The Magnificent, Maddening Muskie

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Your muskie is an insensitive and unromantic brute. This morning I tried to croon him up from his green and slimy twilight. As we trolled along in our boat above him, I sang "Where or When," and then "Paper Moon," ("it wouldn't be make believe if you believed in me"), and, with contemptible insincerity, "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)."

The muskie remains passive-aggressive, indifferent. For days he has been sliding along in his surly way, down there among the sunken, rotted logs of Elephant Lake, inhaling a perch now and then, ignoring our hors d'oeuvres tray of glittering Mepps spinners and Bush Hogs and Muskie Bug lures as gaudy as totem poles. Next, I'm going to try dynamite.

Muskies are that way. There is no point in trying to outthink them because they move in a universe entirely previous to thinking, or to predictable pattern. They don't have Moby-Dick's baleful metaphysics, but sometimes fishermen work up a sort of Ahab feeling about them. They are giants, as freshwater fish go. The great muskie fisherman Len Hartman caught one weighing 67 pounds, 15 ounces in 1961 in the St. Laurence River, and the record is heavier still.

My old friend William Oscar Johnson, writing in Sports Illustrated, stated that the muskie's name, muskellunge, derives from Ojibway or perhaps Cree terms meaning "great deformed ugly fish." That's more insulting than it needs to be. The muskie is quite handsome, in its mysterious, prehistoric way. But Johnson was working in the red-in-tooth-and-claw style of hunting-and-fishing prose. The muskie, he wrote, "has the sinister appearance of a stalking submarine." He went on: "There is no other fish like the muskie. It is diabolical in its cunning, maniacal in its rage, unpredictable in its habits. It is the most awesome of all freshwater fish, a creature that captures the imagination, fires the spirit, and — alas — breaks the hearts of fishermen by the thousands." It's got mean little teeth, like a barracuda — or, to take some of the drama out of it, like a Jack Russell terrier. Bring a big one into the boat and you feel as if you have landed an alligator with a good tailor.

I married into muskie fishing. My father-in-law, Judge David Brind of Geneva, N.Y., has been coming up here to Elephant Lake, in Ontario's Haliburton Highlands, for 39 years, staying at Bill and Sandy Smith's Elephant Lake Lodge and catching, over the years, hundreds of muskies, which he almost invariably has released. I' ve been tagging along since the mid-'90s, and have caught half a dozen muskies in that time (all released). The biggest I ever had on the line — about four feet long, as the judge, who was manning the net, will attest — was almost in the boat when, being an idiot, I thought to tighten the drag a little (a violation of one of the simplest rules) and the monster thrashed loose. Hast seen the white whale?

This year, my brother-in-law Charlie Brind caught two muskies the first evening, small but comely, a propitious sign — except that one of the fish bit Charlie on the finger as he worked the hook loose. After that, nothing.

I abandoned the others in the motor boat and set off in my canoe, casting with a Bush Hog for a time but finally, in a sweet evening light, settling in for a game of silent hide-and-seek with three loons on the empty, mirroring lake.

I paddled toward them slowly, noiselessly, and they, with edgy courtesy, worked obliquely away from my approach. I followed relentlessly, without a sound. At last when they judged that I insisted on being a pain in the neck, they did what I had waited for them to do: They did not fluster and flap up splashily in the way that, say, ducks do when disturbed; rather, they did the loon thing — the magic act. One after another, they elegantly beaked down and vanished without a trace. Poof! Submarines indeed. They dematerialized; they passed miraculously into the universe below.

A long suspension. I tried to guess where they would come up again. I waited. I guessed wrong, as I always do. After a moment or two, they popped up in an opposite, unexpected quarter. The loon is a deadpan wit. We repeated the game three times. At last, they tired of me, and vanished. As I paddled across flat water to the dock, I heard a single loon call in the swampish bay beyond the lodge — the loneliest sound on earth, a premonition of winter, of what's to come.