• Meeting the Muskie - Do you have what it takes?

    "If you remember nothing else, remember to be alert the first five feet of your retrieve and the last five feet, because that's going to be where 90 percent of the strikes will happen," said David "Crash" Mullins, one of Cave Run Lake's top muskie guides for the past several years.

    That's about the first thing I was told when Mullins and I eased up to the first of what would be many spots we would fish that day trying to boat a keeper muskie. It was the day before a large tournament event that would attract muskie anglers from all over the country to Kentucky's Cave Run Lake to see what it had to offer.

    Today at least, I didn't think Cave Run was going to offer all that much. The weather just wasn't cooperating. We had waited the better part of two hours on the rain to subside and the clouds to dissipate, and by then I really had little hope of hooking up with any fish at all, much less a keeper. Mullins and two of his fishing buddies had already experienced vehicle trouble that morning along with a myriad of other difficulties in coordinating the pending tournament. Those things that might have gone wrong had all gotten together and decided to do just that.

    Nevertheless, by mid-afternoon we were finally able to get on the water and get down to business. The clouds still loomed overhead, but we figured after the way the day had started we really had little else to lose.

    The first spot we were to work was a stretch of bank with a generous amount of timber cover. Submerged timber is one of the muskie's favorite haunt, especially during the spring and fall periods. It is for this very reason bass anglers take more muskie than muskie fishermen at Cave Run or Green River. There are more bass anglers to begin with and the habitat both muskie and bass like in the spring and fall happens to be the same kind of stuff. Many bassers have believed a world record largemouth to be at the other end of their line, when in fact it has been a monster muskie putting that wonderful bend in the rod.

    While there are numerous methods that catch muskie, Mullins exclusively casts his lures. Some anglers prefer trolling to casting since catching a muskie takes a lot longer than catching a bass, for example. The number of casts it takes to get a strike can tire even the most ardent angler. But the kicker is when you DO take a strike.

    The time it takes to connect with a keeper muskie (36 inches minimum) is much greater on average than for most other species. Although, I must be quick to say that Cave Run's and Green River's catch rates, or how much fishing time it takes to catch a muskie, are two of the best anywhere in the nation. And there are those occasional times when the first lure that hits the water gets gobbled up. You never know about fishing.

    Until I had watched the expert prepare his gear, I didn't fully realize just how huge the lures we were going to be using seemed. My rod and reel was rigged with a heavy Grim Reaper spinnerbait with chartreuse blades and skirt. Mullins began with a similar bait, slightly larger, in an orange and black combination. Bright colors have traditionally been attractive to muskie, whether in a spinnerbait, crankbait or topwater jerkbait.

    As I watched the guide's effortless casts, the countless hours Mullins had spent fishing for muskie quickly became obvious. It's no easy task casting heavy baits, but Mullins' every motion was smooth as silk. His lure repeatedly slipped into the water with scarcely a ripple and precisely on target every time.

    I would describe my initial casts more like "catapults" until I got used to the bigger lure. I was afraid the kind of attention my casts were attracting, as the bait hit the water, was more akin to the attention one might give to that of an osprey breaking the surface at full dive speed. Nevertheless, cast we did. Nothing fancy, we simply tossed to the bank and retrieved slowly through the stick-ups and stumps.

    "Unlike some kinds of fishing where a few casts are made then it's off to another spot, muskie fishing often requires more repetitive presentation of the lure," said Mullins.

    "It is more a matter of catching the fish in a feeding mode during the spring and fall periods, rather than wondering where the fish are," he continued.

    "On Cave Run, for instance, there are always fish in the vicinity of water with woody cover which can be found in many of the creeks. Fish can also generally be marked in the flats with stumps or submerged trees. The backs of coves that have vegetation have further proven to hold fish consistently during the spring, especially in May and early June," said Mullins.

    Probably the biggest key in catching muskie is patience and persistence. You can't expect to hit the water and catch and release a limit of keepers in two hours or you'll be disappointed very quickly during most trips. You've got to keep in mind at all times that it's going to take a while, and take some work.

    That means keep on throwing that lure, and combing the cover. Sooner or later you'll either get a hit or raise a muskie, which on many days is considered a success whether any fins ever meet the net or not.

    After some three hours of fishing, I feared my initial summation of the trip was correct. We fished hard, trying a topwater jerkbait intermittently to maybe conjure up a reaction, yet stuck mostly with the tried and trusted big spinnerbaits. Spinnerbaits have continued to produce muskie consistently. It is a versatile type of lure that can be presented in various fashions such as a slow-rolling retrieve, retrieve and drop, or steady crank. It's the angler's job to determine which works best on a given day.

    As the afternoon progressed, I admit my excitement waned a bit, much like the glimmer of sun that had finally peeked out from the clouds and was fading over the treeline. My casts had become somewhat slower and my attention more focused on the conversation than the fishing. Yet, on a closing cast, which looked much like those before it, it happened.

    Caught up in casual conversation, as my spinnerbait returned within two feet of the boat, out of nowhere came what looked like nothing but teeth! I had left my lure lingering in the water while I finished a sentence, and from the depths came a smashing strike right at the boat in three inches of water. And yes, I barely managed to cling on to the rod which I held with only my left hand.

    The splash from the strike quickly awoke me, as I clutched with the other hand to keep a grip on the rod and a tight line on the fish. After a couple of quick runs up and down the side of the boat, I was finally able to guide the fish into the net Mullins had waiting.

    Another few seconds, and the guide was working to remove the spinnerbait from the fish's mouth. What a fish, I thought, and better Mullins' fingers near those razor-sharp teeth than mine! My first muskie in the boat and a keeper at that -- right at 37 inches.

    After a couple of quick pictures in the fading light, we returned the fish to the water, which, by the way, has proven to be an excellent tool in maintaining and building higher quality muskie fisheries. A few guided motions back and forth through the water, holding the fish lightly by the tail, and it swam off in good shape. Mullins pointed out that releasing fish close to the bank is recommended.

    It didn't dawn on me until later that catching that fish occurred exactly where Mullins said it probably would. He noted that the muskie's nature can often be to immediately attack a bait, follow it for a long distance and strike at the last second, or follow several casts in the same spot before being convinced to take the bait. That's why most muskie anglers will do what is known as a "figure eight" motion with a lure at the end of the retrieve. It means to simply write the number 8 in the water with your lure before taking it out of the water to cast again. Sometimes, it's that last second or two that the fish just can't resist.

    That was exactly what had happened to me. Of course, I was playing with the lure at the boat unconsciously and not purposely, but nevertheless I had a fish to show for it. For once, my mouth running on without my brain necessarily engaged was a positive thing. You've got to love fishing, don't you?

    As in any kind of fishing, no one can learn it all in a day, or tell it all in one story. Muskie fishing takes much time and dedication, and there is no substitute for experience on the water.

    For those like me, interested in trying something new but not knowing where to start, often the best bet is to retain the services of a guide for at least the first trip. There's no better way to learn what kind of water to concentrate on, what lures work well in a given situation, and, in this case, the best way to handle these large fish when you catch one. Carelessness in boating or releasing muskie can indeed cost you several stitches.

    If you've got the time and desire to be a self-learner, simply remember to spend lots of time fishing woody cover and structure, work it slowly and thoroughly, and try to fish more during stable weather patterns. One other tip is that muskie, like some other species, seem to be more active during full-moon periods.

    The final tip is one of genuine caution. Once you catch a big muskie, one that's three feet long or more and weighs around 15 pounds, it can become very, very addictive. You'll no longer notice the tightness of your back muscles or how heavy the rod seemed to be getting, so be forewarned!