The super fish, or giant musky, is something that is commonly discussed in musky circles, the subject of dreams or nightmares for some, and the ultimately trophy obtained by few. Yet, much of the folklore surrounding musky fishing is based on their alleged existence.
Both riverine and lacustrine muskies are capable of reaching the 50-inch class or the 40-pound mark - truly a large, trophy musky. So managing waters for fish to obtain this size can be achieved regardless of species or subspecies. However, these are NOT super fish. Managing for super fish is a whole different issue, which raises the importance of riverine muskies.
Let's set the bounds for the true super fish. These are muskies easily exceeding 50 pounds for starters. Their length can vary and could be as short as 53 inches, but let's raise the bar so there is no mistake we are talking giant fish, and consider muskies only exceeding 55 inches as super fish. Now, we have a whole new level of fish to consider, one that is extremely rare, one which few encounter.
Sure, there are stories that every water possesses such fish, but let's talk to some experts who have been spending large amounts of time throughout the United States and Canada, on the waters most likely to produce such fish.
We asked Joe Bucher, Steve Herbeck, Larry Ramsell, Doug Johnson and Bill Sandy for their stories of close encounters of a giant, green, slimy kind.
While some claim to have had numerous encounters with fish over 55 inches, I am not one of them. I'd bet that the vast majority of the so-called "5-footers" that a lot of guys are seeing are really 50- to 53-inch fish that simply grow in size with time. With that in mind, after encountering over 2,500 muskies on the end of my line in this lifetime along with seeing many more follow in that weren't caught, a handful of encounters with true "super fish" clearly stick out.
The first musky I ever saw that exceeded 55 inches was in 1978 while guiding Doc Jensen of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin on Big Lake in Vilas County. Doc's partner in the boat that day was a fellow named Mark. Doc and I have since fished many days for muskies and caught fish as large as a 53 1/2 -inch 42-pound together, but even this fish didn't compare to what we saw on that one unforgettable drift.
It was a blistering hot July afternoon with a strong, westerly wind, when we began a drift over deep water toward a shallow rock hump that topped out at around six feet. Doc was throwing a bucktail, me a crankbait (of course) and Mark a big old Bobbie Bait that I had special weighted. Just before I pitched out another cast, I hesitated to glance at the sonar; we were quickly approaching the shallow stretches of the bar, just as I was about to make the next cast, Doc yelled out "Holy @#$%%! Look at the size of that fish!"
A truly massive musky was right behind Mark's Bobbie. It was impressive from all angles - bloating girth, wide back and incredible length. It was so long that I was watching the fish on the opposite side of the boat as it passed underneath, while Doc and Mark continued to gawk at it from the other side. At the time, I was running a Tuffy Marauder. This was at least a 60-inch fish. It remains the only 60-inch class fish I have ever seen in Wisconsin.
I saw it only once and I haven't seen anything else like it to compare it to. If my life depended upon a guesstimate, I'd have to say it was around 62 inches and at least 55 pounds. I'm much more certain about the length than the weight. I've seen enough fish in the water as well as caught to judge length, but I'm skeptical about anyone who can judge weight on fish of that magnitude. All I can tell you is that it was really, really big.
I'd seen another giant fish quite regularly on the south end of Big Lake on the Cisco Chain on that same year, 1978. I told my clients that this fish was just over 55 inches long and would weigh somewhere in the low to mid 40-pound class. It was caught that same year in early September on one of my days off. The fish was a 55 1/2 -incher that weighed about 43 pounds. My accurate estimate of this fish's size confirmed how truly super big the earlier-mentioned fish was and how close my estimate was.
I had an equally awesome encounter with a "super fish" on the French River in Ontario, Canada back in 1991 while fishing with my longtime friend, Gabor Ujvary. Gabor and I were on a once-in-a-lifetime hot streak, to put it mildly. Three days into our trip we had already boated 52 ½- and 53-inch muskies. Early on the fifth morning, we were heading back to the same spot where Gabor had taken the 53-incher a few days before.
Anyway, I may have made three casts or so in this spot when I saw a huge boil behind my perch Buchertail with an orange blade. At first I thought it was just a current boil from big boulders below, but only moments later a second boil occurred - this time, I saw my orange blade disappear inside the huge swirl. Even though I didn't actually feel a strike, something told me to set the hook. I'll never forget the power I felt when I slammed upwards on my 7 ½-foot rod. It doubled to the reel seat and then throbbed with no give at all. It was as if I had hooked into a big log piling that was now being carried around by the strong current. The monster musky slowly rose to the surface while thrashing its head back and forth all the way. The intense throbbing was, in fact, its head shaking.
I was immediately awestruck by its length. I remember thinking that Gabor's 53-incher looked average by comparison. I knew I was staring at a musky that was pushing the 60-inch mark. Even though this fish was much larger than Gabor's, we both knew the course of action now was to back the boat out of the strong current, towing the fish with us into calmer waters to land. Unfortunately, we never got this plan started. This seemingly well-hooked fish was suddenly gone, and I was left with nothing more than a straightened-out snap and a sick stomach. This incident, by the way, soured me on using snaps on any leader from that day on.
How big was this fish? Well, consider what happened in the next few days. Later that same day, I caught a 52 ½-inch male with a 25-inch girth, a solid upper 30-pound fish for sure. The very next day I had the "day of all days", boating three muskies over 50 inches - 52 ½, 50 1/8, and 55 ½-incher for several years because it was so much smaller than the one I had hooked and lost a few days earlier. I didn't even get a replica mount of this fish until years later.
So how big was the one I lost? Again, I'm good with length, but not with weight on fish of that size. It was 59 to 61 inches long with an average girth for its size. Probably cracked the 50-pound mark, but it didn't have the girth to go 60. Admittedly, musky fishing has never been quite the same since that trip. Losing that fish took something out of me.
In August of 1994, I was in the middle of my first full season on Eagle Lake after purchasing Andy Myer's Lodge the winter before. We left the dock at daybreak to get an early start because of forecasts for a bluebird 90-plus-degree, no wind day, and our plan was to fish early and late with a midday siesta. An eerie fog hung over the still waters as the sun rose setting the stage when we pulled up to the mid lake reef that we had spotted several 30-plus-pound fish the day before. Only in dreams could we know what was in store for us that morning.
Our baits were mixed up good with one client pitching his favorite Suick, the other an Eagletail, and I fumbled around until I decided upon my old reliable Teasertail, mainly because it would be easy to throw and reel. As the bait approached the boat on about my third cast I saw a huge shadow, or shape more than an actual fish, deep below it. I wasn't really sure if I was having a musky mirage, imagining things, or having a flashback because it was so deep, wide and dark that it looked like Flipper at Sea World. As I stood there talking to the guys about what I thought I saw or even if I really did see something, this huge fish just slowly cruised out from under the boat right between us, so shallow her back must have been rubbing on the bottom of the boat, and moved out about 30 feet, turned and laid broadside to us for several seconds as if to say "Here I am!" before slowly fading down out of sight.
We just stood there awestruck, and dumbfounded at what we had just experienced. How big was she? I have personally had fish pushing the 50-pound mark in my arms and this fish literally dwarfed them.
Later, back at camp, we all wrote on separate pieces of paper how long we thought she was, and these estimates ranged from 58 to 64 inches. What was most impressive though was not her length so much but her immense overall size, making an accurate estimation of her weight nearly impossible except for a wild guess. World record? Can't and won't say.
Have I seen this fish again? Possibly. In November of 1997 several guests of mine came in babbling about a huge fish pushing 60 inches on the last day of their trip and I immediately quizzed them as to where. The next day we boated out there and sure enough she came flying in from the side off the point, glowing in the clear water like a lit-up marlin, only to seemingly put on air brakes at the last minute. I swear I could see the look in her eye as if she was saying "Whew! I almost screwed up."
Same spot? No, but only 2 miles separated these encounters and personally, I believe it was the same fish. It would be neat to think there were actually two fish that big in a relatively small area and anything is possible, but I doubt it.
Over the years we have had many heavily-built fish muskies ranging from 52 to 54 inches caught in camp, several honest 54- to 56-inchers pushing 50 pounds, and we see some fish up and over 55 inches every year, but this fish was something else altogether.
They just plain and simple don't normally get that big. I feel blessed to have even seen and experienced a fish like this because to see is to know is to believe and the hair on my neck raises up every time I think about it.
Will catch and release increase the possibility of encounters like these, the potential for a new world record, or more super fish? It certainly can't hurt on huge bodies of water with only natural reproduction and the genetic potential - any fish you take out could be the one.
Realistically, I think increasing overall quality to the maximum average potential is what you ultimately try to achieve, but if the system has produced super fish or world record fish during the "killing" years then it is safe to assume that catch and release philosophies will increase the potential. Who knows? Maybe the "good 'ol days" are yet to come!
Musky Hunter Field Editor Steve Herbeck is considered to be one of today's most innovative musky anglers. He owns and operates Andy Myer's Lodge on Eagle Lake, Ontario. You can contact Steve through his web site at http://www.andymyerslodge.com.
While I tend to believe that 55-inch and 50-pound muskies are being claimed too much, I would have to say that it is evident, due to, I believe, voluntary catch-and-release, that more giant muskies are showing up each year and a few of them are getting caught.
Do I think super fish really exist? You bet! But alas, not nearly in the quantities we would all like. One only need look at the recorded history of these "super fish". Pre catch and release, length was a secondary consideration and "bragging rights" were based only on weight. When we look at that denominator, we find only 93 muskies, verified, that have exceeded 50 pounds! Rare? You bet.
But what about some of the likely super fish that have been caught and released in the past several years? With few exceptions, most were not weighed. DO we discount these potential super fish? It is at this point that other criteria given me, 55-inch or over length, comes into play. Problem here, though, is there are many fish at 55 inches and over that have been caught and released that didn't weigh over 50 pounds, including a 56-incher that I caught in 1997. Or the 13 released potential super fish that I know of that calculated by formula to weigh over 50 pounds, 2 of them were under 55 inches, one of which at 55 ½ inches was weighed at 58.85 pounds on a biologist's scale. In addition, 8 additional fish at 55 inches or more did not calculate at 50 pounds. So, based on the preceding, I feel that if we are considering 55 inches, a LOT more muskies will qualify as super fish. If we insist on 50 pounds or over as being the benchmark for super fish, then the rarity of this class of fish will continue, but could include a few under 55 inches in length.
I have been pursuing muskies for 45 years and have pursued my "dream fish" for over 30 years. In addition to my 56-inch release, I have seen only four or five other muskies that I was confident were over 55 inches. While I felt that all of them were "total" super fish, I cannot say with certainty that any, save one, exceeded 50 pounds. That "one" far exceeded 50 pounds, and has caused me many a sleepless night! In fact, it took me seven years just to get to the point where I felt that I was "over it!" Allow me to explain:
As I was about to leave the dock on Eagle Lake that morning, I asked the dock boy if he wanted to go along. He declined. About mid-afternoon, I set up for a drift through a weedbed and across the face of a rock reef. After a retrieve and during the flight of my next cast, I caught a "shadow" out of the corner of my eyes. I looked down and remember thinking that "there are no longs here." As that cast got about halfway back to the boat, the "log" darted toward my lure. The giant fish turned away just as it got to the bucktail. I quickly changed to another brand of bucktail, but might just as well not have changed. Realizing this, I then changed to a jerkbait. I maneuvered the boat completely around the rock-reef without seeing the fish again. As I neared the spot where I had first seen the fish, I had a tremendous strike on the first pull. As the giant fish pulled back, its wide back broke the surface. I hooked a "super fish"! I moved to the center of the boat. As I did that, the giant fish, evidently realizing that it was in shallow water, about 3 or 4 feet deep, exploded out of the water and flew about 15 feet before crashing back!! What a sight. That jump will always be embedded in my mind. As the fish flew head-high through the air seemingly frozen, I could see the 9-inch lure sideways in its mouth, and neither end was sticking out! As it neared the water tipping sideways on its decline in altitude, it landed flat sideways with a tremendous crash. It is likely at this point that I lost the fish. Once again underwater, the fish started swimming back toward where it jumped from. About halfway there, the lure simply floated to the top. My dream fish was gone!
As I examined my lure, the front, unsplit-ringed hook was twisted out of position. I had to use force to return it to its normal position. When I returned to camp, I could barely talk. Told the dock boy he should have come along and mumbled something like, "Would you believe 50 pounds…?"
So just how big do I think my "super fish" was? Have thought about it a lot. At the time, and ever since, it has been my firm conviction that it was as long as Cal Johnson's world record (60 ¼ inches, 67 ½ pounds), and as wide as Cal's fish, but not as deep. I knew it wasn't a world record. Every time since, when I get the opportunity to view the mount of Cal's fish and the 54-pounder mounted next to it, I feel that my dream fish was somewhere easily between those two! Over 50 pounds? Easily! Over 60 pounds? Perhaps!! A heartbreak? Oh my yes!! I got a glimpse of a big fish in the same area the next day, but have no way of knowing if it was the same fish.
As for my opinion about whether or not I think catch and release or lake management could increase the potential for muskies to reach the super fish size, I would have to say a very qualified, yes. While many big releases have taken place in recent years, the actual number of waters is very limited, as are the waters that have produced history's super fish. There are many factors that go into the production of super fish, and we do not have the space to go into that here as much as I would like to. Brad Latvaitis, a fisheries biologist, has a good article about this subject in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Musky Hunter entitled "Can Muskies Be Managed for Giants?"
Musky Hunter Research Editor Larry Ramsell has pursued his dream of a world record musky across the United States and throughout Canada. You can contact Larry through his web site at http://www.larryramsell.com.
I have caught lots of fish, and lots of what I consider to be big fish (50 inches and bigger). I don't think I've ever caught a 50-pounder, and probably only four or five fish that would be legitimate 40-pound fish. My biggest fish was caught in 1999, and measured 55 1/2x25 inches, which by the divided by 800 formula works out to be about 43 ½ pounds. I thought that the fish was extremely thick and healthy, and probably weighed a little more than that but probably not 50. When I first started to fish muskies (the first five years or so), I was sure I was seeing 40 and even 50-pound fish on a regular basis. However, after catching and keeping (this was before the days of catch and release, and graphite reproductions) a 52-incher that weighed 33 pounds 8 ounces, and a 53-incher that weighed 37 pounds 12 ounces, I started to wonder how big a fish has to be to weigh 50 pounds.
The largest fish that I've ever seen was on Lac Seul. We were fishing a large weedbed right at dusk, and I was throwing a large spinnerbait. I had a little hunk of cabbage on the rear hook, and as the lure came to the boat I tried to snap the weed off the hook in the water. After about three snaps of the lure, a huge fish came charging out of a small hole in the weeds right next to the boat. It charged my bait with its mouth wide open but missed and went under the boat. I stood there with my mouth wide open, with the weed still on my bait, but told my boat partner to figure-8 (he had just reeled in). The fish came back out from under the boat again and missed his bait and came flying out of the water to eye level. This fish was in the 58- to 60-inch class and looked to be 10 or 12 inches across the back, and very deep. If she would have hit either of our lures, as fast as she was going, she would have broken something for sure. I would guess that this fish was an easy 50-pounder. I've seen a couple of other fish in Lac Seul that may have been close to the 50-pound class.
Here's my read on super fish.
On the Lake of the Woods, I don't know that I've ever seen a single fish that I thought was much bigger than the 55 ½-incher that I caught last year. I've probably seen four or five other fish that were probably in that class. However, either my fishing skills are improving, or the fish are growing as I've seen more of these large fish in the past five years than in the previous 30. I'm pretty sure that catch and release is greatly improving not only the quantity of fish available, but also the quality.
Will this produce a bumper crop of 50-pound fish? I doubt it. I can't quite recall the total number of 50-pound fish that Lake of the Woods has ever produced, but I think it's somewhere around 20. I don't think there has been a 50-pound fish kept since about 1960. If we do a good job of releasing large fish I think there will be a few.
To give you an idea how few really large fish there are here are some interesting facts. I've stayed at most of the old time Northwest Angle resorts (Flag Island, Frolanders, American Point, Monument Bay). They all had a musky board that they used to keep and post all the fish that were caught for many years. I've looked through them and there isn't a single 50-pound fish recorded for many years and many fish. These records go back 50 years or so, and there are only six or seven 40-pound fish recorded by all of the resorts combined. (Surprising most of these fish weighed exactly 40 pounds - kind of makes me wonder).
I'm pretty sure that both genetics and forage affect the ability of a lake to produce a "super" fish. From a long term genetics standpoint, the lake has to have had something in the makeup of its environment that says it's better to be big than to be small, or genes to be small would prevail. From a short term genetics standpoint, to produce a "super" fish you would think that it would help if your mother was a 54-inch female, and your dad was a 48-inch male. Similar to what helps produce a 7-foot human. This probably doesn't happen very often. This, coupled with the ability for the environment to produce abundant large, slow-moving forage, will occasionally produce a super fish.
If we are lucky enough to catch a 52-inch fish we need to be gentle it, let her go, and hope she gets to be 56 inches and is still healthy. I doubt that there are very many fish which are lucky enough to have the genes and the health to get to be 50 pounds. And if there are, there are few fishermen who are lucky enough to fool them into biting, and then skillful enough to land them. They are very, very rare, even on some of the best musky water in North America. I think there are a few, however, and that's what keeps me looking.
Doug Johnson has fished on Lake of the Woods for over 30 years and is considered one of the lake's best musky guides. His articles have appeared in Musky Hunter, In-Fisherman and other publications.
I've seen a lot of big fish but you don't see the super fish that often. In over 30 years on Lake of the Woods I've seen just a handful of super fish, the high 50-, possibly 60-inch class fish. But you have to remember that you're estimating the size of these fish, you're not handling and measuring them.
I've seen somewhere around a dozen fish that I would say were in the 60-inch class. Some of those fish I've seen just one time, other fish maybe two or three times at the most. And it always happens in a week period and after that week, they're gone. But it's fish like these that give me the drive - they are what keeps me on the water that long.
On July 18, 2000 I caught a 57 ¾-incher and in October 1998 I guided Irv Kallin of Minneapolis to a 58-incher. Both of them were truly super fish. But I can remember one fish, about 15 years ago now, that would fit the criteria of what the old Indian guides used to call an "oar length" fish. You'd ask them how big a musky was, and they'd say about an oar length, or six feet long. This musky was that long. It was incredibly large.
It was mid afternoon, the water was nice and clear, and the sun was at our back, so we could really see this fish well. It followed a bucktail out from the shoreline and I didn't realize how big it was until as it got closer it just kept getting bigger. It was probably three feet down but was pushing water.
My client might have even had a shot at it if he hadn't frozen. The musky just slid by the boat and made a turn, looking back over its shoulder at us, and that's when we estimated the size of this fish. It was a minimum of a foot across its back and it might have been even larger than that. It was gigantic, easily as big around as a man. This fish could have eaten a 30-pounder.
After we raised this fish we all sat down and started talking about how big this musky was. You know, that was probably the dumbest thing I've ever done musky fishing. We didn't throw another cast for a half hour.
The musky was raised off a spot I call "Tin Can". There are a few people who know it. One of the old Indian guides I used to follow around used to tell me about a musky he saw off Tin Can. He said it was big, black and real huge. It was possibly the same fish I saw. It was every bit of what he said it was.
I think catch and release has definitely helped Lake of the Woods. I'm catching many more muskies now than when I first started fishing, and I don't know if that's because the fishing is getting better or I'm a better fisherman. I think it's a combination of the two.
Bill Sandy has guided on Lake of the Woods' Northwest Angle for 30 years. He owns and operates Sandy's Blackhawk Island Resort. You can check out Bill's web site at http://www.blackhawkislandcamp.com.