One of the greatest summers of my life came sometime in my early teenage years. Maybe I was still a “tween.” I can’t really remember. All I remember were smallmouth. Lots of them.
I hadn’t reached an age at which I could hold a steady summer job. I didn’t have a license, or a car, but I did have a bike and legs, and sometime between the drudgery or homework the prior spring, I encountered a gravel road that transgresses the boundary of the housing development I lived in and dead ends a few hundred yards of woods from the bank of the river that makes up most of the water in my body. And with the freedom to disappear for 12 hours a day, there were lots of smallmouth to be caught.
Sometimes I changed the pace and targeted redear sunfish, with the basic intention of filling a creel for a personal dinner. As much of a catch-and-release-dedicated angler and I was and have continued to be, something about occasional turning a day of river-ratting into a plate full of fried fish satisfies my soul.
The sunfish were, in general, faster than the smallmouth. Or at least I missed them more often. Maybe they didn’t have the hook in their mouth half the time. And the small smallmouth were faster to eat and spit a topwater bug than the big smallmouth.
It seemed like I always missed the first fish. Luckily for me, it was almost always a small one, and there were many more to follow. By the time the second fish took my bug, I was warmed up enough to drive the hook home at the right instant. On the days that big ones ate my bug, they often did so late in the evening, when I was primed for a fight.
It’s fall, now, pushing on winter, and it’s about ten years later. I don’t fish that river with the regularity that I used to. But I’ve found some new waters and fish to call home.
18 or 20 inches of bronzeback still gets me excited, as much as it ever did. But these new waters have another player that have gotten under my skin, and they’re typically not as forgiving as my redear and smallmouth.
I remember vividly the first time I saw a musky. It was cruising behind my fly in the shallow water of a tailout. I can still show you the exact spot where it all went down, too, but then, there aren’t that many spots to remember. Every time I see one of those big, toothy predators behind a fly, it’s just as striking and leg-numbing as it was the first time, and I’ve gotten some practice in.
The problem—or, the entrancing—thing about musky that makes them so desirable is that you don’t get a warmup fish. Or, you rarely do, and you don’t want to miss him. To get a single fish to eat a fly is a tremendous victory that can only be eclipsed by actually catching one, which only happens when you’re on your A-game and everything works in your favor.
Back in September, I took a friend of mine, Bailey, musky fishing for the first time, and watched in quiet agony as, 15 minutes into the trip, a three-foot-long musky ate his fly about 20 feet from the boat, and he missed the hookset. It was the first time he’d ever seen a musky, and, frankly, he wasn’t ready for the eat. I may have done the same. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was probably the best—if not only—shot he’d get that day.
About a week later, we were moving downriver amid a musky-infested river. I was rowing. Not willing to pass by a nice piece of cover without a single cast, I fired my fly tight to a log laying down in the water. When I had all but given up on my cast and returned to rowing, my fly still trolling behind the boat, a 40-inch musky slashed at the fly without finding a hook. We didn’t see another fish the rest of the day.
The following day, we found redemption. The moment came and I was ready for it. The fish hit the net bag, and a party was thrown. We both knew what it meant.
A few days later, we took another newbie to musky fishing. In the first 15 minutes, he had a 45-inch fish eat his fly boat-side, and the shock disarmed him. The fish swam away, and we never saw it again.
At the end of that very same day, Bailey got an eat and he made it count. A party was thrown. That one didn’t get away.
So maybe there is a warmup fish in musky fishing, but it’s not a forgettable fine-tuning. It’s a revenge-spawning, devastating experience strong enough to keep your mind sharp for eight hours of nothing, for the second that counts.