We are imposters gliding over water. Sporting polarized sunglasses and rods that extend our reach beyond normal confines. The boat speeds toward a single destination marked by a dot on the map.
As we race along, the lake spread in front of us doesn’t look real anymore. Too smooth. Too flat. Like a stylized rendition you’d expect to see in a video game. Wind whips loose any strands of hair not secured under the safety of my hat. We hit 45 mph and my breaths become gasps. I attempt to suck in short gulps of air until I remember to pull up the fabric wrapped around my neck to cover my mouth. I hunker down as the brutal wind seems to blow through every layer of clothing I piled on — two long sleeve shirts, a sweatshirt, leggings and sweatpants.
We arrive at the spot. A dip in the outer edge of the lake’s perimeter where musky have been known to swim. The sun, which cracked over the horizon a mere 20 minutes before we pushed off the dock, now casts golden hues over anything that catches its light. We pull out two boxes covered in camouflage fabric. Inside, the last pieces of our elaborate ruse wait for us to hook them onto the line at the end of our rods.
It’s time to see if we can fool the musky.
I pull out a neon orange topwater bait that putt putt putts as it floats along the surface of the water, blades rotating round and round to mimic the sounds and movements of a baby duck. Cast and reel. Cast and reel. I stand on the deck at the front of the boat falling into a repetitive pattern. Pull the rod back, drop the lure behind my head (without hooking my partner). Then in one smooth motion I let the line sail out in front of me, popping the lock down on the line just before the lure plunges in the water and out of sight.
I don’t fish often, but I’ve logged enough hours on the lake that I can tell a good cast from a bad one just by the sound. The even whiz of the line as it flies out overhead toward its intended target. The longer the noise lasts, the better. That’s a good cast. But the sound of an even whiz interrupted by a sudden halt. That means you’ll spend the next few minutes pulling out and unraveling a knotted line.
With my polarized lenses, I scan the depths for a glint of silver or some other give away that one of the large freshwater beasts lurks below. Muskellunge. The symbol of Wisconsin. The sun moves to a new spot in the sky. I switch lures.
My new walk-the-dog style lure sports white markings and transitions from lime green to orange across the barrel of the body. As I reel it in I sporadically give the rod a quick tug down to make my fake fish roll side to side, the reflective sides glinting in the light and the glow-in-the-dark spiral tail trailing behind. I try to think like my bait fish. If it were alive and swimming, how would it dart and swim?
We are creatures out of water, but we strive to mimic what lives below.
It starts with the look of your bait. Color. Body shape. Size. Musky lures are like Pinterest craft projects. Neon colors. Tinsel. Glitter. Lace doilies templates used to spray paint metallic textures on bait. Walk into a rod and tackle store and you’re guaranteed to find a wall covered in little baggies of metal blades, feathers and other assorted lure-making materials that would look more at home in a Michael’s craft store than somewhere catering to grown male fisherman.
But this group, they are a completely different breed. Bass. Pan fish. Walleye. The musky fishers are something else. Patient. With a tenacity that keeps them pushing through nine hours of casting only to come up empty handed and still want to head out again the next day to try their luck.
It’s a sentiment I didn’t fully understand or appreciate until I set off to Wisconsin for a weekend solely reserved for casting, my partner trying to roll me out of bed at 4:30 a.m. three consecutive mornings. Me half fighting back every time he shook me awake, pulling the covers over my head. But every morning I eventually gave in and suited up with the promise I could take a nap on the boat if I got too tired.
Musky fishermen are a proud bunch. They don’t fish to eat. They don’t (usually) take trophies out of the water to mount on mantel (that’s a near blasphemous thought for the hard-core guys). They may eternally engage in a game of bait and switch, but they’re ferocious in protecting the survival of their beloved freshwater friends. They are men (and women) who fish for the chase. For the satisfaction of netting the big one, but then letting it swim free.