Tuesday, September 18th, 2007 at about 11:00 am on a lake in northern Ontario. It lasted about four minutes-- certainly no more than five. During that time I experienced an adrenaline rush the likes of which I’ve experienced only once before.
The Muskie wacked my black bucktail about 30 yds from the boat.
Up to that point in my life I have only had two Muskies on so to speak . Once in the early 60’s on Balsam Lake with my Dad as we trolled back to the cottage after some pickerel drifting and me outfitted with a light spinning rod and reel and probably no more than 10lb mono . As for the lure I honestly can’t remember. Needless to say she wasn’t on long! The second time was my first time fishing with Bobby in early October, 2005. We were casting off the sunken island and this time on a red bucktail she hit and did what any Muskie over the age of ten will do when she knows there’s a novice at the other end of the line. I saw and felt the line being taken out against a pretty good drag set and then the line went limp. Bobby yells,“ reel in, reel in”. I’m reeling in as fast as I can and then I realize she’s heading for the front of the boat. Well I’m in the back and between her and me is an obstacle weighing over two hundred pounds with a 46 inch chest. By the time I got to the front she had already passed by the bow and the line got caught in the bow cleat. End of story.
On the morning of Sept. 18th, it was as if time and everything around me came to an abrupt and complete stop. Not thinking but just reacting I gave the rod two firm hook sets and the battle was joined. I stayed in the chair at the front of the boat initially and concentrated pointing the rod directly at whatever was testing my drag set. We hadn’t seen the fish yet and Bobby was reminding me to stay calm and focused. Bobby has been fishing this lake for 25 years and has caught and released more Muskies than most of the fishermen that live in the area-- a number of them in the 40lb range. It wasn’t until we saw that incredible tail swirl that I thought, and Bobby knew, I had one serious fish on the line. The amount of water that fish moved with one kick of its tail was simply astounding. After two serious runs I could sense a little weakening and was able to close the gap with out any horsing. Then the big girl did what I was kind of expecting –she took a run towards the other side of the boat via the transom. Thank god Bobby had raised the engine. I sprang out of that chair quicker than I do at the end of my periodontal appointment and walked briskly to the back of the boat reeling in like I had to at the first sign of a strike in the Queen Charlottes fishing for Chinooks. If I gave her any slack during this run she didn’t take advantage of it.
This part of the battle I can only describe as a bit of a chess match. I’m sure Bobby knew what was going on but he wanted me to have the experience without the cue cards. I do remember Bobby telling me once or maybe a thousand times that there comes a point where you just have to stay with the fish. Don’t horse her, let her have what she wants, take what she gives you, keep a tight line, the rod always pointing in her direction and just wait her out. “Stump, believe me you’ll know when she’s done” and somehow I knew when that point had been achieved.
So there I am with the largest freshwater fish I have ever caught in my life and both of us are motionless, her out of exhaustion and me out of disbelief. I don’t know how to accurately put into words my reaction to seeing this incredible predator other than to say she looked totally unreal. Everything was about size and density. Her mouth was long and wide. Her head, neck and back were thick and wide. She was so-o-o long, with the tail which had moved so much water with that revealing swirl . Now I knew how. But impressive as all those were, the thing we continued to talk about over and over for the balance of the trip were her eyes. It wasn’t because her eyes were as big as a loonie-- it was because (as I later said to Bobby), “they looked so sad”. Later on in the week we were in the local variety store for some desperation provisions and I mentioned my description of the eyes to the proprietor and he looked at me, smiled and said, “puppy dog eyes”. He knew where I’d been because he’d been there before. It’s been almost two months now but I can still see those loonie sized eyes peering up at me saying, “OK, you win-- maybe.”
In all the years Bobby has been catching Muskie he has always caught and released and never used a net. On his first attempt to get his hand behind the gill plate the fish spooked and moved away from the boat. She was pretty much done so there was no problem in getting her back along side except that her position was now closer to the bow so I had to move back and to the other side in order to keep a tight line on her. Now I couldn’t see her or what progress Bobby was having in getting grip on this lunker. I guess you know what’s coming -- on Bobby’s second attempt he had just been able to get a few fingers in behind the gill plate when she banged her head against the side of the boat, dislodging the bucktail. At that point my line went slack, Bobby stood up and looked at me and I looked at him.
Bobby was extremely upset at losing this fish and admittedly I was disappointed that we hadn’t been able to boat her either so that we could take the measurements and the requisite pictures. You know, it was not having those damn pictures that had me bugged for a while until I thought about it. Then I realized that I wanted the pictures so that I could prove to someone—anyone-- that Stump had really done this. And the light went on-- that old man hubris and his sidekick the male ego.
After the dust of elation and disappointment had settled Bobby got on his cellphone and called Beaver to tell him of our news. The first thing Beaver asked was, “What rod was Stump using?”
The night before we had Beaver over to our place for a BBQ. At one point during the evening Beaver said he had to go to his truck for a moment. When he came back he was carrying a rod and reel which he proceeded to hand to me saying, “ here’s a gift to you from Leo”. I knew it was Beaver giving me these treasures but I also know he wouldn’t have contemplated doing so unless he thought Leo would have approved as well. Beaver has lived in this neck of the woods all his life and became a very close friend to Leo Gauthier , “The Muskie King”. When Leo passed away in ‘93 Beaver was the recipient and custodian of a lifetime of fishing tackle and memorabilia. The rod (which is signed by Leo) was hand made from a blank and the reel which is at least forty years old is a Shimano Bantam 500 Professional. That night I asked Bobby and Beaver to spool it up for me.
Leo Gauthier Memorial
Bobby told Beaver that I’d caught the fish on Leo’s rod and reel. I’m pretty sure he was smiling when he heard that. I sure hope Leo was too because I think I got a little help that day and I’m going to need it next fall when his rod and reel go to work for me again.
Before heading home we stopped at Beaver’s house. There’s another signature on Leo’s rod now-- “Beaver 07”.
So I was awarded the Leo Gauthier Award for 2007 which is currently displayed with pride, thanks to Bobby, Beaver and Leo. I’ve got to take it down come late September, 08 when it will travel north to be contested for again. The award, which was handcrafted by my nephew, was originally called the “Paddle Trophy” until we decided to rename it in honour of Leo this year. (Maybe I’ll do a short “Stump’s Muse” regarding that paddle which is incorporated into the carving.)
The Leo Gauthier Award
You may be wondering what the 45 is all about. Well, that was Bobby’s initial estimate of the weight of this lunker. We’ll never know for sure but one thing we are certain of is that it was bigger than the Muskie mounted on the wall in the reception area of the lodge which is purported to be 52 lbs. For me, 45 isn’t about that at all. It’s that aluminium dock we were drifting towards as we attempted to boat the beast which will forever be a marker for the place I experienced one of the greatest thrills in my life. I can see that dock in my mind’s eye anytime I want --as well as those great big “puppy dog eyes”.