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Time for a Muskie so I throw a jerkbait. Nine inches long, 3 oz, and with two 3/o treble hooks, the bait sails 40 yards before it belly flops on the lake surface. I point the stick in the water, reel in the slack, and allow the lure sink. The bait throbs, stone, and runs as I work it back to the boat, pumping the pole every few reel cranks. When no strike comes, I fire my second throw. Two.
Itis a late day in June, and I am throwing blind to muskellunge only outside Hayward, Wis. the Muskie Capital of the World and home to the all tackle world record. Three. I do not understand the name of the lake, and my guide, Scott Kieper, has told me not to inquire. Itis a little lake little enough for Kieper to refer to it simply as the Pond. With the exclusion of a single child who’s trolling on his own, we are the sole ones fishing. Kieper expects to keep it that way. Four.
About an hour before, Kieper and his pal Guy Mittlestadt, who helps Kieper picture and make muskie fishing DVDs, picked me up at my motel. Before I arrived in Hayward I ‘d seen pictures of Kieper on his web site, but in person he seems different. He is skinnier than I Had anticipated, and a bit soft. Seems as though he could make use of a substantial meal along with an extended night’s slumber. and seems unhealthy nearly like a junkie. Which he’s. It is simply that Kiepet’s drug is muskellunge.
“Muskies cause more broken homes, divorces, and lost jobs,” says Kieper, 37. “But I got dogs. What more does a guy want? And they are German shorthairs, so they are as bright as most folks anyway!”
Kieper feeds his muskie repair by logging long hours on the water. His season begins Memorial Day weekend and ends when the lakes freeze. For five months he hunts muskies everyday. An average excursion continues 10 hours more in case the sting is popular and he and his customers regularly fish deep into the night, occasionally until first light. “In case the fish go nocturnal, we go nocturnal,” he says. Working the graveyard shift night after night, it is no wonder that Kieper has trouble keeping a suntan or a nutritious diet. “I essentially live on nicotine, energy drinks, and Sour Patch Kids. I am a bag of skin on a skeleton.”
When you fish as tough and frequently as Kieper, you are bound to run into large muskies plenty of them. In 2008, Kieper and his anglers released 243 muskies. Forty six were larger than 45 inches, and eight broke the 50 inch standard. And now, in the very first month of the 2009 season, he’s off to among the finest beginnings of his career: 67 fish. He is netted 11 muskies over 45 inches and three over 50, including a 53 inch, 40 plus pound giant which he got today before morning, literally hours before he pulled into the motel lot to pick me up.
Just a couple of minutes into our drive to the Pond, I begin to realize how Kieper can work this type of grueling program: The man has no off switch. He is loud. hyper. very, very joyful. One question is sufficient to trigger a stream of consciousness soliloquy that may leap from the predatory temperament of the muskellunge to the market to Ben Franklin.
As I fight to take notes at the speed of Kieper’s rants, part of me starts to doubt if I can keep up with this specific character for just two days of what I Have been warned will be virtually nonstop fishing.
“With muskies, it is about the hunt,” Kieper says. “It is about the pursuit the reality which you’re up against the king of freshwater. And it is about the dedication of yourself to the fish to be able to be successful. You’ve got to be eager to devote to it to achieve that success.”
Afterwards, as I stand in the bow of Kieper’s 18 1/2 foot Lurid anchored in the Pond, I give myself to the long hunt ahead. And I project.
Long Day’s Journey
I have never fished for muskies, let alone got one. Before the trip I determined that I Had run an experiment: How many casts does it really take to get the fish of 10,000 casts? To help me keep count, I got a clicker inside my coat pocket, the same type baseball managers use to monitor pitch counts. The clicker goes to 9,999 not that I Will have time for that many casts in only two days. But for as long as I ‘m here, I am going to make one click for each cast.
Five. Kieper is right at the stern cast, keeping one eye on the fishfinder and one on a pole rigged with a live 20 inch white sucker that he place 14 feet deep. Mittlestadt has the camera ready in case a creature attacks. Six. I am using a 9 foot Musky Innovations rod and an Abu Garcia 7000i C3 reel spooled with 80 pound Cortland Spectron line. Seven.
At the ending of each remember when the ball bearing swivel which joins the line to the wire leader is a couple inches from the pole point I fix my grip on the stick and hold it like a broom, then I immerse it in the water and sweep the pole and trailing bait in a figure eight pattern. It is difficult for me to consider that a fish so notoriously finicky as a muskie might be duped like this so near the boat. But it occurs a great deal to big fish, also. Getting a muskie to shadow the bait to the boat is one thing. Getting it to eat is another. But Kieper has a few tricks to make the figure eight more appetizing.
First, get the lure deep “Most of the fish that you simply are going to get at boatside are likely to come out of nowhere,” he says. “If you do not have that stick down 18 inches to 2 feet, you are not going to have that lure deep enough to entice the fish. The muskie is not a surface dweller by nature, and it does not need to have to come up to the gunnel.”
Second, be sure the turns in the eight are w i d e: “A muskie can not turn on a dime,” Kieper continues. “The No. 1 law of predation is that you expend less energy than you use up. Otherwise you starve. When you drive a muskie to go its body more difficult than it needs to by making a sluggish, fight turn in the ending of the figure eight, the fish will give up on you.”
Kieper’s figure eight is competitive and exact. It is work. After a few hours, the lure to get slack on the occasional figure eight settles in. When that occurs I remind myself that some of Kieper’s largest muskies were caught at this point in the recall, including this morning’s 53 inch prize. And even that fish wanted lots of convincing: Kieper had to make 25 consecutive figure eights before he fooled the fish.
“It is about the additional work you put into every single little thing on each and every day with everything you do on the water,” Kieper says. “Otherwise, when that one opportunity on one particular day comes, it is definitely going to be the one second when you are not prepared. That nanosecond can be when a 50 pound fish comes out of nowhere and blasts you.”
Seventeen … 32 … 48 … I am in a routine now. Cast. Recover. Figure eight. Cast …
I buff my casts across the bow at different spaces to cover as much water as possible. Fifty nine. I work the bait back. And there is a tugboat. I place the hook as well as the line comes tight. Kieper puts his stick down, and Mittlestadt readies the video camera. I dig out the pole end into my midsection to get ready for the fight however there isn’t any. The fish pretty much skips across the surface as I reel. As well as the fish is not a muskie. Itis a little pike. After Kieper releases it, I assess the bait and casting … 60.
We ease our way across the Pond, and I keep throwing … 88. Sometimes Kieper sees a promising area on the fishfinder, and we cease to inquire … 103. But as the day fades he chooses for a change of venue, a nearby place he calls Lake Opposite … 111. There he says we’ll throw a little more, and then troll all through the night … 137. Trolling is not how I Had expected to find my first muskie.
But, I am learning, with this particular fish, you can not be picky.Kieper bound the boat on plane, and as we race back to the accessibility region the chilly wind smacks my face. With the sun beginning to set, the temperature is dropping rapidly. I have sadly timed my trip together with the coming of a serious cold front nature’s way of driving fish to really go on a hunger strike. I zip my coat to my chin and brace myself for tonight’s long, dim search.
Into the Nighttime
At 9:30 P.M. I found my last cast of the day, 181. The sun has fallen behind the pine and birch trees that encircle the lake, but enough light stays for Kieper to ready the trolling spread. As he rummages through his baits and cuts the planer boards to the rigs, he’s completely giddy in regards to the nighttime’s prospects. “I adore it! I love it! Its great!” he says of Lake Opposite, which we’ve totally to ourselves. “Everyone’s afraid of my water.”
Every lake has its very own ecology, Kieper says. And in a few lakes whether because of clearness or depth or forage the big fish feed greatest in the worst states, like a cold front. Over time, Kieper has learned that Lake Opposite is one of these lakes. “Itis a lake that proves under the most unfavorable fishing states, it’ll still have fish o that place themselves in the net,” he says. “But nobody understands that. It Is a lake which you’re S not designed to fish unless it is viciously ugly outside. When most men are fleeing in the opposite way, Lake Opposite can be on fire.”
Chow on the boat is whatever you brought with you. Mittlestadt polishes off a bag of o pork rinds. I inhale a Snickers and two granola bars and wash them down with my third Red Bull. Kieper jumps dinner but smokes. He does offer to share dessert: his 2 pound o bag of Sour Patch Kids which he stashes in one of the boat compartments. Mittlestadt eats a number of handfuls before he settles back on the bow deck and nods off.
With six crankbaits in the water, Kieper methodically rakes the lake in laps as he directs the boat at 2.9 to 4 miles per hour. “There’s a whole lot of water for all these fish to hide in,” he says. “One fish per 5 acres is practically high density. It is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I simply analyze the water and also the fish and expect to minimize the size of that haystack.”
In such waters, muskies are on top of the food chain, but Kieper targets them from the bottom end. His way of hunting muskies is scientific. “Everything in the food chain and also the biological environment of a muskie orders what the fish will do on any certain day,” he says. “So understanding the biological equation is the best technique for seeing the fish.”
In his quest for the option, Kieper has learned to search in places that his opposition does not enjoy Lake Opposite in brutal weather. While most muskie anglers focus on structural components, like stone, sunken lumber, or plant life, Kieper hunts in deep, open water. He says the standard thinking of where muskies reside has underestimated the greater varieties of the fish, and how much it differs over the course of a season.
“My main issue is never construction,” he says. “My main issue is forage. Wherever there’s food, there’s your top end predator. Wherever that food chain is the most active and that preferential forage is set up, that is where that predator will be.”
As we loop around Lake Opposite, Kieper has his eyes glued on the fishfinder for virtually any hint of forage. He is paying especially close attention to the swarms of benthic (bottom) larvae. During the nighttime, as the zooplankton descends to the lake bottom, the benthic larvae rises and becomes the key food source for panfish and other juvenile fish, which become the primary food source for muskellunge.
The fishfinder is practically like an electrocardiogram for me. When the display shows a wavy line of forage, I am excited and alert. When there is nothing, it reads like a flatline and my eyelids grow heavy. Itis a quiet night. When Kieper and I are not speaking, I hear just the hum of the outboard, the occasional loon wail, and Mittlestadt’s snoring.
I keep expecting a violent strike will break the quiet. I keep imagining that instant.
“When things are slow, you tell yourself you are going after that one fish,” Kieper says. “You are hunting for that one huge fish.”
At 1:05 A.M. Kieper alters the trolling spread with shallower swimming baits. He puts out three large ones and three little but a “little” bait for Kieper continues to be quite large. The baits in his toolbox run 7 to 16 inches long, and he is now working with a manufacturing company to develop some custom 20 inch crankbaits. His taste for large lures goes back to his belief a top line predator will expend as little energy as needed for the biggest benefit. If a muskie has the option between one large, simple meal or working to locate several smaller morsels, Kieper believes it will always go for the simple fete.
“We get 15 inch walleyes on 15 inch baits all of the time,” he says. “A bait that size is nothing for a 36 to 45 inch muskie to catch. That which we find is, the larger the lures that we put on, we are not getting less muskies. But we are finding more large ones.”
Large lures are , in addition, a method for Kieper to differ. “I am using larger lures than 95 percent of the remaining portion of the muskie community,” he says. “Fish are not used to seeing things as large as what I am throwing or trolling. They do not connect my baits as baits because of the fact that they’re so grotesquely big.”
Tonight, however, no bait seems tempting enough to make any muskies bite. The change in pressure from the cold front is too much. We troll until 4 A.M. before Kieper brings in the spread for good. It is around 5 A.M. when Kieper and Mittlestadt drop me off at the motel. I stagger out of the truck and wave goodbye. “See you tomorrow,” I say.
They both laugh. “No, man,” Kieper says. “I will see you this day.”
I grin and nod, but at the moment I am too beat to comprehend. “Right. I will see you tomorrow.”
Kieper laughs again. “Get some sleep.”
The Hayward Hangover
I feel as if I Have slept for five minutes when my alarm buzzes at 11 A.M. Soon afterwards my cell phone rings. “Hello?”
It is Kieper: “Welcome to the life of a muskie fisherman.” He tells me to meet him at a gas station several miles later on. Now, we hit the river.
One eighty two. It feels good to throw again. Kieper has us placed just below a dam, and he needs me to throw as near the construction as possible. I work the bait just as I did at the lakes yesterday, simply quicker, and end with a deep, broad figure eight. One eighty three. Kieper says he made the choice to come here last night. After we failed to get some of the last remaining fish which may still have been active regardless of the change in pressure, he worked out to fish the river system since it is been his experience over the years the fish in transferring water generally are not as reluctant to feed on the days following a cold front.
I swap lures, trading one jerkbait for another in an alternative color … 213. Kieper swears by these baits from Musky Innovations partially because he’s a member of their pro staff but also since they’ve been good for business. The only lure I’ve throw is a Bulldawg, a soft plastic jerkbait that stone back and forth on the recover while its curled tail waves anxiously.
Kieper loves this bait so much that he got a tat of one that stretches across his upper arm and onto his shoulder.
Not surprisingly, Kieper enjoys the Bulldawg because it is large and distinct. “It does not have the plop plop, the buzz buzz, the spin spin, or the wobble wobble of lots of muskie lures,” he says. “It does not present itself as a bait.”
What the Bulldawg does do is exploit the one thing a muskie relies on most as a predator: its lateral line. As the bait moves it displaces more water than smaller lures, creating vibrations a muskie associates with a simple meal. And also the Bulldawg’s soft, chewy body gives it another advantage. “Most muskie baits are hard plastic or wood or have metal,” Kieper says. “With a Bulldawg, the fish have a greater inclination to hit and hang on due to the truth that it is rubber and their teeth sink into it. It feels like flesh.”
Two forty one. I continue to pepper the dam with casts for about two hours. When no fish hits, Kieper tells me to reel in so we can trailer the boat and put in at another segment of the river.
It’s after 3 P.M. when I make my first cast in this part of the river … 256. There is another dam here and I drill it together with casts … 263 … 275 … 287 … Kieper additionally has me hitting the aprons next to the principal river channel and the rocky construction along the borders. Two ninety nine … 313 … 321 …
Three twenty nine. The casts are briefer and preciseness matters more here … 330. With the current and the tight targets, the fishing is more challenging … 331. It is more exciting … 332. I don’t feel as if I am projecting blind like at the Pond … 333. I can’t see any muskies, but the layout of the river is such that I feel like I am casting at fish … 334. I know they’re here … 335. Kieper motors us about 200 yards downriver from the dam … 336. He’s his back to me and starts lobbing casts off the other side of the boat … 337. I chuck a brief throw in the bank … 338. When my lure hits the water, it is met with a wild splash. The line comes tight on its own. Kieper does not even have to turn around. He knows.
The fish isn’t any more than 15 feet from the boat, and it does not take me long to reel it into the net. Kieper removes the hook, then shows me the best way to manage the fish properly for a picture. The fish is barely enormous less than 30 inches but that hardly matters. I’ve been at this for about 16 of the last 24 hours, and in these states hell, in any conditions anyone who is fortunate enough to catch one of these predators only to be let down by its own size isn’t deserving of the instant. As I cradle the fish, admiring its teeth, eyes, and color, I forget about the casts, the long, cold hours of hunting, and the exhaustion. I had spend a week on the water for this fish. I had cast 20,000 times.
After I release the fish and just before I cast again, I see that it left me with an added, albeit temporary, memory: The knuckles on my left hand are bleeding. I dip my hand in the river to wash off the blood, then I project. I stop counting.
Confidence at Opposite
“Son of a!” Kieper shouts inside his pickup.
We are approaching the entrance region at Lake Opposite, but the parking lot is clogged with trucks. The anglers have just gotten off the water and are loading their trailers. Kieper pulls to the roadside and turns off his truck. He is concerned about being recognized and tipping the fishermen off to one of his greatest nighttime lakes. His anger, which borders on fury, is almost theatrical and part of me wonders: Is this fit actually needed? When the trucks begin to file down the road, Kieper covers his face with his hat and ducks beneath the windshield.
So do I. I don t mean to, but I lust do. Despite my cynicism, I Have been with Kieper long enough now that I let myself enter his world and also the experience he’s created. This really is all element of the hunt, and it is exciting.
Once we’re on the lake, we troll. And troll. I stare in the fishfinder, but it reveals even less than last night. It reads as a flatline, and following a few hours I do not have much life left in me. But Kieper does. He continues to tweak the spread and steers the boat round the lake. He’s still concentrated, still confident. “We’re going to get something huge tonight,” he says. “I can feel it.”
So can I. I can’t say why, but I simply can. I am exhausted and cold, but I desire to keep fishing. That is when it dawns on me: What makes Scott Kieper such an excellent guide is not only his revolutionary approaches or his ability to think like a predator. It is in addition the strength of his enthusiasm and his self-assurance and how that strength rubs off on the anglers with him. Kieper gets me to believe that I’m going to catch another muskie and that it’s going to be a decoration. For the rest of the night I Will keep telling myself: You’re gonna get something enormous. So be ready.
And even though I will not find anything, I do not understand that now. I will not know that until Kieper stashes away the Sour Patch Kids and draws in the spread at 2 A.M. Until then, I’ll keep seeing the fishfinder and listening to the lake. I will keep waiting for that strike.
It’s a moment I’ve seen a lot the past couple of days. More times than I can count.
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