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PBD Fish Reports

Muskie on the Fly -- The
Ultimate Fresh Water Challenge

Fishing Report on Muskie Fishing in Northern Wisconsin


Paul B. Downing


When was the last time you literally shook with excitement after catching a fish? For me it had been a long time, but I was shaking as I released a 38 inch muskie, my first ever. Catching a legal muskie…one over 36 inches…is a major accomplishment. Catching one on a fly puts you into a very select group who has accomplished this feat. 


The muskie is known as the water wolf because of its aggressive predatory nature. Baby ducks are not safe in the water. Muskies make fishers look silly. Fish as long as your leg follow one's lure right to the boat, look up at the excited fisher as if to say incredulously "You expected me to hit that obvious fake?" and slowly fin away. Fish outsmart fisher more often than not. Consequently they are known as the fish of 10,000 casts. 


The story of this muskie goes back over 50 years to when I was a boy in Milwaukee. Among my friends and fishing mentors there were two classes of fishers; those who fished and real fishermen. The difference was that a real fisherman had caught at least one legal size muskie. I wanted to be a real fisherman!


Back then, in an attempt to catch my muskie (that's how people refer to them…"when I caught my muskie"…usually spoken with great reverence) I headed to northern Wisconsin. Eagle River and Boulder Junction are revered for their great muskie fishing. In my attempts I gained some stories of big fish that I almost caught but I never hooked a muskie…not even a little one.   


After college I moved away and the dream of catching my muskie faded. That dream was rekindled when my friend and fellow writer Naomi Shapiro told me about two men in northern Wisconsin…George Langley and Bill Sherer…who specialized in catching muskie with a fly. It was now early June and after 40 years I was back in northern Wisconsin to once again pursue my dream, this time armed with a fly rod. 

My first stop was Eagle Sports, George Langley's shop in Eagle River. Even today, fly fishing for muskie is rare so the shop was heavily stocked with big lures and heavy casting outfits. George told me that only one in ten fishers pursued muskie with a fly and only one percent ever catches a legal muskie that way. If I were to succeed it would be quite an accomplishment. I think George was trying to prepare me for a long day of casting without a hit, but I had been muskie fishing before. I knew what to expect.

​The next day dawned clear and bright. We headed to North Twin Lake, one of many great muskie lakes in the area. As George launched his boat, I set up. Muskies are large toothy critters that require some special attention to equipment. Leaders are short and stiff to help turn over the large flies these predators prefer. I used 5 feet of 25 pound Mason mono. To this I added 18 inches of wire leader. The teeth on these critters can cut monofilament in an instant, so wire is an absolute must. Crimping wire leaders is a bother. Fortunately American Fishing Wire makes a knottable 20 pound test wire leader called Surflon Micro Supreme. I tied the wire to the leader with a surgeon's knot and tied on one of George's large streamers with a simple figure eight knot.

We headed out to a big shallow bay. Reeds reached out from the shore and outside them, in 3 to 5 feet of water, were patches of bottom weeds which George called "muskie cabbage." Using a trolling motor to position the boat, we worked along the edges of the reeds and over the cabbage. Shortly we spotted a big muskie. I hoped this would be the one. The fish ignored my offering completely, slowly fining off. Another fish followed my fly but would not take it. Frustrating but still fascinating.

Then, only 3 hours into my first day of fishing for muskie with a fly, it happened. A good fish appeared just 20 feet from the boat, opened its mouth and clamped down on my fly! No slashing strike so typical of muskie. Just a quiet act that said "I am the toughest fish in the lake and now this thing is mine." If a fish can look mean, this fish had it down pat. He looked up at me with pure hate in his eyes as he slowly moved off. As I took this instant in, I instinctively set the hook. All heck broke loose. Short runs, quick changes of direction, and splashing surface head shakes didn't set him free so he tried other tactics. First he rolled, winding the line around him. When that didn't work, he headed under the boat. I swung the rod around the bow and he tried it again. Finally tiring, I was able to get his head up and into George's waiting net. Then I shook. Smiles, handshakes and the obligatory photos accomplished, George quickly released him unharmed. I had boated my first legal muskie, a 38 incher.

After calming down, we continued to fish the bay. At one point I was casting to a point of reeds. Just before my fly landed there was a big explosion just two feet away from the landing zone. We saw a muskie George estimated to be 50 inches long, slowly swim away. If I had been a half-cast sooner I would have caught that monster.

Later in the day another muskie came after my fly and clamped onto the tail. The hook was nowhere near that fish's mouth. I jerked the fly out of his mouth and immediately cast back but he was not going to be fooled again. The day ended with the satisfying glow of success and memories of my muskie…and the ones I missed…indelibly etched into my mind.

A few days later I was going to fish with Bill Sherer of the We Tie It Fly Shop in Boulder Junction. When I arrived, Bill was at the tying bench concocting a large streamer. Layer upon layer of feathers, hair and brightly flashing plastic slowly took form. As he set large eyes in the epoxy head, the fly became alive. Bill explained that a fly does not displace much water or make sounds like a casting plug, so it must use color, movement, and flash to attract fish. Colorful and flashy it was! Bill calls it the Figure 8.

Bill ties amazing flies. In the spring he uses what I would call big streamer flies. These flies are 3 to 5 inches long. In summer, as bait fish grow, his flies increase in size to 7 to 9 inches. Fall finds him tossing huge 10 to 16 inch flies. On summer nights his large poppers produce great surface action. His innovative crankbait flies have plastic lips that impart a wiggle just like bass plugs. To cast these monsters a 10wt rod is essential.

​Enough talk! We were off to hunt for the water wolf.

I am amazed at how many muskie lakes there are in Vilas County. The big chain lakes like the Eagle Lakes and the Rainbow Flowage are justly famous. But some of the best fishing is found on the relatively small lakes and slow moving rivers dotted over the county…over 1300 of them.

The lake we fished that morning had a slight tannin stain to the water. We worked the shoreline and submerged weeds. At one point I had a hit. As luck would have it, the fish came right at me and I could not get the hook set. The fish swirled and I got back a fly and nicely curled wire leader.

In the afternoon we tried a clear lake. Bill said that muskie patrolled the reed beds in 2 feet of water. Within a half-hour I hooked and released a 24-inch muskie. This fellow fought with the heart of a lion and as I released him I looked forward to meeting up with him again in four or five years. Working along the shore we picked up several nice smallmouth bass on these big streamers. One was easily 3 pounds. A great bonus to the muskie fishing.

As the sun lowered, we saw monsters moving in the shallows. One followed Bill's fly, but the muskies were having none of it that day.

Muskie can be caught on a fly from spring (late May) through summer into late fall (mid-October). In spring, they are in the shallow warmer water feeding and preparing to spawn. Use floating or intermediate sinking lines and smaller streamers. As summer approaches muskies move out to water 8- to 12-feet deep. The favorite haunts are along rocky points, submerged bars and weed beds near deeper water. Here you will need full sinking lines and bigger flies worked 5- to 8-feet deep. Bill's crankbait fly, the BP Musky Fly, is particularly effective then. As fall approaches the fish again move into the shallows. This is Bill's favorite time to fish. In fact, last fall he landed a 45 inch lady on 16 pound tippet, a pending IGFA line class record. She had 24 inch girth and weighed 21 pounds according to his Boga Grip. Bill released her unharmed as do most muskie fishers nowadays.

Muskies are native to the northern U.S. and Canada. They have been introduced as far south as Kentucky and as far west as Colorado. However, I can think of no better place to try for your muskie than Vilas County, the Muskie Capital of the World, nor two better people to help you succeed than George and Bill.

Bill likens the challenge of muskie fishing to permit fishing in the ocean. Other claim they are more of a challenge than Atlantic salmon. Take the challenge. Become a real fisher. You probably will not need 10,000 casts.

Contact George Langley at Eagle Sports ( 715-479-8804) and Bill Sherer at We Tie It Fly Shop ( 715-385-0171).