The Fish of 10,000 Casts
Mar 03, 2020 09:02AM
By Doug Meigs
Catching a monster muskellunge is a bucket-list achievement for any fisherman. When one of the Midwest’s leading advocates for muskie fishing and conservation invited me to join an upcoming trip, I jumped in the car and drove from Omaha to Minnesota.
I met Aaron Meyer at Lake Miltona (about two hours northwest of the Twin Cities) on July 13. Meyer knows all about “The Fish of 10,000 Casts,” the notoriously elusive apex predator of northern waters. “The trick to muskie fishing is just putting in the time and knowing what you are doing,” he said. “There’s a steep learning curve, but there are no secrets—just time on the water. Lots of it.”
A professional guide for the past nine years, Meyer has chased big muskies across his home state of Minnesota for 25 years (ever since he got a driver’s license). His lean physique is toned like a marathon runner from his dedication to an outdoors lifestyle, big game hunting, and his day job in the construction industry.
His boat zipped across Lake Miltona, and we stopped for a quick tutorial on the mechanics of warm-weather muskie fishing. Heavy-duty tackle was rigged and ready. Some of his fishing lures (with wild colors, sparkling streamers, and corkscrew tails) are as big as my forearm. Cast the lure as far as you can, then reel in like a maniac, he instructed, then demonstrated. When his lure approached the boat, he submerged the rod tip and made a wide figure-eight pattern underwater.
“It’s all about triggering predator instincts,” he said. Suddenly, upon retrieval of his first cast, a muskie rose to the lure. It attacked. Chaos ensued. The fish raced around and underneath the boat. Meyer scampered to avoid snapping his pole. Another fisherman netted the thrashing creature, we snapped a photo, and Meyer quickly returned it to the water. He held the fish still and upright in the lake as it reoriented itself, allowing the muskie to resume using its gills and tail muscles before releasing it.
Meyer is a board member of his local chapter of Muskies Inc., and he co-chairs the Minnesota Muskie and Pike Alliance. His boat has a universal catch-and-release policy for muskies. Even if a client catches one measuring 54-inches or larger (the statewide minimum for keeping), he remains inflexible: “If a client asks about the possibility of keeping a trophy fish, I’ll tell them, ‘one of you is making it to shore—you or the fish—but not both.’”
The revived fish swam from the boat with what seemed like an air of nonchalance. Meyer described the species’ audacious demeanor as unlike any other fish. “Sometimes they will just follow you to watch. They’re not afraid of anything because they’re the top of the food chain,” he said.
At just over 36 inches long, Meyer said the day’s first catch was a small specimen. “Forty-three to 44 inches would be average, and we get a lot that are 42 to 48 inches,” he said. “We don’t catch many that are under 34-36 inches because of how big our bait is, and there just aren’t that many out here. You’re more likely to catch one over 50 inches than under 30 inches.”
I could hardly contain my excited anticipation for the next 12 hours of fishing. I imagined catching so many giant muskies that my arms ache. As it turned out, it was not long before my arms and back were aching—but not for the reason I had hoped. Muskie fishing is hard work.
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With razor-sharp teeth packing ferocious jaws, muskies can weigh up to 70 pounds, live for 30 years, and swim at speeds of 30 miles per hour, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Although a relative of northern pike, muskies grow much larger and will eat pike, other muskies, small birds (Youtube videos show them swallowing whole ducklings), rodents (often muskrats), and just about whatever they can fit in their mouths; however, the USFWS website notes that rough fish—typically carp or suckers—are the meal of choice for an adult muskie.
The range of muskies spans Canada through the northern United States in waterways feeding the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and Missouri-Mississippi River basins. As the birthplace of Muskies Inc. (the world’s largest muskie fishing and conservation group), the state of Minnesota has played an important historical role in the development of stocking programs and muskie sport fishing. But there are ample opportunities for trophy muskies elsewhere in the continental U.S., too: Michigan, Wisconsin, the Dakotas…even Nebraska.
Meyer told fishing stories, shared fishery biology factoids, and waxed poetic on the anti-muskie agenda of certain Minnesota politicians. That day, it was nearly 100 degrees out with no wind and hardly a cloud in the sky. Despite heat and distraction, his body performed a constant repetition of flawless fishing technique—cast, reel, figure-eight pattern, and repeat in rapid succession.
We got a few muskie follows and some phantom strikes, but no more hooked fish until nightfall. At sunset, a swarm of mosquitos enveloped the lake’s surface. My top-water lure disappeared as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was my first-ever muskie strike, and I failed to properly set the hook. We continued fishing through bugs and darkness. The third fisherman onboard landed the next muskie under starlight. At roughly 40 inches long, it’s no trophy (but a big fish nonetheless).
Even though I had not yet caught a muskie, I felt encouraged by witnessing two landed on my first time out. Back on dry land by midnight, I drove to a St. Paul motel for a few hours of sleep before my next attempt with a half-day fishing charter on Bald Eagle Lake in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities. The boat departed at 6 a.m., and I was back chasing muskies as the sun rose overhead.
It was a beautiful summer day for fishing—not for catching, at least not for me. As every angler knows: “There’s a reason why it’s called fishing, not catching.” Also known to every angler: reciting this wry truism does not replace the joy and excitement of landing fish. I told myself, “At least I’m getting more practice on my figure-eight retrieval technique.”
Just before we returned to the dock, a local lake monster came to say hello. It’s the ultimate tease. What I assumed must be the state-record muskie cruised alongside our boat just below the water’s surface. It looked like a five-foot-long torpedo in slow motion. But I could not get the fish to bite my flipping frog lure before it departed for open water. Hopelessly determined to return to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” for a muskie, I wondered how close I’ve gotten to the threshold of 10,000 casts—because my arms felt like they were about to fall off.
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Enormous muskies lurk in unexpected waters throughout the Northern Plains. Even in the Omaha metro.
In 2017, 14-year-old Jacob Cooper pulled a huge muskie from the Papio Creek near downtown Papillion. The fish measured 44 inches and 24 pounds (about half the size of the Nebraska state record, but still a big fish). The teen hoisted his catch for a photo—and contemplated mounting it—before releasing the muskie back into the creek. His story and photo made the local daily newspaper.
“People go to Canada to catch fish like that, and he’s catching them in our backyard. It’s pretty amazing,” his father, Aaron Cooper, was quoted as saying in a March 29 edition of The Omaha World-Herald. News of the big fish pulled from the little creek caught fire across Nebraska’s online fishing forums. A rush of anglers soon flocked to the fishing hole to hunt for the trophy that Jacob released.
The news did not surprise Daryl Bauer. The Nebraska Game & Parks Fisheries Outreach Program Manager started with the department as a fisheries biologist in 1988. He has long known of Nebraska’s pockets of muskie and tiger muskie fish because he has helped to stock them for 30 years—that stocking effort includes Zorinsky Lake, the Papillion reservoir that feeds into Papio Creek. “In fact, I just saw a picture this week of a 41-inch-muskie that was caught out at Zorinsky,” he said during our phone interview in early November.
Over Bauer’s career, he has seen Nebraska’s stocking strategy shift from tiger muskies (a sterile hybrid crossed between muskie and northern pike) to purebred, hatchery-raised 1-year-old muskies. “Research indicates muskie are more tolerant of warm water than either the tiger muskie or the pike,” he said, explaining one reason for the change. “The other reason is that the purebred muskie are a little bit tougher to catch. We’re not stocking them for high catch rates; we want them to be a trophy fish, and they’re an additional big predator to help us stay on top of rough fish or an abundant baitfish.”
Although he has tried fishing for muskie outside of the Cornhusker State on a few rare occasions, Bauer caught his first-ever muskie in the early 2000s at Wagon Train Lake, just south of Lincoln. “It was only about 20 inches, a year or two after we stocked them, he said. “But, hey, that’s a muskie!” Over the subsequent years, he caught a lot more—including some trophy-worthy beasts pulled from Merritt Reservoir in Cherry County in Nebraska’s Sandhills (the state’s undisputed top destination for targeting muskie).
In the grand scheme of sport fishing for muskie, Bauer said Nebraska would be an asterisk. “There’s no one who thinks of Nebraska when they think of muskie fishing,” he said. But Game and Parks is working to change that perception with regards to Merritt Reservoir. The department has stocked muskie there since 1964 (though the state first started stocking muskies in 1958).
New for 2020, the department increased the minimum length to keep a muskie caught at Merritt Reservoir from the statewide minimum of 40 to 50 inches (still lower than Minnesota’s statewide minimum length of 54 inches) to promote catch-and-release fishing that allows the reservoir to produce more trophy specimens.
“The fishery we have at Merritt would be well worth the trip,” Bauer said. “And what we do offer that some of those other states do not is that we don’t have any closed season. Some states have a closed season on muskie in the early spring [when the fish are spawning], so a lot of the muskie anglers in those parts make trips south during that time. Some of them ought to consider a trip to Nebraska.”
Fall is probably the best time of the year for muskie fishing, Bauer said. There is less pressure on the water, and the fish are feeding aggressively as they put on weight for winter. In Minnesota, Meyer said the fall season also requires a different technical approach—it’s the season for sitting in the boat and trolling with live bait.
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By the second week of November, Lake Miltona and waters north of the Twin Cities were already frozen. The sprawling Lake Minnetonka (with its mansion-lined shores in the southwestern suburbs of Minneapolis) remained open and free of ice. Meyer’s boat was ready to go the morning of Nov. 18.
The full-day charter began with high hopes and a livewell full of suckers for bait. From his smartphone, Meyer shared a photo of a friend’s first-ever muskie caught the night before on the same lake. A 50-incher spilled over his arms, which could barely support the giant fish. My imagination ran wild. This is the peak time of year for catching monster muskies.
Bundled up in heavy insulated winter gear, we cruised the lake until dusk. I did not make any more progress to the 10,000-cast mark while we were trolling. No bites. No muskies. Skunked again.
On the drive home, words from the Nebraska fisheries biologist echoed in my mind: “I think it would be nice if you caught one every 10,000 casts; sometimes it’s longer than that,” Bauer said with a hearty laugh during our interview.
I simply have not put in the time necessary, and there’s one solution for this—I’m already plotting my next muskie attempt. Should I travel back to Minnesota or stay in Nebraska for a trip to Merritt Reservoir? Both destinations remain on my to-do list. First, however, I will try closer to home—the spring muskie bite at Lake Zorinsky here in the Omaha metro.
Visit muskiesinc.org for more information about muskie fishing and conservation. The Nebraska chapter of Muskies Inc. is Huskerland Muskie Hunters (@muskiesinc on Facebook). The Minnesota Muskie and Pike Alliance’s website is mnmuskie.org.This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.