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Doctor, pastor, consultant, and businessmen: The six of us who attempted to check muskie fly fishing off our bucket list this past Fathers Day in Wisconsin left from San Diego, Denver, Portland, Boulder, and Menomonie, and we converged on the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers in northern Wisconsin to fish with the acknowledged experts in the sport: Wendy Williamson and Larry Mann, owners of the Hayward Fly Fishing Company. We stayed in a cottage near Danbury, Wisconsin, which is on a beautiful 51-mile stretch of road west of Hayward, a place where the St. Croix becomes the Minnesota/Wisconsin border. My family history here reaches back to the 1950s when my father fished these same waters, along with Louis Spray and Cal Johnson, world record holders of near-70-pound muskies. Being Fathers Day weekend, I carried a photo of my dad hefting a 33-pound muskie that he caught in September 1952 on the nearby Chippewa Flowage.
It felt like old-home week in Hayward Country as we settled in to fish with Wendy and Larry from three guided drift boats. Their company, Hayward Fly Fishing, is a shrine to the sport of muskie fishing. Surprisingly, it is the only fly fishing establishment in a five-county area. Their store is in downtown Hayward just across the street from an ice cream bar, which is the only non-alcoholic bar in all of Hayward, by the way. They are surrounded by taverns that sell bait and lures, liquor stores that sell lures and bait, and an occasional Stop and Shop that sells beer and bait. Some say Hayward is a drinking town with a fishing problem! The beer is very good, by the way.
It would be a stretch to claim the six dads who came together for this trip were worldly, but it is worth noting we have fished rivers and lakes and salt from New Zealand to Kodiak, and a lot of water in between. Experienced, yes, but not hardened, we were delighted by the exquisite water of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The 252 miles of pristine corridor is like a rainforest river, or jungle waterway. Indeed, it flows through a distant land where natives say strange things like you betcha, dontcha know, ya sure; they eat deep-fried cheese curds, lutefisk, walleye, sausages and kraut; and they wash it down with a Leinies (a kind of painkiller).
The St. Croix is an excellent smallmouth bass fishery, and the water holds plentiful numbers of walleye, northern pike, sturgeon, catfish, and, of course, muskies. The Namekagon, which flows into the St. Croix downstream of Hayward, is known for these same fish, and if you go upstream you will find brown and brook trout water. We were after muskies, though, not mortal fish like those.
Muskie lore declares the best time to hunt these toothy lunkers is September or even October. Water is skinnier then, providing fewer places to hide, and other species of game fish have migrated to deeper, cooler places. By autumn, muskies are hungrier, preparing for the long cold winter by eating excessively. More than voracious predators, muskies act like they are just plain angry in the fall! They satisfy their rage on the most unlikely of flies: six- and eight-inch flashy aberrations that throw like wet boas and land like bowling balls. Our guides 12-by-18- inch fly box looked like a costume kit for Irma La Douce!
Alas, our band of dads arrived in June and had to fish water that was high and cool because of an aboveaverage snow runoff and huge rain storms. Cubic flows were in the high 220 cfs, way above the ideal 145 cfs, and water temperature in the high 60s was lower than the guides and the fish liked. In short, we faced difficult conditions.
In the throes of a tequila-toot the night before our first day, we created a fishing competition. We called it The Hayward Open-Fly Competition, which would reward the angler who caught the First Fish, the Biggest Fish and the Most Fish, one point for each category on each day. Everyone dropped a Jackson into the pool, making the pot worth $120