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Fly fishing for muskies not for faint of heart

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Patrick Kelly of Columbus, Ohio, demonstrates how to make a musky fly Saturday, March 2, 2013, at International Angler.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Some musky flies made by Patrick Kelly on Saturday, March 2, 2013, at International Angler

This might sound a little weird, but hear me out.

Imagine you've been handed a decent-sized bird, like a pigeon. (I'd say a plump bobwhite quail, but really, how many guys younger than 70 have ever seen a wild one in Pennsylvania to know what we're talking about)?

This is no ordinary bird, though. It's been subjected to alien experimentation.

Its bodily fluids have been drained. Its bones have been sucked out. It's been stretched like taffy to two or even three times it normal length. And its feathers appear to have been dipped in an atomic rainbow. They're chartreuse and neon pink and hot purple and fluorescent orange and flaming red, with tinseled pinstripe highlights. There's some black, too, as if the bird was charred on a grill.

Now, picture that big, colorful lump tied to several feet of piano wire, which has in turn been knotted to rope the consistency of al dente spaghetti, flexible but not totally limp-noodlish. That's tied to a double-length hickory axe handle.

Your job is to twirl that tethered bird above your head before launching it out in front of you. Then you have to do it again. And again. And again, hour after hour, oftentimes against the wind.

That's what it's like to fly fish for muskies, one of the largest piscatorial predators in North America.

“It's not for the faint of heart. I've probably talked more people of out trying it than I've talked into trying it,” said Kip Vieth, a musky fly fishing guide with Wildwood Float Trips in Minnesota.

But it's also a sport growing in popularity.

Originally confined to the upper Midwest, fly fishing for muskies has gone mainstream and spread in the last few years. Commercial guides are working the Ohio River and its tributaries in Ohio and West Virginia, the Potomac River in Maryland and the James River in Virginia.

There are no registered fly fishing musky guides in Pennsylvania yet, but that will likely change soon, predicted Andy Shiels, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and, as of last summer, a musky fly fisherman himself.

“I think it's a new, exciting frontier in fly fishing. And there aren't too many of those left,” he said.

It's definitely out of the ordinary.

Trout flies are typically small, with some tiny enough to rest on a fingernail. Bass flies like the Clouser minnow are bigger but still might top out at four inches long.

Musky flies are 12 to 14 inches long on average, with some stretching to 20. All feature one or even two short-shanked, wide-gapped hooks, monsters up to size 10/0 — they'll fill the palm of your hand — that look like they could be used to hang a butchered hog from a barn rafter.

They're often wildly, brightly colored, too.

“Large flies push more water and create more vibration, which is key,” said Pat Kelly, a musky fly fishing guide with Mad River Outfitters in Columbus, Ohio, whose own personal-best musky was 49.5 inches long and 28 around and weighed an estimated 44 pounds.

“That vibration allows muskies to find your fly more easily. Then, once they get close to it, the big thing in terms of color is contrast. Colors that contrast make your fly as visible as possible, so it pops or stands out in the water.”

Such flies are often made of bucktail or synthetic materials that are good at shedding water, but it still takes a big, heavy-duty rod — a 9 foot, 10 weight is considered ideal — to chuck them around.

“It will definitely force you to learn to cast by double hauling,” said Kelly, referring to the technique used by anglers to get more distance or to drive a bulky fly into a wind. “Otherwise this will wear you out fast.”

Some anglers tie on their flies using knottable wire leaders; others prefer hard nylon or fluorocarbon line in 60, 80 and even 100-pound test. The point is to account for a musky's barracuda-like teeth.

This is the species long known as the “fish of 1,000 casts” because it's an apex predator that exists in relatively low densities in even the best waters. It takes a lot of effort to hook a single one.

You don't want that fish to bite off when it finally hits, Vieth said.

“I lost two big fish last year, and it wasn't because of a knot or anything. They just burned through my line,” he said.

Anglers are rising to the challenge, though. While the sport represents a small fraction of the fly fishing market, it is growing, said Bob Phillips of International Angler fly shop in Pittsburgh.

“Catching a musky is pretty tough anyway. And when you try to do it with a fly, it gets that much harder,” he said. “But it seems to be getting more popular.”

Fly fishing for muskies is “kind of extreme,” Kelly said. Fishermen who try it quickly fall into one of two camps: they become addicts or decide it's just too much work, he said. But there's no doubt it's picking up more fans.

“Once you're hooked on this, it makes all other fly fishing anticlimactic,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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