THE CHECKLIST

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by Bret Amundson

“How many spots do you have?” Bill Sherck, host of Due North Outdoors, asked Mike Crossman from Eagle Lake Island Lodge.

“About 40?” Crossman answered.

Our goal that day was to put a muskie in the boat.   It’d be great to have a 50”+ fish, but we’d be happy with getting one of any size on film for an upcoming episode. We set aside nearly a full day of fishing to get it done and with 40 spots to cast around 10,000 times, we might need it.

Bill Sherck contemplates our next location.

Bill Sherck contemplates our next location.

“They’re the biggest predators in our lakes,” Sherck replied when asked about his passion for chasing muskies. “They’re also the toughest to catch. “

We found that out the day before as we cast giant lures and spinners along rocky points and reefs with Brian Mace from Eagle Lake Island Lodge. We headed out during the evening hours without much luck, and then made plans to dedicate more time to it the next day.

Brian Mace points out a spot on the map

Brian Mace points out a spot on the map

We awoke to warmer weather and the thought of giants exploding from the water began to work our imagination into a frenzy. We hit the boat with Crossman and cameraman Josh Bryant and headed towards the first of the 40 spots. To track our progress, a clear bait was used as a whiteboard and check marks were made at every stop: The Checklist.

The Checklist

The Checklist

During the first few minutes, Sherck offered some angling advice to the novice muskie hunter in the boat-me:

“Do your figure 8s 100%, 100% of the time.”

Why are figure 8s so important?

“They are completely important every time you cast, “Sherck said. “More important is doing them correctly every time. After nothing has happened for two hours, it’s easy for muskie anglers get a little lax with their figure 8’s. Every one needs to be correct, because every time there is a possibility for a fish there.”

After a few more check marks on the giant crankbait, I could see his point. We’d been casting around boulders at each spot that Crossman suggested without much luck. It was easy to think there was nothing there and just get on to the next spot.

Soon however, a fish estimated in the mid-40s slowly followed Sherck’s bait as it approached the boat.

“There’s one!”

As I watched, I started to get that schoolgirl giggle and began thinking about the net. Sherck began the figure 8 and the big fish turned with it. I thought I saw gills begin to flare and I started towards the net.   That’s when she disappeared back into the depths.

A big muskie swims back into the depths

A big muskie swims back into the depths

So close.

A neat encounter, but not quite what we’re after.

“How do we mark that on the bait?” I asked.

It was agreed that a dot above the check mark would be used.

It was clear now why the extra time with the bait next to the boat are so important.

“The figure 8 extends your chance to catch your fish,” Sherck explained. “When the bait gets to the boat, you’re out of room. As part of it you can make turns or you can jerk it and sometimes that is what triggers the fish to eat.”

We were about halfway through our day and we’d only hit around 6 or 7 spots. Would we make 40? Unlikely. More to the point: Would we get one in the boat?

As a fisherman/writer, I was content with seeing fish and learning more about chasing muskies. As a photographer with a TV show on the boat? We needed to see one in the net.

Cameraman Josh Bryant captures the moment.

Cameraman Josh Bryant captures the moment.

Everyone wants to have their own TV show, but the pressure level is raised once you have a camera rolling and you’re relying on hooking into the most elusive fish.

“There’s a rock around that next point that we’ll cast,” Crossman said. The area looked promising, but many of the spots we’d hit did on this big lake.   We’d be holding out hope because recently Ron Buth from Eagle Lake Island Lodge hooked into a 56” muskie-an absolute monster that even the most hardcore muskie fishermen might never see in their lifetime.

Would we get to see a 50” fish? At this point we’d be happy with a 30”.

As we slowly approached the round rock protruding from the still water, we began casting our Lysol can-sized baits towards it. Immediately Sherck was caught on a rock.

“Sorry guys, I ruined this spot.” We inched our way in with the trolling motor to unhook his snag. The water got shallower and suddenly the grinding sound of a propeller crashing into the rocky lake bottom made us all cringe.

“Well now I really jacked this spot up, goodbye muskies!” Sherck apologetically said.

Not wanting to move on just yet, we continued to cast the remainder of the area. Then, just moments later Sherck surprised us all.

“There’s one!”

Sure enough a big muskie was closing in on his giant spinner bait. He’d begin the figure 8 pattern and the fish turned with it. It didn’t strike though and soon headed back from where it came. That just happened to be where I was reeling in MY lure.

The hair started to rise on the back of my neck like a dog ready to pounce on an intruder. I continued my retrieve and thought about the perfect figure 8. Just as my bait appeared I searched for that big fish behind it and-

“SHE’S BACK!” Sherck suddenly chirped from my left. It seems the fish snuck back to his spinner and was hot on the trail. Another figure 8 turned her and WHAM! She was hooked!

The water exploded and the next 60 seconds seemed like a blur. I dropped my rod and headed to the back of the boat to grab the net. Water was splashing while cameras were rolling and Crossman and I fidgeted with the landing gear as it was wrapped around a boat seat. I yanked it up only to have it drop back down as one little loop was still caught on the seat handle. All I could think is that we’re going to lose this fish because I expertly netted a seat.

I returned to the bow to see a bent-over angler holding on tight with both hands as the big fish had pulled drag and now thrashed with 5 or 6 feet of line instead of the 2 feet that were there when she hit.

As Sherck worked the fish boat side I started to drop the net.

“Head first, head first!” He exclaimed. I waited for the fish to swim towards the net and I went to scoop.

The fish turned.

“HEAD FIRST!”

But it was too late and I was in the motion of pulling her up. She tried sneaking out and I could see it happening in slow motion:

That fish was going to get hung up halfway, I’d bend the fish with her head hanging out, she’d shake the hooks loose and swim back to her hiding spot among the boulders. I’d hang my head, apologize and try to forget that it was all on tape.

Only I wasn’t about to let that happen.

I extended my reach, got the net around her nose, lifted up and pulled the net closed before any escape was possible.

We did it.   The apex was hanging next to the Due North boat nicknamed “Green”, and was ready for her close up.

Some whooping and hollering ensued along with fish bumps and high-fives.   We took some pictures, measured the beast and put her back to rule her watery territory once again.

I asked if my net skills made him nervous.

“Tail first?  YES!” Was Sherck’s reply.

82714 - eagle lake island lodge muskie

The 47” muskie was not his personal best, but you won’t hear anyone argue that this was a big fish and a bigger accomplishment.   You’ll get to see the fight on a future episode of Due North Outdoors sometime next spring.

As I congratulated him on his fish, he replied, “This is OUR fish.  We worked as a team.”  I’ll admit, my net skills probably were the key to this whole thing.  (*note: This is where I’d add a smiley face to show that I really don’t mean that. 🙂

The muskie boat side as we get ready to release it.

The muskie boat side as we get ready to release it.

And for the checklist? We added the perfect mark to the whiteboard bait: The dot went below the check creating an exclamation point. The best way to summarize the feeling of catching a muskie.

Putting the exclamation point on the checklist.

Putting the exclamation point on the checklist.

The big girl is just about ready to head out.

The big girl is just about ready to head out.

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