January 11, 2018
Muskies are "the fish of 10,000 casts" . . . or 43 casts if you are fishing with guide Blane Chocklett.
"We won't be looking for them, I'm going to put you right on them," was Chocklett's introduction on our way to the river. That sounded good to me, as muskies are notoriously elusive, and I was still looking to check one off my bucket list. I'd been enchanted by these fish early on in my own guiding career in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. We often floated freestone streams chasing smallmouth bass, and sometimes had an occasional muskie sighting or even a fish that followed your fly to the boat, or took a savage swipe at a hooked smallmouth.
Like great camo-colored ghosts, they were always present, but seldom seen and never touched, and certainly never landed. Back then, we had no idea what it took to trigger those fish, so we naively declared they didn't eat flies. In the rare cases where we heard of fly-caught muskies, we chalked it up to outrageous good luck.
Fast forward to my first day with Chocklett, when I saw more muskies react to a fly than during the entire previous two decades. Chocklett was right, we didn't have to look very hard to find them. In the first hour we moved seven fish, had two eats, and one fish to hand — an epic day of muskie fishing by any measure, and we were just getting started. It was mid-December and the first cold front pushed through the week before, moving the fish to their winter lies. This annual migration concentrates the fish and makes them easier to target on fly. In two days of fishing we moved almost 50 fish in a couple miles of water.
Chocklett has made a name for himself as an extraordinary fly tier. He's innovative, and pushes everyone he fishes with way outside of their comfort zone and into uncharted territory. He's the man behind the soft plastic of the fly world, the Gummy Minnow and all its variations. His current family of Game Changer articulated streamers offer unparalleled movement and action at the end of the leader. His monster T-Bone versions with double hooks and seven articulations cast surprisingly well, and move so naturally in the water that I often mistook my own fly as a small fish. I've taken photographs of trout smaller than most of the flies in Chocklett's box, and short of tossing chickens at billfish from the transom of a sportfisher, these 14-inch streamers are the biggest flies I've ever used. The big surprise to me was that casting was the least physical part of the program.
Use the Force
There is the rare realm of Jedi fishing guides . . . the ones who operate on another level than the rest of us. It's like they are Neo in The Matrix, seeing the world as it really is.
Steve Huff and David Mangum are these types, and that is also the world Blane Chocklett plays in. His flies are only part of the equation. He knows where the fish are — exactly where they are — and how they think, how they will react, and even when they will react. He even "called the shot" while I was figure-'¨eighting around the boat attempting to '¨convince a fish to strike. "He's gonna eat it! Make the turn wide downstream and speed it up, he will eat it as soon as you show him the profile." And then it was game on.
If you're Babe Ruth and you call your shot, it's amazing. But when "calling your shot" leans heavily on the behavior of a wild animal like a muskie, it creeps into the science fiction realm.
Between fish, we talked fish behavior and movement, attitude, aggressiveness, fly color, and the speed of the retrieve. Chocklett is dialed into his world like few I have seen. It was a brain-stretching two days of fishing, and I left with a level of understanding and admiration I didn't expect. I still have great respect for muskies as difficult gamefish. They are toothy freshwater giants, but they are also finicky and test the limits of patience for most fly fishers. But under the guidance of Chocklett the odds suddenly swing in your favor.
Chocklett's muskie rig is surprisingly simple: a stout 10- or 12-weight rod, 450-grain sinking line, 6 feet of 40-pound-test fluorocarbon and 20 inches of 40-pound-test knottable wire.
We bombed casts into or over the pool and used an erratic single-hand retrieve to work the fly toward the boat. Sporadic pauses not only make the articulated T-Bone flies swim like wounded fish, they allow the fly to turn perpendicular, showing their full profile to the muskies lurking behind or beneath. When they pause they suspend, and the feather pectoral fins stick straight out. You get the occasional eat during the retrieve, but the vast majority of the action happens right close to the boat.
We finished every retrieve with up to a dozen figure-eight movements around the stern. Chocklett had me strip the wire knot all the way to the rod's tip-top, so the 14-inch fly would be a mere 20 inches from the rod tip. Then you "stir the pot" by sticking the rod tip deep in the water and sweeping the fly in figure-eight motions (speeding up around the outside corners) so there is no pause.
If you mess up here, it's the kiss of death, but if you keep the fly moving, you progressively engage the fish. Gradually stepping up the fly speed until you reach top speed gets most fish to take a swipe at it. It's incredibly visual, right at the side of the boat, and the size of these fish can scare you.
Closing the deal is tough. I watched as a nice 36- or 38-inch fish swam around with my fly in his mouth, but I couldn't get tight. These fish attack from behind and explode with such power they push slack into your line, making a hook-set extremely challenging. On longer casts, the take sometimes felt "mushy" or as if the fly was moving through leaves, and it could make you hesitate and lose your opportunity. It wasn't always the hard-hitting, bait-destroying strikes you would expect from apex predators.
On our first day we fished less than 300 yards of water, just because we didn't have to move. We saw gold as a fish took a swipe at the fly within the first ten casts. Shortly after there was that one that ate the fly and I couldn't get tight, and a few others lost interest in the fly as I flailed trying to get dialed in on the figure-eight.
Then Moby Dick rose from the depths. My heart jumped into my throat, and my knees weakened as I watched a fish that was nearly 60 inches take a look at my fly and then just disappear. The very next cast I came tight, and for a split-second thought I had the white whale I had seen just minutes before.
I soon realized that the fish I had on the line was a much smaller fish. I fought back disappointment when we got the fish to the net and quickly realized we had still broken through the glass ceiling of 50 inches. My first muskie came in at 53 inches, and only 45 minutes into my first day of fishing for them! That's what it's like fishing with the Jedi Master.
It's ironic that I travel all around the world chasing iconic gamefish and one of my absolute personal bests came just 100 miles from where I was born, and within driving distance of my current home. It looks like I have yet another annual pilgrimage to add to my list.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas, Abaco Lodge and Bair's Lodge in South Andros. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations and guiding in the American West. He cofounded IndiFly (indifly.org) — a nonprofit that works to help indigenous people use sportfishing as a method of conservation.