You Can't Handle the Tooth!
Every so often, since I was three, I make a bonehead move. Not just simple mistakes, like hanging-up on someone when I meant to put them on hold – but colossally-stupid mistakes, like planning a fishing trip for three months and forgetting my fly rod at home, or dumb real estate deals. It’s amazing, actually, that I’m not covered in bad tattoos.
A few years ago, my sixteen-year old son and I decided to enter the annual Ft. Kent Musky Derby in an effort to be the first tournament participants to catch one of the big lummoxes on a fly. We thought it would be fun, but there may have been an underlying intention to show the hardware-slingin’, treble hook gang of bait fishermen that one can indeed catch one of the obstinate apex predators using finesse and artful (if not poetic) casts with a fly rod and a single hook dressed with chicken feathers and thread.
“How will we know if you actually catch it with a fly?” asked the guy at the sign-in booth in Ft. Kent. I pointed to the GOPro camera on my son’s helmet. (That’s right, it was mounted on a helmet, because it belonged to my buddy who uses it to film back-country skiing, and it happened to be perfect for our intended use, but my son who was sixteen at the time had the same look on his face the Grinch’s dog did when he tied the tree branch to his head.) The guy just shrugged, and had a “who cares” look on his.
Musky, sometimes spelled muskie, are actually muskellunge, kind of a pickerel on steroids. They were first introduced into Lac Frontiere by Quebec’s government in the 1960’s. Either the officials didn’t look at a map before introducing the invasive species and realize that Lac Frontiere was part of the great St. John River watershed, which includes hundreds of brooks, lakes, and smaller rivers, or they did, and just muttered, “C’est dommage.” In either case, muskies have made their way throughout the entire watershed, including the Allagash River in its lower reaches – their progress into Maine’s prized trout and salmon waters blocked only by Allagash Falls.
Musky like to eat brook trout; all of them. The local guides in Allagash tell me the St. John and Little Black Rivers and the lower Allagash now don’t hold much of a trout population at all. Many of the guides have embraced what can’t be undone and guide for musky, but they all have a sad longing for the old days when they could step off their porch and catch a few brookies for supper, instead of driving ten or twenty minutes for trout. Here’s a little sample of what has been found in the bellies of muskies; any and all fish in the water (including trout, salmon, and other muskies), turtles, rabbits, muskrats, ducks, seagulls, baby beavers, a small shoe, and my favorite item – a fishing license. When I first read about the license, I had to wonder if anybody checked the whereabouts of the fisherman. As I said…muskies are apex predators.
We toddled off to Two River’s Lunch to find legendary Allagash guide, Tylor Kelly. I’ve known Tylor for twenty-five years, and he’s kind of a father-figure to me. In fact, I often tease him and tell his friends, “I’m like the son he never wanted.” To which he just laughs softly, and says, “That’s right,” with his almost-Irish, Moosetowner accent.
Tylor dropped us off with our canoe at a spot on the Allagash River that would give us a nice, long float back to town. Before shoving off, we tied on wire tippets to the ends of our leaders; protection against the muskies’ razor-sharp teeth. I removed the little heat-shrink device that attaches the leader to the fly line and tied a special knot which would be much stronger. The heat-shrink doohickey is great for brook trout, but not for twenty-plus pound leviathans.
It was August, sunny and hot, so it didn’t take long to realize Bonehead Move Number 1: I had left the cooler with the ice, drinks and sandwiches in Tylor’s truck. Now we faced an eight hour float, drinkless. We made it back just fine, albeit a bit parched, but looking back it possibly bordered on child abuse. I apologized to my son several times, and thought for about trying to turn it into some kind of character-building thing, but realized he was too smart for that and let it go.
Musky can be extremely finicky, refusing fly after fly, cast after cast; in fact, they are often called Fish of 1000 Casts. I worried that my shoulder was not up to 1000 casts in eight hours.
Tylor knows his back yard, so we fished the left shore just like he said. In less than an hour we had three vicious strikes, and three times we missed the fish, which I learned years ago in Wisconsin is normal in musky fishing. Fish of a 1000 casts, my butt.
About a mile downstream, feeling thirsty, we floated past a tiny spring flowing into the river. There were some large boulders, and a deep eddy formed below the rocks. We paddled past it, and positioned ourselves opposite a steep cut bank with grass hanging down, and wildflowers above. My boy made one cast, and I could hear an “Oh!” as a huge musky took his fly. The rod immediately doubled over, the boy adjusted his feet and braced himself for a fight, and in an instant the rod snapped back straight. “The leader broke?” I asked. “No,” he said, staring at his rigging, “it’s completely gone.” At that point I realized Bonehead Move Number 2. I had forgotten to replace the heat-shrink doohickey on his rod with the stronger knot. I thought my son was going to throw-up from disappointment…but it could have been the thirst. The musky jumped clear out of the water in front of us, trying to throw the eight inch fly from its lip. We would have no other opportunities.
Hours later, we finally hydrated at Two Rivers Lunch, and I honestly can’t remember if I told Tylor about Bonehead Move 2. On the way home, we stopped to look at the many derby fish laying on ice in Ft. Kent, and I steered clear of the guy who signed us in, hoping to avoid the possible, “So…how’d the fly fishermen do?”
One of the things I like about fishing are the memories made with my family and friends; memories cherished and talked about for years – for generations, sometimes. The boy’s a man now, off to college. I emailed him to see if he remembered anything specific about the trip, in case I forgot something. He replied with five words: “Yeah…coolers and heat-shrink.” Ah yes, sweet memories. Awesome.