The Muskie King

The Muskie King

By T. J. McFadden

When nearly four feet of spotted green scales and teeth took my fish, a dull morning got exciting really fast. The air around the pond was still and hot, the reflections in the water quivering as my slack line vanished under the water. Then the slack ran out. The full weight of that angry fish hit my line and the reel screamed as line was torn off it.

I had a chance to dethrone a King.

The Muskie King

My Dad’s a writer. You probably don’t know his name, but I’ll bet you’ve read his books. He’s written all kinds of fiction under a dozen names- cowboy and detective novels, movie novelizations, action book series, whatever he could sell. He’s had two great passions in his life, writing and the outdoors and he told me once he always intended to make one pay for the other.

He bought 300 acres in southern Ohio before I was born, back when land was cheap. A screenplay paid for that. Then he plowed all the money from his writing into turning it into an outdoorsmans’ heaven. He built his dreamhouse in the middle of a grove of Black Walnut trees and called it Blackwoods. He planted trees for timber and to feed game- white oak, chinese chestnut, walnut, hickory, black cherry. He took a spring and an old stone quarry and turned it into the only trout pond in this part of the country, then dredged out two more small lakes on the property. The big ten-acre pond was stocked with bass, bluegill and channel cats. The smaller lake, a bit under four acres, he stocked with perch and muskie.

See, he had this crazy idea that the perch would breed fast and feed the muskies. It seemed to work for a few years. Muskie pond was a local phenomenon. Dad chased off plenty of people trying to fish there without permission. His local friends were always angling for a chance to wet a line in it. But while the Muskies got bigger, they also got rarer. The pond was too small to sustain breeding and the swarms of perch there devestated any attempt to restock.

The last muskie to come out of that pond was a 12 pounder pulled out by Mr. Abernathy, my dad’s lawyer. I was there that day, a ten year old snagging perch when he dragged in that ‘lunge, after an epic fight. It was a county record for several years.

Mr Abernathy mounted that fish over the desk in his office, but he kept coming back for a year, obsessed with the belief that there was one more muskie in that pond, one final monster. Dad thought he might be right and the two of them, with me in tow, spent weeks working that pond. We caught a lot of perch and broke a lot of lines on the dead trees that had been dumped in the lake for cover-at least we thought they were trees. Mr Abernathy just became more convinced there was one last canny old giant down there. He kept using thicker and thicker lines, even after Dad gave up and went back to harassing the trout and bass ponds.

We watched Mr. Abernathy one morning when I was 12. Dad and I pitched a tent in the woods, camping on our own land. At six in the morning, the old lawyer was working that pond as the sun burned through the fog. Dad never laughed, but he did smile, sitting next to the campfire and drinking his coffee. “He’s a maniac when he’s after something, which is a good thing in a lawyer.” Dad poked our campfire a bit as he spoke. Me, I was still huddled in my sleeping bag. “I’m glad he’s my lawyer. But that’s no way to go about fishing.”

As time went on, my friends and I told stories about that unseen monster that snapped lines and haunted the pond. We even gave it a name- the Muskie King. We noticed that ducks never nested in that pond and that added to the myth. Godzilla and Jaws combined had nothing on the fish we told stories about over campfires. Nervous about the teeth we’d seen on other mounted muskies, we never swam in the pond and it was a feat of childish courage to even stick a finger or toe in the water.

Mr Abernathy made his final effort a year before he passed away from cancer. Tired of snapped lines and bent hooks, he brought a heavy rod and 60 pound test line with a two foot steel leader. I was coming back from school one day when I saw him hauling on that ridiculously heavy rig with all his might and not moving it an inch. He said something had grabbed the lure he was using as bait and took off like a rocket before it snagged his line.

Some of my friends were with me and we all hauled on that line until it emerged- the roots of an old locust stump, dumped in there as cover when the pond was dug. The line had been snapped off above the leader- probably, my dad said, snagged on one of the snapping turtles who frequented that pond.

Mr Abernathy gave up his quest for the Muskie King, finally defeated.

That was the crown of the Muskie King legend. Afterwards, wherever my friends and I fished, all leftover bait was dumped in that pond- tribute to the Muskie King.

It stayed the best perch pond around, always good for a mess of panfish. The outflow from the trout pond went into it, feeding a steady supply of fingerlings and insects drawn in by the wild roses my father planted for just that purpose. A pair of otters moved in when I was 14 and did their part in keeping the perch population from exploding. The perch never turned into the wafer-thin starvelings you see in overstocked waters.

So I grew up fishing, hunting, running the woods with my friends. When I graduated High School, Dad let me know in no uncertain terms that a hitch in the Army had done him a world of good and I was expected to do some time in the Green Machine myself. Stories he told me about his time in Korea didn’t discourage me any either. So I enlisted- and discovered the considerable difference between being the only child of loving parents, and being one more shaven head in a gaggle of clueless recruits, with drill sergeants encouraging us at maximum volume.

It was trauma and triumph, blistered feet and the Fort Knox crud and sleeping with complete strangers above and to each side of me. Then we graduated. Mom and Dad showed up, Dad wearing his own medals, Mom crying. I felt about ten feet tall. We went home for 30 days leave with two friends I’d made in Basic- Reyes and Hughes. We’d helped each other get through it. Both of them thought I was nuts to go into the Army when my Dad owned 300 acres (To be honest, I’d questioned my own sanity in the matter a few times.). After they saw Blackwoods, they didn’t think I’d been insane. They knew it.

I introduced them to my local friends and if any of them minded the fact that my new buds were a little puerto rican guy and a tall skinny black kid from Jersey, they kept that to themselves. Reyes and Hughes taught me how not to dress like a hick from the backwoods, I taught them how to hunt and fish. Including cleaning the game- Mom laid down the law when I was 5, she’d cook anything we brought in but we had to clean it ourselves.

All the trees and woods and sun seemed to blow their minds and, after 16 weeks at Fort Knox, it kinda blew my mind too. We ate wild rabbit, bass and catfish. Hughes got an old family recipe for crayfish from his mom, while Reyes caught the biggest bass we’d ever pulled out of the big lake. Then one morning I woke up in a mood for pan-fried perch.

Reyes and Hughes weren’t too happy to see the crack of dawn, but the smell of Mom’s pancakes, bacon and coffee got them moving. By the time they realized they were awake, I’d thrown our gear into the back of my old pickup truck and we were ready to roll.

My friends and I had raced our backs on the dirt access road to Muskie Pond. It was a bit overgrown, the pond still steaming a bit in the morning, overhung with raspberry bushes, willow or thick, bending oak branches. We opened a thermos of coffee, broke out the rods and started to wet our lines-when I stepped on my rod.

It was nothing special. A light fly fishing rig that made it fun to catch perch, but nothing expensive. Reyes and Hughes had my expensive rods and I was the host. So I dug out my only other rod- a medium weight right with 20 pound lunker line and a steel leader. We’d used it on the big lake the day before, for bass and the big channel cats. Just a tad heavy for perch fishing. But it was all I had- so I baited it with a worm, tossed it in-and instantly hooked a perch. Every bit of 5 inches long, insanely aggressive as only perch can be and barely able to fit the hook into it’s mouth.

I began reeling the pathetic catch in, realizing that with my heavy rig, this would be about as much fun as hauling in fish with a crane. I was just going to let it go, then pop a can of soda and chill. The tiny fish thrashed frantically in the water-

Just before it disappeared down a mouthful of sharp teeth. That mouth engulfed fish and hook then, followed by glaring eyes and almost four feet of finned, scaly body, it vanished beneath the surface.

My reel screamed. I was in for a fight. I’d hooked the Muskie King!

“I’ve got it!” I remember yelling that, gripping my rod and ready for what would happen next.

Yank! A savage jerk on the line as the Muskie King headed for deep water, thoroughly hooked. That trademark Muskie dive for the deeps. I fed out line- suddenly my 20 pound lunker line didn’t seem so awesome. There wasn’t a lot of room to work with. It wasn’t a real lake where I could let him play himself out, just a dredged out farm pond. I put drag on the line, trying to slow him- almost had the rod jerked out of my hands as the Muskie King made a sudden lunge at the pull.

By now, Reyes and Hughes had pulled in their own rods and were watching me. I’d told them about the Muskie King. Hughes said, afterwards, that I let out a war whoop. I don’t recall.

That monster fish jinked hard, dove again. I gave it line until it suddenly went slack, reeled in fast.

It jammed.

It was snagged! I pulled- no luck at first. Then, slowly, it came loose. A water rotted branch floated to the surface as my line cut through it. I pulled in half my line before the Muskie King realized his tangling manuever hadn’t worked. Gripping the line with sweaty palms, I braced myself, ready for when he caught on and made a break for it.

He went.

I thought I’d felt a strong pull before. Now the Muskie King showed me what he really had! This was a torpedo, launching for the distant shore. The rod yanked like I’d hooked a speeding car! I tried to slow his run- and the rod flew out of my hands, vanishing under the water with a splash.

My fingers stung from the rod being yanked out. I gaped at the ripples in the pond, unable to believe what had happened.

“Dang Mack, you hooked Moby Dick!” Hughes shook his head, looked at the bubbles rising to the surface as my rod was dragged around by a very large, very angry fish. “You gotta get yourself a harpoon for that fish.”

“Hey man, you told me there weren’t no sharks in Ohio!” Reyes grinned. “Did you like that rod? Cuz your Muskie King’s got it now!

I ignored their joking, stared at the surface of the water, looking for any clues. “It’ll float. The handle on that rod floats. He’ll tangle the line and the rod will float to the surface.”

And there it was. The handle bobbing to the surface in water, about 60 feet away.

“Don’t go in there, Mack!” Hughes was still smiling. “Mad as that fish is, it’ll bite you next!”

“I think I can hook it.” said Reyes.

The handle of my rod was bobbing gently. The Muskie King must have tangled it good this time. Hughes was joking, but some of the old superstition of the Muskie King still made me reluctant to go in that water. “Okay Reyes, if you think you can snag it-“

Reyes grinned and started casting. His third cast snagged it. “Okay, bring it in slow.” I spoke in a whisper, as if the Muskie King could hear. Reyes, still grinning, pulled it in until it was a foot from shore. Gingerly, I reached into the water and grabbed it.

I shook the water out, brushed some seaweed off it. But the reel turned smoothly-until it stopped cold. No doubt it was snagged, around some rock or log.

“What now?” asked Reyes.

“That thing can chew through regular line, right?” asked Hughes.

“I dunno, and yes.” I tried to visualized the pond layout. “It has a steel leader, but if it can get some slack line to chew on…”

Hughes looked skeptical. “Your fish that smart?”

“I’m not making bets. It’s snagged good now.”

“So unwrap that line and pull him in!”

I was about to tell Hughes to shut up and let me think- when I realized he was right. This was just a big pond! Walking on the bank, I just might unwrap the line!

I began walking along the edge, gingerly testing the line, trying to gauge whether I was getting more line or giving it up. It was all feel and listening, done while I manuevered around trees and bushes, trying not to tangle what line I did have.

It was a long shot, but I didn’t have much choice. Keeping a close eye, I played out line by inches, trying to visualize by feel what was holding the line.

The line began coming in easily. By this time, I was in the shallow end- 3-5 foot shallows, lily pads and a wood duck house on a post.

“You got it?” called Reyes.

I nodded, wiped sweat from my eyes. Morning was giving way to noon. I dried my hands, dried the rod- I wasn’t going to lose it again.

I pulled the line off the last of the snag, reeling in slowly, getting as much line back as I could before the Muskie King caught on. I knew what would happen next.

The Muskie King felt the line go tense and went berserk. It shot for the brush like a torpedo. I held the line. No way was it getting into the brush a third time.

WHAM!

I was braced and that thing still almost pulled me into the water! The line went taut as a bowstring, cutting through the water as the Muskie King twisted right, then left-then up.

It was the only time in that fight that he broke the surface, lunging for the sky, the rest of the world seeming to freeze as he thrashed. Sunlight was sparkling off the water he sprayed as he twisted and thrashed, trying to throw the hook jammed into that mouthful of teeth and bone. Then he disappeared, sounding for the bottom. Reyes and Hughes cheered.

I knew I’d bring him in.

There was no subtlety. No room for subtlety. Just haul and reel, haul and reel, the line cutting back and forth through the water lilies, splashes and a massive desperate struggle to get away. Until I finally pulled him into the shallows, still fighting. Hughes went in with the net, caught the tail and we both pulled it out, teeth still snapping at that steel leader, heavy body still struggling. One last heave- I tripped over a tree root, fell back still gripping the line- and it was out. The Muskie King had been landed.

We waited for him to stop flopping, cheered. Reyes and Hughes were as proud as I was for their part in landing it. “That ain’t no muskie, man.” Reyes poked it, keeping his fingers clear of the snapping mouth. “That’s a freakin’ barracuda you got there!”

“It’s the King!” I was grinning like a maniac. I looked up at the sky and called up to a guy I was pretty sure was listening. “You were right all along, Mr Abernathy! This one was for you!”

It was a few inches short of 4 feet long, the scars of other hooks and old fights marking his jaws and sides, thick bodied from gorging on schools of perch. This was a predator who had ruled his kingdom by terror.

Grinning, we hauled it back to the house. And Dad.

I got my picture in the local papers, even in a couple of the state fishing magazines. It was 38 pounds, more than double the old muskie record for our landlocked little county, and within a few pounds of the state record. We took it to my Dad’s taxidermist for mounting, but even after careful skinning, there was still enough left for some good size fillets. I know a lot of people complain about the strong taste of big muskies, but this one tasted pretty good to me.

But time was passing. Reyes and Hughes left to see their own families, all of us acutely aware that our 30 day leaves were running out. I was going back to the pond a few days later when I saw Bob Kandel, the caretaker. He was an even bigger outdoors enthusiast than my Dad, an old friend who did most of the actual upkeep on our families property. He had a 50 pound sack of duck food in the back of his jeep and he pulled up to the pond, right where I’d hauled the Muskie King ashore.

He’s a quiet balding guy, barrel chested with a salt and pepper beard. Not the most talkative man alive, he waved to me, then started scooping duck food out of the bag and flinging it out over the pond. Swarms of perch speckled the surface, going after it.

“Bob!” Somehow this offended me. I stalked over, not knowing why. “What are you doing?”

Bob seemed taken aback. “Your dad is helping the church. They’re having a big fish fry on July 4. I’m gonna fatten up these perch for a month, then we’ll net everything out of the pond, donate it to the fish fry and restock in the spring with muskies and perch again.”

“He’s just giving them away? Does he know what perch go for in the stores?” I didn’t know what to say. I looked at all the perch jumping to the surface, being fattened up. It bothered me somehow. I stalked off into the woods.

I’d spent most of my life walking those hills, watching those trees grow. I couldn’t seem to recognize them now. I felt like I’d been cut loose. Worst of all, I didn’t know why. I just kept seeing all those perch getting fattened up and it bothered me.

I finally came home just before sunset, tired and feeling pretty low. Dad was waiting on the back steps of Blackwoods. I didn’t know what to say. I walked past him into the dining room.

It was there on a table, mounted on a big walnut plaque, gleaming like it had just come out of the water. The ragged fins had been patched, the scars of battle carefully preserved. A brass plate beneath it gave the date it was caught, my name, it’s weight and length and in big, bold letters said “The Muskie King”.

It looked magnificent. I didn’t know what to say.

You got upset about me donating those perch to Father Herlihy for the fish fry.” Dad’s voice was maddeningly calm. “Son, you know little favors like that are why we’re accepted by the local people, even if I am some crazy writer who grew up in an apartment in south Cleveland.”

“I know, I know.” It didn’t bother me. I was sure of it.

“Then what the hell’s bothering you?” Dad could be tempermental himself, but he had no patience for it in others.

Me, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. My great trophy was in front of me and yet-

“Oh.” Dad sounded a little thoughtful now. “Let me try something else here. You got upset when Bob told you I was going to restock the pond.”

“Yeah! It’s like you’re fish farming or something!”

“Son, we’ve talked about fish farming before. You always seemed to think I should do it.” I sat down, confused. “Son, maybe you’re upset because you know I’m going to restock that pond.”

What kind of garbage was this? “Why should that bother me?”

“Because it means that, 20 years from now, somebody else is going to catch a Muskie King, and they’ll mostly forget about you.”

“I worked hard to catch that thing! Nobody else could catch it!”

“Nope. Sounds like your Muskie King was a tough, wily old customer. That was some good work bringing it in, Son. Now step on out to the porch with me.”

Now I really felt confused. We stepped out onto the porch. On the big lake, a night feeding bass leapt from the water and splashed. Fireflys winked in the distance.

“Son, for 20 years I’ve been planting trees that won’t mature until I’m past 70. Most of the work I’ve done on Blackwoods, I’ll never see the results of it. That’s your inheritance growing out on those hills. None of us live forever and sometimes, we have to leave things for the next crop to enjoy.” He sat on the porch railing and grinned. “‘Course, I ain’t suffering. I’ve been blessed in that I can do what I want. I enjoy what I have, while I have it. You should do the same. You caught a magnificent fish. That’s great! Enjoy the moment, then get on with your life. Fifteen years from now, somebody else get to hog the limelight for a couple of days.”

Sometimes it bugged me, how often my Dad was right. “Thanks Dad.”

“De nada, son. Now go in and ask your Mom for a late dinner, willya? She’s been worried sick.”

So I went. The Muskie King hangs on the “I love me” wall in my den now, still frozen in it’s savage final glory. Last summer, somebody pulled a five pound Musky out of the pond. They’re growing again, terrifying the perch and fighting each other for space. I’m giving them time. Time for the meanest, most wily one of all to come to his full size.

The King is dead.

Long live the King!