I tied into a nice muskie this morning. Or perhaps I should say the fish tied into me. The incident occurred shortly after sunrise along Clear Lake’s south shore. The water was calm; the weather hot and muggy – perfect conditions for making the toothy ill-tempered predators even more aggressive than they normally are.
The episode began when I spotted a large surface boil several feet out front. It could have been a muskie; hard to say. I had already pretty much forgotten about it when, a few casts later, my slow-moving retrieve was suddenly halted by what felt like a solid snag. When I raised the rod to free my hook, I thought I detected a slight movement at the end of the line. When I tugged again, the snag began to slowly swim away with my bait.
“A really nice walleye,” I thought to myself. Rearing back on the rod, I set the hook. The response was dramatic, instantaneous and unforgettable. Whatever it was that I was attached to took off like an underwater freight train. My fishing rod bent double; the reel screamed with pain.
Instantly aware that I was horribly outgunned, I nevertheless determined to make my best attempt at bringing the fish to bay. As the battle rapidly escalated, there were rare glimmers of hope followed by moments of deep despair. The fish had already gained a firm foothold in substantial underwater cover and was gaining more ground with each passing second. The outlook appeared grim. The encounter ended abruptly with a snap of the line.
Today’s contest marked my third encounter with a Clear Lake muskellunge so far this month. Not bad for a guy who never fishes for muskies. All three “muskie attacks” occurred while I was actually fishing for walleyes. In other words, the encounters were purely accidental. Even more incredible is the fact that all three fish struck a 1/16-ounce jig head tipped with half a nightcrawler – a far cry from the heavy grapple hooked, foot long plugs thrown by real muskie hunters. The fact that I was in heavy cover and armed only with ultra-lite spinning gear made the outcomes sadly predictable. All three fish successfully eluded capture and are still roaming the lake as they await your arrival.
Clear Lake has an established 40-inch minimum length limit for trophy muskellunge. The first fish I hooked this month was a spectacularly colored sublegal. The second was a real monster that hit at a distance six or eight feet, boiled the water, and nearly emptied the spool before breaking off. That fish left me so badly shaken that I lost interest in proceeding further. I mean, what was I going to find that would beat that? When I started fishing again the next morning, I was dismayed to discover that my equipment had apparently been shaken even worse than me. My ultra-lite reel was completely out of order, the gears intermittently seizing with each turn of the handle.
With a savage temperament and the muscle to back it up, the mighty muskellunge is regarded as the ultimate freshwater trophy. As potentially elusive as any sportfish, the muskie is often referred to as the “fish of ten thousand casts." For some folks, muskie fishing can become downright addictive. I recently talked to a guy who had accidentally caught one muskie two years ago. Today, muskies are the only species he pursues; hasn’t had a single strike since but remains optimistic that the next fish is lurking just around the corner.
How big do Iowa muskies get? The current state record muskellunge is a 52-inch, 50-pound 6-ounce brute taken at Spirit Lake in August of 2000 by Kevin Cardwell.
Clear Lake has its share of monsters as well. Many are caught, photographed, and released by an ever-growing cadre of hardcore muskie hunters. Others are captured during spring netting campaigns and temporarily displayed for public viewing in fish hatchery tanks.
The raw power of a trophy-grade muskellunge would be hard to exaggerate. One of my favorite examples occurred during the mid-1980s. My friend, Bob Humberg, was fishing for channel catfish at the Clear Lake City Dock located at the end of Main Street when he saw a lone angler casting from a 14-foot fishing boat hook into a trophy muskie at the north end of the Sea Wall. The water was calm, and Humberg watched in amazement as the fish literally towed the boat and its occupant down the entire length of the Sea Wall and past City Beach before breaking free. Although the angler had received a couple of good looks at his Moby Dick; an exciting memory and a never to be forgotten boat ride was all he had to show for the experience.
Currently, an ever-increasing number of anglers are using fiberglass kayaks to probe beds of submergent vegetation for largemouth bass, walleyes, and panfish. If a monster muskie could tow a guy in a 14-foot aluminum fishing boat for more than a hundred yards, you can’t help but wonder how the same scenario would play out with a lightweight kayak.
The phrase "Nantucket Sleighride" comes to mind.