Wednesday, January 4, 2017


The air was cold as we stood by the put-in on the upper James River at sunrise, rafts unloaded and tied off. Ten-weight fly rods rigged with sinking lines; leaders of 80-pound fluorocarbon; and foot-long, triple-articulated bucktail flies were strung and loaded, along with fly boxes, dry bags, and a net as wide as the boat. Smiles and adrenaline-induced trembles were all around.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    We hadn’t seen a fish in a full day of fishing, but there was another new day ahead of us. Maybe we would see a fish. Maybe we’d have one show interest in one of our flies. Maybe we’d catch one. Maybe we wouldn’t. That’s musky fishing.

    What’s not to love about a fish with the potential to reach lengths of over 50 inches; that sports a shovel maw of razor sharp teeth; and that chases down and eats full-grown sunfish, chubs, and suckers, best imitated by massive streamers?

    Perhaps their sheer elusiveness, their fickle stomachs, and their habit of following flies to the boat without eating. For Ben Rogers, in the raft with friend and Albemarle Angler guide, Spotswood Payne, it’s been five full days of hard fishing since he’s seen a musky. Not caught but seen. Almost 50 hours of casting heavy gear in cold, winter weather without seeing anything more than empty river. But that’s musky fishing, and that’s what makes the sport so infuriatingly addicting.

    “The fish of 10,000 casts,” they call the mighty musky, and though it’s maybe a slight exaggeration, the sentiment is effective. As I row downriver through the thawing December morning, both rower and fisherman in each raft is devoted to the bank and to his fly, to teasing mystery from the darkest, deepest corners of the river, in hopes that it shows itself as a fish. Every cast, every pass on a piece of structure, every day spent on the water is another attempt at striking the low odds.

    We dropped into a long flat of slow, deep water around 10 AM. My fly struck bottom and lodged on a rock. As we rowed closer to retrieve it, the long, wavering form of a musky backed off from the rock where the fly was stuck, back into the abyss. We were on the board. To get a follow—to have a fish take interest in your fly—that’s success in the game of musky fishing.

    In the tail of the same flat, Spotswood had a follow on his fly—had the fish to the boat, but not hooked. So we backed off and rowed back upstream, and hit the same bank with both boats in succession. It’s perceived that musky sometimes need a wakeup call. The second boat in the string, more often than not, gets the fish to eat. So second passes are necessary over fish that have been seen, though nothing came of that one. Two more sightings came in the tail, as we prepared to shoot the rapids to the next hole.

    After noon, we dropped into yet another flat, this one deeper, darker, and more promising, as the streamflow on the James is less-than-ideal. Low and exceptionally clear doesn’t leave much room for mystery and sulking musky.

    David Gregory, who rode in the bow of my 14-foot raft, had hooked a 46-inch musky on his first float on that very same flat. It’s been 12 trips for him, and one year, since that fish, and he hasn’t boated another. But that’s musky fishing.

    We worked both banks through the flat diligently, twice. David yelled “musky!” as I was figure-eighting, pointing to a fish from the rower’s seat that was deep beneath my fly. Because musky are ambush predators, they can often be triggered to strike by a side-profile of prey, which they can t-bone with their shovel mouths. For this reason, we strip our flies to a few feet from the rod tip, stick it several feet under the water, and stir the river in a figure-eight pattern after every retrieve. Evidently a fish gave my fly a look as I was doing this, but I didn’t see it in time to react, and the fish moved on. A chance missed. That’s musky fishing.

    We neared the takeout as the sun was retreating and the chill of winter night was reborn. I had another musky come out from underneath the boat and take a look at my fly, but moved on without consequence.

    Eight hours of fishing with six fish sighted and four follows was counted as a success, though no fish were boated. As we rowed the final stretch to the takeout in the dim evening, there was joking and light spirits, and plans of sticking it to the fish tomorrow, hopeful that then cast number 10,000 would come. That’s musky fishing.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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