Our guide was prepared. Matt Miles had a pair of 11-weight fly rods rigged with sinking line stored in the drift boat’s gunnels. He had extra 10-weights onboard and self-tied, out- landishly large, multicolored flies to attract monsters that should not exist in Virginia’s fresh waters. Chris Young and I thought we were prepared, too–for defeat. We knew our chances of catching the fish of “10,000 casts” were limited. A veteran guide like Miles certainly helps, but landing the mysterious, toothy muskellunge is like trying out for an Olympic event; a winning out- come is determined by chance, not skill.
My friend and I met Miles last winter on a wet, bitter day in February. We put in below the town of Iron Gate, where the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers converge to form the James River. “I’d be lying if I told you I had these fish figured out,” Miles said on a stony patch of shore- line that served as our launch. “No one does. You’ll be casting heavy line and very big flies, so you’ll get some distance on your casts. But I’ll tell you, most clients who are lucky enough to catch one of these fish on the fly catch them alongside the boat. This is murky water too, especially with the rain, so you won’t see one until she follows or strikes your fly. Sometimes they
won’t eat for days and I don’t know why.” A native of Lynchburg, Virginia,
Miles began fly fishing in 1993. For years he lived in Colorado, where he guided fly anglers on more than 700 trips. In 2003, he returned home to guide on his native waters and became obsessed with these giant fish. We read about the muskellunge; writers on the subject are as fickle with their use of abbreviated spellings (“musky” and “muskie”) as the species is with its eating habits. We listened to horror stories from guides and their frustrated clients. We gawked at photographs and videos of four- foot monsters and discussed the bucket-list quarry at length over beers after trout- fishing trips. We dreamed of teeth, slimy snouts and violence.
Young was slightly more optimistic than I was because he had fished with fly and it literally scared me,” said Young that night at Devils Backbone Brewery in Roseland, near Wintergreen Resort. “It was toothy and freakishly prehistoric. I wouldn’t let my kids swim in the river after seeing it.”
I met Young at the brewery, so I could learn about his day and then leave early in the morning to meet Miles. I mentioned I had stopped by the Albemarle Angler in Charlottesville to talk muskel- lunge. I explained the fly shop also runs guided trips for the species on the Shenandoah and James rivers.
“One of the guides I am friends with in the shop warned me that getting skunked is normal,” I explained. “He said to hang in there, listen to the guide and stay alert.”
“What else did he say?”
“He said they are badass fish. And he hoped I got lucky.”
“Did you ask him anything else?” “Yes,” I said. “I asked him if he spells ‘musky’ with a ‘y’ or ‘muskie’ with an ‘ie’ is correct.” I explained the inconsistent spelling bothers me. There’s Musky Hunter Magazine, not to be confused with Muskie magazine. There’s St. Croix Rod, which won two categories at the 2018 the Chicago Musky Expo with its new “Musky” rod. And then there’s the Minnesota Muskie Alliance…and so on.
“You need to spend less time read- ing websites and magazines and more time on the water,” said Young. “Just pick one.”
I chose “musky” for this account by flipping a coin.
Drifting in the rain, Miles spoke about his passion for the elusive species. “Musky fishing is like divorce. Everyone should try it at least once.”
Young and I are both streamer junkies; dressed in foul weather gear for a foul day of hunting foul prey, we casted to
the previous day. He was lucky– after a hundred casts or more, Young caught a glimpse of the nasty creature as it briefly chased his fly on a retrieve. And that was all he caught on that first float trip, a glimpse.
“It came out of nowhere and it came fast–I thought it was going to eat my the river banks and retrieved our big, obnoxious flies as instructed while we listened to our guide. Miles made it clear that the musky is an apex predator with sharp teeth that eats more than smaller fish—Google “musky eating duck” and a video on YouTube will show you what he meant. He explained the musky is in the northern pike family and is native to the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region. Uncle Sam began stocking Virginia rivers with these fish in the 1930s. Today the musky thrives in the Commonwealth, but most fishermen will never see one.
Miles worked the boat from one side of the river to the other, targeting eight holes. We saw only birds for close to five hours in what amounted to casting practice. I am an average fly fisherman.
My knot-tying needs refining and my knowledge of aquatic entomology is fair. I can double-haul, but my casting is inconsistent and often results in hooking obstacles: myself; the guide; another fisherman in the boat; deadfall; overhanging branches; rocks in shallow streams. True to bad form, I lodged my fly under a boulder and the force of the current’s pull snapped the 11-weight rod. Miles handed me a 10-weight.
The rain suddenly subsided as we approached a farmhouse on the eastern side of the river. As we neared the riverbank, I heard Young yell, “I got a follow.” I was in the throes of executing a “figure-eight” retrieve, in which you dip the rod tip six inches into the water and draw a figure eight before pulling the fly from the water and re-casting. I looked up and watched the brown beast swim past my friend’s fly and strike mine.
Young had done everything right: he had cast the 11-weight rod like a pro and placed an incredibly large, brown-and- yellow “T-bone” streamer within inches of the riverbank. He had stripped line two precise wrist-jerks at a time and brought the fly–and a musky–to the boat. But my pink-and-brown T-bone looked more appetizing to the fish.
Even though Miles gave me plen- ty of instruction on what to do before the encounter, I panicked. “What do I do?” I cried, still holding the line but tempted to put the fish on the reel.
“Keep your hand on the line and bring her in like I told you,” Miles reminded me.
The musky jumped several times, like a tarpon. Miles hollered with delight and coached me on boating the fish while he unfolded his collapsible landing net. The fish fought for a few more minutes. He reminded me to keep pressure on the line; I held the line taught and dragged the musky from the James close enough for Miles to use the net, which snapped a few seconds later after the fish was in the boat.
“That is one big, adult female,” he said. Up close it was easy for him to identify the sex. I asked how he could tell, and the guide said the female urogenital opening, which is pear-shaped, is slightly larger than the anal opening. The opposite is true on males; the urogenital opening is smaller than the anus and shaped like a key-hole.
Miles told Young to hold the net, so he could grab his jaw spreaders, heavy duty needle nose pliers and tape measure. When the guide turned to retrieve his tools, Young inexplicably tried to touch my fish and it bit him.
“That thing bit me.”
I grabbed my camera and started snapping pictures: Young and his bloody hand; the musky in the net; close-ups of Miles retrieving the fly from a savage mouth.
“Get your camera,” Miles shouted, oblivious to my ongoing camera work as he focused on the task at hand. And then: “Help me measure her.”
I handed Young my camera and leaned over the side of the boat. Miles had removed the fly but steadied the musky using a clamp on its jaw.
“Are you getting this?” I asked. “I am bleeding.”
Miles commanded Young again: “Point and shoot—you gotta get this.” I helped the guide with the tape measure. Bleeding, Young pretended to be a National Geographic photographer. His injured left
hand shot mobile-phone video; his right hand took still photos using my waterproof Leica.
“I am calling her at 48 inches and my guess is she weighs 30 pounds,” said Miles. “She must be 20 years old—look at the scars on her face. In all my years guiding, that’s the biggest client-caught musky I’ve ever seen!”
It was hard not to acknowledge the wild side of this life as we released the musky to her habitat. For me she wasn’t the fish of 10,000 casts; I was good for one hundred or more that day, but it was my friend who made the one cast that counted, the one that lured the fish from her place of ambush to the boat.
I wouldn’t say I was prepared— nothing can prepare you for the strike of a musky. I did as I was told, put in the work and the countless figure-eight retrieves. I got lucky. We tried to document the fleeting encounter as best we could, but you don’t need pictures to remind you of what it feels like to see—and catch—a musky. Words don’t do it justice either.