You have to think that Louie Spray would be proud.
First, that his record has stood the test of time. And second, that his passion for this fish lives on in and around the Chippewa Flowage of northwestern Wisconsin, in turn creating something bigger than any fish.
No matter the size of that massive musky.
In October, for the 67th year, fishing types will pay homage to one of the longest-running world fishing records of any kind, celebrating the 69-pound, 11-ounce musky that Spray landed Oct. 20, 1949, on the sprawling Chippewa Flowage near the tiny fishing town of Corduroy, Wis.
In September, the much younger Musky Hunt will draw kids to near
by Moose Lake, just off that same Chippewa Flowage. Last year, about 60 kids kindergarten- to high school-age, landed more than 60 of these elusive, almost mythical monsters on and around Moose Lake and the Chippewa Flowage.
But the Musky Hunt is about much more than catching muskies.
Spray’s musky hunt, on the other hand, was all about catching muskies, or one musky in particular. But his giant musky, and a then-record 67-and-a-half-pounder taken by local Cal Johnson on a nearby lake about three months earlier helped establish the area as a musky hotbed.
It remains that today: Before the 2016 musky season started, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources noted that the number of bigger muskies in state waters was continuing to trend upward and that numbers as a whole were growing, too.
Even eight years ago, it’s a reason the Youth Conservation Alliance decided to start the Musky Hunt in Wisconsin, and in and around Moose Lake and the Chippewa Flowage in particular.
Nowhere else, at least not in the Upper Midwest, will you find fisheries with better numbers of muskies.
Nor, as time has shown, will you land a musky like Louie Spray’s.
John Dettloff is a historian for Sawyer County in northwestern Wisconsin. He’s also a resort owner in the county. That combination has served followers of musky lore well.
Turns out Dettloff is a musky fisherman and guide, too. And that resort his family has owned for nearly 50 years, Indian Trails, is on Pokegama Lake and the Chippewa Flowage. The docks at the resort offer a clear view of the point where Spray landed his record musky, a mere several-hundred yards away.
“Louie caught it off Graveyard Point,” Dettloff said, pointing from the Indian Trails docks. “It’s where the fish had been active for a year or two. It was known to patrol the waters there. … Several people watched him catch it from here (at the resort). He came in (to the resort bar) to warm up that day.”
Yes, although he was born more than a decade after Spray caught that musky, Dettloff knows just about everything there is to know about Spray and that fish; he authored a book with Spray before the record angler died in 1984: “Three Record Muskies in His Day — The Life and Times of Louie Spray.”
But, according to Dettloff, Spray likely wouldn’t have caught the fish if Johnson hadn’t landed his then-record musky first. According to Dettloff, Spray was involved with other things and wasn’t even fishing muskies when Johnson caught his fish on July 24 of ’49 on Lac Courte Oreilles, also in the Hayward, Wis., area. But with much being made of Johnson’s fish, the competitive Spray decided to get back in the game.
“Musky Fest is a direct result of Cal Johnson’s fish, and 7,000 people came to see the unveiling of Cal’s fish, including the Wisconsin governor,” Dettloff said during a conversation at the resort over Musky Festival weekend. “Cal caught his fish at a perfect time (July, at the height of the fishing and tourism seasons in the area).
“Louie was joking on the radio that he’d have Cal’s fish beat by the fall. He knew where a fish like that was at. He was possessed and obsessed. Like with Moby Dick.”
Soon, Spray became a common fixture around Graveyard Point, spending 20 days hunting the big fish, Dettloff said.
Not to say he wouldn’t eventually have caught the fish, but Spray got a break with the weather, Dettloff said.
“On Oct. 20 of that year, there was a major cold front coming. The weather was right in the middle of a major change — classic big-fish conditions. That’s when he caught the fish.
“People saw the boat take off around the other side; he went into Herman’s Landing (to weigh the fish), where he had rented a boat. But the scale wasn’t big enough (at Herman’s), so they took it into Hayward, but it wasn’t big enough there, either. So they took it to the Stone Lake Post Office and weighed it on the post office scale — 69 pounds, 11 ounces. People still fish that point on the anniversary.”
The mount of Johnson’s fish still can be seen in the Moccasin Bar in Hayward; sadly, the mount of Spray’s record fish was destroyed in a fire about 10 years after Spray caught it, Dettloff said.
In other musky fishing states like neighboring Minnesota, muskies typically are at their biggest in late fall, when their appetite — and an abundance of food — kicks into high gear. But that’s not the case in Wisconsin.
“When Spray caught his fish, it broke water and shook its head and he said, ‘Oh my God, that fish weighs 80 pounds’ — and it wasn’t that far off,” Dettloff said. “The fish (muskies) here are well-built anyway. It’s why Hayward has five world-record muskies. It’s further south (than musky waters in Minnesota), so the growing season is longer, and there’s good foraging. You’ll see photos of fish further north, and there can be a 15- to 20-pound difference in muskies that are the same length.
“They’ll be somewhat fatter in the fall, but they’re well-built all year here. And it’s a significant area for the fish to be,” he added of the area where Spray caught his record fish. “There’s a natural lake, a river channel and a creek connecting the two. The spot is right between the two. And it’s textbook for good structure.
“And there’s been great action already this year. A guest just caught a 46-incher and two guys were out and had the fish in the net and it went berserk. Its teeth lacerated one guy’s leg and the other guy got the hook in his arm. They both had to go to the emergency room. From their description, it was a huge fish. … A lot of weird stuff happens with muskies.”
And a lot of good stuff, too.
The new generation
Everything about muskies is essential to the youth Musky Hunt.
“It’s not just about fishing,” said Kevin Bushnick, founder and chairman of the Youth Conservation Alliance and, in turn, the Musky Hunt. Primary sponsors are Muskies, Inc., and the YCA — “a charity purpose built to teach youth environmental sciences through fishing programs,” according to the organization.
“We always have education wrapped around it (the fishing),” Bushnick said. “We go way out of our way to teach kids these things. Catching fish is a big part of it, and it’s exciting, but it’s almost a side compartment.”
This year’s event is scheduled Sept. 22-25; it’s definitely not summer camp, Bushnick said.
“It’s not a place to drop off your kids,” he said. “A parent has to participate. It’s not about the number of kids. It’s about (an experience with) a parent or parents, even uncles and aunts. It’s not a camp like that. It’s (about) the quality of education of this thing. … We tie in the whole ecosystem — the health of the lake – to the muskies.”
Bushnick said the Musky Hunt grew out of a somewhat similar fishing event he experienced in 2008.
“After the event, we went around and asked kids what it (the event) meant to them, and they started talking about how cool it was to fish with their dads,” he said. “They didn’t really talk about the fishing.”
So why muskies? Landing the toothy predatory fish can be daunting for even experienced anglers. And, of course, they can get big — nearly as big as some of these kids — and as those two unlucky anglers learned while fishing out of Indian Trails recently, they’re feisty, too.
But again, it’s not just about catching muskies.
“It’s almost a family research project,” Bushnick said of the education side, adding that safety also is paramount. “And when you do catch one, it’s an accomplishment.”
The venue, too, has helped the cause.
“We picked Moose Lake because it has a high population of muskies,” Bushnick said. “We set up a base camp here and take over everything that’s available on the lake and even in town.”
That base camp is Mystic Moose Resort, and Mystic Moose owner Jim Onarheim also has embraced the event wholeheartedly.
“It’s about the kids,” Onarheim said. “I have a career in fire prevention and safety, and if I can teach them about that. … It’s not just about catching fish. People don’t spend enough time with their kids. Some kids never experience what those 60 kids experienced last year (in the Musky Hunt).
“We’ve got to get the kids and reprogram them. There’s so much technology — cell phones, video games. … We have to get them back to nature.”
And back with family.
“What they like best is spending time with dad,” said Bill Nuyttens, director/program marketing for the YCA. “Nowadays, everyone is so busy. This makes time to share with mom and dad.”
The event draws kids from five states across the region, and about half the participants are girls, which is unusual and has been a pleasant surprise, Bushnick said. He said the event also works with special-needs kids, including those with autism and down’s syndrome.
“We’ve watched these kids develop,” he said of all the participants through the years.
“We don’t rest until all the kids are in (off the water after a day of fishing). It’s why we do it.
“We love the kids.”