The infection (the follow)

Infected by the destructive obsession that is musky
musky flies
Photo: Matthew Reilly

There is a disease rampant among fly fishermen that causes one to relish the difficult and the miserable, to willingly subject oneself to the harshest of conditions, lusting after the elusive. To stack skill and will against low probability, hoping for high reward. This defines the hunt for predatory fish—most purely, the quest for musky.

What’s not to love about a fish that can exceed 50 inches in length; sports a shovel maw of razor sharp teeth; and eats large, swimming prey, best imitated by large, flashy streamers? Perhaps their sheer elusiveness; their habit of following flies to the boat without eating; their moody stomachs; the harsh weather they are often targeted in; or the workout that is casting a foot-long bucktail fly that weighs as much as a wet pair of boxers on the standard 10-wt. and class V sinking line all day.

But 40, 45 inches of raw power and chub-shredding angst, materializing from nowhere to turn the water around your fly to froth? The vision held me steadfast in a stiff wind one gray, sub-freezing December morning on the bank of the New River, bubbling inside with excitement. Jim Richmond, old fishing buddy and smallmouth guide, backed a frostbitten raft down the ramp. The glassy surface shivered in the wind. There was no current, no sign of life in the green water.

Jim is a smallmouth fisherman that dabbles in the musky game but happens to guide on one of Virginia’s premier rivers for both species. With a fly and the fish in mind, he’s managed to boat two musky in more than three times that many trips, though his clients have hooked and landed dozens more on accident on the most unlikely of tackle while smallmouth fishing. Such is the nature of musky fishing.

He suggested we do a float before the weather turned south, to get him on the water after a near-month-long dry spell and to appease my barrage of technical questioning as I wove visions of glory and the toothy fish from my dorm room down the road. I was happy to oblige.

On the boat of the deck, working down the bank, ripping the weight of the line and fly against the friction of wind, my body and mind were ecstatic, but I wore it as stolid determination. It’s a feeling not unlike carrying a rifle through hallowed big-buck ground in the fall, or what I can imagine grizzly bear hunting on Kodiak Island to feel like. There is an air about the boat—a weight not present when smallmouth fishing—when you hold in-hand the tool to attain such a malicious beast as a musky that is known to inhabit the area. The fly lands near a blown-down sycamore crown. You watch it—the prey—as you strip, pause, strip, pause. It becomes an extension of yourself. Every shadow becomes a predator—death from behind—and quickens your pulse. You come to live for the moment that your fly reappears from the gloom, teasing mystery from the depths.

Water was accumulating on my stripping fingers, driving a chill to the bone. The wind numbed my hands.

My fly met resistance on a strip near the boat, and a gold flank flashed around it and was gone. Smallmouth, probably. My heart was in my throat.

Back to the grind.

As we approached the tail of a long flat, a pothole of green water caught my eye. I chucked my fly to the bank, counted the line down four seconds, and began the retrieve. Nothing. A second cast produced the same result. I squeezed a third to the bank as we were nearing the tailout and dropping into a set of rapids. As the fly danced out from behind the veil of green tinge, nothing followed it.

I began to pull the fly from the water to prepare for rough water ahead, when a long shadow emerged from the hole, several feet behind the fly, tracking directly towards it. Its body was thick; its head, flat. And I recognized it instantly as the object of my fascination—musky.

fly fishing for musky - new river
Photo: Matthew Reilly

Alas, the action was set in motion. By the time I had laid eyes on the beast, my fly was exiting the water, and the fish spooked.

My legs began to tremble. A quake entered my voice as I yelled to Jim, “musky, musky!” and pointed vengefully at the fish with my rod tip as it retreated into the safety of the deep.

After a day full of hucking clunky flies in the cold and wind, there was nothing that could bring the fish back. Nothing that could ease my mind after ripping my fly away from a fish mere feet from the boat. I could count the follow as a win, but I would have to make another opportunity.

We fished the day out, and took off the water when the wind picked up and made rowing difficult and fishing more pain than it was worth. We hadn’t succeeded, in the traditional sense of the word as it relates to fishing, but we had put in our time, rolled the dice, and chipped away at the “fish of 10,000 casts.”

Such is musky fishing, I thought. Despite the discomfort, lack of reward, and strain of fishing without reward, I fell in love with a new sport. And so I considered that inaugural float a success, for the sighting; and myself, ruined—infected by the destructive obsession that is the pursuit of musky on the fly.


There are those who would read this and not understand how one could become addicted to musky fishing from this story and then there are those who totally get it.

A different breed, Dan. There are a few among us, as you know.