This week I’ve been reflecting on what was, so far, the largest musky I have ever seen. It was big, awesome and, unfortunately, deceased.
In many of the shield lakes of Ontario there is a phenomena called muskeg. This is a layer of peat that forms on many lakes. As I understand it decomposing organic matter such as leaves, pine needles, lake weeds, and so on accumulate in shallow bays, oftentimes butting up to the shoreline. This muskeg builds up over years and eventually forms a peat-like blanket that can be fairly large and thick. It’s not unheard of for such muskeg “mats” to cover an acre or more.
We had a cabin on Lake of the Woods around Nestor Falls, Ontario in the 1980’s and fished many of these shallow bays tossing spinners, top waters, and various other “snag-less” baits at the edges of these muskeg mats. Fish would lie just at the outer edges waiting for dinner which, we hoped, our baits would appear to provide. Summer months were the most productive as big northerns and occasionally musky would use these mats to shade themselves in the shadows. This provided great camouflage as well as protection from the sun’s heat.
One summer we had a huge storm. There were winds of 80 miles per hour, lots of rain and gray skies for almost 2 full days. The lake churned up with some of the biggest waves we had ever seen in late summer. Weather like this made it virtually impossible to fish. Matter of fact, when the rain did stop for brief periods the wind blew in dust from the Canadian plains that made life even more miserable. It was like a muddy curtain descended over Lake of the Woods.
After the storm ended we spent almost a week cleaning up the cabin and dragging branches and debris out of the yard and up from the shoreline so it could be burned. Almost every cabin owner in our area was doing the same thing. Trees were a mess, yards were cluttered with trash, docks were damaged or destroyed, and the lake was full of anything that would float from who-knows-where.
At the end of the week I got a call from Art Meline, an old friend and somewhat of a legend in our area. Art was somewhat of a rounder, making a living from numerous business ventures, some (well, actually, most) less successful that he had intended. But he was a great friend and in fact the person who we bought our little cabin from.
“Tom, I got a big problem,” Art said almost as soon as I picked up the phone.
“Well, Art, I’ll certainly do what I can to help. Just tell me what’s going on and let’s see if we can assist.” I said somewhat hesitantly.
“I got a damn island I need to move,” said Art with a nonchalance that, considering what he had just told me, seemed bizarre at best.
OK, maybe I didn’t understand what he had just said. I asked him to repeat what he had said and, sure enough, he repeated it verbatim. I had studied geography and physical science as well as physics. Islands, as best I could remember, were land masses surrounded by water that were basically unmovable unless there was some sort of upheaval from deep inside the earth. Earthquakes, volcanoes, that sort of thing. And even though we had had a pretty severe storm, I didn’t recollect any such event.
“Excuse me, Art, but I always thought islands were not something that moved,” I said as if reminding him of a certain rule of nature.
“This is a huge muskeg island. Gotta’ be almost 2 acres. And it’s up against my shoreline and has my boats and dock locked up,” Art said with increasing frustration.
Long story short I jumped in our boat and headed for Art’s place which was about 5 miles away from our cabin. When I arrived I was shocked. This huge muskeg mat complete with weeds and small trees had, just as Art had indicated, jammed itself up against his shoreline and dock. I couldn’t get any closer than 1,000, maybe 1,200 feet from the outer edge to Art’s boat. And it was tight up against everything on shore. Boats, dock, his barge, everything!
I called to Art from the edge of this “island” and he came out of his cabin and waved. We agreed we would rendezvous down the shoreline and discuss what we could (or couldn’t) do. Shortly I had picked Art up and we proceeded to inspect this massive floating obstacle. And believe me, it was massive.
After some discussion we devised a plan. Art would borrow the biggest, strongest boat he could. I would grab another boat and a few friends and we would somehow put together an “armada” and attempt to pull this island away from Art’s property. The plan sounded good on paper, but it took us the better part of the day to line up enough friends and boats to attempt the task.
The next morning we assembled our small fleet in Art’s bay. We had long ropes, fluke anchors, navy anchors, and 6 boats. Systematically we spread out and hooked into this island, throwing the anchors as far as we could into the island. After everyone was in position we gradually tightened the ropes and slowly revved the outboards. Nothing happened.
We did this several times, but the results were the same. Our “plan B” was to slacken all the anchor ropes and then hit full throttle on the outboards simultaneously. We did this, but by the second try several anchors had come loose and we had to reposition.
This sort of gradual throttle/full throttle process went on for maybe an hour. Finally, we detected some movement. There was actually a small gap between the island and Art’s shoreline. By noon we were making progress and the island was definitely moving away from shore. But there was a problem. If the wind came up from the north it would probably blow the island right back up into Art’s bay.
Now if you’ve never done this before I can assure you that an island this size doesn’t easily move, even with 6 boats pulling on it. Progress was slow, but, there was progress. By about 5 in the afternoon we had moved the island about 1/2 a mile. Gas was running low and all participants were spent. And, it was time for supper. We all unhooked, and all bid Art goodbye.
As I turned to leave I motioned to Art to hold up. I pulled my boat alongside his and assured him I would come back the next morning to check on the island. If it had imbedded itself against his shoreline again I would make sure we assembled again and repeated the day’s events.
The next morning I got in the boat and headed for Art’s. As I approached I saw the island was actually further away and drifting back to the shallow end of the bay. I pulled up to Art’s place as he greeted me. “Wanna go and inspect the island? I’d like to see just where it broke loose and see how thick it is at its thickest point. Can’t do that when she’s attached to a shallow bay , he said as he got in my boat.
“Sure, why not,’ I said as we head in that direction.
We idled over to this muskeg island and started moving around it. There was no way you could actually step on it. All it would do was sink in the spot you got out on. As we proceeded around the outer perimeter Art suddenly let out a cry. “Wait! Stop! Do you see that?, he said, obviously excited.
I put the motor in neutral and turned the boat in the direction where Art was pointing. As we approached the edge of this island I suddenly saw it. A carcass of what had to have been a huge musky. Possibly a Provincial record. It was intact, but had decomposed to where there was only the skeletal remains. The head was massive and from the tip of the nose to the tail end had to have been well over 5 ft (over 60″).
How did it get there? After some discussion we figured it had probably lunged at a duckling or some other small varmints and gotten stuck on the top of the muskeg, unable to free itself to get back in the water. It was amazing and at the same time very, very sad. This magnificent creature had been unable to save itself from the muskeg. No telling how many times it had fought a fisherman and won. No telling how many years it had dominated this part of the lake. No telling how many times it had been caught only to be released so another fisherman could marvel at the biggest musky he or she had ever caught.
We left the carcass where it lay. It was the right thing to do for this regal fish. To this day this is the biggest musky I have ever seen, whether on my line or simply following my bait. I know it wasn’t ideal for this fish to die, but this fish will always be in my memories. And always be my standard for what these magnificent fish represent and just how special they are.
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