
It took a moment to register the fish’s proportions. The outline resembled an oversized bowling pin; in the black water, the muskie glowed yellow-gold, its gaze fixed on the feathers fluttering before it—our thoughts of lunch synchronized. Now within arm’s reach, the fish paid no mind to my 6-foot-5 frame, or to the 17-foot Old Town canoe floating above its head. I found this troubling. It occurred to me, as the muskie continued to hover, that I had no idea what to do next.
I should mention that this was my first venture muskie fishing, a solo trip to a river system on the border of Maine and New Brunswick. I’d brought my 10 and 12-weight fly rods rigged with intermediate sinking line, hefty enough to chuck large, attention-grabbing flies and—hopefully—stop a fish over 40 inches. That morning, the thermometer clipped to my coat read 28 degrees. My pockets were stuffed with hand-warmers that barely kept my wet fingers functional. There were no other anglers in sight.
With the muskie boat-side, I decided to twitch my 10-weight once, jolting the fly to life.
Have you seen those videos in which a wildebeest timidly sips from a muddy watering hole? In one heart-stopping instant, a crocodile rises from the murk to devour it. The muskie reacted in much the same way; my fly fluttered tentatively, and then it was gone. The fish decelerated and turned after the eat as if it had gotten away with something. It had.
I set the hook with an upward rod sweep; I had no line left with which to strip-set. I felt the 5/0 hook point hit bone, saw a brief and violent headshake. My fly popped loose, and the muskie dashed for bottom. Dazed and exhilarated, I’d suddenly lost my appetite. I yelled an expletive in Canada’s direction. Welcome to muskie fishing.
Certain fish species mesmerize hardcore anglers. They induce the strongest obsessions and, not coincidentally, are often the hardest to catch: Keys permit; Baja roosterfish; Skeena steelhead. And, of course, muskellunge.
Chris Willen makes a living hunting muskie. Knowing the challenge his quarry presents, one might question his sanity, but Willen’s hard work and dedication courts success. Under the umbrella of his eponymous guide service, Willen takes clients muskie fishing year-round. He follows the seasons, targeting the toothy predators from Northern Wisconsin to Tennessee. A quick look through his photo gallery and Instagram page shows how well Willen understands one of the most challenging fish on the planet.
“Like any big game hunt,” Willen told me recently, “muskie fishing is as much mental as it is physical. You have to be in the game every moment of every cast. Sometimes monotony sets in and you’ll blow an opportunity. You have to be prepared for an all-day grind.”
I make the decision to not tell Chris about my first blown opportunity—I’m sure he’s seen similar events unfold in his own boat.
Willen guides both conventional and fly anglers, and he’s quick to offer useful advice to the more recently obsessed, like myself.
“I use wire leader regardless of water clarity,” he told me. “I’ve seen muskie bite through 100-pound fluoro. When they eat the fly or lure, they often inhale the whole thing, almost always getting teeth on the bite guard.”
With wire leader, Willen explains, the likelihood of a bite-off goes down to nearly zero. With fluorocarbon leader, one risks losing a fish that might be the only one of the day, or of an entire trip. “They’re not leader shy in any way,” Willen assured me.
Muskellunge are known for their bravado. As apex predators and the largest members of the pike family, adults have few natural predators. “Once they reach a certain size, they’re pretty fearless,” Willen said.
Just last week, a boat side muskie attacked one of Willen’s oar blades. “Not the first time that’s happened,” he added.
Since muskie often follow flies or lures up to the boat—as my first muskie did—anglers have developed methods to entice them in close quarters. The figure-eight method might seem absurd to trout or tarpon anglers; it’s a move that would spook most game fish. But muskellunge are not most game fish. The angler sticks their rod tip into the water and moves the lure or fly in a wide, swirling, literal figure-eight motion. Serious muskie hunters do this after every single cast. A trailing muskie—sometimes visible to the angler and sometimes not—often follows. Sometimes it eats and sometimes it doesn’t. The theory is that showing the muskie your bait broadside might trigger an aggressive take.
“They might go around and around on your fly or lure for many, many turns before they decide to eat or just swim off,” Willen told me. “Getting a big fish to eat boat-side on the figure-eight is the ultimate challenge.”
Once an angler hooks a muskie, they’re by no means out of the woods. “The biggest misconception [of new muskie anglers] is that once you get the fish to eat, you’ve got it in the bag,” Willen said. “A lot has to go right from eat to picture time. Fighting them in a way where you’re in control is key.”
He explained that hooked muskie jump, bulldog, flip and roll, and dart around and under watercraft. Keeping maximum pressure is absolutely paramount. Muskie rods—fly and conventional—must have the backbone to exert such pressure over fish that often surpass 20 pounds.
“It can be heart-stopping until they hit the bag,” Willen said. “Oftentimes, once a muskie is in the net, the fly or lure just falls out; constant pressure was the only thing keeping that fish buttoned.”
I’ve landed a few muskies since that first heart-breaking encounter. Just a couple months ago, I returned to that same location, this time with my friend Nome, a former muskie guide herself who owns and operates a predator-specific fly tying company.
Our fly boxes overflowed with six to 15-inch flies, ranging from all-black (a preferred color for Maine muskie) to brighter trout, sucker, and yellow perch imitations. Nome hollow-ties her flies so that trapped air between materials creates buoyancy and darting action on the pause.
We cast to weed edges, drop offs, and rocky points. We switched flies often; even unpressured muskies are notoriously picky eaters. We changed profile and color schemes, hoping to produce a bite.
That morning we counted a dozen follows—mostly juveniles, with a few larger fish mixed in. Our follows all came on black flies, perhaps due to visibility—black throws the best silhouette under water. After lunch we returned to a place not far from where I’d lost my first muskie that cold autumn afternoon. We chucked gear rods with flashy in-line spinners—orange blades with black marabou tails—then large soft plastic lures that landed like rocks dropped from high altitude. Our lures vibrated, wiggled, rattled. We hoped the commotion might trigger an attack from a sensory-oriented predator.
After an unproductive stretch, we switched back to fly rods and black flies. On one of my first few casts, a muskie crushed the fly along a weed bed. The fish dashed from the shallows, my fly line blading through the water. When the muskie torpedoed, I could see my fly barely piercing the top of its head.
“Foul-hooked,” I said aloud, though I was sure Nome had noticed. I knew the hook wouldn’t stick and seconds later, as the fish sprinted for deeper water, my line went slack.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes,” Nome said. “You did everything right.”
We hooked seven muskies that day, Nome landing a fat fish on the doorstep of 40 inches. I managed to lose two more, but was not discouraged. I’d been properly initiated to muskie fishing.
“There is something haunting about these fish,” Willen told me. He shared that his clients had hooked 11 muskies the past two days of fishing, but only three had made it into his net.
“Every catch is a small victory,” he said. “It’s so fun; it’s so frustrating.”
Feature image via Sam Lungren.