Muskie On The Fly – A Unique Perspective
There is one fish in Maine that really doesn’t get talked about that much (given its accidental inhabitance) in the fly-fishing community. It hasn’t been around all that long and to me, was revered as a unicorn of sorts. The fish of a ten thousand casts, the muskie. The largest freshwater game fish in Maine, a veracious predator, frequently growing over 40” and 20 lbs, I’ve always wanted to target them on the fly. So, my friend and I decided on December 10th of 2018, that for 4 days in late June we were going to target Esox masquinongy, the humble muskellunge.
Attempting to catch a species known as the fish of 10,000 casts, in the remoteness of the Northern Maine Woods (literally as far North in Maine as you can go) wasn’t going to be easy. Like any diligent fly anglers, we started researching. Where to go, what to use, leader set ups, rod and reel set ups, canoe or boat, figure-8 techniques, the whole 9-yards. I had tied everything from 15” river pigs to 5” mini Bufords in all the colors of the rainbow. We were certainly not going to be undergunned. By the time late June rolled around, we had narrowed down our rivers, the Allagash, Little Black, and St. John. We stayed with Wade and Sue of Tylor Kelly camps, who were unbelievable, top notch camps and people (we will be going back). As we began to research the rivers a bit more, there was surprisingly almost no information regarding the river’s relation to muskie, only that they lived there. Where to go, what to use, and how to get there, all relatively unknown. Go fish the little black several people inferred, well only problem is it flows for 40 miles and is extremely difficult to get to. I reached out to several anglers that had been there before and got a few locations and flies, but again, we are talking about 3 people who had caught a handful of Muskie over the past 20 years, not exactly the intel we were looking for. Until we physically saw one, I had little faith these fish existed based off the information we were gathering.
The Allagash region is so remote, it’s as if time has stood still for the past 30 or 40 years. Only 200 people inhabit the town and just about every home owner we saw waived and chatted with us. My friend and I are both from Maine, frequently venture to the famous Rangeley and Moosehead regions, but there is just something different about the Allagash. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s not the same beast. Allagash is untouched, the air is crisper, the forest is vaster, the land is unforgiving.
Reflecting, as a first time Muskie hunter on the fly in Maine, I’d say there are four distinct stages that I went through. I refer to the four stages as preparation, choices, agony, and euphoria.
Muskie are regarded with such high esteem and mystery in the fly world, you need to prepare diligently. We spent months, painfully and meticulously going over every detail with a fine-toothed comb. It wasn’t until we launched for the first time on the Allagash river, touched the water that held these gentle giants, that I felt completely and severely underprepared. The feeling I had was similar to my first-time fly fishing for stripers off Maine ledges. I recall feeling absurdly ridiculous, throwing a 6” fly 50’ off rocks into the ocean, laughable. What are the chances I thought? The feeling of absurdity or helplessness washed over me with familiarity while fishing for these toothy critters in what was once revered as some of the greatest trout waters in the world not that long ago. Muskie are and were so mysterious to me that, I now realize, no amount of preparation could prepare you for your first attempt at catching one. All I can say is, the more preparation you do, the better chance you will have, but don’t get your hopes up.
Following the pain staking preparation, came the actual decisions. Imagine, you’re on the water, you know there are 20lbs giants lurking, what do you throw? Is your leader appropriate? What color fly? How big? Are you even in a spot where the fish like to hang out? All of your choices inevitably fall back on your preparation. Hours could go by without so much as a hint of a muskie, and that makes you rethink every choice you’ve made. You can’t doubt your choices. You must have faith. I can see why some guys relate fly fishing for muskie to religion. One thing muskie can do, and they are incredibly good at it, is test your faith as an angler and test your durability as a person. Just when you’ve lost all hope in your choices, a follow, a bite, a sign of hope. You need to make each cast like it’s your first, trust in your choices and you will be rewarded.
You get so few attempts at catching these fish on the fly that, unfortunately, agony is bound to rear its ugly head. I had fished for around seven or eight hours into our 72-hour fishing trip without as much as a follow. Miraculously, on the Little Black river, seemingly out of nowhere, a monstrous 40” fish was lazily following my fly. My choice provoked a follow and I fell back on my preparation, not slowing my fly down, but turning right into a figure-8. This was it I thought, what we had come for. Everything was perfect. The giant followed my fly after one figure-8 and swam away. My dream, crushed. I casted and casted to the same spot, nothing. A sliver of heaven presented and taken away before I could even have a bite. I thought, will it be another 8 hours before I even see one? Did I do something wrong? We moved not 100 yards down-stream, I switched my fly from a white olive baitfish pattern to an 8” bright orange bulkhead and on the retrieve, it felt as if my fly hit a brick wall. Finally, the fish of 10,000 casts was mine! A hard strip set, rod tip up, a few shakes of the head and then nothing. An emptiness that is hard to match. I know I didn’t strip set enough. I had heard over and over, strip set strip set strip set, then strip set again, and I had failed to do so. Hopeless, sadness, emptiness, you begin to feel a real depression creep in. You will experience agony, but like any honorable quest, there will be tests of character that you must overcome to reach the promise land.
After a few hours of floating down stream, we jetted back upriver a way to try the stretch where we had at least seen muskie again. Now roughly around 3PM, doubt was beginning to creep in. We made a unique choice, rather than float, anchor to allow us to fish areas with greater precision and thoroughness. I had switched to a smaller 6” all white hollow fleye, as I had been told during my endless preparation was a good color choice on the little black. I began to cast toward the bank where overhanging trees and bushes rest. On what felt like the 50th cast in the same exact spot, that wall had returned. A pile of bricks had just fallen on my fly and I was not losing this fish. I strip set that fish till I couldn’t strip any more. Muskie don’t run like salmon, but they fight bullishly, driving into the ground, vicious head shakes, and the occasional jump. Once I got it in close, I knew the fight was over. I reached down, picked up the fish and a euphoric rush came over me. I was shaking uncontrollably, even writing this is making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. A quick picture and back it went to fight another day. I had heard someone refer to muskie fishing as if you were chasing a 30 second high, like a drug. They weren’t wrong. From hook to finish, it was no longer than a minute. 30 seconds of pure bliss, something that’s difficult to achieve. I’ve never felt such a pure feeling of joy while fishing, something Muskie can do that no other fish I’ve experienced in Maine can match. A fleeting high however, as you know it could be another 12 hours of casting before you even get a chance to tangle with one of these elusive creatures.
I’m amazed at how little is spoken about these fish in Maine, particularly given the profound impact they can have on your life. After returning home, I was in what I call “back to reality blues,” a legitimate, not depression, but longing for fulfillment. This fly-fishing trip moved me, not just as an angler, but as a person. I’ve never experienced something as emotionally impactful regarding fly fishing. Maybe due to the seclusion or how difficult they are to catch, Maine’s relative silence involving muskie is a mystery to me. All I know now, is I have a new yearly trip, a new outlook on fly fishing, and the deepest respect for all things muskie.