Catching muskie fever

by Gord Ellis | May 11, 2021
Gord Ellis proudly holds his personal best 51.5-inch muskie

The strange attraction and appeal of muskie fishing is a difficult thing to explain to a normal person. Pounding water with oversized lures for hours and hours, often in gruelling weather, defies reason. The old joke about two swirls and a follow being a “good day muskie fishing,” is often not far off. Add to that the compulsive collecting of lures — some that can cost more than $100 each — many of which will never see water.

Then there are the muskie anglers themselves: secretive, eccentric, and usually so very dedicated. It all adds up to a pursuit that is equal part obsession and passion. Very few muskie anglers are only a little bit into it. It’s one of those activities that quickly becomes all consuming.

Russ Swerdlyk

The first serious muskie angler I ever met was the late Russ Swerdlyk of Thunder Bay. Back in the 1980s, Swerdlyk was both a field editor for OOD and something of an idol to me. When I began my career, in the mid-1980s, he mentored me and provided advice that helped me get my foot in the door to the outdoor writing world. Swerdlyk was fired up about a lot of outdoors stuff but was even more animated than usual when the subject of muskie fishing came up. “The fish of 10,000 casts,” he would tell me excitedly, “and that’s just in the morning.”

Swerdlyk had been introduced to muskie fishing a few years before we became friends and quickly accumulated a lot of gear. He had several rod and reel combinations, all of which felt like broom sticks to me, and two boxes of muskie tackle. When he first opened those boxes, it was like looking into another world. Everything was huge compared to the trout tackle I was used to. There were topwater baits that looked like ducks, lures with break-away hook harnesses, massive deer-hair spinners, and a wide selection of a flat, odd-looking lure he called a Suick. I’d never seen such an odd lure, but would soon buy a few of them at a tackle store in Vermilion Bay. A few days later, I would boat my very first muskie ever with Swerdlyk, on Little Vermillion Lake. The fish bolted out of the cabbage in a back bay, and grabbed a six-inch Suick. That was it for me. I had the fever.

Weird and wonderful places

Over the following three decades, the muskie bug would take me to some weird and wonderful places in pursuit of these great fish. Legendary fishing waters like Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, Wabigoon Lake, and the Ottawa and French Rivers all were visited for the sole reason of chasing muskie. In the process, I met some truly colourful characters, whose passion for muskie fishing straddled the line between keen and crazy. Some of these people took their passion for the activity — and their secrecy about where they fish — very seriously.

Personal bests

A large part of the muskie fever is tied into catching a truly huge fish — the personal best. For many anglers, the number to top is 50 inches. That’s the Holy Grail. Some muskie anglers catch several of these giants every season, but most do not. For many muskie anglers, just catching a fish is a big deal. This is especially true on hard-pressured water, or if you have limited time to chase these beasts. For a long time, breaking the elusive 50-inch barrier was my one and only muskie fishing goal. There were several close calls, including a 49.5-inch fish I’d trolled up on Lake of the Woods in the early-1990s. There was also a 50-plus-inch beast that got off at boatside about decade ago. Close, but no cigar. It began to feel like my simple goal of catching a 50-incher was not going to happen.

Then, two falls ago, my buddy and OOD Muskie and Pike columnist Ben Beattie invited me to fish muskie with him on Lac Seul in the fall. Beattie is the best all-around muskie angler I’ve ever met. He lives and breathes muskie, and thinks like them. He was well aware of my struggle to reach the 50-inch mark and when he said “let’s see what we can do about fixing that,” I knew it was no idle remark. The day started out cold and grey, and we trolled Beattie’s “greatest hits” looking for Mr. Big. I’d picked up a white 10-inch Jake at sport show and Beattie gave it his blessing, which was good enough for me.

Dream fish

The first fish was a teenager, under 40 inches, but it broke the ice. The second fish, which was hanging off the back end of a reef, bent my rod way back. “That’s a big one, Gord,” said Beattie as he throttled back on the motor. I stood up and gingerly played what felt like a huge fish. As I took in line, the white Jake appeared, and then, a muskie that looked as long as a canoe. “That’s the one!” said Beattie has he readied the net. This muskie, the fish of my dreams, was enormous. It was also barely hooked. One point of one treble was all that stood between it and the net. Yet the fish turned toward the boat and, with not too much coaxing, came towards the boat, and Beattie scooped it. There was loud celebration, a hug or two, and general disbelief as a 51.5-inch giant lay curled in the net. Finally, being in the 50-inch club was a reality. All the craziness, the long days of casting, the lure hoarding, and the rest of it suddenly made perfect sense. And watching that great fish swim back to its lair made it all the sweeter.
For a moment, the muskie fever was cured.

headshot of Senior Editor Gord Ellis

Senior Editor Gord Ellis is a journalist, radio broadcaster, photographer, and professional angler based in Thunder Bay. Reach Gord at: mail@oodmag.com, Twitter: @GordEllis

Originally published in the June 2020 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS.

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