HUNTER Hunting the Big water, big flies, and a top-of-the-

❱ Aaron Otto
Hunting the
>R i c k
Big water, big flies, and a top-of-thefood-chain predator push the limits of
fly-fishing sanity
Fly Fisherman •
• •
Hunting the HUNTER
The image of the big white
the mouth of my first musky
on a fly is one that doesn’t diminish with time. When I reflect
on that event, the excitement and
feeling of accomplishment are as viv-
the same satisfying sense of achievement with every musky I have caught
and gray/white are effective colors for muskies. Use 8- to 12-inch flies
➤ Red/pink
in the fall, and smaller flies down to 4 inches when the prevalent bait is smaller.
since that day.
While even conventional anglers
have called Esox masquinongy “the
fish of 10,000 casts,” with enlightened fisheries management, better information, and a vast improvement in
fly-fishing gear, the opportunities to
take muskies on a fly have never been
better than they are today. More and
more fly anglers are discovering this
fact each year.
Muskies are the largest members
of the pike family, and their name
is an abbreviation for muskellunge
or maskinonge as they are officially
referred to in Canada. The name is
derived from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe meaning “ugly pike.” Like
pike, muskies have elongated bodies
with dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins set
well back, and flat, wide heads with
frightening teeth. Most of the teeth
angle backward to prevent the escape of captured prey.
Their natural range stretches
from Quebec and northern Vermont
westward over the lower portion
of Ontario, and south with historic
strongholds in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and
Minnesota. The native range even
reaches as far south as West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North
There are three recognized subspecies within this indigenous area—the
Great Lakes, the Ohio or Chautauqua,
and the tiger or northern muskellunge. Stocked muskies have created
some significant fisheries in Indiana,
Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska,
and a handful of other states. Since
muskies are on top of the food pyramid, it is natural that there are relatively few of them in any given body
of water. This makes them susceptible to overharvest, and populations
in some watersheds have also been
reduced or eliminated by destruction
of spawning habitat or disease. Stocking programs have either restored or
augmented local populations and are
a key management tool.
Muskies are mostly solitary fish
that use aggressive ambush strategies to feed selectively on highprotein items such as ciscoes, suckers, perch, bullheads, and shiners.
While baitfish make up the majority
of their diet, muskies also eat crayfish, frogs, birds, and small mammals.
They prefer large food items and are
known to eat prey up to a third of
their own body length. Given their
preference to ambush unsuspecting
prey, muskies that follow a fly often
lose interest before ever going into attack mode.
Muskies live as long as 20 years.
This longevity combined with an adequate food source allows them to
attain intimidating sizes. The average musky in most waters today is
30 to 38 inches in length and about
8 to 16 pounds. In protein-rich watersheds, they can grow much larger.
Thick-bodied fish in the upper 40inch range or larger can tip the scales
from 30 to 50 pounds. There have
been documented 50-inch muskies
caught on flies and the recognized
world record for conventional tackle is the much-debated 1949 Louis
Spray fish that reportedly weighed
just shy of 70 pounds.
The size and intriguing nature of
muskies have created a whole culture dedicated to the patience and
persistence that are the hallmarks of
successful musky anglers. My introduction to musky lore occurred at a
young age. An old taxidermy mount
of a muskellunge at a local fishing
club on the Niagara River caught my
attention from the very first time I set
foot in the clubhouse. It was so large,
it appeared a grown person could fit
their leg inside the gaping mouth.
Eventually, my skills advanced to
a point where I have connected with
a few of these legendary fish on waters both nearby and distant, including my personal best on a fly that by
length and girth calculation weighed
nearly 35 pounds. Based on my memory, that fish was similar in size to the
taxidermy mount that inspired my interest in muskies in the first place.
Enjoy the Hunt
By committing to fly fish for
muskies you must happily accept the
challenge presented by these top-ofthe-food-chain predators. As with
other difficult, elusive gamefish,
good days are measured in quality—
not quantity. Follows, strikes, mere
sightings, or encounters of any kind
are small but important victories in
the musky game, and serious musky
enthusiasts normally count these as
positive parts of the experience.
You gain knowledge from an encounter in a particular spot or from
a certain piece of structure, and
that information can be used later.
A musky that follows the fly has at
least shown interest. The next time,
if its mood is different, and the fly
is presented more effectively, it may
Maintaining your focus is critical.
How you react in a split second can
often decide the success of a day or
even an entire season. Hours or even
days can go by without a fish, and if
you blow your single opportunity because your mind wandered off and
you weren’t prepared, you will have
almost 20 years ago. I have relived
❱ Rick Kustich
id today as on that fine June morning
plenty of time to anguish over that
But it would be incorrect to paint
a picture that fly fishing for muskies
is always difficult. Musky fishing is
often best on overcast, chilly autumn
days. I prefer a stable weather pattern, water temperatures that have
not dropped dramatically, and a new
moon. Over the years I have experienced numerous days with multiple
fish in these conditions.
Finding muskies is usually dependent on assessing structure and finding ambush points. In each body of
water there are certain areas that attract and hold fish. Small to medium
rivers may be the easiest musky waters to read. Generally, muskies are
out of the main current flow, and this
easily eliminates much of the river.
Slower flows strewn with logjams are
prime holding spots. Small bays and
pockets created by the contour of the
bank, the slack current off to the side
of a riffle, and the downstream side of
an island all create optimum holding
areas. Boulders and bottom contour
changes in the middle of a slower run
or pool, weed beds, and weedy edges
all attract muskies.
On big rivers, structure is more
difficult to identify. I look for large
weed beds out of the main flow or
dramatic changes in the bottom terrain. Both types of structure attract bait, which in turn attracts
large predators such as muskies. I
have also relied on sight-fishing for
muskies cruising sandy flats in the
early part of the season. Post-spawn
fish commonly frequent these areas
before dispersing to more permanent
holds for the summer.
In lakes, both weed beds and
points created by the shoreline jutting into the water should be your
primary focus. Muskies hold along
weedy edges, in pockets within the
weed beds, and even suspended
over the weed tops. My fishing partner Steve Wascher, who has a great
knack for identifying structure, looks
for inside corners in the weed edges,
and has proved this type of structure
consistently holds muskies. Points of
land are important since the contour
condenses and traps baitfish, and the
rise in the bottom provides a perfect
ambush spot.
On large lakes, muskies are nomadic, particularly in the summer and fall
as they follow large pods of bait. Targeting fish with this behavior is difficult, even with conventional gear. It’s
far more productive to identify structure and try to find the muskies that
associate themselves with it.
Getting Rigged
Rods that can cast larger flies and
handle big fish in tight quarters are
the best choices for musky rods. I use
9-foot, 9- or 10-weight rods, but there
are some new 10-weights that are
only 8 feet and provide advantages
when working the fly on a short line.
A good musky reel should have a
smooth drag that can be tightened
down when fighting a fish near obstructions. Just as important as the
function of the reel is its weight—it
should balance the rod so as not to increase the fatigue factor. A good rod
and reel should feel light and comfortable since casting large flies for
hours and hours is part of the game.
Lines for musky fishing range from
floating and intermediate sinking, to
30-foot fast-sinking integrated shooting heads. Use floaters and intermediates for surface flies or when fishing
in the top two to three feet. A floater
with an exaggerated weight-forward
taper such as RIO’s Pike line aids
in turning over large, wind-resistant
Loop 4- to 6-foot tips of T-14 or
LC-13 onto the front end of the floating line to sink the fly down to 5- or
6-foot depths. The added weight also
helps load the rod quickly for the
next cast. For fishing depths from 6
to 20 feet, I rely on 400- or 500-grain
lines with a 30-foot sinking-tip section and either floating or intermediate running line.
wadable rivers are the
➤ Small,
easiest places to read the water.
Look for slack water to the sides
of riffles, slow-water bays, and
weed beds out of the main current flow.
Fly Fisherman •
For leaders, I generally use a formula of 60 percent butt section (.029"
fluorocarbon), 25 percent class tippet
(16-pound-test fluorocarbon), and 15
percent bite tippet to build my own
6- to 10-foot leaders. I use shorter
leaders on sinking-tip lines and longer leaders on floating lines. Since
muskies have razor-sharp teeth, a bite
tippet of Micro Supreme by American
Fishing Wire, or 50- to 60-pound fluorocarbon is mandatory.
Micro Supreme wire is flexible and
knots easily to the tippet and the fly.
However, fluorocarbon is a stealthier approach in clear water. The only
downside of fluorocarbon tippet is
that a slight chance of a bite-off remains. I don’t believe that a musky
could ever bite through the wire.
Making a leader like this requires specialized knots that most
trout fishermen don’t regularly use.
An easy way to get started is to use
RIO’s Toothy Critter leaders, which
are made for exactly this purpose.
I use 2/0 to 6/0 hooks for musky
flies and keep them ultra sharp. Getting a musky to take the fly is only
half the battle. Keeping one hooked
is just as important so you need the
hook to penetrate quickly and deeply.
Successful musky flies have good
movement in the water and are constructed to reduce wind resistance so
you can actually cast them. Flies that
can be cast all day, but provide the
illusion of size often prove to be the
most effective.
My successful flies for spring and
early summer are much smaller than
those for late summer and fall. In the
spring I have been successful on flies
as small as 4 inches. In the fall I use
flies from 8 to 12 inches. It makes logical sense when you consider the prevalent sizes of the bait as you progress
through the season.
Except for the shallow bays of larger bodies of water, or some smaller
rivers that can be easily waded, a
watercraft of some sort allows you
to cover more water. They can vary
from 16- to 20-foot center-console
johnboats to drift boats to inflatable
pontoon boats and kayaks.
On larger rivers and lakes, a boat
with a motor is essential. An electric
motor on the bow allows you to precisely cover key structure. Spacious
casting decks free of obstructions
are important, especially on windy
days. A drift boat is ideal for covering larger to medium-sized rivers
typically found in the Midwest and
Ontario. Covering quality bankside
structure from a drift boat with a
good oarsman is a pleasure.
❱ Aaron Otto
• •
Hunting the HUNTER
Your casting directly impacts the
amount of time the fly is in the water. This is often the determining factor in catching a musky. If it takes
you five false casts to cast 40 feet,
you’ll actually be fishing your fly
much less than half of the time as
someone who can make three false
casts and belt out 80 feet.
On larger rivers and lakes where
deeper presentations are required,
casting longer allows the
fly to reach greater depths
and maintain that depth for
a longer period of time. Except for when casting into
a headwind, I try to make
80-foot casts to increase my
chances over the course of
the day. [To help improve
your casting, read “Going
for Distance” by Steve Rajeff
on page 46. The Editor.]
When fishing small or medium rivers, or sight-fishing
sandy flats, accuracy is more
important. Placing a fly within inches of a logjam, or on
the nose of a laid-up musky
at 50 feet is much more important than distance. However, to make that 50-foot
cast in the wind with a 10-inch fly
probably requires the same skills as
a 90-foot cast in other situations.
Consistency is probably the most
important casting characteristic for
musky anglers. Your ability to make
efficient, repeatable casts tight to
structure is the most effective way to
cover all the water.
Casting rhythm usually begins with
good line control. When fishing from
a boat, strip the line into a pile that is
free from obstructions. During windy
conditions, strip the line into a cylinder or basket to keep it from tangling
and blowing around the boat. When
it is warm, I fish barefoot just like tarpon fishing so I can feel any line under my toes before I make my cast.
When casting to structure it is important to control slack at the end of
the cast. I keep close contact with
the line by forming an circle with my
thumb and index finger and shooting
the line through the circle, instead of
just letting the line fly any which way.
When the cast is complete, the line
is already in my line hand and I can
quickly pinch it against the cork with
my rod hand to begin the retrieve immediately.
I always strip the fly all the way
back to the boat so that only the tip
of the line extends past the rop tip. I
use the tension of the fly and leader
in the water to pull more line past
Fly Fisherman •
My preferred cast to a musky facing me is to drop the fly inches from
the fish’s nose and retrieve the fly as
it sinks. When a musky is perpendicular to my casting angle, I cast past
the fish, and retrieve the fly two to
three feet in front of it.
One of the most exciting and yet
frustrating aspects of fishing for
muskies is their tendency to follow
the fly back to the end of the retrieve. They often follow a fly right to
the boat, only to turn at the
last moment, leaving you
with only a glimpse and a
lump in your throat.
There are a two tricks
that can help entice a follower into taking right at
the boat—one of the biggest thrills in all musky
fishing.When a I spot a
musky following my fly I
immediately speed up the
retrieve to give the impression that the baitfish is fleeing. If the fly still reaches
the boat, I make a directional change by sweeping
Most muskies range from 30 to 38 inches and
the rod low and to the side.
8 to 16 pounds. A trophy on a fly is 40 inches
This often brings a heartor better.
stopping strike from a fish
Photo ❱ Larry Mann
that is really locked in on
Another approach to casting big, the fly. At the end of each retrieve
heavy flies—especially when accura- I speed up the fly by sweeping my
cy is more important than distance— arm in a similar fashion, just in case
is to use a single water haul with no there is a musky following that I
false casting. Guide Ken Collins re- didn’t identify.
Keeping a musky hooked begins
cently demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach to me on an with a good hook-set. Strip-set the fly
after the musky has clamped down
Ontario musky river.
The basic technique for muskies and turned away. As I have learned
is to cast the fly near likely cover the hard way, setting the hook too
and retrieve it back by stripping line early can simply pull the fly from the
with the line hand. The speed and musky’s mouth.
cadence of the retrieve often makes a
huge difference. The type of retrieve Flies
that induces a fish to attack varies
I use a handful of patterns defrom day to day or from one body of signed to be both suggestive and
water to the next. The problem with realistic. Small Clouser Minnows as
muskies is that there is so little feed- short as 4 inches are best in the late
back, it’s hard to know which is the spring and early summer post-spawn
right retrieve on that day. Fast, jerky period. Lightly weighted Clousers
strips or long, slow pulls?
are best for sight-fishing. Use heavy
My basic retrieve is fast and erratic eyes for water 4 feet deep or more.
with a sharp strip with the line hand. Heavier flies also work best in attainWeighted flies enhance this erratic ing a precise presentation in water
motion. Sometimes slower is better, with current.
as it gives the appearance of a baitI tie many of my larger summer
fish in distress. I have also found a and fall flies on plastic tubes. The bite
slower approach works best in cold tippet is inserted through the tube
and attached to a hook at the rear
Spotting fish in the shallows and of the tube. The length of the tube
making accurate, stealthy presenta- controls where the hook is placed in
tions is a strategy that reduces your relationship to the material. With a
casting time. But not every fish in long tube, the hook is at the rear of
the shallows will attack a fly—they a longer fly. This rigging is an advanneed just the right cast and retrieve tage when a fish bites only the rear
to react aggressively.
of the fly. This is usually not an issue
the tip by sweeping the rod low and
then roll casting in the direction of
my next cast. With one or at most
two false casts, I can shoot line to
the desired length.
Being able to double-haul is critical. Hauling builds the line speed
you need both for distance and to
turn over large flies. It takes practice
to be proficient at double-hauling.
I practice casting regularly through
the year to maintain my timing.
with an aggressive musky that takes
the entire fly in one gulp, but it’s important to do everything you can to
maximize your chances.
Most of my big patterns are a combination of long saddle hackle or
cock feathers, Icelandic sheep hair,
and an element of flash. It seems like
a handful of colors keep emerging
as the most consistent producers: all
white (also with overtones of gray),
all black, white/black, and chartreuse/yellow/orange.
On a recent trip to Wisconsin, Larry Mann demonstrated the importance of red and pink in his arsenal.
My fishing partner Steve Wascher
has a series of flies he calls Esoxulators. The fly is designed to maintain
a broad silhouette in the water yet
be relatively easy to cast. Ken Collins
has also created a multi-segment fly
that produces an incredibly seductive movement in the water. For commercially tied patterns I like Enrico
Puglisi flies—they swim well in the
water and are easy to cast.
Top Spots
I fish for muskies mostly in my
home waters of New York State,
mostly due to their easy proximity.
Growing up near the Niagara River,
it was inevitable that my passion for
fly fishing would intersect with old
Esox. The musky population in the
Niagara is currently in decline, a situation that I can only hope is temporary. New York also boasts the St.
Lawrence River, and there are more
than a handful of other lakes and
small rivers in the central/southern
portion of the state with significant
musky populations.
Some of the best and most diverse opportunities for fly fishing for
muskies are in northern Wisconsin.
Strewn with numerous lakes, rivers,
and impoundments in a beautiful
north woods setting, this wide swath
of country offers more than a lifetime’s worth of musky water.
The debate rages on as to whether Hayward in the west or Boulder
Junction in the east is the epicenter
of Wisconsin musky fishing. The fact
that there are three fly shops in the
area that specialize in fly fishing for
muskies lends credence to the idea
that Wisconsin is the center of the
musky fly-fishing universe.
My experience in the Badger State
has been one of warm hospitality and beautiful rivers that support
good musky populations which can
easily be covered by anglers with
moderate casting skills.
Southern Ontario also has some
impressive musky fisheries such as
Lake of the Woods, Georgian Bay,
and the Ottawa River, as well as a
vast number of more intimate rivers
that are probably more easily covered with a fly.
Grand River Outfitters is ostensibly a trout shop, but the owner is
a musky aficionado and is well acquainted with all the best local
musky waters.
Both Minnesota and Michigan host
a number of lakes and rivers with
both natural and stocked muskies.
The fisheries created through an aggressive stocking program in the
Twin Cities area provide a great fishing opportunity to a large population base.
The premier fishery in Michigan
is Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. Nestled between Lake Huron and
Lake Erie in the Great Lakes chain,
Lake St. Clair supports a tremendous
natural population of muskies. Combine this with relatively shallow water containing ample structure in the
form of weed growth, and it is the
perfect combination for fly fishers.
The typical musky season lasts
from late spring until late fall.
Muskies are spring spawners and in
areas where natural reproduction occurs, the angling season begins after
the spawn, which is normally in early to mid-June.
The early season often provides
the opportunity for sight-fishing or
targeting aggressive fish that are eager to build back up body mass after the ravages of the winter and the
spawning process.
Musky fishing remains good
throughout the summer but often
slows a bit in the height of the season as the water warms and their
mood becomes complacent.
Late summer and throughout the
fall is my favorite period for muskies.
They become more aggressive, and
their instinctive behavior to pile on
the pounds before winter creates
While musky fly fishing isn’t easy
and may not be for everyone, an encounter with this toothy predator is
an experience that should be on the
list of all serious fly fishers. Even
when I don’t connect with a musky,
I count any day honing my skills on
the water as time well spent.
Rick Kustich and his brother Jerry Kustich own West River Publishing ( Rick’s long list
of publications includes the books Fly
Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead, Reflections on the Water, and the DVD
Tube Flies for Steelhead.
W i s con si n
Bill Sherer’s
We Tie It Fly Shop
Boulder Junction, WI
(715) 385-0171
Hayward Fly
Fishing Company
Hayward, WI
(715) 634-8149
Musky Country Outfitters
Hayward, WI
(715) 558-2937
On ta r io
Grand River Troutfitters
Fergus, ON
(519) 787-4359
Nielsen’s Fly-in Lodge
Nestor Falls, ON
(800) 653-5946
M ic h iga n
Great Lakes Flyfishing
Taylor, MI
(734) 904-3474
I n di a na
Vince Weirick
Guide Service
Leesburg, IN
(574) 834-4445
N e w Yor k
Steve Wascher
Guide Service
Greenhurst, NY
(716) 664-7698
[email protected]
R e com m e n de d R e a di ng
Muskie on the Fly by Robert S. Tomes.
Wild River Press, 2008, 240
pages, $60 hardcover, ISBN 9780974642758.
• •