Patience needs redefining when applied to fly fishermen like Chris Schneider and Seth Wilson.
The two Billings anglers have spent years fishing and hours and hours fly tying and have caught only a few muskies — the large, picky cousins of northern pike.
“A good day is seeing a fish,” Schneider said. “A great day is having one look at your fly. Catching one ruins your life.”
It’s not easy fishing, either, heaving flies that can measure up to 18 inches or more at the end of heavy sink-tip lines affixed to 80-pound tippet.
“It’s like casting a kite,” Schneider said. “It’s a workout. You’re sore.
“But it’s funny. They always seem to appear to get your motivation up.”
That usually happens after he’s lost focus, Wilson said, when his mind has gotten as numb as his shoulder and wandered off somewhere else.
“The moment you lose concentration, that’s when they’re going to hit,” he said.
And when Wilson misses a strike, it makes him very angry. He still replays one missed strike over and over in his head, seeing it all like it happened yesterday.
“I remember that more than the one I caught,” Wilson said.
Hooked by a film
Welcome to the obsession of fly fishing for muskies, an infatuation that seeped into Schneider and Wilson’s lives in 2010 when they saw the movie “Zero 2 Hero” at the annual fly fishing film festival.
With gripping cinematography accentuated by hauntingly beautiful violin music, noted Wisconsin muskie guide Brad Bohen tells the filmmaker in one scene that muskie fishing is “as good as any sex you’ll ever have.”
Wisconsin is considered by many to be the muskie fishing capital of the world, a place where the Legislature named the muskellunge the state fish and the state and world record was caught — a 69-pound, 11-ounce brute.
So Schneider and Wilson have made pilgrimages to Wisconsin’s muskie Mecca to fish, bowing repeatedly toward the shore in supplication and with hope as they cast their hairy flies. So deep is the allure that Schneider has been smitten.
“If I was single, I probably wouldn’t have come back,” he said.
Montana, on the other hand, is known for trout fishing, for casting dainty dry flies the size of mosquitoes to sipping trout that may tip the scales at 5 pounds, if you’re lucky.
There are no true muskies in this state, only hybrid tiger muskies — a cross between a northern pike and a muskie — which are sterile. Tiger muskies are sparingly planted in Montana reservoirs to rid the waters of overpopulations of nongame fish like suckers and carp. So muskie fishing here is even more challenging because there are so few.
This brings up an important point. Schneider said muskies will only attack a fly for three reasons: hunger, to protect their territory, or simply because of an easy opportunity.
“For tiger muskies in Montana, you only have the last two,” Schneider said. “They are not hungry.”
No wonder it took them two-and-a-half years just to catch one muskie on a fly.
“It was only a 35-incher, but it was greatly appreciated,” he said.
Wyoming also stocks tiger muskies, but they don’t seem to grow as fast there, Schneider said. Although Utah is home to some of the fish, Wilson said if he’s going to drive that far, he would rather go to Wisconsin.
To entice muskies to bite, then, has become a fly-fishing art form. Some tyers will spend days working on a single fly. Buying one fly can cost $15 to $20. To Schneider, though, they are somewhat basic in form although time-consuming to tie.
“They are just a bunch of buck tail, feather and flash for the most part,” he said.
The hard part for fly tyers is finding good buck tail. As the name implies, they are tails collected from hunter-killed whitetail deer. The prime tails have “super long” hair. They are dyed in a variety of colors — everything from pink to yellow, red to black.
The chicken feathers, too, are prized for their length and the flexibility of the quill. The flash comes from a variety of synthetic materials that may best be described as improvements on Christmas tree tinsel with creative names like holographic Flashabou.
“The cool thing with these flies is that you can move them as fast as you want or as slow as you want or even pause and it never stops moving,” Schneider said. “That’s how flies have the advantage over hardware. If you pause a lure, it’s a chunk of plastic.”
For many of his flies, he also adds eyes.
“Muskie are a predatory fish, and I think they really key in on the eyes,” he said.
Schneider said there is no wrong way to tie a muskie fly, unless the tyer uses too much buck tail. He strives for a fly that, in the water, will mimic the oval profile of a baitfish.
Wilson said he can’t remember the last time he bought a fly. His favorite muskie pattern is based on a Brad Bohen fly called the Beauford.
“It’s a good, all-around, go-to fly that can look like a fish or a like a leach,” Wilson said. “It’s also got a special place for me because that’s what I caught my first muskie on.”
Here’s another crazy quirk about muskie fishing. An angler may be making 60-foot casts from a drift boat to the bank, have the fish follow the retrieved fly back to the boat and it will only bite after the angler makes several figure eights with the fly right next to the boat.
The visual drama is enough to make some anglers’ legs shake like a jackhammer in anticipation of the strike as the big fish prowl behind their fly.
“Muskies have a way of inhaling the fly without you feeling it,” Schneider said. “The muskie is like a pike with a Ph.D. They are just super smart and finicky.”
When a muskie finally does strike, anglers have to remember not to try and set the hook like they would when catching a trout — by jerking the rod tip up. Instead, the preferred method is called a strip set where the angler pulls the line in strong, short tugs to sink the hook into the fish’s bony mouth.
“Then it’s just four to five minutes of pure chaos,” Schneider said. “They pull super hard, just chaotic head shakes. They are one of the fastest fish in North America. But it’s not about a marathon. They give it their all and then it’s over.”
So all of the preparation, the hours of fly tying and then endless, difficult casting is all for that short burst of excitement, which may only come once on a weeklong fishing trip.
“They are a lot harder to catch,” Schneider said. “It’s not about quantity. There are not a lot of people who get to say they caught a muskie on a fly. It’s just a kickass fish.”
Wilson said there’s nothing comparable to the adrenaline rush of catching a muskie.
“I wish there were more around here,” he said. “I just want to get a toothy critter.”