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That Muskie Madness
William Oscar Johnson
May 12, 1980
The beastly muskellunge is preeminently ugly, preternaturally ferocious and preposterously hard to catch, as the author and his family found out in 38 summers at Wisconsin's Upper Clam Lake
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May 12, 1980

That Muskie Madness

The beastly muskellunge is preeminently ugly, preternaturally ferocious and preposterously hard to catch, as the author and his family found out in 38 summers at Wisconsin's Upper Clam Lake

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Experts disagree about the origin of the name muskellunge, but it apparently derives from an Indian language—Ojibway or perhaps Cree—and is a combination of moshk (great) or mas (ugly) or mashk (deformed) and knoje (pike) or kinnonge (also pike) or kinonge (fish). The French Canadian word for the fish is maskiononge, which, quite bluntly, means "ugly fish." When a mighty muskellunge swims just beneath the surface of the tea-brown water of a northern Wisconsin lake, it has the sinister appearance of a stalking submarine, silent and menacing. But not until the fish broaches the surface—revealing its hideous bulging eyes, its forest of needle teeth set in a mean green snout, and a body as thick as two pythons and as long as a truck bumper—does it become the embodiment of such raw violence that grown men have been known to wet their pants at the sight.

There is no other fish like the muskie. It is diabolical in its cunning, maniacal in its rage, unpredictable in its habits. It is the most awesome of all freshwater fish, a creature that captures the imagination, fires the spirit and—alas—breaks the hearts of fishermen by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands every year. And sometimes year after year after year after year.

The Moccasin Bar on Route 77 in Hayward, Wis. is a typical north-woods drinking establishment. A deer head hangs on a knotty-pine wall, the men's-room door is marked "Bucks," the women's, "Does." But unlike hundreds of similar bars in the north woods, the Moccasin Bar is a bona fide tourist attraction. In summer a stream of parents shepherds children in out of the sunlight. They squint in the tavern's beery brown gloom as they look about for what they've come to see. The drinkers at the bar rarely glance up at the tourists. And the tourists don't always notice the drinkers because once their eyes adjust, they pretty much stay fixed on a display of mounted fish. This is what they've come for.

Each fish is boxed in glass, each has its own gallery light, each its own explanatory legend. The Moccasin Tavern is a sort of Louvre of lunkers in that for years and years it has featured a stunning display of mighty muskellunge.

Half a dozen of these beasts are on show now. The centerpiece is a monumental fish that is 59� inches long and weighed 67 pounds 8 ounces when it was caught in the summer of 1949. It is a frightful-looking thing, thick-bellied, with angry walleyes, a snout not unlike that of a crocodile and a protruding lower jaw filled with teeth. Even though it is 31 years dead, it is as wrathful and glowering as it was when it became aware it was hooked. All in all, it is not a creature most fishermen would care to share a small row-boat with. And, sure enough, the legend beneath it explains that this fish was never boated but "fought for one hour, then had to be landed by beaching."

At the time it was hauled ashore from Lake Couderay, eight miles south of Hayward, this was the world-record muskellunge. Barely three months later, the record was broken when a 69-pound 11-ounce muskie was caught in the Chippewa Flowage, also only a short distance from Hayward. Thus, for many years the tank atop the Hayward water tower has borne the slogan HOME OF WORLD-RECORD MUSKIES.

Technically speaking, this is no longer the case: Hayward is the home of former world-record muskies. This is a painful truth that the citizens of Hayward prefer to ignore, but there is no denying the facts; the world-record muskellunge was caught on Sept. 22, 1957 in the St. Lawrence River, roughly 1,000 miles east of Hayward, by an upstate New York refrigeration mechanic named Art Lawton. He was not casting, as most Wisconsin purists do; he was motor-trolling with a big wooden plug at a depth of about 25 feet when his line tightened up against what he thought was a deadweight snag on the bottom. It wasn't a snag at all, it was the world record....

Even now, almost 23 years later, no one in Hayward—or anywhere else in Wisconsin muskie country, for that matter—has ever stopped grieving over the loss of the world record to New York. Be it sour grapes or some kind of fisherman's intuition, the mourners cannot discuss the record muskie without raising suspicion of a Big Lie.

As recorded, the New York fish was a true monster—64� inches long, 69 pounds 15 ounces. Once Lawton had it hooked, his strategy was to let the brute swim wherever it wanted, until it wore itself out. That took about an hour. Lawton and his wife, Ruth, hauled in the exhausted fish, returned home to Delmar, N.Y., put it on ice in the refrigeration plant where Art worked and then went home to bed as if it were the end of just another fishing day. The Lawtons had caught dozens of other big muskies, including at least four that weighed more than 60 pounds, and they were not particularly excited over this one. It was not until the next afternoon that Art and some friends got around to weighing his catch. They found that, by gosh, it was a world-record fish. They were apparently not particularly excited by this, either. They took one blurry, slightly off-center snapshot of Lawton holding the monster in the front yard of someone's house. That done, Lawton cut the fish up and passed out the meat to his friends. The world-record muskie was never mounted. It was eaten for supper.

Perhaps it is not so strange, then, that two decades later, people in Hayward still question the record. Albert (Ubbie) Bloom, 70, owner of a sporting-goods store and a fishing guide around Hayward since he was a boy of 15, squints suspiciously and says, "Why didn't they mount it? There was something fishy about the whole thing. You'd think if it was a world record they'd have done something besides eat it."

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