Last weekend I got to fulfill a dream I’ve had since I began fly fishing. A Musky on the fly.
Stephen Rose and I headed up north to Hayward Friday afternoon and after a long but pleasant drive we ended up at the Boulder Lodge.
What’s great about camping at this place is they have a nice bar and grill, so camp meals are as easy as throwing ten or twenty dollars on the table and digging in. It’s also on Ghost Lake, as sparsely populated, tamarack-lined northern lake filled with Musky and Walley. You can rent a boat for the day and have at it if that’s your pleasure.
Saturday morning we met up with our guide, Brad Bohen. If you haven’t heard of Brad Bohen, you haven’t been paying attention to the art of pursuing Musky with fly gear. Brad grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin and spent a lot of time visiting a local fly shop there, learning to tie flies and getting after Trout, Bass, and other species with his fly rod. Summers offered him the chance to get up north where he chased Musky with traditional spinning gear. He learned to captain a drift boat in Montana, spending his college years in Bozeman. All of these experiences have added up to a man who knows how to get fish to chase whatever you’re throwing.
We stopped in Clam Lake for some breakfast at the Elkhorn Lodge, so named because Clam Lake is home to Wisconsin’s biggest Elk herd, one-hundred and eighty of them. And you can see signs of Elk everywhere. Literally. There are signs along Hwy 77 with blinking yellow lights warning you that there are lots of Elk around and that you’d be best served slowing down a bit so you don’t end up with one through your windshield.
Brad told us a story of working upriver with two clients one day and hearing Elk bugling up ahead. “How cool” everyone thought, that there were Elk nearby. They rounded a bend and heard the sound of antlers cracking together. “Wow, there are a couple of bulls fighting” everyone thought. Then they rounded another bend and into view came these two fully antlered rutting bull Elk, sparring with each other right in the river while a dozen cow Elk watched nearby. Incredible.
After breakfast with headed out to Brad’s truck, towing a sweet Towee Skiff. How cool is Brad’s rig?!
We headed off and Brad gave us a rundown of the plan for the day. Well, there really wasn’t a plan aside from “We’re gonna go to a boat landing and put in the boat and head up river and fish a lake or two, and we’ll drift the river for a while and see if we can run into any toothy monsters.” I paraphrased, but that’s about the jist of it.
And that’s just what we did. Except it wasn’t like we were just anywhere, we were exactly “nowhere”, for all intents and purposes. It felt like we were in Alaska, basically, motoring (with a jet outboard - Cool) up a winding river bounded on all sides by reeds and bogs and forest, and starkly planted in what felt like wilderness. It was really something. I hope you get to experience it someday.
Musky fishing, as everyone has heard, takes a lot of patience. Trout fishing is fast-action in comparison. With trout you can have off days, sure. But once you get the hang of it, and learn where to fish and what to look for, chances are pretty good that after an hour or two you’ll find some fish.
Musky fishing is all about prospecting. The stretch of river we fished, which was described by Brad as some of the finest Musky water in the world, contained, in his estimation, around a dozen Musky per mile. Compare that with estimates of trout density in Wisconsin’s Driftless trout streams, commonly described as having 1,000 trout per mile.
That should give you some perspective.
Brad uses nine and ten weight fly rods that are nine feet long, and he throws flies that look more like Stephen Tyler hairpieces than insects. They’re made to mimic baitfish or small mammals or ducklings. Stephen and I hucked these flies for and hour, then two, in lakes, among lily-pads, riverbends, hidy holes, while Brad rowed and coached and talked of amusing and inconceivable anecdotes of guide-trips past.
And then, a big toothy maw rose from the deep tanin-stained waters to decimate Stephen Rose’s fly, mere feet from the boat. Stephen did a good job setting the hook, not with a trout set (lifting the rod tip) but with a quick backward tug of the line with his left hand. These fish have mouths made of tooth and bone, and to keep one on your line, a fierce hook set is required.
With Brad’s help, Stephen landed his first fly-caught Musky and was on the board!
We drifted downriver a bit longer and then took the boat out and headed downstream to bigger water.
In Northern Wisconsin boat landings are sometimes suspect. The boat landing Brad used to put his boat in the water that afternoon could better be described as a series of steps about five feet wide, with bushes and signs on either side, terminating in a large, half-submerged boulder strategically placed to wreck your boat as you lower it from your trailer into the water. Below is a picture showing the general look of the place.
As he was preparing the boat for launch Brad was telling us how the highway department had put in a nice brand new bridge just downstream (upper right corner of the photo) two years earlier (right over a set of rapids), and why hadn’t they included a reasonable boat landing in the project. I was looking around thinking to myself “there isn’t a boat landing, as far as I can see.” But Brad started backing his boat up toward a gap between two bushes with a boulder at the bottom and I thought to myself, “Our day of fishing will be over soon, after Brad destroys his boat in a few minutes.”
Well, he didn’t destroy his boat. In fact it was an artful jig he danced, getting the boat in the water without batting an eye. It’s like he’d done it many times before. City slicker me should have known better than to be concerned.
We tooled upriver with jet outboard humming along and Brad positioned us in all the likely places. After a while, after fishing in a very likely spot for a spell, the water surrounding my fly exploded. I set the hook and pulled the fish in. A pike.
Only after I found out it was a pike did I feel even the slightest bit of disappointment. It was a predatory fish that looked a lot like a Musky. The take was all kinds of pissed off. There were plenty of teeth. It made my heart race. So I was happy to have had some action, but that happiness was tempered with the fact that I hadn’t caught a Musky.
We fished enjoyably for an hour more, maybe two, and then it was time to get back on the road. Brad was heading out of town but offered to set us up with two rods to use for the evening and into Sunday if we were inclined. Yes, we were.
Back at the campground we said our farewells with promises to keep in touch and fish again together sometime. Thanks a bunch, Brad. It was a super cool outing and I’ll never forget it!
Later that evening, after a great dinner at the Angry Minnow in Hayward, Stephen and I went back to the Boulder Lodge and decided to fish the creek below Ghost Lake. We did everything Brad had taught us that day, and look how it worked out…