In the summer of '42, we never tried a sash weight, but we did fling what must have amounted to a ton of muskie lures—over lily pads, into weeds, smack dab on a dime next to water-soaked logs, into lovely dark brown niches adjacent to the shore, occasionally up onto woodsy banks from which we could yank the lures so that they plopped gently into the water like frogs hopping in. We fished before dawn, after dark, at high noon, in chill drizzle and under a sweltering sun. We fished Upper Clam Lake, Lower Clam Lake, Little Clam Lake and dozens of other non-Clam lakes and rivers of untold variety and relentless beauty. This is classic north-woods country, with glistening necklaces of lakes and rivers strung through cool acres of pines and birch and poplars. The water is cold, pure, strewn with lily pads and thick with weed beds, and it is the tea color that makes a perfect, gloomy environment to conceal the lurking muskie. The lakes looked so ideal for muskies that we could feel them everywhere. But we caught none.
There were, however, exciting signals, proving that they existed. Hits and strikes occurred—meaning that we occasionally saw fierce swirls of water and felt a big fish smack at a lure.
These near-misses created a certain delicious trepidation among us. One of my uncles, a skilled walleyed-pike fisherman but with no previous experience at going for muskies, recalls a night in the summer of 1943: "It was black as pitch and I was alone, rowing in to the dock in a little duckboat. I could hardly see where I was, but I decided I'd make one last cast. I threw it way out in the dark. I couldn't see the plug hit the water, but I could hear it. I reeled it in fast, not paying much attention, and right up by the boat, all of a sudden, there was this terrible splashing. Something big—the size of a man's leg—took a swipe at the lure. It missed and was gone. I stared at the water and it was still, as if nothing had been there. But I could feel that thing waiting. I retrieved the lure. I knew I ought to throw it in again and try to catch him. The boat felt so damn little, but I knew I had to throw it once more. Finally, I did, though I prayed the whole time I reeled it in that the fish wouldn't hit it again."
Of course, it didn't hit again. But it was this kind of bedtime fish story, this high-tension litany of near-misses, that kept us going back.
When it does strike, a muskie is a sight to behold. Though it usually swims at a leisurely one mph, it can explode into sprints as fast as 32 mph. Just before it hits its prey, the muskie winds its body into a sinister S-shape. Then it springs forward. It clamps its jaws on the middle of a fish's back, turns it and consumes the head first. That is what it usually does.
But as Marv Heeler says, "Nobody knows what these fellows are going to do. Some say vibration in the water attracts them. Others say they only hit what they can see. Others say a muskie will never hit an object that isn't moving—but I've seen one hit a lure that was tangled in the boat motor."
Milt Dieckman adds, "The muskie is a moody fish. It's neurotic. It might strike its own brother and not even eat him. It might hit a lure, crunch it and mouth it and play with it like a lion toying with its food. Ordinarily, they don't school up, but then again, when food's scarce, you see 'em running together like packs of wolves. There's no way to chart them. They're like no other fish. About the only thing you can say for sure is that they'll move with thunder. When there is a bad summer storm brewing, you can always get some muskie action. You also always take your life in your hands being on a lake at a time like that. Only damn fools go out then."
My family was beginning to feel a little like a bunch of damn fools—rain or shine—toward the end of the summer of 1944. We had fished and fished and had nothing to show for it, nothing at all. We still had plenty of hope—and, some of us, a little fear—that we would catch a monster, but we had stopped anticipating a mad assault by a maniac muskie at the end of every cast. We did, however, try to make certain that every time we went out in a boat, even to fish for walleyes, we had a log, club or small bat along. This was standard muskie-fishing gear for battering a big fish senseless before it could get in the boat and batter you senseless.
Actually, this precaution wasn't all that ludicrous. An anti-muskie weapon was de rigueur, and many people even carried pistols to shoot any outsized muskie that came near the boat. Indeed, the mystique of muskie fishing in the early 20th century was such that shooting them before boating them became a standard part of the thrill and theater of the sport. Brian Long, a young guide from Glidden, Wis., tells of the days when his grandfather took out parties of "swells" who traveled from Chicago to northern Wisconsin by train years ago. "Muskie fishing was like a big-game safari to them," says Long, "and the guides always added some extra excitement by shooting every big fish with a pistol. You'd get the fish by the boat and fire one shot in its head—the coup de gr�ce. To the swells from Chicago, it seemed as if they had just been involved in a fight with a ferocious jungle beast. It was good for business."
It wasn't all that good for fishermen, however. A few years ago, the Wisconsin legislature outlawed pistols in boats because too many excited muskie fishermen had fired too wildly too often—putting holes in their own boats or frightening people on shore by peppering lakeside cabins with stray bullets.