The One That Got Away
When you've married into a "musky" family, finding your path to recognition is difficult. You are surrounded by the wild stories and tall tales of Grandfathers, Fathers, and boat partners casting and repeating, with the aggrandized ending of finding success when a mighty musky takes the bait. But for yourself, you might as well be in pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant, because catching a musky apparently takes skill and know-how and years of contrition. Not only is the rod and reel so incredibly foreign, as open face and 6' are your current norm, but the baits are the size of your forearm, and weigh more than your shoe. It's in these moments of anxiety over this new format that you must sink or swim if you want to impress your in-laws.
When the moment of truth came for me, I was deeply immersed in the crystal clear lakes of Ontario, Canada. The first invitation to the "big water" after surviving some local lakes and creek mouths in the US of A. Though I hadn't yet found success, I was praised for my determination and lack of whining after long days of 10,000 casts. (There's a lot to be said for time spent bending over a birds nest allowing your biceps a desperate rest.) Canada was a new thing for me and the muskies were lying thick in nearly every weed bed and on every reef.
Despite the lay of the land and the number of contacts, no muskies were willing to commit to my lure. I dedicated my days to reeling in the perfect presentation of the Double Cowgirl in Rainbow (chosen likely for being pretty), resisting the temptation to participate in the lure A-D-D that was taking place all around me. I thought I would eventually triumph, as I'd seen 10 or more follows at this point, it was merely a matter of my speed of retrieve each time...surely.
Long days went by as the Canadian summers carry the daylight until 10 o'clock at night. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and almost 6 days in the rear-view mirror while watching others net and photo their prizes, and wondering what on earth I'm doing wrong. Why is this so hard for me??? It looked so easy....set the hook like a baseball bat, they told me, or don't forget your figure 8. Suggestions in one ear and out the other because I'd never made it further than seeing muskies turn up their nose and swim away. I was beginning to feel defeated.
On the sixth and final day, we made a decision as a family to fish until after dusk. Everyone was behind me, everyone determined to help me find my monster no matter what. So we spent the day moving from spot to spot, reef to reef, deep weeds to shallow bays. When last light creeped in, everyone was bummed, I was going to fly home in defeat and go another year wondering what all the fuss was about. Our great captain, my father in law, steered our vessel into the last of the shallow bays, around the boulders toward one last string of untouched water.
Everyone stood on the deck facing South, light wind, hoods up to the cooling evening. We took turns pelting the shoreline with our lures one after another in sequence. As the new kid, I was always last to make the splash. In a moment of desperation, I broke my vow to my sparkly Cowgirl and decided that an all black Gooch's Tally Wacker, was the new way to go, and tossed it out the first time. Success! I made it 2 feet from the bank, when blammo, a giant of a musky blew up from the depth and smashed the surface for a taste of steel.
This was my moment, the crescendo. I swung my pole like a baseball bat and felt him pull against me, he was hooked. I had him this time. Behind me, my father in law shouted, "Punch in" and "play him". So I thought ok....and "punched in" on my reel, but the "play him" part is where it gets complicated. I had no idea what that meant. So I punched in alright and he took as much loose line as he cared to take for 15 glorious seconds and than shook his hook and swam away.
The agony of defeat was immeasurable. I could not figure out what I'd done wrong. It was my time to shine. It was the last day; the last hour even. I would be leaving all of the Canadian muskies behind and be branded an abject failure. I sat down on the boat with my head between my knees. My outstretched line dancing across the surface and my pole thrown awkwardly at my feet. It is a day that lives in infamy in our family. It was at least 50 inches, they said... Roared up on that lure like a crocodile. It came out of dark and splashed and shook...Never seen anything like it. You would think I had missed the great moby dick, and to everyone who witnessed it, I had.
Despite the ridicule I was issued or the wishful thinking about a second chance, I will always look back on this fish as a learning experience both for me and my "musky" family. I have since boated fish, netted fish, and casted 100,000 more lines, but that musky lives in our families lore. We talk about it at the holidays and question it's size and laugh through the disappointment. Since my father in laws passing, I think about it often and with fondness despite my despair. I even keep that Tally Wacker in a box somewhere as my own lasting memento. Let it now be a lesson for future families of musky fishermen, to teach the basics when taking in your stray in-laws. The terminology and best practices sometimes need a little definition. Don't let them loose with a bait-caster and expect success, or you might find yourself like me with the loss of a lifetime. But in all honestly, it made me a better fisherman in the end and left me with a musky story worth telling.
I leave you with my favorite musky quote from my Father in law:
"Catching a musky is conversely related to how much attention you're paying!"
(this excused missing hook sets due to sandwich eating, telling boat stories, and bird-nesting)