Just five casts into Saturday morning, I figured the weekend would have one of two outcomes: either bigger muskies would certainly follow the one in my hand, or I just pre-spent my next 995 casts on the 20-incher with the treble of my homemade pink-and-brass bucktail in its mouth. As it turned out, I was right on both accounts. But, as Robert Plant put it, sometimes words have two meanings.
The next 19 hours on the water yielded a plethora of pike, two monster bass brave enough to take on lures half their size, six sore shoulders, but no other hook-ups with the empress of Esocidae by anyone in our boat, despite an estimated 3,500 combined casts. However, bigger fish did follow - right up to the boat. Some of them were so close I could have reached down and grabbed them.
We located a population of pounder pike holding off of a solidly established weedline, in eight to ten feet of water. Every fourth or fifth one we caught bore the telltale sign of something bigger lurking in the area. Deep scars, fresh toothy scrapes and even a gaping wound on the largest pike of the weekend, hinted that the muskies we saw cruising the shallows a few weeks before were probably still present.
The first follow came as the moon began its descent into the trees on the opposite shore. I had bumped a load of cabbage from the deeper side of the break, and was bringing my lure to boat for a cleaning. From out of the depths behind came a brownish spearhead chasing the vibration of the spinner blade. I pulled the bucktail from the water, much to my brother's dismay.
"Why didn't you figure-eight her?!?" he hissed, as he churned the water next to the boat, hoping to engage the genuine forty-incher's interest.
I explained that there were weeds on my hook, the rush of adrenaline didn't allow me any clear thought, and then began working my section of boatside water into a foam to prevent a mutiny. Every cast was finished with a whip or two through the water after that incident.
Amazingly still in command of the helm, I motored us off the break and headed into a nearby cove. During his retrieve, my brother-in-law shook the boat when he lunged backwards. He praised some god, and hooted that what he had seen was no guppy. Moments later he hooked up with a fish that ran him into the weeds and left him with a ball of cabbage covering his 10-inch bucktail.
The next muskie lazily rolled in behind my brother's green magnum flashabou bucktail about a half an hour later. Collectively, our hearts began pounding so loud the lone shore angler on the other side of the lake probably heard the thump-ump coming from the Grumman. The thirtysomething-incher paralleled the boat for a few seconds, and turned off into the depths.
At about nine-thirty, my brother called for the net as his reel spit up line in spurts. The rod arched and pulsed with the pull of a large fish and he confirmed the size. Horsing it out from under the boat, the light-on-dark patterning of a large pike surfaced, and even though it eclipsed thirty-two inches, we couldn't help but feel disappointed. The fish sported a bloody gouge, about a head's length from its tail. We assumed that despite its size, it probably wasn't the dominant predator in this small backwater connecting the two larger lakes.
We broke for lunch and naps on the cabin couches, already complaining that we were out of shape and out of adrenaline, having awakened at 4:30 that morning and fished straight through until noon. Following some recuperative sleep; we headed to a small bay off of the main lake. The cool spring had slowed weedgrowth on much of the water, but this particular bay sported reeds and deep cabbage, and was a known haven for large muskies in recent seasons. The sun shone brightly between blossoming thunderheads, and the water was clear.
After working halfway into a finger of the bay, I looked down into the water. My eyes met the sullen stare of a cream-bodied muskie, which seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I pointed her out to everyone in the boat, lingering just a rod-length away from the port side. My brother began a figure-eight which drew her attention. She veered toward his bucktail, eyeing it like a cat watches a ball of string just before it pounces. But this cat didn't pounce. I plunged my rod into the water, about a foot below my brother's offering. She spurned his lure for mine, but wasn't interested for long in the pink-white-and-turquoise "bombpop" bucktail I had engineered earlier this spring. She lazily drifted away from the boat and faded into the depths. The full minute she was in view was one of the most maddening - and at the same time, amazing - moments I had ever experienced.
A nearly fifty-inch fish, just out of reach, unwilling to strike, is a situation that is beyond befuddling. It made my heart rate accelerate as I tried to think of ways to entice the strike, and the thump in my ears pounded faster still when I got ahead of myself, thinking how I would land a fish that big with just two feet of line out.
After another pass through the area, we trolled between storm clouds and saw one large fish cruising the shallows. She darted away from the weedline as we approached. We alternated between casting and trolling during the evening, but neither tactic produced another muskie sighting. We called it a day just before midnight, and made a run to town for necessities.
I hit the snooze button a couple of times the next morning, and we slept in until five-thirty. We returned to the connector lake, and it was slow. Nearly three hours into the morning, I thought to myself what a disappointing day it had been without even a glimpse of a muskie.
As if willed into being by my thoughts on that very cast, a mid-size cruiser tailed my reed-runner spinnerbait to the boat, and cautiously waited a few seconds before bolting back to its haunt. A few hours later we would log the last of our northerns and head for home; tired and frustrated but willing to do it all over again if given the chance.
Each fish that trailed our lures gave us new information, new knowledge of what didn't work and new ideas to try in an effort to find some boatside method that would trigger a strike in subsequent trips. We parted ways on Sunday night with a toast of water and Ibuprofen as we braced ourselves for the muscle aches and sore arms, which, like the muskies, were certain to follow another adventure...in our outdoors.