World-Famous or Legendary Muskie “Hotspots” – Part XI
May 13th, 2021 by Keith Worrall
Modified May 13th, 2021 at 10:51 AM
World-Famous or Legendary Muskie “Hotspots” – Part XI
by Larry Ramsell, Muskellunge Historian
Had a request, and since actual “hotspots” have been growing dim, I’ll honor a request and discuss a lake that created a furor in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s and beyond. We are going to be talking about Giant muskie catches from “The Goon”, aka Wabigoon Lake in Northwestern Ontario, Canada, near Dryden.
Wabigoon Lake, Ontario.
While “The Goon” has always had big muskies, it was a relative “unknown” for a few reasons. First off, it was overshadowed by its neighbor lake to the west, Eagle Lake, which produced a world and two Canadian records in 1939 and 1940. Also, depending on the wind direction, the “smell” from the local wood industry and the light chocolate milk color of the water seemed to turn folks off; that is until Craig Dawson put “The Goon” on the map with several giant muskies from there, practically dominating the Annual Molson Fishing Contest for three years. As for the watercolor, while it appears to be polluted, it is merely a result of wind eroding the clay banks that surround the lake and suspending that clay in the water column. I recall the first time I ever saw the water there. I had walked down to the dock at a resort and noticed that I couldn’t even see the prop of a white motor on the back of a boat! However, to those in the know, this anomaly aids in angling success, as the muskies there, when shallow, are really shallow! The suspended clay particles prevent deep light penetration and the muskie cabbage weeds as a result, don’t grow in very deep water and the muskies love the cabbage. Also, the particulates apparently increase electrical conductivity as well, as it was twice as strong as nearby Eagle Lake, as I discovered while radio tracking the muskies there as part of Dr. Bernard Lebeau’s Doctoral Thesis study of Wabigoon and Eagle lakes in the mid ‘80’s. The lake is extremely fertile!
During 1979-1980-1981, Muskie angler and resort operator Craig Dawson intentionally brought a ton of attention to the availability of giant muskies in “The Goon” to try and save his folk’s resort. While it is unfortunate that a huge fish found dead on Wabigoon Lake in 1994, which will be discussed later wasn’t caught by an angler, many others, albeit somewhat lesser size ones, were. In 1979 in the Canadian Molson fishing contest two names appeared that were to have a monumental and lasting effect on muskie fishing in northwestern Ontario. Those names were Craig Dawson and Wabigoon Lake. In that 1979 Molson contest Mr. Dawson entered fish weighing 44-4 and 43-8. This was but a small part of what was to come. In 1980 he made it clear that 1979 was no fluke when he took 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 9th places in the Molson contest with fish weighing 49-7, 47-15, 46-10 and 43-2 all from Wabigoon Lake. In addition to the four Dawson fish two of the others of the top ten also came from Wabigoon that year! Six of the top ten from all of Canada!
In 1981 a series of events took place that were to muddy the waters and causing hard feelings which ultimately came to an end with the death of Mr. Dawson when he committed suicide. In October of 1981 Gary Ishii caught and entered a 55-pound muskie from the Moon River of Georgian Bay in the Molson Contest. It was the largest ever entered in the history of the contest. Shortly thereafter came a late entry from Craig Dawson even though the fish had supposedly been caught in July, who also entered a 55-pounder that was said to be 56 ¾-inches long (with a 26 ¾- inch girth). He was awarded 1st place since his muskie was 1 ¾-inches longer than that of Mr. Ishii’s. This decision had been made after Dawson’s death. But was it the correct decision?
Let’s review the facts, as I was able to piece them together.
1.) Dawson’s fish was supposedly caught in July, but …”it was not entered in the Molson contest until late October”.
2.) The Dawson fish was …”weighed on uncertified bathroom scales in the boat”.
Dawson’s “55-pound (?)” released giant.
3.) In the photo of Dawson holding the fish the fish is being held up by a hand-spring scale in a boat. Why is this if it was supposedly weighed on a bathroom scale in a boat? Perhaps two scales were used.
4.) The scales …”were later checked but not certified and supposedly found to be weighing three pounds “light”.
5.) If the scales weighed three pounds light why weren’t the three pounds added to the original weight? Or was it??
6.) When the supposed weight is checked by the “Standard Formula” (girth x girth x length divided by 800) it came to 50.76 pounds. Remember, this was a post-spawn July fish not a late fall fish that was building egg mass as Ishii’s would have been.
NOTE: Based on my new 2019 formula for muskies over 50 pounds (L X G/25 -8), developed from actual measured and weighed muskies in this weight category (for fish under 50-pounds, the subtraction is -10), Mr. Dawson’s fish calculates to 52.72 pounds.
7.) One of North America’s top muskie anglers was told by Dawson that …”the fish had weighed 54 pounds and that he wanted to get one more than just a few ounces bigger than his 1980 fish”.
8.) As Dawson was, as I was told, …”being watched by conservation officers and other resorters during the season”… is it possible that he did indeed catch a huge muskie but that it was before season and therefore had to be released?
9.) Additionally, it was reported that …”Craig was trying to save his resort from being foreclosed and he wanted to convince the world he was the ‘top’ muskie guide”… and therefore it is not likely he would have released a 55-pounder had it been legitimately caught during season.
10.) A conservation officer said he …”saw Dawson’s fish in a freezer and had no doubt as to its size”. Was it the 1980 fish that he saw? How could he have seen the 1981 fish in a freezer if it had been released? Simple error of confusion.
So to my way of thinking as former World Record secretary for the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and later Fish Historian and Record Adviser for the Hall, a 16-year Representative of the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) and current Chairman of the International Modern Day Muskellunge Records Program I concluded that Dawson’s fish, while possibly legitimate as there is no doubt from the photo that it was huge and the fact that Mr. Dawson’s past achievements were many, it should not have been accepted in the Molson contest. It was just too questionable and unfair to Mr. Ishii. It is for these reasons that it will not be found in my “50-pound club” listing in Chapter Three of my 2007, “Compendium of Muskie Angling History”, 3rd Edition, Volume II.
Things continued Hot for “The Goon” in 1982, as Don Reed caught another Wabigoon Lake produced muskie over 50-pounds at 51-pounds 8-ounces.
In early August or 1982, my good friend the late Bill Meyers of Eagle River, Ontario sent me a picture from the Dryden Observer. The picture was of Don Reed with a huge muskie captioned in the photo to have weighed 49-pounds caught from Wabigoon Lake, Ontario. Later that year I had the opportunity to talk to a local game warden Dick DeGroot about this fish. He told me that Mr. Reed had trouble finding a good scale to weigh the fish (a common theme!). One scale had indicated it to be over 50-pounds. When the Molson Contest winners were announced for 1982, Don Reed had 1st place with a 51-pound 8-ounce muskie and another 1st place for “The Goon”.
I asked my cousin Rod Ramsell to follow-up since Mr. Reed was a Minnesotan near him. I was curious about the about the weight differences between the newspaper photo caption and the contest. When Rod was finally able to contact Mr. Reed
he learned that the “official” weight of 51-pounds 8-ounces was obtained from a certified scale at the Dryden Airport. He promised to send the story and another photograph. Here then is that story as told by Don Reed.
It was Friday, July 23rd, 1982, the last day of our annual week-long vacation to Wabigoon Lake, in Ontario. We arose that morning to an overcast, windy, and cool day. The eight of us (4 couples) had a late breakfast in the cabin next door, generally grumbling about the muskie fishing, or lack thereof. It had been the worst year we had experienced thus far. Oh,
The Dryden paper photo courtesy Bill Meyers
we had raised a few but had only managed to boat one. That being an approximate 40 pounder, taken and released by my brother-in-law. He mounted a 35 pounder the year before and vowed he will not mount another unless it is at least 10 pounds heavier.
As we prepared for another day of futility, we agreed to quit fishing at 2:00 p.m., come back to the cabin and pack for the trip home. We immediately headed for the west end of the lake, to Contact Bay. An hour-long trip in the moderately heavy waters. It was the first time we had ever fished this particular bay, so it took a little while to locate some “muskie country.”
We found a few interesting coves filled with cabbage weed and managed to pick up a couple of northerns 6 and 7 pounds. As we rounded a point and into another cove, I looked over the weed bed and thought to myself, “no man has ever set foot here but me.” Obviously, an impossibility, but it was just that secluded and gave the air that there had to be nothing but “lunkers” living here.
Well, my wife’s first cast with her black bucktail proved me right. A 20-pound class northern battled her right up to the boat, but he had other ideas about actually being landed. “*@&#” I said. That would have been the biggest northern of the trip. In the next 20 minutes she lost 2 more that would’ve adorned the wall in many a northern fisherman’s homes. I couldn’t buy a strike. We took 4 or 5 more passes through the weed bed, but with absolutely no luck.
By now it was approaching our pre-arranged deadline, so I suggested we wrap it up and head down to the other end of the bay to get one of the other couples and head for the cabin. When we found them, we sat on an island, devoured a couple of sandwiches, and told them of our “God’s Country” weed bed.
We cranked up the motors and headed for the cabin, but on the way, I got a hold of my buddy on the CB radio and suggested we swing into that cove so he’d know where it was next year. As I stood pointing out the area where my wife lost the three northerns, I couldn’t resist the lure (a Lindy Musky Tandem) and gave it one final fling. The lure landed about 15 feet from shore in 3 feet of water. My retrieve was abruptly halted by a huge fish.
Fifty-one and a half pounds of the darndest fury I ever saw tail walked across the surface and then headed directly under the boat for deep water.
I was able to stop him but he wouldn’t turn. As I kept a tight line on him, I noticed he was actually pulling the boat. Then he surfaced again and came entirely out of the water. It was at this point I could see that all that was between capture and his freedom was the single trailing hook on the back of the lure. Now he headed for the weeds again and became tangled in what seemed like a ton of them. I couldn’t budge the line as I watched the fish float to the surface about 25 feet away. I began a sawing motion with the line until I was freed from the weeds and led him gently to the boat. He was tuckered out he came to life and straightened out the hook and spit it out just as I “dropped” him into the net. My wife screamed that she couldn’t lift it, so I threw down my rod and grabbed both sides of the hoop and dumped him in the boat. I trembled for about
Reed’s 51 ½-pound “Fury”. Photo courtesy Don Reed.
20 minutes and realized that I might possibly have caught a contest winner. How’s that for an “actual” last cast of the trip?
…I would like to point out that that fish was meant to be caught, because I went up there 2 weeks later and using the
Don is all smiles with his “contest winner”. Photo courtesy Don Reed.
very same lure, I lost the first fish that hit it. A 10 pounder broke it in half. As you view the photo bear in mind that I am 6’3” and weigh 242 pounds. The muskies dimensions were 55 ½ half inches to the fork, 57 ¾ overall and 27 ¾ in girth. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources reported the age to be 24 years.
Thank you for your interest in my fish. It’s one fish story I’ll never forget; with any luck maybe, I can tell you another one next year.
Sincerely, Don Reed.
While the following doesn’t “specifically” refer to Wabigoon Lake, “The Goon” is likely included as it lies within a truly short distance from the Ministry Offices in Dryden. It is a note on fisheries officials shocking big muskies. In a 1989 letter I received from Len Hartman, he related correspondence that he had had with the Ministry of Natural Resources in Dryden, Ontario that contained the following quote.
“We have studies each year on the best producing waters of big muskie. We cannot release our studies to the public and the locations of the studies. I can pass along this information. In our studies in several lakes, we have stunned muskies in the world record class. I cannot give weights because we cannot weigh them because of certain death. However, we do take length measurements where possible and have measured muskies between 60 and 68 inches.”!
As for Wabigoon Lake, it poured out the big muskies in 1981, with seven others over 40 pounds known being taken in addition to the Dawson 55-pound fish, finishing with eight of the top 12 in the Molson Contest. Wabigoon reached its zenith in 1982, when Don Reed registered his 51-pound 8-ounce monster from there, the largest ever verified. After 1982, I have record of only one additional muskie from Wabigoon Lake that exceeded 40 pounds before the Molson contest was discontinued. The lake was descended upon by hordes of muskie anglers and they literally cleaned it out of easy trophy fish that were kept and the lake was subsequently closed to all but release only muskie fishing for the next several years.
In 1985, (now Dr.) Bernard Lebeau began the fieldwork for his doctoral thesis under the guidance of his Professor at the University of Toronto, then Curator of the Royal Ontario Museum and renowned world muskellunge authority, the late Dr. Ed Crossman. This work was funded for the most part by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, with help from Muskie’s, Inc. Chapters purchasing over $5,000.00 worth of transmitters, and served to do much needed research work on Wabigoon and Eagle Lakes. I bring this forth because during the spring netting work on Wabigoon Lake Bernard captured in one of his nets, a muskellunge of mammoth and possible world record proportions!
The Holidayer news covered this event on August 2, 1985 in an article by Jim Poling Jr. entitled “Research aims to help muskie’s future”. In that article was a photograph of Bernard and his assistant Marko, pulling a net that contained the huge fish. That photo caption stated “HUSKY HAUL” – Bernard Lebeau (right) and a fellow biologist haul in a seine net (actually a trap net) with a monster muskie trapped inside”…
5-foot giant-headed monster. Photo courtesy Dr. Bernard Lebeau.
When I worked with Bernard during the 1986 field season, he shared the photograph with me along with the story.
“When we removed the giant muskellunge from the net, I took a hold of the head and Marko grabbed a hold of the body. My arm could not reach all the way around the fish’s head! At that point, the muskellunge started snapping its massive jaws and I released my hold. Marko tried to hold on, and actually fell out of the boat onto the top of the net trying to maintain control of the fish, but the fish was just too strong and pulled away from him and escaped to freedom!”
It was disappointing that they were unable to complete the mission of implanting a transmitter into that likely record class muskie! What a treat it would have been to include the tracking of it during my duties during the 1986 season and what valuable information that could have provided for spawning research and anglers as well!!
Two years later after Ken O’Brien had taken a 65-pound muskie from the Moon River in 1988, and Bernard had the opportunity to examine it personally, he told me “Larry, I hate to tell you this, but the Wabigoon fish was much larger!”
I too felt that the Wabigoon fish was larger knowing the size of the nets used. My best estimate of length was more than 5 feet and potentially a world record class fish!
Wabigoon was later re-opened with a 52-inch size limit on muskies, which was then raised to 54 inches. That has had a profound affect as witnessed by a huge 56.5-inch release there more recently by Steve Worrall, Guru of this website.
Steve’s story: Back in the 70s and 80s I was traveling NW Ontario searching for a ‘bucket list’ muskie. I somehow set my goal at 45 pounds and hoped to break 50. These days weight is irrelevant for the most part, and had it been that way back then I would have been shooting for a well girthed out 55.
I had been fishing Minaki and many other areas of LOTW (Lake of the Woods) and had a few low 50s in the boat when a big fish came into my friend’s taxidermy shop in Boulder Junction, WI. She was in the middle 50s and was a spotted fish, which commanded attention back then. After a little investigation, we found out it had been caught from Wabigoon Lake, and we also learned a friend had been up there and did well. We planned a trip up there instead of Minaki the next Summer.
We stayed at Merkel’s Camp On Wabigoon (https://www.merkelscamp.com/ ) on the East end but launched at the Government Dock on the West end. I was amazed at the watercolor when we arrived to launch and was a bit skeptical at first; ‘the Wabigoon’ looked more like the Big Muddy portion of the Mississippi River than a typical NW Ontario flowage. The watercolor comes from the clay basin and shorelines of what then was a fairly new reservoir. Islands I fished around in the early 80s are now washed completely away, yet still exist according to some topo maps. One literally could not see 6” under the surface. There were floating logs everywhere, part of the timber harvesting process back then for the Dryden paper mill, including ‘rafts’ of logs in areas, which were moved into the river by tugboat like crafts.
On my second cast off Anderson Island I caught my first Wabigoon ‘spot’ and was hooked for good. I returned the next year with a friend and began learning the system. Impressive does not describe it. We raised and caught numerous muskies in the middle to upper 40” range and saw several that probably topped 50. It was not just the length; it was the build of those fish that impressed. They held a consistently amazing girth all the way to the tail. I returned every year for 30 years plus.
On Labor Day weekend in the middle 1990’s, my son Keith and I were headed up the see Herbie at Andy Myers Lodge on Eagle Lake, but he was too busy to fish, so we went back to the “Goon”. I had lost a fish I was sure was ‘The One’ over the 4th of July week on the West end off Claybanks with Keith, so
Claybanks Marina, Dryden. Worrall photo.
we fished our way to that water putting 3 big muskies and numerous big pike in the boat. As we approached the area, I put a BIG bucktail Keith had built for me at the reed edge where I had hooked her before, and as soon as I began reeling the water bulged up in a giant wake all the way to the boat. She sort of went around 4 times on the 8, too big to follow so just going under the boat and coming back out. On the 5th time out, she blasted the bucktail, went skyward, and ripped off a dozen yards of line. She then charged the boat, ripped off another few yards, and went airborne behind me on the other side of the boat. After an epic battle she came to the side of the boat and I tried to hand land her. BAD mistake, she had me for lunch and off we went again. I was going to try again, and my son smacked me on the back of the head and proclaimed I should ‘get out of the way’, he was netting that %#$^&* fish as it was the biggest muskie he had ever seen. He did just that.
A couple of quick images with a preloaded film camera later, we returned her to the water without putting her on the floor at all and Keith measured her with a floating ruler as I held the zero on her shovel shaped nose. She was a clean 56.5” (Keith insists she was longer) and a couple slices of line amidships on her gave us a girth of over 26.5” (Editor Note: Based on my new formula, at the measurements given, she calculates out to 52.89 pounds [52-pounds 14 ¼ -ounces]…more if Keith was right!).
A much younger Steve with his “Goon” Giant. Photo by Worrall.
I noticed after she swam off my thumb was bleeding like mad, and sure enough, there was a tooth all the way through it. After some uncomfortable maneuvering, we got that thing out of my thumb and slapped some gauze and tape on the wound.
That tooth spent well over a decade under the glass on Hannah Northcott’s counter at Claybanks Marina. I still miss that little cigarette puffing delightful lady, she adopted my sons the minute she was introduced, and it was a ritual to visit Claybanks for a candy bar or ice cream every single day we were on the “Goon”. We will be back as soon as the border opens.”
Hannah and Trevor Northcott, owners Claybanks Marina.
Throughout my “Compendium” were several references to huge muskies found dead. Well, here comes yet another from the early 1990’s thanks to Brian Karau and Steve Katke. It seems that …”a huge dead musky washed up on the shore of Wabigoon Lake at Dryden, Ontario, and was found by some kids. They went to the bait shop and told the “old folks” about it but were ignored for several days. When they persisted, the “old folks” finally went to look. What they found was a decomposing and gull-picked monster of a musky which they measured at 64 inches long! It was too far gone to save, but they did salvage the jawbone from the fish which was put on display in the bait shop”… (which is no longer there).
Wabigoon Jaws thanks to Steve and Brian.
Brian and Steve about came unglued when they saw it and after contacting me made it a point to measure it and get a photo of it the next time they were there. After measuring the jaw spread, they, for comparison, …”measured the jaw spread of a mounted 50-plus-pounder whose jaw spread was 5 7/16ths of an inch”. The Wabigoon jaw dwarfed it by several inches! At …9 ¼ inches wide it could have made some of the largest of muskie lures disappear! It was rumored that …”an angler had hooked and lost a huge muskie just a couple of days before this one was found dead”. Same fish? Sad if it was…for him!
Well, “That’s All Folks”. Since nary a single angler, not asked (and several who were), has come forward with a new “Hotspot” to share, we will end it here!…Almost.
Before we truly end it, I would like to share a new “old” photograph with you from Lake Chautauqua, NY that appeared on a post card postmarked 1919 from my collection. I hope you
have enjoyed the series; I know I have enjoyed putting it all together.
Best Muskie Wishes…Larry.