“Am I hooked up?” I ask Joe Shead as my retrieve angles in awkwardly.
It’s a strange question to ask while muskie fishing. During a typical muskie fishing trip, hooking a fish would leave no doubt. A violent strike would start a short and vigorous battle that’s likely to include drag pulling runs, leaps and violent headshakes at the side of the boat. But this is no typical muskie fishing trip. Joe and I are working rock piles and vegetation patches on one of Minnesota’s arrowhead lakes known for having abundant Shoepack strain muskies.
At the side of the boat I spot a streak of white belly and brown spots hidden in a tangle of coontail. A young muskie has ambitiously attacked a brown bucktail and managed to find the trailing hook. We bring the 2-foot specimen aboard, toss the mat of plants overboard, and release the fierce firebrand after snapping a quick picture. Such diminutive size is rare when angling for muskies, and catching such a young fish in a jumble of plants explains the lack of fight when the fish was brought in. Small or not, it is still a muskellunge, the fish of 10,000 casts.
Minnesota’s stocked muskie lakes receive Leech Lake strain fish, which in terms of genetic performance variables of growth and maximum size, is the top performing strain known to fisheries managers and fish geneticists. But during the period of time from 1953 until sometime in the 1980s, muskellunge were stocked far and wide in the state with the progeny from Shoepack Lake, a small, remote lake in Voyageur’s National Park.
Shoepack Lake’s geographic isolation kept its muskellunge largely unmolested by anglers, and its watershed confinement kept the muskie population genetically isolated. The unique strain of muskellunge in Shoepack Lake became characterized by slow growth and small sizes, but the corresponding native population of muskies in Shoepack harbors higher fish densities than other strains.
In a few examples, Shoepack-strain muskies were stocked into lakes where they naturalized, creating a self-sustaining population of small but abundant muskies. These lakes are a contradiction to the present status of muskellunge management in Minnesota — where muskies are managed in low densities to attain fast growth and leviathan proportions.
Back at the lake, Joe and I motor around for the evening, casting and conversing as we go. Joe is an outdoorsman Jack-of-all-trades with a fetish for muskies. He calls out our follows — the number of muskies we observe trailing our lures as we retrieve them back to the boat. Joe’s worst day on the lake was a hearty 16 follows and one fish boated. My best day ever muskie fishing before this day was three follows and one fish boated.
Action is fast in the first few hours as we quickly hit double figures in follows. After each of us boat a fish, the sun slips behind a line of clouds pushing over the horizon. With the sun’s rays muted, our polarized sunglasses are rendered ineffective, spotting follows becomes more difficult, and the fish seemingly disappear. We see a few more fish before being treated to a brilliantly colored sunset and a nasty invasion of mosquitoes.
The final count: 20 follows and two fish boated. We coax the fish with brown bucktails but do generate some action with other colors and even a couple boils on topwater prop baits. The lake has been impressive — a great place to beat a muskie slump (my excuse), a nice place to get a youngster hooked on muskies, or a great choice for a spot to land your first muskie on a fly.
A return trip is in order as I build on my next slump. Muskies are the fish of 10,000 casts, but this Shoepack strain lake helps cut that number down to size.