Sunken eyes stare up from a bony brow, casting a malevolent gaze on the angler that says, "I can take you, fly boy." Suddenly, a 10-foot 10-weight seems insufficient armament. The shock of that glare attached to a massive tubular form hovering motionless a few feet away can make the stoutest fly boy forget to frantically figure 8 the fly.
Galvanizing moments like that are happening on waterways of every type from the James River in Virginia to the stocked tiger muskies of Oregon — and from the reservoirs of southern Tennessee well into the Canadian wilderness. Most "musky heads" know that. What they may not know is, fly-fishing guides for muskies now dot that entire landscape.
It's a rather sudden phenomena with one overriding cause: Synthetic fibers. "Natural fibers absorb water," says Jesse Riding of Rainy's Premium Flies. "Synthetics shed water, making it much easier to throw big patterns designed for top-end predators like muskies all day long."
Guides tend to tie their own flies. But, in doing so, most copy the most successful fly patterns for muskies known to human kind. What are those mysterious patterns? We ask you to trust men in the game for pay — mercenaries, if you will — to testify truthfully. We think so. I've fished most of these flies and can attest they behave as described, attracting those sought-after malevolent glares rising from a different world — an aquatic world where muskies live and we can't. Imitating the size, profile, and movement of the things muskies eat in their world is what these flies are all about.
We've tapped the benches of tiers and the minds of guides to unearth flies that "walk the dog," create surface commotions, shed weeds, expand, contract, and articulate like living, vertebrate prey to trigger muskies in every kind of environment — from the creeks of Tennessee to the vast expanses of the Great Lakes.
Brad Bohen's Double Buford
Britt Stoudenmire has guided for 14 years with Southern Musky Guide Service (NewRiverOutdoorCo.com). The fly that has taken his biggest muskies is called the Double Buford, an articulated design by Brad Bohen. "On the Chippewa River I caught a 49-incher," Stoudenmire said. "My biggest on a fly. It attracts huge muskies everywhere. When something works why change? Bowens was a Hayward Musky Country guide and now he's living on the East coast, but he's the one that got this started — the whole fly-fishing for muskies thing. Now the Buford is the best fly on the James River in Virginia. It's a reverse tie and big. He had a single and a double. Everybody now has articulated flies up the ting-yang. People are tying 12 inch flies and muskies don't always eat big. A reverse tie creates a big head that pushes a lot of water. With a 300- to 400-grain weighted line it goes left-right like a swimbait. Then it suspends. Hangs up high over their heads."
The fly is basically constructed with bucktail, a few rooster feathers and some tinsel for flash. "Bohen hand picks northern bucktail from deer," Stoudenmire said. "He wants the longest strands possible. The rooster feathers come first, then the overtie of bucktail and he lays it back over. The double is my favorite, with 3/0 Gamakatsu stinger hooks like they use on spinnerbaits. Hard to go too big on hooks. Too big a hook won't penetrate. We catch a lot of muskies on smaller hooks." (This version was tied by Keith Stinter with yellow, red, and burgundy bucktail, yellow and orange saddle hackle, and some gold and orange flash. The articulated body is created with loop-connected 60-pound Sevenstrand tied to the hook eye in the middle of the fly.)
Mickey Johnson's White Bastard
Mickey Johnson is, perhaps, the northernmost fly-fishing guide on the Mississippi River and author of Fly Fisher's Guide to Minnesota. "Where we see fly rods about as often as cougars," Johnson laughs. "Rare but exceedingly effective." Especially with Johnson's White Bastard, if the target is a toothy giant. "The Bastard is over a foot long and tied mostly with white Icelandic synthetics over a single 2/0 Gamakatsu hook at the midpoint. The hook is secured to the eye with loop-connected 40-pound wire. The head is overtied with bucktail. It was designed as a river fly, for current and shallow water. When it gets wet, it compresses, but expands on the pause and undulates in the current. It sinks slow and finds less crap to hang up on with the small single hook. Tandem hooks and trebles foul too often. This fly is awesome for anchoring above a key spot. Quarter cast it downstream, swing it into position and work it with the fly rod. Raise it, skip it, drop it back, let it sink, swing it back and forth — you can really work a spot thoroughly with the Bastard without many casts."
Rainy's CF Tandem Baitfish (Perch)
Rainy Riding is one of those many awesome women in fly fishing history. "She started in this business 45 years ago as a secretary to a college dean who taught a fly-tying class," says grandson Jesse Riding. "She picked up the art of tying at 18, people heard about it and started asking her to design flies. She eventually went international." CF stands for Craft Fur Riding had developed in Thailand. "It's made especially for Rainy," Riding said. "It's premium, long synthetic that sheds water, breathes, sinks slow, and was designed to create streamers with a great side profile. The CF Baitfish is available in 16 patterns matching prey species of all kinds. It's less expensive than bucktail yet far more durable. A little bit of flash, but the entire fly is basically constructed with that one material. It's about 15 years old and it's been one of our top sellers in the Midwest for pike and muskies." They sell Fire Tiger and other attractor patterns, too, all with 3D stick-on eyes. Hits the water, sinks slow, and fishes well with a floating line.
Enrico Puglisi EP Streamer
Master fly tier Enrico Puglisi developed a material he calls the EP Fiber that is tough, translucent, holds profile, and can be tightly curled into what Puglisi calls SE (scale effect). It's perfect for big predators because it's light. "Natural material absorbs water," Puglisi said. "Synthetics remain light and easy to throw. Using 3 synthetics, like EP or SE with our new 3D Minnow fibers and any other synthetic, creates different, lifelike action at various stages of the movement of the fly. It moves like nothing else. For muskies, 7 to 8 inch lengths are plenty, but a 12-inch EP bunker fly remains easy to throw all day." A bunker fly is a great choice for weed muskies, Puglisi says, because the oversized head sheds weeds from the hook. "Big flies for muskies have become extremely popular in the past few years," he added. "Fly fishing for muskies is big business." With new synthetics like Puglisi's EP fibers showing up every year, more gorgeous pike and muskie flies are sure to follow.
Eli Berant, owner of Great Lakes Fly, has been fishing muskies with a fly rod and tying flies for Lake St. Clair muskies since 2009. "We use a drift sock and just cover water," Berant said. "We're actively working flies across the tops and along the sides of huge weed beds a lot. I reversed a foam popper head and put it in the middle of Optimus Slime and it walks the dog underwater. The bulbous head is synthetic and the body a mix of bucktail, long saddle feathers and Crystal Flash. I'm doing a jerk strip — jerking both the rod and the line at the same time to give it a real snap, which brings the nose down and to the side, then it shoots in the direction its pointing. Pulls straight on the first snap, but on the pause the back end rises, the nose goes down and turns, and whatever side it leans to, that's where the fly goes. Usually, with a little slack, it rolls back in the opposite direction of each glide."
The BIG Foosa
Berant has been fishing muskies with a fly rod and tying flies for Lake St. Clair muskies since 2009. "We use a drift sock and just cover water," Berant said. "We're actively working flies across the tops and along the sides of huge weed beds a lot. The B1G Foosa and the Optimus Slime are my favorites around weeds because of the foam popper heads hidden inside. These flies almost never gut hung up," Berant said. "On the B1G Foosa I tie in the popper head an inch from the nose and it bunny hops underwater. The tails are synthetic yak hair. I tie in long saddle feathers, some bucktail, and a little raccoon hair in the head of the Foosa. The raccoon hair grabs water, giving it traction. It has a unique footprint underwater. Bucktail keeps weeds from the hook. You can't even see the big 6/0 spinnerbait hook I construct these flies with."
Guide Chris Willen loves the Foosa. "Flies are glide baits," he said. "The B1G Foosa is awesome. It's such a cool fly around weeds because it stays up, even with a sinking line. That bass-popper body kicks like crazy. It turns as it rises and it's just super cool. Around thicker weeds you're so limited with conventional gear, but you can rip the Foosa or fish slow, or stop-and-go, and muskies come up out of heavy weeds and rip 'em."
Mitchell's Fly Shop Cisco
Robert Hawkins, owner of Bob Mitchell's Fly Shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, caught the fly-rod world-record musky on Mille Lacs last year on a fly sold in his shop. "It was 57- by 26.5-inches," Hawkins said. "The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin confirmed it as a fly-rod world record."
The fly he caught it on was his own design and had no name until I badgered him into calling it something. "It's tied mostly with white bucktail and a little pink and a touch of lateral scale (Flash) to match the iridescence that ciscoes have," Hawkins said. "The tail material — more white stuff — is called Big Fly Fiber. Really, we put only three materials in the fly with a tiny bit of orange Crystal Flash. It's tied on a Gamakatsu 5/0 spinnerbait hook. The gap is right and the long shank allows plenty of room to tie materials on. Short-shank hooks don't allow you to get everything on there you want for a musky tie. We debarb all our flies. I've seen too many big flies lodged in scalps. Good fly for open water with pelagic baitfish. Not being articulated, it triggers strikes really well in cold water, and white's always a good all-around color."
The world record was taken in cold weather, too. Actually, why discuss it, watch it, here:
Scott Struif, manager of Thorne Brothers Fly Angler in Minneapolis, has been slinging flies at muskies for over 20 years. At Fly Anlger, he sees what people buy. As an angler, he knows why.
"Jared's Outlaw from Rainy's Premium Flies has two things going for it," Struif said. "It has a lot of bulk in the head, but it also has a huge flash tail that adds profile, not bulk or weight. People can throw it and the Outlaw peg gets picked clean in our shop more often than any other fly. Comes in a purple, black-orange, and perch patterns.
"Baitfish profile, lots of flashabou, little Icelandic sheep hair, narrow tail, some craft fur and a big piece of fabric. Stick-on eyes, a little marabou for a gill effect, long, shiny string material around the head called Baitfish Emulator Flash — this isn't a simple tie. It has a big profile — 11 inches long. Looks big with all the flash and profile but it doesn't cast too terribly on a 10-weight. In fact, it casts comfortably for quite a while because most of the length is Flashabou. One flick, one false cast, it's drained dry. Single hook — a 3/0 Wide Gap Gamakatsu. It's a slow sinker — good river fly. To get it down you need a sinking line. We build our own pre-packaged leaders perfect for this fly, using 45 pound wire. Loop connect on one end, snap on the other. Every fly moves slower than any lure, making flies great early and late season calls. While this one is good all year, it's probably at its best in cool to cold water."
Struif said 95% of the musky guys he sees in the shop tie their own flies. "But we sell a lot of Outlaws to guides and people just getting started."
Blane's Chocklett T-Bone
Blane Chocklett (540/354-1774) has spent the last 20 years as a fly-rod musky guide and fly tier on the James and New Rivers in Virginia. He's found plenty of advocates for his best creation. Blane's Chocolate T-Bone is designed with articulated big game shanks (flymenfishingcompany.com) for movement and silicone cones that can force the fly to turn at the end of each strip. "It allows you to keep the bucktail fibers really long," Chocklett said. "You can use anything from bucktail to synthetic hair on this design to make it as long as you want up to 17 inches, but the standard is about 12 inches. It has a lot of movement in the water, making it a great summer fly. Shanks that I designed allow it to move through water quick, and as the fly accelerates then slows down it turns sideways. More profile showing to the fish. Makes it jackknife, creating a trigger. The linked shanks interconnect to move like a vertebrate creature. The material is reverse-tied, which props up the tying material and gives the fly a giant profile underwater. Has a big head, diverting water around it. Any diversion of water around the fly allows the it to kick and swim better.
"Biggest muskie I've seen taken with this fly was a 55 incher," Chocklett said. "My biggest muskie we didn't measure, but we did measure one over on 53 inches on it this year. Other guides I know have caught bigger ones with it. "
Chocklett has designed a line of rods for pike and muskie called the Esox (tforods.com) and used the 10-weight or the 12-weight version with a 450-grain sinking line, 6 feet of 40-pound-test fluorocarbon and 20 inches of 40-pound-test knottable wire.
"Generally we have to get the fly down 6 feet or so to reach the strike zone," Chocklett said. "Anywhere from 4 to 12 feet deep. I prefer October to mid March. We leave them alone when they spawn in March. Dec-Jan-Feb are the best months for us.
Captain Brian Meszaros been a muskie guide on St. Clair for 27 years — one of the first to target Great Lakes muskies on the fly. He designed the first ever muskie-specific fly rod. "Ordinarily, different times of year demand different patterns," Meszaros said. "St. Clair is known for the number of 50 inchers and we tie a lot of 10- to 14-inch flies to appeal to them on a seasonal basis. But the Hairy Pounder is different. Designed after the (Musky Innovations) Bull Dawg Pounder, it's renowned in the Midwest and gets plagiarized a lot. It's articulated, like a Jointed Rapala, emulating a glide bait. The articulation gives it a lot more motion. We're limited in fly fishing — we don't have the rattles and blades, so we need unique movement and water displacement — certain materials that shed water. You're not going to throw 14 inches of Zonker Strip all day. I love to back tie, and I use yak fur — not the down, but the outer layer. You pick it up and before it's overhead it's dry. Sheds water like a dream and it's durable. I put some Flashabou in it and some saddle hackles that act like tails with a little independent movement. The hook is a Gamakatsu SLS 12 in 8/0. If a muskie eats the entire fly, a second hook can catch in their gills. We're conservationists. We only use one hook 8 inches from the head to save more fish. We use commercially-available articulated shanks. The biggest musky caught on this fly was 52 3/4- by 24-inches — over 40 pounds. A client caught it. As a guide I don't get to fish as much as my clients," he laughed (somewhat sadly).
Chris Willen has been musky fishing with a fly for 11 years. Like some kind of "musky Gypsy," Willen splits time between Northern Wisconsin, South Eastern Michigan, and the creeks of Tennessee — following open water year 'round.
"My topwater pattern is the Chuggernaut," Willen says. "Worked on it for a few years and now it's perfected. It's a pretty simple tie. A foam cone head — not cup faced but straight — tapers back to a point and I put a silicone skirt over it with 3 Netcraft beads behind it that clack. I drill a hole through the middle of the cone and put a plastic tube through it so it slides. I burr the end to make it mushroom than slide the skirt and Superglue it on so it's reversed and splays. When a musky eats it, the foam slides away from their face. The free-sliding foam on the leader is further from hook point. Hard to move foam that's locked in place once they set their teeth in it. I put the sliding foam on a 12-inch, 40-pound wire leader. It's great because you have the choice of pre-rigging it or just sliding the stuff on out in the field. Muskies love topwater action and this fly entices some spectacular, head-shaking, heart-stopping strikes."