When it comes
to muskie fishing, the greatest moments often happen at the most unexpected times. My brother and I hadn’t seen much
of each other in the past five years, so it was hard to believe our spur-of-the moment trip to Leech Lake in Minnesota was
actually taking place. Yet, here we were, speeding toward the rice bed and getting ready to troll for the big one.
really didn’t have any hope or intention of landing a big one. Our plan was to get away for an hour or so, just the
two of us, and drag a huge lure around. The idea behind using such oversized lures was to avoid the annoyance of landing hammerhandle
pike and other small fish. We wanted only to troll around leisurely, enjoy the day and solve the problems of the world.
we drifted with the wind, Larry proudly pulled out a shiny new Mepps spinner that made my beat-up Red-Eye spoon look like
the old relic it was. (I once had a man offer me twenty bucks for that ancient spoon. Naturally, I refused.) Larry allowed
me to run one finger down the shiny silver blade and gently flick the red and white bucktail before he tied it to his line.
At the time, he commented on how he hadn’t bothered to change the 10-pound test to anything heavier.
was still trying the Red-Eye when Larry flipped his Mepps out over his head and set the outboard on trolling speed. Just as
I was ready to cast, Larry lunged forward past the walk-through windshield. I barely glanced his way, figuring he was up to
his old tricks. He had a habit of feigning struggles and shouting, “It’s the big one!”
time this happened, I would rush to the side of the boat with a net, only to see his pole bent double and his line taut, trailing
a giant ‘lunker’ of moss. I wasn’t about to be fooled this time. I ignored him.
little brother, this is it! This is the big one,” Larry yelled.
yeah,” I mumbled. But when I saw his face, I thought I’d better give a casual glance over my right shoulder.
the middle of the v-shaped wake, I saw a giant tail roll over as we slowly turned broadside. The fish made a run straight
at the port side of the boat and didn’t hesitate but went right on under. Larry clambered around the front of the boat
in an attempt to get to the starboard side without losing the fish.
gigantic muskie exploded out of the water, tail-walking and shaking his mighty head in fury. He jerked the rod right out of
Larry’s hand bouncing it off the side of the boat where it lodged between the driver’s seat and the deck. Astounded,
my brother frantically scrambled for the rod, all the time hearing the whine of the drag as the line fed out over the rail.
he retrieved his gear, he screamed at me in a voice I hardly recognized. “Get the net! Get the net!”
net? Normally a standard piece of equipment, it was nowhere to be found. I scrabbled around trying to find it and finally
gave up. At this point, realizing we were still under power, I shut off the motor before we ripped the spinner right out of
the fish’s mouth.
I glanced at Larry and caught his shocked expression.
His mouth was open, his eyes were wide, and his hands shook under the strain of trying to control the rod. It arched above
the water, vibrating madly. I knew that every bit of instruction our dad had given us over the years about fishing was running
through Larry’s head. We’d spent much of our youth happily following Dad around to various fishing holes, and
some of our fondest memories had to do with Dad and the outdoors. We both knew he would’ve given his right arm for an
opportunity like this.
His death a few years earlier had taken much of the joy out of the sport for my brother
and I, but somehow, I knew his spirit was nearby coaching Larry on ho w to land the big one.
a thirty-minute battle, during which Larry zealously protected the 10-pound line, the muskie began to lose ground. Carefully,
Larry nursed him toward the boat. We both gazed over the bow in awe at the monster fish floating near the surface.
He was light gray-green with pink sides and scales as big as quarters. His gills flapped in exhaustion as hi mouth
opened and closed rhythmically. The one eye in view stared at us.
Larry gulped, looked at me and whispered,
“I thought it was a friggin’ snag. I really did!”
a gaff under the front seat,” Larry said, still whispering. “Get it.”
I quietly moved back,
not wanting to take my eyes off that incredible fish, and felt around under the cushions for his gaff. When my hands closed
over a small hook about the size of a large darning needle, I could not believe it. This flimsy piece of plastic and metal
was what he’d called a gaff?
I found out later he’d purchased the trinket because it matched the color of his
Larry actually expected me to stick my hand over the side of the boat and whip that ‘gaff’
into a monster fish. I held the blue plastic handle up between thumb and forefinger like a woman holding a dead mouse by the
tail. Two pairs of eyes glanced from gaff to fish to each other.
Larry choked a little. “C’mon,
little brother, you can do it. Just get the fish, that’s all that’s important!”
I tried. I
leaned over the bow, stretching and straining with all my strength and caught the muskie under the belly. It snared one scale
and cut a slight scratch up his white underside. It also woke him up. As I peered over the side, he dove under the water.
His big tail flipped foam at us.
Stunned, Larry watched anxiously as the whining drag gradually slowed. I couldn’t
believe I was dumb enough to try to snag the fish in the belly. I should’ve known better. I ran nervous fingers through
my hair, standing it on end. My brother later said I looked like a lone rooster surrounded by a hundred hens. He didn’t
look much better, though. He also didn’t have to live with the fact that he’d lost his only brother the once-in-a-lifetime
chance to take home a trophy muskie.
An air of resignation passed between us, but the situation had its bright side. We’d
had an experience not many brothers ever have the opportunity to share. We had tried and failed but we still retained the
camaraderie and closeness of the moment.
We would both treasure it, quietly, and remember it in the future when we got
together and swapped fish stories.
The line was slack, lying limply in the water. Larry reeled in, grinning sheepishly
over the loss. He tried to tell me not to feel too badly. He felt richer for the moment ever happening, and he said so. But
I could see the misty, faraway look in his eyes. I knew the pride he would’ve felt at bringing home such a fish, and
it made the loss more acute. I turned away, trying to swallow the lump forming in my throat, when I hear him shout.
“Holy cow!” Larry yelled. “It’s a whole new ballgame, little brother!”
I whirled around to see what he was yelling about. The line was taut once more. The huge fish was still on! I felt
a steely determination rising in me to snag that fish one way or another. If I had to dive over the side and tackle it with
my bare hands, Larry was going to take that fish home.
The muskie lurched against the boat, trying desperately
to dive beneath it. If he made it, he could easily snap the fragile line. I had no doubt he’d vexed plenty of other
men with the same trick, and it looked like he might get the job done again if I didn’t move fast.
How that 10-pound
test line held, I’ll never know. But hold it did, long enough for me to wrap the leather thong attached to the gaff
around my left wrist. I gripped it until my knuckles turned white, waiting for the right moment. Larry was busy with the star
drag, fighting against the great strength of the muskie. Only an occasional groan passed his lips as he held on for dear life.
Without being totally conscious of my movements, I leaned way out over the edge, grabbing the bow rail with my right
hand, and took one swift stab. It caught under the muskie’s open mouth and held. With one jerk, I hit Larry right in
the mouth with approximately forty pounds of we fish. It slammed across him, knocking him to his knees. The next few moments
were filled with flailing, dry-docked muskie.
He bucked up and down like a bronco, pounding his tail
into everything in its path. Both of us were wet from head to toe, but it didn’t matter. All we wanted to do was keep
that baby in the bottom of the boat.
Larry rolled on the floor, trying to hang onto the slick scales with all his might.
It seemed the fish was almost as long as Larry was tall, and looking back, I would pay any amount of money to have captured
the live action on film.
“Sit on it, little brother, sit on it!” Larry panted, sheer panic in his
I guess he figured my athletic background included fish wrestling. It didn’t, but what the
heck? It looked like the darn thing might be getting the best of him, so I leaped into the middle of the fracas and straddled
the muskie. After a brief struggle, I pinned him to the floor with my best wrestler’s grip.
not sure who was gasping harder - Larry, me, or the fish. We were all three weak from the effort and the muskie was showing
signs of defeat. His thrashing began to slow.
Larry wrapped both arms around me from behind and hugged
me joyfully. “We did it, little brother!”
Those were the only words spoken for several minutes.
We sat and stared at the magnificent creature, both feeling the stab of guilt for taking it from its natural habitat.
Would the taking of this life for mere pleasure and a trophy on the wall be right? We could hardly equate this fish
with smaller bass, crappie and other odds and ends we normally caught. But our muskie (thus his proper name R. Muskie) was
such a huge fish that we wavered.
We considered turning him loose and allowing him to return to the dark depths of the
lake where he belonged.
“No,” Larry said finally. “Someone else would catch him. Or worse,
he’d die of old age and rot on the bottom of this lake.” He made a face at the thought. “He’s a heckuva
fighter, a champion. He deserves better. This way, he’ll live in our memories and on my wall, and on the kid’s
wall and on and on.” Larry’s face brightened as he managed to convince us both that this was the best way.
The moment of sadness passed with one last, barely audible comment. “This one, little brother, is for Dad.”
We started up the motor and headed for shore, honking and screaming and waving. By the time we’d covered the
quarter mile to the harbor, a crowd of at least fifty people had raced from their cabins and gathered on the docks of Battle
Our mom yipped with delight and the rest of the people oohed and aahed. Word travels fast around
Leech Lake, and it wasn’t long before other members of our families sped over from Point View Lodge, dragging cameras
and shouting praises.
If they only knew.
Larry was so concerned with the care of R. Muskie
that he actually wanted to trailer the boat with the fish still inside. He didn’t trust the big rope stringer. But I
quickly grabbed the stringer and whisked R. Muskie safely to shore. After forty-five minutes of photos, we wrapped him in
wet towels and took him to Longville for official weighing.
He’d lost some water weight but still tipped
the scales at just a shade less than 40 pounds, measuring 51 1/2 inches in length and 24 ½ inches in girth.
Last August was the tenth anniversary for R. Muskie and the Bryant family. One tends to wonder what would have become
of that muskie if we’d stayed home that day and if things hadn’t come together as they did. The only thing I can
be sure of is that my brother and I shared a very special moment that summer.
Since R. Muskie entered our lives,
it seems that Larry and I make an effort to see more of each other. Funny to think a slimy old fish could rekindle our friendship,
love and brotherhood.
And now, years later, when on occasion the two of us are sunk deep into the leather
upholstery in Larry’s living room, we invariably turn our gazes up to that magnificent fish. R. Muskie arches across
the wall, teeth flashing, with the original spinner streaming from his jaw. One large scale is missing, a scar runs up his
side and the baleful glare is intact.
Larry’s eyes always regain the sparkle of a decade ago. “Little brother,
do you remember when we…”
And I always do.