I stumbled upon a photo of Vic Van Wie and his kayak fishing world-record 256-pound thresher shark while making some final online arrangements for my fall kayak fishing trip. Here’s a guy in a T-shirt, surf trunks and sandals kneeling beside a 12-foot kayak and an 11-foot fish. In my neck of the woods the biggest, meanest fish I’d be able to find—the fish closest to Vic’s thresher shark—is the muskellunge. Intrigued by the challenge, my fishing trip transformed into a hunt for fall muskie on the Petawawa River. Would we end up like Van Wie, posing with monsters of our own?
Rallying the Troops for Fall Muskie Fishing
If you’re a serious muskie hunter you just call them ‘skies, as in, “Hey, wanna go on a three-day whitewater kayak fishing trip in November down a class III–IV river hunting for ‘skies?”
It was the perfect combination of all things you’d never consider doing. So much so that every man I baited with the idea was immediately hooked, and every wife of those men thought we were nuts.
Good kayaking friends who had never mentioned fishing before came out of their gear closets with Old Pal tackle boxes, dusty bamboo rods and reels spewing nests of 20-year-old line. And real fishermen, guys who would rather motor than paddle—like my dad who doesn’t kayak and can’t swim—also wanted to go on the trip.
It was the perfect combination of all things you’d never consider doing.
Kayak Fishing Above the 49th Parallel
Most pictures of kayak fishing are much like the picture of Vic Van Wie—with a shining sun and a guy in surf shorts with flip-flopped feet dangling over the kayak in clear blue saltwater. This wasn’t the kayak fishing I knew. The fishermen looked more worried about heat stroke than hypothermia; they were wearing sun hats, not toques (woolly Canadian hats usually reserved for pond hockey and ice fishing).
Fall muskie fishing above the 46th parallel in November was going to be different. I’d never heard of anyone running class IV whitewater and fishing the sections between the rapids in fishing kayaks. Nor had anyone I knew considered doing a multi-day camping trip with sit-on-tops. But that’s what we had to do to fish the Petawawa River in Algonquin Provincial Park, a Canadian classic canoe tripping route and a famous muskie hunting ground. Besides, I’ve come to realize things that wives think are crazy usually make for a good fishing story.
The fall is the time to hunt muskie. As the lakes and rivers around the Great Lakes cool, the muskies’ internal alarm goes off and they move from their deep summer hangouts to shallow waters to chow down on whatever they can find to store reserves for the long, cold winter. As the water cools and the leaves change color during the latter part of September and early October, muskie lurk in one to two feet of water amid the lily pads and rushes, alongside logs and stumps. Research indicates that 35 to 50 degrees is the optimum water temperature (for feeding muskie, not sit-on-top kayak fishermen).
Don’t Dip Your Toes Into These Waters
Dangling your toes over the edge of your kayak looks very appealing in photographs but doing so in muskie territory is not only chilly, but can be risky. Muskie grow up to 70 pounds and five feet long and sometimes eat mice, ducklings and muskrats; they’ve been known to order take-out that’s up to 45 percent of their own length and sometimes die trying—muskie have been found dead with their last meal lodged down their throats.
Dan Droessler was dangling a leg over his canoe in Iowa County, Wisconsin, when a 36-inch muskie decided it looked pretty tasty. When he yanked his foot out of the water the muskie let go and fell into Dan’s canoe.
According to Randy Rosslin, a local park warden, Droessler and the fish both went to the emergency room where he (not the fish) received 60 stitches. Rosslin took possession of the muskie, explaining, “It’s not a legal size for one thing, and it’s not a legal way to catch fish—with your foot.” Droessler wasn’t charged for illegal fishing but failed to see any humor in the ordeal. “I don’t think it’s funny at all,” he later told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Muskie experts, both fishermen and biologists, agree that when one considers the amount of time humans and muskies share the same water, such attacks are very rare. One report even points out that being chomped by a muskie is even less common, and certainly less consequential, than being struck by lightning. Maybe so. However, I think dragging an angry 30-pound lightning bolt across my lap in a fishing kayak might be bringing up the otherwise low chances.
Exploring Algonquin and the Petawawa River
Paddling the Lake Travers to McManus Lake section of the Petawawa River typically fills the better part of three days paddling and two nights camping. To fish this stretch of river in the same length of time we were constantly on the move, trolling mostly with our rods stuffed in the holders. We were paddling at what we hoped was the speed that would entice lurking muskellunge to ambush our trailing lures.
It was close to freezing during the nights and in the mornings we danced around steaming coffee mugs, trying to avoid crawling into our drysuits. Being so late in the fall, dawn didn’t arrive until after seven, so we weren’t on the water until mid-morning. We needed to make time to reach our campsites before dark.
The Algonquin Park map told me we were just below Little Thompson Rapids and my Lowrance sonar indicated that I was in about 15 feet of water but that I had just passed a grassy shoal that rose to only four feet below the surface.
The edges of the river were filled with grasses and lily pads growing out toward the centre. The water was dark and cold. It had started raining, again.
A Glimpse Into the Muskie’s Evil Eye
When my rod bent double and my reel began dumping line I swore out loud for no one to hear. Everyone else was almost out of sight in the misty fog downstream. The kayak spun backward like it had dozens of times yesterday each time I’d hooked a rocky shoal, reed bed or sunken log. Too lazy to paddle back upriver I tightened my drag, hauled on the 25-pound line and pulled against the snag, dragging my fully loaded kayak against the sleepy current.
When the line was taut directly below me, my colour LCD screen indicated 10 feet of water—I knew my blue floating J-11 Rapala must have missed the shoal and hooked a submerged tree instead. I slowly dragged the log to the surface, reeling in the slack I created with each haul. Frustrated by being left behind, I glanced downstream and didn’t notice the log coming to the surface.
Six inches from my leg was my Rapala, snagged inside a mouth full of daggers, and one dark, spooky eye.
My startled yell set him off and he went deep below the boat. My rod bent completely around under the boat, and the same tension on my reel that I used to drag the kayak upstream was now spooling off line like dental floss in the hands of a bloodthirsty hygienist. I kept trying to get my rod on the same side as the fish, but no sooner would I get it around the bow then he’d change direction below me and spin the boat again.
“FISH ON!” I screamed into the fog.
Now completely spooked, the muskie wasn’t at all interested in getting near the surface or my mango kayak. I finally tightened the drag a few more clicks and was able to put line back on the reel and slowly bring him to the edge of the boat.
He was easily the length of my 36-inch inseam,
which I figured I’d use to pin him to the deck
The Meanest of All Freshwater Fish
We had figured out a technique with the three ‘skies we’d landed the day before. We figured landing a muskie in fishing kayaks is a two-person job. The assistant floats up beside the fisher with a net or just a spare set of hands and gently scoops the fish out of the water for a quick photograph and release.
With my fish now at the surface and my helpers paddling like mad, but still hundreds of yards away, I was faced with landing this monster myself.
I’d read that muskie teeth aren’t like those of sharks or piranhas, the purpose of which is shearing flesh. Muskie teeth are extremely sharp and numerous but used only for holding on to their slippery prey. Knowing this didn’t make me any more enthusiastic about grabbing the leader and dragging the meanest of all freshwater fish into my lap.
I had him to the surface beside the kayak a couple of times. He was easily the length of my 36-inch inseam, which I figured I’d use to pin him to the deck. Grabbing the leader I lifted his flat, ugly head out of the water.
The look in his dark, evil muskie eyes seemed to be saying, “Go ahead, punk, make my day.”
Dare I Dream of Fame and Fortune?
I considered my options.
Landing the largest fish out of the Petawawa River would certainly increase my macho angling status in tackle shops around the world and doing so in a fishing kayak would be good for the editor-in-chief of Kayak Angler. I’d never have to buy drinks in marina bars; I’d go on to have my own TV show and people would read about me online, like I had read about Vic Van Wie and his world-record thresher.
On the other hand, I thought of poor Dan Droessler and his leg with 60 stitches. His muskie hangs in the hospital ER reception area in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, with a sign under it that says, “Man-eating fish.” I realized that being admitted to the hospital with a pissed off muskellunge latched to my genitals would also make me famous but do nothing for my angling (or manly) reputation.
I gently lowered my muskie back into the water and opened the bail on my reel, giving him all the line he wanted. About 30 feet away he shook the hook at me and was gone.
When the guys finally arrived with the net, I was reeling in the last few feet of line and my trashed Rapala. They asked what happened.
“Sorry, just snagged on a log,” I lied.
Morning mist rises over Lake Travers in Algonquin Park, a hotspot for fall muskie fishing. | Feature photo: Drew Deyell/Wikimedia Commons