World-Famous or Legendary Muskie “Hotspots” – Part VI
2 weeks ago by Keith Worrall
Modified 2 weeks ago at 2 weeks ago
World-Famous or Legendary Muskie “Hotspots” – Part VI
by Larry Ramsell, Muskellunge Historian
In Part V, we learned of the first Legendary “Hotspot” in the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. My dear friend, the late Bill Tutt was an interesting Muskie Master there, as will be noted in the following story of Big George, a fish that created yet another Legendary “Hotspot” on the Flambeau side of the Flowage. I personally knew Bill to be a top notch muskie hunter, sportsman and mentor, who had tagged and released many large muskies and kept a few in the earlier days. In addition, Bill was a great storyteller, as the excerpts quoted here from this amazing and long tale will prove. The relatively small sand bar that Big George frequented is an interesting spot, as will be noted.
Big George’s Bar
Big George by Bill Tutt
“We bought the resort in the winter of 1966. It’s located in north central Wisconsin’s Iron County, about 12 miles out of Mercer, on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. Prior to that, I had been traveling for Bear Archery Company as a sales representative and this area was part of my territory.
Bill “Flam-Bow” Tutt with his 55-incher that weighed 45 pounds 6 ounces. Photo courtesy Bill Tutt
“I was introduced to muskie fishing by a dealer of mine at that time, along with the resort owner where I usually stayed, both of whom were muskie freaks. We spent many ten-to-twelve-hour days together, “chasing the greens,” and the bug bit me hard.
…”When I fished, which was at least a portion of every day, I fished alone. When I’d mention muskies in the bar, or hint around for someone to go with me, most of them would look at me like I’d fallen out of a tree, or like I should not be allowed out without a keeper of some sort. I soon kept my mouth shut, like most minorities, and quietly took to the boat alone.
“The Flambeau is a large and often frustrating body of water to fish for the average fisherman, inasmuch as there is a distinct lack of weed cover. I, too, was accustomed to fishing over weeds, shorelines, bars, etc. in much smaller inland lakes. Immediately I was awed by the overall size of the pond which confronted me; 175 miles of shoreline; 18,000 acres of water, and very few weeds. In short, it scared the hell out of me!
“Luckily, the best of the muskie fishing lies close to our resort, so, I concentrated on a small area, approaching it as I would a comparable size lake, forgetting as best I could the vastness of the surroundings. It paid off. Almost at once I could literally weigh the results.
“I caught about 40 muskies that first summer, the largest of which was thirty-six pounds. Not once was anyone in the boat with me! But herein lies the story.
“That first summer alone, I raised not once but several times, a muskie of trophy proportions.
…”I had caught one myself which weighed forty-one pounds, so a “good fish” was not exactly new to me. However, the one in Baraboo was something else again. She haunted a shallow sandbar, on the east side of, what was one of the original lakes before the dam was built in 1926.
“With the fluctuation the depth over the bar varies from three to six feet on the average, with drop offs east and west running to twenty-two and forty-five feet, respectively. Though basically void of weed growth, there were a few, and also scattered driftwood snags and deadheads strewn about randomly. It was next to one of these that Big George (as I named her) hung out.
“The submerged portion was sizeable enough, but the limb protruding above the waterline was nothing more than a marker, a casting target, certainly no indicator as to what lurked below. It was, however, a godsend in rough water as it enabled me to pinpoint about where to brace my feet in anticipation of her “runs on the boat,” which came on the average of seven out of ten times, believe it or not. And it was unbelievable if not incomprehensible, that a fish that size could be viewed so readily. She was a joy to have around, to say the least, and I can’t begin to guess how many muskie fishermen she helped me hook by just showing herself.
“Between Big George and myself, (and yes, I realize the contradiction of name to sex, so no mail please) we slowly began to convert, even manufacture, muskie fishermen.
“In the four seasons I fished for her, attempting to induce her to hit, she was seen, literally, dozens of times by dozens of people. She became a legend in her own time, as they say.
“My closest guesstimate of her size would be sixty-six inches, sixty-four pounds. I had her at arm’s length more times than I can ever recount and I was looking … hard! She was a “ton” more fish, so to speak, than my State Record muskie (by weight) in 1971, and that was a keeper at fifty-five inches, forty-five pounds. six ounces.
“She was not at all fussy about what she chased. You could throw anything in the tackle box (or all of it for all I know) and here she’d come, just like a freight train. The lure would hit the water and I’d start the retrieve when suddenly this V-shaped wake would appear behind it. It would continue to swell and rise until it was about 5 or 6 inches high. My pulse would pound and increase along with the wake, as if they were one and the same.
“Seldom, though, would she do the same thing two times in a row. One time she’d close with blinding speed to boil beneath a plug or around a bucktail, and the next time she’d merely keep pace to the boat side where she’d lie there, staring up with those all-knowing eyes, only to sink slowly from sight. At times I’d realize after such a display, that every muscle in my body was like a banjo string. Had someone placed a hand on my shoulder at the instant, I’m sure I would have either jumped completely out of the boat or fainted dead away.
“It’s hard to explain how you react, after a time, to that kind of thing. I suppose you could actually compare it to a game, of sorts. I fully expected to see her more often than not, but after a while I really didn’t expect her to hit, although I had to play my part in the game and be ready just in case. We played it daily for four seasons, just that way: I’d throw, she’d show, and I’d go. Very seldom would she ever play twice in a matter of moments, but it was not uncommon to see her morning and evening of the same day. Numerous times she’d blast a surface bait clear out of the water or roll over one, but never did she actually hit a lure. This went on from June of 1967 until August of 1970.
“Mel Johnson, a friend of mine from Peoria, Illinois, arrived on Saturday of that first week in August… …”he had never tried muskies and really didn’t care to, much to my chagrin. He did, however, relent to the point of going with me that first evening to watch.
“To make a long story short, Mel saw a week of muskie fishing that I dare say would stack up to anybody’s, anytime, anywhere. He never fished the whole week, but he was with me from Saturday evening till the following Friday night when I caught nine muskies in ten trips out. They ranged in size from 26 1/2 to 38 pounds. Never once did he lift a rod to make a cast, he just watched. How ‘bout that?
“We were never out over an hour and a half at any one time, and never failed to boat a fish any time out, that is to say until Wednesday evening, when I finally hooked Big George. It was cloudy all day with a chop on the water which worsened every hour.
“Another friend of mine, Art Matthias, from Milwaukee arrived to spend the night as was his habit when he was in the area. At that time, he too traveled for an archery company. Like Mel, Art was not a muskie fisherman, in fact he did not fish and had never seen a big fish in the water.
“Only one of our guests that week had even thrown for muskie. Also, from Milwaukee, Louie Hlavenka had been out with me one time some weeks before, to try his hand, but had not purchased any equipment as yet. He had been fortunate enough, however, to see Big George.
“Louie came over to the bar that morning to look once more at the fish I’d caught the night before. It was 49 1/2 inches, 36 pounds. We shot the breeze for a while and before he left, he borrowed a rod and reel and one bucktail from me. He said he might give it a go, then left.
“He was back within the hour with skin the color of parchment and hands that were still shaking badly. I almost passed out when he said it had been Big George that had hit him. She smashed the third cast he’d made with such violence that Louie was paralyzed. He said it never occurred to him to set the hooks. He simply locked both thumbs on the reel and held on as she headed off the bar toward deep water, towing the boat and Louie behind.
“When she at last spit the tail, he said he then sat down for a long time, he never dreamed anything would hit his lure and hadn’t even bothered to take a gaff or net; nothing but the rod, reel and one bucktail.
“I almost spit up at his account of the happenings. I’d been after her for four years and nothing. He stumbles out and hangs her on the third cast not knowing whether he was afoot or horseback. By then I was really champing at the bit.
“The wind kept increasing throughout the day as one by one our guests gave up the ghost and returned to the resort”…
“Art joined my wife and I for dinner and Mel arrived about that time. I gave him an account of Louie’s harrowing experience as he sat shaking his head. Then I dropped the bomb. I casually mentioned that I was anxious to get over there to see if she was still hungry. Marj went into orbit, Art and Mel went pale, I went to the boat.
“Of one thing I’m fairly certain. I’m very sure that mine was the only boat on the entire flowage that evening. We never saw a soul the whole time we were out there and I never talked to anyone after that who had gone out that night. It’s easy to say now, but it’s true. I knew, with an inner certainty, that if I could get to Baraboo, she was going to hit. I can’t explain it further, I just knew!
“It was a hairy ride, even I’ll concede that, and I’ve been in on a lot of them. Art and Mel are both big men. Art stands 6’6” and weighed 286, while Mel was 6’2” and 235.
“I’m 6’ 160 pounds. At the time I had a 16’ Lund, with an 18hp Evinrude. We drove directly into the teeth of a southeast wind getting over to Baraboo and the sandbar. In open water it was no longer waves but swells with troughs between the walls of water five feet high.
…”We made it at any rate and I headed the boat around the south end of the sandbar, next to the small island where it ends.
“The way the wind was skirting the island we would drift almost directly across it, and at one hell of a rapid rate. The whipping of the treetops as the wind whistled through and the froth and foam on the water was nothing short of eerie, giving it sort of a greenish glow. As soon as I killed the motor, we picked up speed as the wind shot us along.
“I quickly picked up my rod which was already rigged with a yellow tail. The color did not please me at all with the cloud cover overhead, but I knew with the speed of the drift that there wasn’t time to change then. I asked Mel to dig out a black one as I spotted the snag. With the boat racing and the clouds rolling and tumbling, I shot the first cast toward her hideout. It hit right at the base of the snag and I retrieved it swiftly, deciding as it neared the boat that I had better change it. I lifted it free of the water, unscathed, and replaced it with the black one Mel had dug out.
“Turning back, looking for the snag once more, I saw we’d drifted out of range already. Something different would have to be tried or we’d be here a long time, averaging one cast per drift.
“Starting the motor, I ran back around the end of the bar to set another drift along the same line. The motor itself could be the problem I realized then, for the screw was not tight enough to hold the lower unit clear of the water, especially as rough as it was. A further consideration of the speed of drift prompted me to decide that the anchor was the only answer as much as I dreaded trying it. I had Art drop it and as it finally caught, I handed him my knife, with instructions to cut the rope if and when I told him. So, with Art hanging onto the bow with one hand, clutching my knife with the other and Mel riveted to his seat in the middle, I hurled the black bucktail toward the snag.
“The hair parted and flared in the air as it settled to the surface, in about the same spot the yellow one had landed before. The result, however, was much different this time. Never will I forget the next twenty minutes!
“No sooner had the tail hit the water, than Big George hit the tail. She was the kind of muskie you dream about, and it was the kind of hit you dream, too. It was equivalent to a surface bait type hit, inasmuch as the tail did not sink at all. There was a tremendous eruption of spray and foam as she nailed it on a swirl, going away. After the boil of the hit there was a hole, a void as it were, where water had been but wasn’t any longer. It was about half the size of a pool tabletop and it remained for far longer than you can imagine, even with the wind blowing it should have closed immediately, but it didn’t. It was unbelievable!
“From the hit, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. It’s hard to explain, but Mel and Art said later that they recalled it the same way. I felt the awesome, solid jolt of the strike and the sheer feeling of power up the line as I set the hooks. It traveled up my arms and across my shoulders and back. After all those practical sessions we’d had, the message was now clear: this time we were playing for keeps: or rather, this time we weren’t playing at all.
“I set the hooks the second time as a matter of formality, as there was no doubt in my mind she was hooked hard from the start. She was in about four feet of water when she hit. I fully expected her to head out to a deeper hole and more room, but she didn’t, she headed straight for the boat.
“I yelled at Art to cut the anchor rope as I frantically picked up slack line. She was plowing along, just under the surface, leaving a wake like an arrowhead which pointed right at me. Her dorsal fin and tail broke water as she neared the boat, some eight yards away. Glancing quickly, I saw that the motor had, as I feared, dropped into the water, that’s where she was headed. Holding the rod high with my right hand, I jerked the lower unit clear just as she slipped under the back corner of the boat on the left side.
“I was conscious of the line literally singing through the water as she came past. The three of us heard it every time she got close to the boat, almost as if it was a sound of protest from the strain, and stress. She remained quite close to the boat the entire time I had her on. Never once did she show any inclination to leave the shallow bar. She was never further away than about ten yards and seldom out of sight under the water.
“The line of least resistance for her was downwind, toward deep water, which lay a scant twenty yards distant. Had she chosen it she would have been in a depth of thirty-five feet, but she never once swung to the downwind side of the boat.
“Four times in all I worked her in alongside the boat only to have her spook and make a short run away. The effortless way she’d run was breathtaking. With a seemingly gentle stroke of that broom sized tail, she’d rip line off the reel as though there were nothing attached at all. My thumb would smart as I’d attempt to snub her down. There was no way.
“After gaining that few yards ‘breathing room she liked to maintain, she’d lay near the surface sweeping that tail back and forth as she faced away from us”…,
“With the weight of the fish, the pitching boat, and a motor that refused to stay put, I had my hands full. My arms began to suffer a burning sensation and felt leaden. I began to give thought to the gaffing process and knew it was going to be a sticky thing at best. I had visions of trying to hold her up with one hand while wielding the gaff with the other as she made a move at the motor: it made me shudder just to think of it.
“I made a decision. Mel would have to handle the gaff. I didn’t really like the idea, but it seemed to be the thing that made the most sense. He had watched me gaff some nice fish over the past four days, so that was the way it would be. To refresh his memory under pressure, I explained where I wanted him to hit her and that I didn’t want him to worry about hitting her too hard: just a good, solid. sharp rap would do it.
“She was really showing signs of fatigue by that time, so I told Mel to get set and we’d give her a try. He picked up the gaff and knelt in the bottom of the boat as I started applying additional pressure. Three different times she had thrashed about on the surface, shaking her head from side to side in an effort to throw the tail. Not once had she shown any inclination to jump if, indeed, she could have.
“The last two times I brought her to the boat she came, head on, mouth wide open with the great gills flared and working. It looked roomy enough down the gullet to allow a man’s head inside without danger of scraping his ears on either side. We could clearly see the bucktail on those occasions. It was buried through the gill plate on her right side. One hook of the front treble was past the barb, and two on the trailer. In short, other than breaking the line, she never had a chance.
“Her coloration, compared to the majority of muskies taken from this body of water, was extremely brownish in tint, rather than the dark emerald shades of green we’re used to. Then. too, the color covered more of her body toward the belly than occurs on younger, smaller fish: much less white on the underside.
“Mel readied himself as I brought her closer. She was rolling partially over onto one side by then, her gills snapping in a final effort to gain strength. It was futile; however, at that point it was as good as over”…
“Coaxing her gently, I pulled her head toward the transom end of the boat, positioning her broadside. She slid along the surface easily, all fight gone. As she drew even with Mel, he raised the gaff and I immediately realized the mistake I’d made, but, too late. Mel’s left-handed!
“I had been so careful, done everything at a snail’s pace to eliminate the chance of something like this happening and even then, I blew it. The only possible way he could have hit her first without hitting the line was to have swung the gaff backhanded. Under the circumstances, it was not his responsibility to think of it, it was mine. I blew it.
“As he swung the gaff, the boat rose on a swell with the gunnel rising between Mel and the muskie. The handle of the gaff made contact with the boat just prior to reaching the line or the fish. The result was the wooden handle splintered but did not break in half. The hook portion sliced cleanly through the cable leader as if one had cut it with a knife. Though the lower part of the gaff made contact with the skull, a considerable amount of impetus was spent. The blow did little, if any damage physically other than to stun her momentarily.
“After the leader parted, she lay awash on the surface, rolling over then on her left side. I shouted at Mel to gaff her. hoping he’d be able to at least get the hook into her, giving some chance. He was so shocked at the fact that she was free that my words did not register at all. I yelled a second time as I made a lunge for the side of the boat in an attempt to grab her with my hands, but I couldn’t reach her.
“We drifted quickly away then, but she remained on top and unmoving, simply floating on her side. I threw the rod down and started the motor, spun the boat into the wind and went back. She was still atop the water, making no effort to swim, but as the boat neared her, she began to stir. Mel was crouched over the side with the splintered gaff at the ready as we closed on her. We were within a few scant yards of her when she at last spooked and went under. We could see her as we went over her, but Mel was unable to reach her with the gaff.
“I kept circling the area in hopes she’d show again, which at last she did, but it didn’t help us. She made one attempt to jump and throw the tail, but it was a puny effort.
“I never saw her again. No one ever saw her again. I checked the area every day for about three weeks to no avail. There’s an old adage which says it all. “I won the battle, but I lost the war!”
“The shame of it is the waste, not the fact that I lost her. Had she merely thrown the tail and gotten off; it wouldn’t have bothered me very long. I’d have taken up the chase once again, as before. However, hooked as she was, showing blood from the gills when last we saw her, there’s no doubt in my mind she died. With the wound and exhaustion, she probably went very quickly, but it’s little consolation. She suffered more than was her due; she deserved better.
“The way it ended took something out of muskie fishing for me. A touch of something special that used to be there but isn’t any more; and never will be…”…”But, I’ll have to add, there was only one “Big George!”
And so, the Legend of Big George and Big George’s Bar were born!
The 3rd Legendary Flambeau Hotspot will appear in a later Part.
I am sure that there are many other Hotspots that I am not aware of even though I have fished muskies in 23 states and 2 provinces of Canada over the past 65 years. Any reader who knows of one or more Legendary or famous Hotspots, please let me know with a write-up of same and supporting photos if available and I will include them in a follow-up article(s).
Send it to me at: [email protected]