Hardly Any Musky

“You working or fishing?” asked Peter at the check-in on Thursday night. It’s an increasingly blurry line, but a reasonable question because the last time I came to McMinnville, Tennessee, I was covering the 2015 Hardly, Strictly Musky tournament for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Working, I guess. But not this time.

I’d even left my camera at the cabin. Surprising how doing so moderates the buzz of anxiety I usually carry to social events like this. Also shocking that a talented pro like Peter considers my photo- and note-taking “work.” It’s a feeling, sort of a jolt of panic, that I’m getting a lot during these early days of career-transition, when other folks take me more seriously than I take myself. Have to work on that.

“Fishing,” I answered.

“Good man,” Peter said with a grin, and headed off to the Foglight Foodhouse’s open bar.

Then I bumped into Mike. We exchanged “nice to finally meet you”s and talked about muskies for a while. We’d long been internet acquaintances. So goes the angling world these days.

The major benefit of the angling blogosphere is that writer/photog/anglers with similar outlooks and temperaments tend to find each other organically, so there’s little risk of winding up in a boat for three days with a dude you can’t get along with. Or likewise in a truck for ten hours of dodging semis between Indiana and Tennessee.

“He’s a heck of a fisherman,” Dave had said on that drive about Mike, the third angler on our team. “He’s also the kind of guy who’s infectiously happy just being in the boat, casting.”

“Sounds like a good guy to have in a musky boat,” I said, and Dave nodded.

“Exactly,” he said.

For Dave and I have done this together before. We know that a musky tournament angler must not only be indefatigable in the face of near-certain failure but also a little bit apathetic. A guy who wants to catch a musky too much is no fun to be around.

Dave and I know this. We’ve both been that guy.

But Mike? I doubt he’s ever been that guy.

Even after a big fish ate his fly in heavy current on day one, stayed stuck long enough for me to get the net unfolded, and then spit the fly back out. The rod unbowed and swear words crackled. Even after this, and a short meditation on the uncertainty and unfairness of life, Mike was again fishing with a smile.

Like I said: it’s organic. When friends are good enough there’s no worry about how friends-of-friends will fit in. It doesn’t take much math to calculate that so goes the entire tournament of 100 anglers. In compliance with the official tournament rules, there was not an asshole to be seen. Especially during the flotilla that developed on the upper Caney Fork, mid-day on a high-sun Saturday. It was a special group: a few of those faces have been seen in person by hundreds of muskies. Our boat excluded, probably the most concentrated river-acre of musky mojo ever in history. Luckily, muskies don’t use hand grenades, because we gave them a heck of a target for about a half hour. 

The only moment of concern all weekend came when when a couple of friendly tourney anglers in a canoe told us that a “grey tin boat with two dudes from Texas had an accident upriver.” That was a little worrisome since our cabinmates, Andrew and Winston, were in from Texas driving just such a boat, and had promised us BBQ chicken wings for a post-dinner snack. But when we learned that they’d turned down offers of aid, brushed off the treebark, and headed on upstream, we stopped worrying. 

It wasn’t until the drive back north, rolling in and out of early-morning mountainshade in rural Kentucky, that Dave and I realized that after a half-dozen musky trips together, this one had been the most on-paper successful: we saw six muskies, and even briefly had hooks in one. 

One of these days we’ll get one in the boat. Maybe.

The new hashtag that’s developed around this tournament seems to fit: #hardlyanymusky. It’s not a condemnation of the tournament. It’s just a damn fact of life. 

Many thanks to Dave, Mike, Andrew, and Winston for being good boat and cabin crew.

Also serious thanks to:

Hardly, Strictly Musky: The Southern Classic

Towee Boats



and the other fine other sponsors


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A clear river intrigues, mystifies, and enchants. A muddy blown-out river obscures, chokes, and demoralizes. Opacity leaves way too much up to the imagination. We are deprived of the little signs of life that we take to heart on long days of fishing–minnows, crayfish, logs, boulders, shadows, undercuts. It’s as interesting as a dead television. 

But you’re here, towed the boat all this way, so you fish it. Convention says to fish streamers: big flies, black or white or chartreuse–something contrasty–and fish them close to structure, in deep holes, along current breaks, up against the banks.

‘Course, in musky fishing, you’re already doing all that. Not much to change. Musky fishing is normally a grind; now even more so, a finer grind, infinitely small particulate, infinitely discouraging. The river is like a driveway puddle that you can’t believe the dog’s drinking from–nothing suggests the complete ecosystem it used to be, must still be.

So you grind away. You try to stay alert and try to guess when to figure-eight so the fly doesn’t hit the rod tip. It’s neither hope nor optimism that keeps you casting–it’s more like martyrdom: pride at how much suffering without hope you can endure. So you keep doublehauling and staring into the turbid void.

And then the void looks back at you and explodes. From nowhere–nowhere behind the dead surface and amid the silt and leaves and detritus–there is a musky and its violence is shocking and then, in the net, its resentment seething.  When the hooks are free and you relax your hand from its tail, it doesn’t bolt in terror, but fins slowly back into the opaqueness, into nowhere. Reminding you that you’ve no lasting power there. 

Nowhere. This place the musky comes from is why musky fishing is more like hunting than it is like other kinds of fishing. A section of woods can be empty for days: no tracks, nothing, and then out of nowhere a deer is standing before you in the wide-open. Not sneaking out from the edge of the field or crunching through the dead underbrush, but just there, obvious, shocking. Out of nowhere.

Or maybe more appropriately, the wolf. It can take years or decades–you know they are out there but have never seen one on the paw and then one night, out of nowhere, there’s a lobo standing on the centerline of the dark highway. Not a fluffy nature-show star, but scruffy and wild, moonshine eyes and gangly legs and huge head held low, unmistakable for any other canid, breath boiling white in the cold headlight beams.

And it doesn’t bolt in terror, it lopes off into the dark woods — into nowhere. You’ve no power there.  

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Sporting Art

I don’t care for the kitschy stuff: retriever puppy chewing on a duck call, pheasants flushing before a 1950s pickup, old timer sleeping on the deer stand while a big buck steals his lunch. I can’t say it’s bad, of course, and I think it’s mostly unpretentious. For one thing, it must sell. If you’ve been to a Ducks Unlimited banquet or the gifts section of a Cabela’s store you know what I mean.

But I’m not immune to all of it. I have a David Maass print that came from my grandfather. It is a stormy morning of bluebills decoying, dark and blue, whitecaps and wind-bent cattails.  It calls to mind unholy-early wake-ups with good friends and a wet chill and roaring wings and the press of “is it light enough yet?” anticipation in the pre-dawn.

And a Jake Keeler original watercolor hangs before me as I write. It is a impressionistic salmonid face that reminds me of the cruel and invincible Chinook salmon that beat me ten to one, overall, even while in their last days or moments on earth, dying but still strong and needing to prove it, overwhelming spirit overflowing those small, sandy northern Michigan streams.

But until bumping into Josh DeSmit at a recent art fair I’d never been arrested by a piece of art. Not sure how else to describe it and I don’t expect anyone else to understand — unless you, too, have had your twelve-inch fly eaten by a dark green northern musky on an October river, oak leaves rimmed with frost falling to the leaden mirror of a reflected overcast, heavy flannel shirt smelling of last night’s campfire and mouth tasting of last night’s whiskey. Probably helps that mornings lately have been cool enough to suggest the end of summer and this, also, stirs something deep in my psyche, something very much related to changing leaves and muskies.

Maybe that’s a sophomoric take on art appreciation: being moved by imagery that happens to literally depict a specific memory. But that’s okay with me.

In any case once I had picked it up — Josh says it’s a hand-pressed hand-colored linocut print — I wasn’t setting it back down except for the tense five minutes it took to find an ATM, not having planned to need cash.

Now, where to hang it?

For more on Josh DeSmit’s unique take on classic sporting art, click here.


Fishing to hunting; fall to winter; fog to frost.

Catch-and-release to shoot-and-eat.

Night to day, and back to night: northern Minnesota’s November daylight period is such that an angler or a hunter daily witnesses both the sun’s rise and set, and not through an office window.

Natural rhythms are felt deeply.

Yearly traditions of people and places, touchstones, tell us of those things that change and those don’t.

On Traveling

Rosy of cheek and toothy of grin, the three Yankees burst through the automatic doors of the Super Wal-Mart in McMinnville, Tennessee. River water that had parking-lot flash-frozen on their waders melted again in the relative warmth of the store and their Vibram soles squeaked offensively on the tile.

more “On Traveling”