In later October, 2015 we embarked on our second annual Montana Angler musky on the fly adventure to Northern Wisconsin. Muskellunge is the apex predator across most of the Midwest and southern Canada and one of the ultimate challenges on a fly rod. Muskies are a fish of myth and legend and are notoriously difficult to catch resulting in the aptly named moniker the “fish of 10,000 casts”. We once again put ourselves in the hands of Brad Bohen and his guides at Musky Country Outfitters. Brad is a two time musky on the fly world record holder and spends over 120 days a year guiding fly anglers for this mythical beast. He also operates Primo Tail fly company which specializes in the production of the gargantuan flies used to catch these beasts. Our team of anglers this year was comprised of myself, Miles McGeehan, Anthony Rosini and Doug Casey.
Northern Wisconsin is home to some of the world’s most productive musky lakes but it is the large river systems that we enjoy fishing. As died in the wool trout anglers there is just something special about float fishing large rivers and pulling streamers the size of small ducks through the water. The fishing is not for the faint of heart and at times we often wonder why we are actually spending hard earned funds to torture both mind and body. This is truly some of the toughest fishing I have ever done in my life. After a few days of musky fishing we return both physically and mentally exhausted. There is something special about the grueling nature of the pursuit and when all of the hard work final results in a tug the adrenaline rush that accompanies is unmatched. This is a sport where success is defined as a single fish and failure is the norm vs. the exception.
On Thursday October 20th we left Bozeman on a direct flight to Minneapolis mid day. Upon renting a car we drove about 3 hours to remote area of Northern Wisconsin on the edge of the Flambeau State Forest north of the small town of Ladysmith. Brad’s operation is based out of the Flambeau Lodge which is equipped with basic cabins, a full bar, pool table, dart board and several dogs roaming the grounds - our kind of place!
Day 1 - Fishing the Flambeau River
On day one we fueled up on some a hearty breakfast prepared by Brad and then headed to the river. Doug and Miles were guided by Westin and Anthony and I hooked up with Brad. After running our own shuttles and dropping Westin and the boys upriver we launched Brad’s jet boat and proceeded to spray the water with casts. Brad uses the jet to quickly access musky rich waters. The Flambeau is a large river with clear water stained brown with tannins. Anthony and I used some of Brad’s 11 weight saltwater rods teamed up with 450 grain streamer express shooting heads and monstrously large flies. Brad’s patterns favor heavy amounts of Wisconsin bucktail - often died in bright colors to better see the fly. Most of the patterns use a massive spun and clipped deer hair head that pushes a lot of water. The saddle hackle, flashabou and bucktail that trail literally dance through the water. With quick pronounced strips the fly darts left and right similar to a zara spook topwater spin bait. The goal is to fish the fly a few feet below the surface but still within site which helps to visually identify takes.
Blind casting 11 weights is no easy chore and efficiency is critical. The general rule of thumb is no more than two false casts before the fly drops. Once the fly is in the water the focus level must stay high in preparation for a take - this is no easy task considering how few grabs you actually get compared to the number of casts made. Musky occasionally blow a fly up but more commonly they just inhale the fly. They are notorious for following the fly before taking it, often grabbing the fly just under the gunnel of the boat. Each cast is completed with a figure 8 of the fly with large sweeping turns with a submerged rod tip just in case a fish is following.
80% of the takes I have experienced have been very subtle - essentially the musky is following the fly strip for strip and then just flashes its gills and inhales the fly. The take often feels like a snag since the fish often doesn’t turn after the take like a trout does. It is critical to strip set repeatedly to drive the large single hook into the bony mouth. Tracking the orange and pink flies helps to detect the strikes - often the fly simply disappears into the mouth of a camouflaged musky and you just start stripping like mad to set the hook.
After a few hours of fruitless casting Anthony landed two small Northern Pike within 20 minutes of each other. These “hammer handles” were small but it was good to see some action. Shortly after I had my first grab of the trip as my fly disappeared 10 feet from the boat - after a brief 2 second tug the hook pulled without seeing the fish. Shortly after lunch we struck gold. I was casting along the edge of a reed bed when a massive alligator wake rocketed from 6 feet away. The take occurred on the first strip of the cast and the line went tight for 3 seconds before the hook pulled out. Although we never got a visual it was obviously a big musky and my heart quickly sank. There is no accurate way to describe how demoralizing this feeling is. The knowledge that that one single grab may have been the action for the trip and that the chance to hook a big musky had come and gone produces a constant replay of the instant to contemplate what could have been done differently. On last year’s trip Miles came home skunked and spoke of sleepless nights months later replaying the few opportunities on takes that didn’t connect. Luckily for my sanity my fortunes turned twenty minutes later along the same line of reeds. We were approaching the end of some great looking water when a huge 4 foot musky smashed my fly on the second trip. The fly was still just inches below the water when the fish hit and he struck at a 90 degree angler to the fly resulting in a arm tearing jolt. I stripped like mad to keep the line tight and drive the hook into his mouth. After experiencing several close calls I literally held my breath for several seconds to see if the hookup would hold. It did! This real live sea monster put up a terrific fight. Muskies fight similar to an old cagy brown trout: rather than making one blistering run the bulldog and conserve energy, often making rod breaking explosive dashes just a few feet from the boat. After an adrenaline filled fight we netted the fish that we estimated at around 45 inches and 20lbs. My first truly big musky! The relief of landing this fish cascaded over me - the trip was now a success and while I would continue to fish hard the monkey was off my back!
My big fish turned out to be the only musky of the day. We connected with Westin’s boat at the takeout. Doug had had a nice adult musky follow his fly into the boat but had failed to figure 8 on the end of the cast and pulled it out of the water before he realized the fish was following - a tough lesson to learn. Miles proudly displayed a nice 20” walleye he had landed that was promptly dispatched to the cooler for breakfast the next morning.
Day 3 - Wade fishing smaller waters
Our bodies were already so devastated by one day of chronically casting massive rods. Brad and Westin suggested something different for day 2: musky golf! We split up and spent the day touring small waters in the area where we worked holes below small dams and water falls. This was a refreshing change of pace and a great way to see the region. Some of the waters were breathtaking and with granite boulders and cedar forests. Doug and I teamed up for day two - our morning was spent hiking into a smaller river filled surrounded by an primordial forest. The water looked amazing but the large musky eluded us. Late in the morning I was fortunate enough to land a nice 15” smallmouth followed by a juvenile 24” musky. Every musky is a victory, even a small one so that was a nice bonus. In the afternoon we stopped at several small dams to work the runs below them - each stop resulting in a 30 minute stop or so. Our afternoon didn’t turn up any results and we headed back to the lodge thankful that we made less casts than our first day.
About an hour after returning Anthony and Miles returned. Miles had an ear to ear grin after landing his first ever musky late in the day. The 38” fish was a great fish with plenty of length and girth and was even more special as it was caught wade fishing. He also landed a bonus 30” northern pike earlier in the day that had a massive musky bite mark across its back. The fish that attacked that Northern must have been in the high 40s based on the diameter of the bite pattern. Day two ended a success with Miles finally earning his stripes after two years of chasing Musky. Anthony and Doug were still fishless with one final day to go.
Day 3 - Fishing the Chippewa
On day 3 we headed to the massive Chippewa river system to try our luck. Since Miles and I had already bagged a nice fish Brad took us to a float on the main river in hopes of connecting with another big musky. Anthony and Doug headed with Westin to a top secret location on a smaller water with high musky numbers in an effort to break the seal for both anglers.
Miles and I put on to heavy mist rolling off of the river and enjoyed some spectacular water with large riffles mixed with massive long slow runs and huge back eddies where muskies love to hunt. Late in the morning I had a nice mid 30s musky follow my fly all the way into the boat - after the first arc of my figure 8 the fish inhaled the fly just 2 feet from the boat. Unfortunately I didn’t hook the fish but it was amazing to see such a big fish eat so close to the boat. Our only other action of the day was a grab on my fly on the back side of a small island although we didn’t see the size of the fish.
When we returned to the lodge we were anxious to see if Anthony and Doug had connected. It turns out the Doug connected on 2 nice fish in the 30-35” class and couldn’t have been more pleased. In the morning they saw plenty of V wakes and bait being chased by musky in the vegetation which kept their hopes high. The afternoon slowed for the guys and Anthony was running out of time when they ran into an old muskrat trapper that tipped them off on a 35” musky he had spotted by a rock pile downriver. You have to love a sport where your best intel on the fishing is from a long bearded musktrat trapper! In desperation the pushed downriver to follow up on the trapper’s tip and low and behold Anthony connected with the fish exactly where the old time had steered them to. Unfortunately after a few short seconds the fish spit the hook and Anthony ended the trip empty handed.
Day 4 - Chasing “Sneer”
On our departure day Anthony left early in the morning to catch his flight but Miles, Doug and I had an evening flight home. With time to kill Brad offered to let us borrow his drift boat and fly boxes so we headed down to a large dam system on the Flambeau to try our luck at a mythical fish named “Sneer” that supposedly topped 50” and lived in the complexed currents below the outflow. We were also tipped off on another big fish - possibly albino - that lived along some cliffs down river. This information came from a the brother of a buddy of Westin’s that overheard a guy at the local bar talking a little too much. Again - nothing like getting your fishing information from a guy that knows a guy that was down at the bar. We valiantly throw flies until our arms turned into hamburger and realized we better stick to guiding trout fishing trips as we weren’t able to move a fish.
When the trip was finished we ended up with 5 muskies landed between 4 guys and 4 days of fishing - not bad! The 2016 Musky adventure is already on the books - I think I am officially addicted. A special thanks to Brad Bohen and his team at Musky Country Outfitters for hosting us, we are already planning our 2017 adventure!