The fish are freaky big and it sounds cool. But do you have what it takes to fish a river for muskie and come home empty-handed more often than not?
As someone who has flirted with the idea of guiding for close to 20 years (and, to be clear, has never come close to committing) I’ve thought a lot about how I’d grind through tough days on the water.
If taking folks out for smallmouth, I’d slow things down, thrown on an intermediate line and dredge a leech or crayfish. For trout, I’d hand my client a 2-weight and have them swing tiny soft hackles through a riffle. And if chasing Great Lakes steelhead, I’d throw an Indy stick into my client’s hands and do for their mending with the oars what they cannot do with the rod.
But when it comes to muskie, I draw a blank. I’ve never had an answer to how I’d work through a difficult day because, let’s face it, even the best muskie days are bruisers. So I decided to ask my buddy Chris Willen, muskie guide extraordinaire, about how being an esox guide is just different from any other freshwater guiding gig.
“First off, there’s no easy button,” Willen said. “No sure thing. That’s the biggest difference between muskie guiding and the rest of freshwater. I can’t just put on a smaller fly, shoot down to a high-numbers spot and say, ‘Ok, let’s catch a few small ones real quick to get on the board.'”
This reality is part and parcel of muskie fishing. It’s a glorious and noble enterprise because the fish are very old, very wise, and very, very finite.
“Muskies aren’t bass or trout,” Willen explains. “There aren’t many fish per river mile. And the fish that most anglers dream of catching—48, 49 or 50-inch specimens—are 20 years old. Imagine a 20-year old animal that sees lures and flies every day. It’s not an easy customer.”
Given the rarity of the species and the wariness of individual fish, targeting river muskies means rotating beats and exploring new water to a much greater degree than those who guide for muskies on lakes.
”Muskies have a way of disappearing in a lake in a way that they just can’t do in rivers,” Willen said. “On a busy summer day full of anglers and kayakers, a river muskie can’t swim out into 40 feet of water and suspend 10 feet down in the water column. Throw in the fact that muskies are very moody, and you can see why I try not to fish a given stretch of water more than once a week, and why I spend a lot of the off-season finding new water to fish. You’re never going to get on that rare crazy bite, the one you’ll remember for the rest of your life, by fishing where everyone else is fishing, and doing what everyone else is doing.”
If all that business of finding fresh fish and fresh water doesn’t sound challenging enough, there’s another thing muskie guides are up against in a very real way: the casting ability of their clients. Whereas even a novice bass or trout angler can, with the right coaching, be taught to cast a 5-weight with competence over the course of a fishing day, the only way one of Willen’s’ clients is going to cast an 11-weight fly rod and a 10-inch fly for eight efficient hours is if they have practiced. Hard. For weeks. In the same way sub-zero temps are going to reveal any problems with your car’s battery, muskie fishing is going to reveal any issues you have with your arm, your shoulder, or your wrist. Willen recommends casting every day for a week or two before your muskie trip.
“Ideally, you’re going to head down to a local lake or pond and find some type of elevation—a boat dock or, better yet, a boat. And you really want the fly you’re casting to be wet. It’s going to weigh a lot more than it did when it was dry, and getting the fly to shed water during the casting process is a big part of figuring out your casting strokes.
And what about folks who are truly landlocked? There’s an alternative. If you can’t bring yourself to the lake, you can bring the lake to you—by carrying a bucket of water into the yard and dipping your fly before each cast.
“In the end, it’s really all about finding that perfect point in your cast where it hurts the least and you get the most out of it. And that’s going to be different for everyone.”
Difficult fish. Giant flies. Arduous casts. Empty hours. Given all of muskie fishing’s challenges, what keeps Willen’s clients coming back? Heck, what keeps Willen coming back, month after month, year after year?
It’s the mystery, stupid.
“So many times everything looks absolutely perfect,” Willen explains. “The pressure, the light, the CFS, the temps—but then nothing happens. For an hour. Two. And so you have to adapt. You switch to an intermediate line and let the flies hang there in the middle of the water column and fish really slow. Or you try getting flies down deep fast and quickly stripping them right past the fish’s face in a fury. And so on. It’s all about putting the puzzle together, trying a piece here, a piece there, until something snaps into place.
And when it does?
Willen smiles: “There’s absolutely nothing like it.”
Dave Karczynski is the author of Smallmouth and From Lure to Fly. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and serves as Fly Fishing International’s man on the spot when someone needs to go blindly deep into bear country and return with a great story to tell.