We knew we were in for a tough day, all the odds were against us, 3+ inches of rain the night before blew out almost all the area rivers, and the temps and humidity were dropping all day long, I chose a smaller river that I hoped would not be out of it's banks - I got lucky.
The water was indeed high and inky black, but I knew the fish were there - somewhere, all we had to do was keep after them and we would be successful. We began pounding the banks with an Olive/Orange Paddle Tail on an Intermediate line, but the fly just would not get down enough to find a fish.
NOTE: * The new Musky Intermediate Lines for Rio are not very "Intermediate", they sink more like a "Hover" line and I do not recommend them, stick to the Clear Tip Outbound Lines, they get down much better, are virtually invisible and cast easy, use the "short" for smaller rivers and the "long" for lakes and larger rivers where your casting distances are greater. If you are going to purchase just one, get the "short", it will cover the bases best.
LESSON ONE - Don’t take the advice from some blogger on what equipment to bring on your first trip to Musky Country, ask the guide you’re fishing with what he prefers and why! (HC: That's why I brought in an expert, what to bloggers know...)
We changed to a 325 grain, 10 foot sink tip on 9 wt. rod and prodded a bit deeper into the black water. In the faster areas where I was catching fish last week there was nothing, but as we got to larger, deeper flats that had a few 3 to 5 foot deep holes in them the river began to come alive. Our first eat came right at the head of a small pool where the water dumped down from a long, fast run. The "pocket pool" was just large enough to hold a fish, and it almost always does, my young client put a cast deep into the pocket and was retrieving at a fairly slow pace when the fish raced out at the fly just as it hit the fast water, when the fly paused on the seam, the fish made a lunge for it, opened it's mouth and was just about to eat when nerves got the best of my man, he set too soon and pulled the fly away. Vision is a wonderful thing, but when it's your first Musky and your nerves are on edge from anticipation, they can get the best of you! The fish missed, but continued after the fly.
As he pulled the fly up to re-cast, the fish came catapulting after it, missed again and was gone, I'm sure it saw us on that pass. Mr. Wyoming was amazed at the antics of our fearless piscatorial predators, he now understood what I had been telling him about Muskies being more like Grizzly Bears than fish! He commented that Musky fly fishing was really "Big Boy" streamer fishing and even though he chases lots of big Browns out west, it was nothing like this! He was addicted from that point on.
With that fish gone, we went on downriver into the next stretch. In the next pool we found no friendly fish, but right at the tail-out a big stump made another little pocket with just enough room for a few Smallies or one Musky, this time it was a nice Smallie that hit him and he was on the board, a decent 3 1/2 pounder that gave him a little boost and made him feel better - any fish that puts a smile on your face is a great fish - and all fish put a smile on my face!
We stopped for lunch, discussed a few more fine details of what to do with a fish at the boat, how to maneuver the rod and how I wanted the fly out in front of the boat with no more than 2 feet of leader between the rod tip and the fly - so it could be maneuvered quickly, easily, and with precision. After lunch in the flats his skills would again be put to the test.
At the head of the first big flat lies a nice long bend pool, actually more of a trough along the bank than a pool, but the water was slow enough to hold fish, we worked it slowly with topwater flies first since the air temperatures were still into the mid 70's and so was the water. Nothing would even look at a big Dahlberg, even though it was making enough noise not to be missed by anything in the water, no matter how dark it was. I pulled the boat around a small island, rowed back up to the head of the pool in a side channel, waited about 10 minutes then floated through again using an Olive/Orange Figure-8 on the 10' sink-tip, that got some attention!
Halfway down the cut-bank was a small Beaver run, the fly was expertly placed right in the run and retrieved quickly with a good "escape strip", allowed to pause and then just as he was about to strip again, the water erupted with a good fish, definitely in the 40's, but the fates were not with my intrepid angler, his hand slipped on the line as he went to make the set and the fish was off. With his wits about him this time, he kept the fly in the water and kept it moving, the fish came after it again, but this time just to look, not to eat. After it disappeared, we switched flies to a deeper running, smaller, darker fly and went back after it again.
NOTE*: the basic rule is "Deeper, Darker, Smaller" when you are after a fish that hit and missed or refused your first offering!
Another cast another swirl, but no hit, this fish was no dummy, we continued on downstream looking for another willing participant, I was sure we were on the right track and the fish had gotten blown out of the faster water into the flats from the rain of the night before.
We switched back to the Intermediate line and the Figure-8, another excellent cast was made into the wood a few hundred yards farther downstream, another 40 incher came barreling out of the timber, made a pass at the fly and missed it, my guy froze up, the fish was near the boat looking for the fly, I'm yelling "move the fly"!, finally he broke out of his "systems failure" and twitched the fly, but it was too late, the fish sulked back into the shadows. You could actually see the fish looking around for the fly, had my angler been abel to move his hands a bit I think the fish would have seen the fly and made a run at it.
Two other fish showed themselves in that area, we got quick hits and no hook-ups, they always seemed to know exactly when the line was fouled on the rod or the strip was at the very end and the rod was out of position for a strike, neither of the fish were large, but they don’t have to be big to outsmart you!
LESSON THREE - Keep your line and rod under control at all times, if your fly is in the water, you’re fishing!
By now my guy was a wreck, he needed a few minutes to recompose himself and get his head back in the game - youth is wonderful and I wish I had more right about now, I envy those who do, but experience has it's blessings also, my blood pressure is always lower these days.
After things settled down for a few minutes, nerves were calmed, heads screwed back on tight and blood pressures back under control, we pursued our objective. I knew we were into fish in this flat, I could feel them all around us, and they were hungry!
Back up and at it, my client was poised and ready, another cast was made just below another log jam, the water erupted with a take and he was on it! A great hook-set was made and the fish came flying out of the water cartwheeling across the river, it made a run for the cover of the logs, but he turned it and got it back under control. Meanwhile I was back-rowing to get us to open water where we could finish the fight, all the while barking out orders as my guy made well with my requests. In a few minutes he had his first fish in hand, and a smile across his face that I’m sure they could see in Wyoming! Though not the 40+ inch fish that first came to his fly, the 32 incher was just as much a trophy to the angler, he had fought it well, learned quite a few valuable lessons along the way and paid his dues for it, now he IS a Musky nut!
A few “grip & grins” later, a short break and we were back on the hunt again with renewed hope and high spirits! Another couple of hundred yards farther down the flat we had another encounter with a big Smallie, this one never stood a chance, the hook set was hard and fast, the fish was whipped before he knew what was going on - my client had taken his lessons to heart and was putting a hurt on the fish now. When he set that hook, the fish could feel it all the way to the ends of their fins!
As we neared the end of the long flat, the shadows were getting longer and I could feel the air temp dropping significantly, I knew the day was coming to an end, even if we did have several hours of light left.
I picked up the pace to get us into position for the next log jam on a deeper corner, I had a good feeling about this one. I positioned the raft 40 feet off the logs, a great port side cast was made to the downstream side of the big logs, and allowed to settle down about 2 seconds before the first “escape strip” was made. The fly hit the seam and my client says, “Here comes a big one”! I tell him to keep the fly moving and not to strike until he feels the weight of the fish. I see the fish charge the fly turn its head about 3 feet out and make the lunge - GAME ON! This was a classic take - a real “Kurt Gowdy” moment, but my guy was a bit too anxious, he held together for a bit, but set a little too soon and definitely too hard! He had the hook-up, but when he rammed the hook home on his 11 weight GLX that fifth time, he literally tore it right out of the fish’s mouth. This was a good fish in the low 40 inch range again, probably around 20 pounds, it was the trophy I was looking for on this particular stretch of water, I really wanted him to land that fish, it would have been great for his ego.
The fish came back, but only to learn and try to figure out what happened, I knew it was over, but it was a great moment also! This guy came for Wyoming to get into Muskies, he did just that, he went into battle a bit less prepared than he thought he was, got a little bad advice on his equipment, got schooled and came away with great memories. You don’t win every battle, but if you learn from them, you will win more in the future.
We never saw another fish, the cold front had passed and the fish were totally turned off, we kept trying for that last mile & a half all the way to the landing, but it was not going to happen. I would call the day a success, not the perfect day by any means, but we got into fish on a very difficult day with weather conditions not in our favor, we made the most of what we had to work with and a new angler to this challenging sport came away with a whole new appreciation for Muskies and why we try so hard to get one in the boat.
These fish aren’t easy, it’s tough chasing grizzly bears through the woods and bringing them down with sticks and stones, don’t get discouraged, get back in the saddle and finish the fight, you’ll become a better angler and you’ll have a story to tell for the rest of your life about the ones that got away and the ones you beat fair & square on their home turf!