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When A Muskie Mauls Your Walleye
by Tony Welch


Late afternoon of a lazy day. I’m not fishing muskies. I’m not talking muskie talk. I’m not even thinking muskies. Truth is, I’m on sabbatical from the cabbage patch and, at the moment, one walleye short of a limit.
The bobber goes down and I set the hook. Not much of a fight. In a moment the walleye comes into view. I turn to tell the guide that it’s a small one. He seems peculiarly agitated. And then, suddenly, my arms and hands feel what his bulging eyes are focused on.

I’ve been bushwhacked…. Even the most hardened muskie veteran, caught flat-footed like this, knows that all he can do is muddle through. My own worse case scenario occurred while fly fishing. A muskie took a bluegill that had taken my Hare’s Ear and…well, you finish the sentence.

But today is going to be different. Really different. I just don’t know it yet.The encounter unfolds on a lake in Ashland County, Wisconsin. What follows is an exchange between myself and the guide, as faithfully recalled from memory as possible. Let’s eavesdrop.

GUIDE: Don’t!…don’t!…that’s a muskie! Loosen the drag!

ME: I never saw him! He just… 

GUIDE: Loosen the drag!

ME: OK, OK…

The fish swims off in no particular hurry and bottoms out in 14 feet of water. 

GUIDE: Now listen up. We’ve got a pretty good chance if you take your time and pay attention. 

ME: (thinking to myself) Ho-hum….He’s going to tell me to let the fish run, then wait for it to stop so it can turn the walleye around and swallow it. And then when he starts up again. I can’t bear to hear it. 

GUIDE: You own a gun? 

ME: Bunches. Unfortunately, I left them at home. 

GUIDE: You know what trigger pull is, then… 

ME: Yeah, sure. Two, three pounds… 

GUIDE: All right. I want you to put that much pressure on the rod and keep it there…no more, no less. Understand? 

ME: That’s it? That’s all? 

GUIDE: And keep the drag loose. If he moves I’ll follow with the boat. We want to keep the line pretty much straight down over the fish. The muskie swims around very slowly, pausing from time to time. About l5 minutes go by, which seem like the proverbial hour. 

ME: Hello, I’ve pried him loose. He’s changing zip codes… 

GUIDE: That’s good. Just be sure you don’t increase the pressure. And let me know when you can see the bobber. 

ME: (thinking to myself again) What kind of Mickey Mouse… 

GUIDE: I see your bobber now. The fish leisurely returns to the bottom. Another 10 minutes drag by, a virtual repetition. Now the bobber is back up — this time on the surface. And then it’s two, now three feet above the water. The guide shuts down the idling outboard engine. 

ME: Hey, I see it! It’s a brand-new Firestone tire! 

GUIDE: Just keep him coming…real easy. Try not to make any more noise from now on. 

The muskie continues rising slowly alongside the boat until suddenly it’s just below the surface no more than a yard away. The walleye is exactly crosswise in its clenched jaws. Picture a dog with a bone in its mouth — all that’s missing is the wagging tail. And there goes the guide, tiptoeing — literally — to the rear of the boat where he gently dips a long-handled muskie net into the water. Somehow he accidentally touches the fish’s tail with the handle. The muskie jump-starts and goes deep. He does not let go of the walleye. 

ME: I don’t think I understand what’s going on here… 

GUIDE: You’re doing great…I’m the one that screwed up. If the line goes slack don’t reel in. Just jiggle the rod tip up and down and like as not he’ll come back and grab the walleye again. 

ME: I take it you’ve done this before? 

GUIDE: Whenever I can. Some people just don’t listen, though. 

ME: But never with big fish. A big muskie would never tolerate… 

GUIDE: Is 33 pounds big enough? 

ME: That’s not possible… 

GUIDE: On eight weight mono, just like you’ve got there. 

ME: Where did you learn to do this? 

GUIDE: Can’t really say… it kind of came to me a long time ago. 

ME: You’re making all this up as we go along… 

GUIDE: Sometimes they get bored and spit it out. Maybe you’ll get lucky that way…. just pretend it never happened. 

ME: Now the muskie is once more parallel to the boat, like an emerged submarine alongside its tender. Two grown men lean over the gunnel, staring. The muskie stares back. This time the guide takes extra care and inserts the leading edge of the hoop into the water well behind the fish’s rear, then forward under its belly and past its snout. The net erupts from the water. The muskie goes berserk. The walleye spins out of its mouth and lands in the lake. The muskie tapes 44 inches and weighs nearly 22 pounds. Photos are taken and the fish is released, still full of pep. 

ME: bewildered, and lacking anything sensible to say What’s the fine if you’re caught with a retarded muskie? 

GUIDE: Let’s bait up. We’re still short one walleye. And keep your eyes peeled grinning triumphantly…he may come back. 

The lesson in all this? We can never hope to unravel all there is to know about muskie behavior. But we can develop techniques — as my guide obviously taught himself to do — and then use those methods to exploit certain repetitive and instinctive responses to a given stimulation. Disregard the fact that such counter-measures may not make a lick of common sense (in the foregoing scenario, I seriously believed the guide had no real plan of action and was simply fumbling his way toward the inevitable bad ending. Not!). To my surprise and delight, I gained valuable insight into one aspect of muskie I knew nothing about….and never would have intuitively suspected. For sure, muskies are curiously confounding (or is it confoundingly curious?) and often times just plain maddening. That’s why beating them at their own game feels so good….the knowledge that you’ve successfully penetrated one more murky layer of muskie mindset. And, hopefully, reversed the odds a smidgen in your favor. Still…. it’s never easy, never a dead certainty as to the outcome.