VALENTINE, Neb. First you could hear them.
Then you could see them.
Alewives, some up to two pounds, were porpoising and leaping out of the water about 100 yards off the bow of the boat. Perfectly calm water made for splendid viewing.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - This fisherman on Nebraska’s Merritt Reservoir is taking advantage of a full moon rising in September. Muskies are known to be very active during a full moon.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Indeed, there are waterfalls in Nebraska. Part of the scenery at Merritt Reservoir is the nearby Snake River Falls.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - One muskie fisherman watches as another clears weeds away from a hooked northern pike on Big Detroit Lake in Minnesota.
The splashing and jumping was timed perfectly with the rise of the full moon. A full moon has great importance to a muskie fisherman. Dramatic increases in muskie activity is known to align with the moon cycles. Bait fish breaking the surface is often an indicator that predators are on the hunt.
Sure enough, within seconds muskies became visible above the water and close behind the panicked alewives who were now in a desperate dash to avoid a toothy fate.
The brilliance of the full moon began to reveal itself with a rather rapid rise over the distant horizon. The scene, and the circumstances, was remarkably vivid and precisely why muskie anglers prepare for these moments. It was Sept. 11 and I was at Nebraska's Merritt Reservoir.
When sunset and moon rise closely coincide, it is believed to be the most opportune time to be muskie fishing. That was the case this past September and the eruption of fish added great credence to that long-held axiom. Muskies were surfacing elsewhere too, sometimes revealed only by the size of the splash. At other times they were quite visible and quite spectacular.
One muskie's presence was revealed by the fast moving, V-shaped ripple atop the calm water. The lengthy predator's intense rush carried it completely out of the water and onto a sand bank where bullfrogs were numerous. It must have been one of the fist-sized meals that the muskie was seeking. As that muskie quickly flipped and thrashed its way back into the water it left a trio of fishermen nearly speechless. It was an amazing spectacle.
I made the trip to Merritt in the hopes of hooking one of that reservoir's monster fish. Nebraska Game and Parks has an aggressive muskie stocking program and Merritt Reservoir is considered the state's leading muskie fishery both in numbers and size of fish.
Nebraska's state record muskie, 41 pounds and 8 ounces, was pulled from Merritt in 1998. Several 50-inch class muskies have been caught at Merritt in recent years but none recorded had the weight to topple the record. A 51 inch muskie was discovered floating dead along the Merritt shoreline. Its weight was estimated to be more than the state record. Biologists believe it is only a matter of time before a Merritt muskie breaks the existing record.
Ironically, few people target muskies at Merritt. Most Merritt muskies are caught by fishermen seeking other species such as largemouth bass, walleye, bluegill, crappie, northern pike and perch. All those fish, and the alewives, do well in Merritt despite having muskies at the top of the food chain. With so many choices to make, it is easy to understand why most anglers choose to target species they are used to pursuing.
Muskies are not the most cooperative fish. Evidence of that comes from creel surveys conducted at Merritt. An estimated 69 muskies were caught at Merritt in 2010. Nearly all of those were under the 40-inch minimum length limit. The largest muskie observed during the creel survey period was 45 inches long. According to the survey, only six fishermen actually harvested legal muskies in excess of 40 inches. Biologists point out however, that the creel survey was quite limited and therefore the numbers are not considered a complete summary of fishing success at Merritt.
Despite seeing several muskies during my trip to Merritt I was not fortunate enough to hook one. I had one fish follow all the way to the boat but it was too deep to get a good look, only a dark shadow passing underneath. That, I believe, was my best chance in two days of fishing.
Not catching muskie during that trip was not all disappointing. I had a chance to learn the reservoir and take in some beautiful scenery. I intend to return to Merritt next year. I'm already formulating a plan of attack that I'll relentlessly implement in the quest to boat a monster fish.
Let's back up now to June at North Dakota's New Johns Lake. There, while standing near the boat ramp in a drizzling rain, I watched as a muskie vertically surged out of the water so far that its tail was fully exposed. It had a fish crossways in its mouth and, much like a dog would shake a sock, its head thrashed from side to side as it slipped back beneath the water. What more encouragement does a muskie fisherman need?
Sure enough, it wasn't long before I returned to New Johns with a boatload of muskie fishing gear. I'd fished for muskies there in the past and talked to others who have too, so my expectations were not very high. Yes, the last two state record muskies have come from New Johns but catches are quite rare.
During this outing I went directly to a spot where I had marked what I believed to be muskies on my sonar on two previous visits. Sure enough, a very large arch appeared on my sonar near the 20-foot level along a drop-off. I made a couple of attempts to toss lures to that fish, but knew I wasn't getting deep enough. No matter. Deep muskies are quite challenging anyway. Most catches occur when muskies are on the hunt away from deep hiding places.
It should be noted that all this comes from what I've read, watched or learned from other fishermen. I have spent considerable hours in pursuit of muskies but, to date, have no monster on the wall. I have come close, very close. Nevertheless, I'll stick with what the experienced muskie anglers say must be done.
My drift at New Johns carried me away from casting range on the suspended fish. Before motoring back into range, I switched to a heavier, deeper diving lure on one of my fishing rods. When I returned to the spot that fish was gone. I had no arch on the sonar. Several casts turned up nothing. Where did that fish go? Did it slide out to deeper water or make a move toward the nearby shore and go on the hunt? Knowing fishing deeper would be futile, I opted to work the shoreline.
I pitched large surface lures that spat water and made plenty of noise. No result. I churned the blades of huge Double Cow Girls through the water too. Nothing. I tried smaller baits, jerk baits, diving baits and tube baits in the span of maybe half an hour. Nothing. That is, I thought, the dues which all muskie fishermen must pay. The fish of 10,000 casts? Sometimes I believe that.
My final trip to New Johns for 2011 was Oct. 21. Conditions were ideal, a bit cool but that was easily offset by a gentle wind. There were three of us in the boat and jackets were shed by late morning. We joked about how New Johns often seems to be a "Dead Sea." A few hours into the fishing trip it didn't seem like a joke anymore. It was turning into reality. Arches on the sonar were very rare, and small, and none of us had seen any fish following our lures or were certain of any strikes.
Undeterred, we continue to pitch lures at, around and through any likely cover that might be holding a muskie. Eventually we downsized our lures, thinking that maybe a smallmouth bass, walleye or northern pike would at least break the shutout. Late in the day, about the time a fisherman usually comes to the realization that he's been thoroughly whipped, I had a big fish at the boat. The darn thing surprised me, too!
I had set aside my preferred muskie baits in favor of what I call a swing bait, a lure large enough for muskies but not so big that nothing else will consider it. My choice was a Mepps Magnum Muskie Killer, pink blades with a pink tail. It can be devastating on northern pike, particularly in the spring. Because New Johns contains both pure and hybrid tiger muskies, a cross between pure muskellunge and northern pike, I had opted for the hot pink lure.
My reasoning came from a conversation I had with Jim Saric, known as the "Musky Hunter." When discussing muskie fishing at New Johns he advised me that tigers generally exhibit more of the traits of northern pike than of pure muskies. Therefore, he said, they'll go deep in the summer and be difficult to catch. On the flip side, said Saric, they'll favor bright colors rather than the darker or more natural color baits generally thrown for pure muskies.
Back to my surprising moment. I was reeling the Mepps back to the boat while glancing at the waves lapping against the shoreline instead of at the lure. When I looked down the lure was at the boat. So was a large fish, directly behind the bait which was now stationary in the water!
I knew I goofed.
I quickly began a figure eight, the signature maneuver for muskie fishing, and darned if that fish didn't make two turns with me. Did it take the Mepps? No, but at least I got to see that fish turn about in the depths below. Two quick passes and it was gone. It was too deep to make a positive identification. When I saw it initially I thought it was a northern pike, perhaps 12 pounds or better. After "chasing the 8" I began to wonder. I'll never know for sure, but I like to think it was a muskie.
A short while later one of my fishing companions had a follow in nearly the same spot. We identified that fish as a northern pike. It was considerably smaller than the fish I'd worked earlier and didn't do anything to bolster my muskie theory. There's always next year.
In late August I made my second muskie trip to Big Detroit Lake in Minnesota. My first visit was in 2010. The Fargo muskie chasers make that trip quite often. Other muskie fishermen do as well. Big Detroit is considered about as good a muskie destination as there is in that area of Minnesota.
This muskie excursion was timed to coincide with the dark of the moon. Muskie lore says that's the next best thing to a full moon. From what I know about muskie fishing, "next best" is not very good at all. I'd have to see for myself. It was encouraging to see other muskie fishermen were on the water at the same time. Sometimes that's better than having the lake entire lake all by yourself not often, but there are exceptions.
Because it was my second trip to Big Detroit, I was somewhat familiar with the lake and some of the likely muskie haunts. Fellow fisherman Gary Leraas of Hillsboro was along too and he shared his considerable knowledge of Big Detroit, including a couple of "hot spots" shared by other muskie fishermen. We wasted no time in checking out new structure.
I was lucky enough to have the first sighting. A very large muskie followed my Double Cow Girl back to the boat and dived underneath, never to be seen again. It did get the blood pumping though and confirmed that spot as one to check during each trip.
As I had reported in these pages earlier this year, my daughter Kelli had one muskie follow and another one briefly hooked at the back of the boat. Several splashes and it was gone, but the memory lives forever. Gary had a submarine sighting at the front of the boat. Several follow-up casts proved futile.
Nevertheless, we had four muskie sightings on a single trip. That, by any muskie fisherman's standards, is a pretty good day. My best day is yet to come. I can't wait for spring.