July 11, 2011
For many anglers, the "good old days" are now. Across the continent, bass and walleye haven't been more abundant or bigger in ages. That's not necessarily the case, however, with muskies.
Don't get me wrong, muskie fishing is still superb, and many waters now house muskies of considerable size, thanks to stocking. But the golden days occurred, I feel, in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. I lived through that halcyon era. Ironically, it began with the legendary feuding between the Hartmans and the Lawtons. I remember as a kid watching the Hatfield-and-McCoy grudge match unfolding on the St. Lawrence River, with the husband and wife teams winning just about every muskie contest imaginable, especially the one sponsored at the time by Field and Stream.
Len Hartman was my hero, and it almost didn't matter when many years later, impoverished and living in a room at a YMCA hostel, he confessed to stuffing nearly every one of those record fish with sand. It was sadder still when he acknowledged purchasing many of them from commercial fishermen and other anglers.
But heroes don't die easily and in a strange way, the Hartmans and Lawtons did for muskie fishing what Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb did for baseball. They spawned a revolution and paved the way for the real stars of the sport — anglers like Doug Johnson, Dick Pearson, Joe Bucher, Larry Ramsell, and Doug Stange — to grow the muskie mystique. It didn't hurt that when they opened the door, virgin and near virgin muskie fisheries still existed, especially in the North Country. Nor that few anglers fished for muskies, and fewer still fished with informed purpose.
I remember arriving on the Lake of the Woods scene in 1976 to work for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, after hauling up from southern Ontario what I thought was the fanciest muskie rig imaginable. In truth, it was a crumpled Crestliner with a smoky old Mercury outboard. But the muskies didn't care. Nor were they put off by the pool cue rods, grinding baitcasting reels, or thick nylon line. Most days they bit with a vengeance.
Four- and five-fish days were routine and given the structure of the muskie population, it was rare to catch more than a couple small fish. I remember hosting Bob Izumi in the infancy of his Real Fishing television show, parking the boat alongside a weedline and predicting on camera I'd catch a fish within five casts or jump into the lake fully clothed. I stayed dry.
Another time, a monstrous muskie almost snipped off my buddy's fingers as he lipped a smallmouth alongside the boat. We returned with our muskie gear and I landed a 40-pound fish within a half dozen casts. Moments later, after we released the behemoth, we were simultaneously figure-eighting 50-inch giants. We didn't fish that spot a single time that season without catching a big toothy critter.
These fish were "virgins" as we liked to call them — stunning beauties without gnarled lips, bloody fins, and other scars indicative of having been caught previously. That's not the case today.
In this heyday, we landed 60, 70, maybe even 80 percent of the fish during the cast. The rest we hooked boatside after employing a figure-8. You can reverse those numbers today, as "tourist fish" follow baits far more cautiously.
I suspect there are as many fish in most good muskie waters today as there ever have been. Moreover, excellent fisheries have been developed where no muskies existed. They seem to be prospering in the steadily warming water, under modern management. But the ranks of the muskie fishing fraternity have swelled enormously and our equipment is so much better. Ditto for our knowledge of muskie behavior and the best ways to catch them. So the same number of big fish, or perhaps more, are being caught today, but they're shared by a growing legion of anglers.
We come by this way but once, and I'm glad I came during the golden days of muskie fishing.
*Gord Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, in an In-Fisherman Field Editor and frequent contributor, as well as TV guest. He worked for Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in northwestern Ontario for many years.