I’ve been fishing with my buddy Matt since we worked together in the Inland Fisheries Division after college. In our circle of fishing friends, we kid that he’s always been a magnet for big fish. Whether it is trophy pike, breeder trout or record carp, he just has a knack for culling out large fish, often times while the rest of us are catching squat and left scratching our heads. I respect Matt for always doing things his own way too—he’s never had the most expensive gear or followed any of the latest fishing trends.
Sax Matt, as we like to call him (he’s a saxophone player if you couldn’t guess), has been busy dialing into new fisheries since moving from Connecticut in 2006. His latest conquest is muskellunge. Save for one private body of water, my home state doesn’t offer any muskie opportunities, so Matt’s open invite to join him has peaked my interest over the years. Yet it wasn’t until this winter as I was sitting at work, on my birthday no less, when a text from Sax Matt pushed me over the edge. He sent pics of three big pure-strain muskie he had just caught and released through a few inches of black ice. In the following days, Matt kept adding fuel to the fire with more muskie pics, culminating with a 46-inch beast of a fish. It was finally time to pay Matt a visit before the little ice we were blessed with this strange season disappeared.
It was 3:30 in the morning when Aaron and I rendezvoused to consolidate our ice gear into one vehicle. During the long drive, we both agreed that if we just laid eyes on one muskie that the trip would be considered a success. By 8:30 a.m. our host had landed three—two beautiful pure-strains and a tiger. That’s Sax Matt for you—all of our traps were near each other and rigged with the same bait, yet he puts three fish on the ice before Aaron and I get a flag. It didn’t matter, we were all happy as pigs in shit. I gather catching three muskie in little over two hours is pretty damned good considering their nickname is fish of a thousand casts. While they weren’t giant in terms of the size they can potentially reach, these were very respectable fish and it was amazing to see the apex predators in the flesh for the first time.
After the morning rush, things settled down for a few hours. A few of Matt’s buddies joined us on the ice and it was great bullshitting and passing the whiskey bottle around. At 11 a.m. I was digging into a late oatmeal breakfast when one of my flags closest to home base went up. As I peered down the hole, the tip-up spool was spinning slow and steady with the black Dacron line off to the side. Matt was confident there was a fish was on the business end and instructed me to set the hook. I did as told and the dance began. I could immediately tell there was weight to the fish, but I was hesitant to make any kind of prediction. After a few solid runs, a thick midsection flashed under the ice. As with the long body of a big pike, it was a little tricky getting the muskie’s head in the hole, but it helped that we had chiseled our eight-inch auger holes wider that morning. When the fish’s big snout finally came up, I backed up, Matt helped slide it on the ice and I let out a war whoop. This was by far the largest specimen I had ever caught while ice fishing—a truly amazing fish for me; clean, long, thick, beautiful, and full of teeth.
After removing the hook and some quick documentation, she kicked away strong from my trembling hands. The muskie taped out to 42 inches long. For the weight, Matt intelligently brings a sling popular among carp anglers out on the ice with him. This not only protects muskie from beating themselves up by flopping around on jagged ice, but it’s also great tool for weighing heavy fish. Instead of hanging them vertically from a 60-pound Boga grip, he cradles the fish in the sling and weighs the whole package. By subtracting the tare weight of the wet sling from the gross weight with the muskie inside, we came up with a net weight of 20-pounds and change.
It hardly mattered that I was operating on 90 minutes of sleep from the night before, from that point on I was running on pure adrenaline. The experience didn’t even feel real. It was difficult for me to register what had just happened. The rest of the day wore on with little action, but no one was packing it in early. We stayed until complete darkness with not another fish to show. I thanked Aaron, Matt and his friends profusely for all their help in hooking, landing and documenting that fish of a lifetime for me. I stumbled in the door that night around 9:30 p.m. and it still hadn’t truly soaked in yet. The next day I was on full time daddy duty and I nary spoke a word of the experience, but it replayed in my head the whole time. Even a week later it still doesn’t feel real. The lake we were ice fishing on Saturday is open water now. On the verge of what is likely the last ice fishing outing of the year, Aaron texted me at work, “That trip was like a dream. Did it even happen?”
It did and I’ll be forever thankful for it.