Fly-fishing evokes images of graceful loops of line delivering delicate insect imitations gently upon the surface of a river dimpled by feeding trout. Spend a day floating down one of Minnesota's rivers chasing muskies with Gabe Schubert and that perception of the sport's elegance is likely to change.
Fly-fishing for muskellunge, Minnesota's mightiest and moodiest fish, doesn't require a beautiful cast, says Schubert, a fishing guide who employs a casting technique that allows him to smack the foot-long flies he crafts down hard on the water. "It's about getting a big predatory fish fired up, and that fly slapping the water is like a dinner bell for a muskie."
Schubert is known affectionately in local fly-fishing circles as Muskie Jesus. While modesty doesn't allow Schubert to embrace the nickname, it seems fitting considering his reputation for sharing knowledge he's earned during more than a decade of chasing muskies with a fly rod.
Growing up in Stillwater, Schubert fished the St. Croix River for smallmouth bass. As he tied larger flies to catch larger bass, incidental catches of muskies became more common. "At a certain point I realized that muskies could be hooked consistently using fly tackle," says Schubert, who concedes, like others who've fallen under the spell of these apex predators, "All of a sudden you're this lunatic who can't think about anything else."
Muskie fishing is one of the fastest growing segments of sportfishing in the state, according to the most recent Department of Natural Resources survey. Though fly-fishing for these toothy torpedoes is a niche pursuit, Minnesota's supersized muskies are attracting anglers from around the country. As more fly anglers take up the challenge, many are rediscovering the state's rivers as places to hook the fish of 10,000 casts. And following a record muskie catch on Mille Lacs Lake by a fly angler last fall, interest in fly-fishing is on the rise among conventional muskie anglers too.
The largest member of the pike family, the muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) is native to the Mississippi, St. Croix, Big Fork, Little Fork, and St. Louis river watersheds. These waters were once familiar muskie-fishing haunts, but in recent decades fishing boats have gotten larger and less suitable for many stretches of the state's rivers where muskies are found. Additionally, since the late 1980s, muskie fishing on the state's lakes has greatly improved thanks to better regulations and more lakes stocked with the fast-growing Leech Lake strain of muskie.
On rivers in northern Wisconsin where fly-fishing for muskies has deeper roots, muskie fly anglers are a common sight. So too are the wide, stable, and typically motorless watercraft known as drift boats. These maneuverable rowboats were originally designed for floating western trout rivers. They are increasingly being adopted by Midwestern fly anglers who pursue warmwater species such as muskie and smallmouth bass.
Resourceful anglers have also adapted fly tackle to handle muskies, which can grow nearly 5 feet long and top 50 pounds. Schubert uses heavy 10- to 12-weight rods and weighted fly lines that are designed for big saltwater fish. But as fly-fishing magazines, blogs, and social media have raised muskie to the status of legitimate fly-rod target, the fly-fishing industry has taken notice, according to Robert Hawkins, who owns Bob Mitchell's Fly Shop in St. Paul. He says several companies are marketing fly rods and lines specifically for muskies. Still, most of the flies, the ones that work well anyway, are hand-tied by a small group of local enthusiasts.
Schubert's flies, which range from 7 inches to over a foot long, are crafted from a blend of deer hair, synthetic fibers, and tinsel. Some are tied with natural colors to resemble muskie prey, such as redhorse suckers. Others sport fluorescent colors designed to grab the attention of a muskie in dark or murky water. All of these creations wag seductively from side to side as they are retrieved by sharply tugging the fly line back toward the boat. One late October day Schubert was fishing for muskies when a long, deep-bodied fish materialized suddenly 4 feet from the boat. It inhaled the fly without hesitation. The instinct for most anglers would be to lift the rod, but muskies have hard mouths and fly rods are too flimsy to drive the hook. Instead, Schubert set the hook by pointing the rod at the fish and pulling hard on the fly line—a technique known as a strip set. The powerful fish, now hooked, continued on its path toward a tangle of sunken logs. As Schubert strained to turn the fish around, his rod, a 12-weight model capable of battling hundred-pound tarpon, exploded into four pieces, likely due to a defect in the rod. Schubert reached quickly for the fly line, but the big fish was gone.
"Even when you do get a muskie to eat a fly, even when you do everything right, a lot can still go wrong," Schubert said, grinning at his outstretched hand, which was visibly trembling from the spike of adrenaline.
But sometimes everything goes right. This past November Schubert, Hawkins, and muskie guide Ben Olsen were fly-fishing for muskies on Mille Lacs Lake when Hawkins hooked and landed a 57-inch muskie. The big fish set a new world record for a muskie caught on fly tackle. Naturally, the catch captured national media attention. Online fishing forums buzzed with the news for weeks, and Minnesota's reputation as a destination for trophy muskies grew.
After buying Bob Mitchell's Fly Shop in 2013, Hawkins began fly-fishing for muskies as often as he could. "I had my first few encounters, and I was sold," says the Montana native and former trout guide. "Back in Montana it's exciting to have a 20-inch brown [trout] follow your fly. To have a 45-, 50-, or a 55-inch fish follow your fly is a whole different deal."
Hawkins' record catch has piqued the interest of more than just dedicated fly anglers. He now sees more conventional muskie anglers adding fly rods and flies to their arsenals of bait-casting rods and lures.
"It's another tool," says Hawkins. "You get some muskies up to the boat, maybe they won't eat. You put a fly in the water, and it's just enough to change their mind—something different."
Hawkins believes muskie fly-fishing will continue to evolve and grow as seasoned conventional muskie anglers experiment with flies, particularly on the state's lakes where muskies regularly reach lengths of 50 inches or more. At the same time, Hawkins also predicts interest in fly-fishing for muskies in Minnesota will increase as more resident and traveling fly anglers seek to add the species to their bucket lists.
"The best place in the world to do it," he says, "is right here."