In the ongoing battle—Esox masquinongy immaculatus vs. Homo sapiens—the odds are so lopsidedly long in favor of the fish that one might wonder what sort of man would even bother to enter the game. Marv Heeler says in a sad, flat voice, "No one should feel bad if he doesn't catch a muskie right away. I've known men who fished all their lives for muskies—20, 30 years for muskies—and never caught a keeper, poor devils. My own son is well into his 20s, and he has been fishing for muskies since he was a foot shorter than his fish pole. He has never, not once, caught a keeper. In the long run, I'd say there are more people fishing for muskies who have never caught one than people who have."
Ron Schara in Muskie Mania cites the case of one Ellen Ramsell of Blaine, Minn.: "It was on Sept. 1, 1974 that Mrs. Ramsell landed her first legal-sized muskellunge," Schara writes. "She will always remember it well. She had already fished a total of 20 days that year before she hooked the 13-pounder. But she had fished for 25 years before that, averaging 24 days a year, without bagging a keeper. By her own calculation—fishing 25 years for 24 days a year for eight hours a day—she had made at least 500,000 to 800,000 casts for a single legal muskie."
An isolated case? Perhaps. Yet there are few freshwater fish—perhaps none—as difficult to catch as the muskie. Some people call it the $10,000 fish because they figure an average cost of $10,000 in equipment, travel, lodging and food for every keeper caught. Brian Long has kept records for two years of his fishing. "There are hot streaks and cold streaks, 10 days at a time without a keeper," he says. "On the average, I've found it takes 12 hours of hard fishing per legal muskie caught per boat. That's two people in the boat, casting constantly for a full day and a half."
A hardworking, aggressive muskie fisherman probably casts on the average of three times a minute, which is 180 an hour, which is slightly over 2,100 casts in a 12-hour period. But Long's average is based on two people per boat, which means it takes no fewer than 4,200 casts for every keeper muskie boated.
Long swears by that average, but Heeler, who does his guiding 100 miles farther east in Wisconsin, where lakes are more residential than they are around Hayward, says Long's ratio is too optimistic. Heeler says that his average cast-per-fish ratio is about double that of Long's—more than 8,000 casts per keeper. And those are the averages of two profoundly seasoned and highly imaginative fishing guides—professional muskie hunters in every sense of the word. For a hack, who's throwing out his lures with far less knowledge of lake terrain, water temperature, seasonal conditions, etc., the number of casts per fish might climb to a figure perilously near infinity.
Much—much too much, perhaps—has already been written about the type of man who spends so much time in the vain pursuit of the muskie—cockeyed optimist crossed with stubborn Stoic is the usual diagnosis. But Neal Long, 55, father of Brian and an articulate and talented artist and fisherman who for 36 years has made his living as a taxidermist in Sayner, speaks to the subject with rare insight. "The muskie is Moby Dick," he says, "and anyone who fishes muskies very long becomes as driven as Captain Ahab. There is a maddening individuality about each muskie that is absolutely unpredictable. This makes the focus of a true muskie fisherman's mind different from that of other fishermen. He is after a specific fish, a personality—not a species. No other fish has quite that sense of self—not the king salmon, not even the trout. Only the muskie."
Through the 1940s and much of the 1950s, my family continued to fish for muskies. There was never anything like that dramatic week in 1944 when Uncle Ted and Uncle Arnold caught two, but the constant pounding of lures along shoreline went on for days on end during the vacations we spent at Clam Lake. Granted, it was rarely more than two or three summer weeks in a row that any one group of uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents or parents was actually fishing. But each summer the cabin was occupied by some family contingent almost every day—and that meant the boats were on the lakes and tackle was flashing for at least a few hours almost daily in the ongoing pursuit of a keeper muskie.
There were moments of hope. In 1948, my grandmother and grandfather were fishing for walleyes in Upper Clam Lake when suddenly a muskie flung itself up out of the water and soared across the rowboat, directly between them.
In 1951, my mother and my grandfather were trolling for walleyes when she hooked a powerful fish, obviously a muskie. Convinced that it would be foolhardy to bring such a monster into the boat with them, my grandfather rowed rapidly toward a nearby island in hope of beaching the beast. Near the shore he jumped, fully dressed, into water up to his waist and hauled the fish on my mother's line onto the beach. It was a muskie, all right, a mean and angry thing, but it was only 22 inches long. They had to release it.
In 1952, my father, a lifelong fisherman, though by no means a religious one, finally hooked his first muskie during a trip to the Chippewa Flowage with Uncle Bill and my grandfather. He recalls the scene: "I finally had a keeper, I was sure. We got it in the boat, but we didn't have a gaff or a club, so we hit it with a beer bottle." The fish was out cold, and as they gazed at it, they realized it was not an absolute lunker, though it was pretty big. My grandfather suggested they should measure it to make sure it was legal. My father confidently agreed, and they held the unconscious fish against a yardstick nailed to a boat seat. The first measurement came up 29� inches. This couldn't be. That left it half an inch short of being a keeper. "It seemed bigger than that," my father says. "We turned it the other way around and pulled slightly at each end and measured again." The fish was 29� inches long every time except one, when it was 29?.