My friend Rick Schreiber and I arrived in Wisconsin yesterday to begin our annual fishing trip hosted by our excellent friend George Hillenbrand. George was once a good customer of both Ricks and I when we worked at the fly shop. Rick guided him on the river and I took care of his tackle needs. But over the years we became great friends and enjoyed fishing and spending time together. These days George takes us to Wisconsin to stay and fish out of Chippewa Retreat Resort in Manitowish Waters. Also enjoying the fun are friends John McGraw (owner of Chippewa Retreat), Larry Burtschy, Dave Baker and guides (longtime friends also) Joe and James Pestka and Brett Jolly.
For years this has been an ice fishing trip. As a group we beat up the pike, walleye, bass and perch through the frozen waters, but this year George thought it would be cool if we caught some muskellunge (musky) from the open waters. Muskies are the famous Wisconsin fish specie and nearby Boulder Junction is the official Musky Capital of the World. But musky are difficult to catch. These legendary fish aren’t common, only eat when they want to and can be extremely picky when they do eat. They also have a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, can obtain gargantuan sizes and are hard to hook. And if you get lucky enough to hook one – good luck landing him. These powerhouses don’t just break lines; they break rods and smoke a lot of reels too!
While most our group simply wants to catch a musky, Rick and I are going for them on the fly. To help us with our difficult quest, George booked Rick and I with top musky fly fishing guides. I’m fishing with Bill Sherer, owner of the We Tie It Fly Shop in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin and Rick is with Bills friend and guide John Coolidge.
Despite our excitement, this morning came early after our first night celebrations. George takes great pride in seeing that his guests are well wined and dined. Each night he takes us to one of the finest restaurants in the area and we feast on heaps of scrumptious appetizers, entrees, deserts and great wines. The meals are so tasty and fun that I look forward to the dinners as much as the fishing. Last night we ate at The Dinner Table Restaurant right at Chippewa Retreat and everything was superb.
Once I was up and after a great breakfast (seriously, we eat on this trip) I soon found myself casting from the bow of Bill Sherer’s pontoon boat on one of the most gorgeous rivers you have ever seen. Certainly, I moved to the Yellowstone area because I love the mountains and all that goes with it, but I can promise you, Northern Wisconsin is beautiful. Even though the leaves have left most of the trees the scenery is stunning. The dense forest ground is covered in colored leaves and the birch trees are glowing white. To top it off, the tamarack trees, a deciduous coniferous tree that to me is the symbol of being far north, are vibrant shades of yellow. Beyond the tree line was rich blue sky in every direction, a big change from last nights dreary drizzly cloud cover. Even the cold front the area has been experiencing moved out. Today reached a comfortable 50°.
Because muskies get massive, you must fly fish with no less than an 8-weight rod. Today I rigged up two rods, my 8-weight Ross Rx with an intermediate line and my 10-weight Ross FW with a 300 grain Scientific Angler Streamer Express sinking line. Then I attached one of Bills 8” long sucker imitating flies to each rig. Because of the muskies teeth, between the end of my short stout leader and the super long fly is a 12” piece of 25lb wire shock tippet.
Although the rivers are much different and the gear and fish are bigger, you’re still casting streamers to structure all day long. If it wasn’t for the fact that you need to strip set on muskies like you do a tarpon, the tactics are similar to streamer fishing my home waters for brown trout. Therefore knowing where to cast was easy. Even better, the fact that this is one of Bills secret rivers, I got the heads up of exactly where certain fish lived. But even with all my fishing experience and Bills knowledge of this river, musky fishing was slow. The reason was the weather. As much as we enjoyed the delightful day, the drastic change from cold and wet to sunny and warm is not good for musky fishing. Today I got skunked.
Though fishing was slow and I got skunked, I had two chances. One was a good chance. I landed my fly inches from the bank on a shallow flat and as I made my first strip a hefty wake ripped toward my fly. It was a nice musky. But he ate the fly while accelerating toward me. I strip set as hard and fast as I could but I never even felt him. By the time I realized a strip set wouldn’t be enough to hook this musky it was too late for me to use the rod and my musky chance was over. The only other chance I had was a follow where although it looked like the musky ate my fly, I never even felt him either.
Rick and John had about the same luck as Bill and I. They did not catch a thing. Not only that, they never saw a musky. Today was flat out tough. The rest of the gang did better but for most, not much. Even with muskie lures and live bait their fishing was difficult too. However, in this group there’s always an exception. Larry who was fishing with James caught and released two muskies that fell for a live sucker. One was this inspiring 44 incher!
The muskellunge are here but now we need to wait till tomorrow. It’s good to start slow as long as you end big. Hopefully Rick and I can at least get a few hook ups and even land that musky on the fly. Stay tuned. . . .