Traveling Trails Less Traveled. By Buckshot Anderson
For August 8th, 2008 Edition.
An oft-reoccurring topic that is especially interesting to anglers who were not around during the “good old days” is the subject of guns and muskies. The topic arose recently while fishing with two of my long time fishing pals, Peter Vernon and Christopher Larmbertti of Evanston, IL.
Pete started fishing with me in the early 70s, Chris in the early 80s so both missed the chance of actually fishing during the era when musky anglers shot muskies.
I’ve touched on this subject in past columns, as today the thought of guns on the water, used to subdue the gallant muskellunge, seems foreign and unsporting to modern age nimrods. But historically, the practice had its merits.
To begin with, the practice of catch and release was almost unheard of years ago. Musky meat was eaten after it was baked, smoked, fried or pickled. Big ones were mounted and few bars or resorts lacked walls lined with “stuffed” muskies.
There were many solid, sensible reasons why bullets were once used to end the struggle between man and beast. The beast in this case being a musky. Let’s start by reviewing the equipment that was commonly being used to fish for the north’s ultimate underwater predators during the dark ages.
Boats were small by today’s standards, twelve to sixteen foot wooden rowboats that were generally very narrow with gunwales fairly close to the surface of the water.
Commercially built rods were made of bamboo or solid, highly flexible steel. Often local craftsmen designed and produced their own musky rods out of native woods such as maple, oak or ironwood. These “one of a kind” models often resembled a baseball bat more than a fishing rod.
Casting reels were small, direct drive models lacking level winds that were highly difficult to master and beginners often spent more time untangling “backlashes” than they did fishing. Fighting a brawling muskellunge on those primitive combinations often resulted in the reel handle being yanked out of the angler’s fingers, which would allow the rapidly spinning handles to become what guides called “knuckle busters.”
Pre-WW II lines were made of silk and often parted when the up close and personal battle between angler and musky reached its peak.
Large, deep landing nets had not as yet been invented, which left but three ways of successfully landing the fish of a thousand casts. One popular method of ending the struggle was to conk the lunker on the head with a club of some sort. Each musky hunter had their own personal favorite head-knocker. Baseball bats, stove pokers, golf clubs, Billy clubs, and other assorted devices were considered basic equipment when hunting the elusive musky.
A second method of boating a spent musky was “gaffing” them with a huge gaff hook. Personally, I shunned this method for the following reason. Imagine if you will this scene. A large and still very alive musky is impaled on the end of a medieval looking weapon called a gaff hook. The fish has a mouth full of very sharp and very large teeth as well as a lure full of very large and very sharp hooks. The thrashing beast is unceremoniously dumped on the bottom of a very small boat filled with wide-eyed musky anglers. Get the picture? Not a pretty scene nor is it a location one might like to be in at that moment. But, -- many anglers did use a gaff hook.
The third, and most common method of ending the epic struggle was to shoot the fish after the outcome of the battle was no longer in doubt. However, that was not always a simple solution. Hitting the head of a moving fish using a pistol from a pitching boat required skill, -- or luck. Stories abound about lines being shot off, lures being shot out of the musky’s mouth, etc. – all of which did sometimes take place.
Many musky stories from that long ago era have less than happy endings. Many fish were lost at the boat when the guide or angler botched the coup ‘d grace. If the fish wasn’t hit in the proper location with the club the blow simply energized the beast into further struggle, often ending in the musky’s favor. Sometimes the gaffed fish slipped off the gaff and escaped, though probably only to die later. Fish that were shot and then parted company with the lure or broke the line always sunk. The stories are endless.
Sometimes those pistols anglers toted on board their boats were used for purposes other than subduing a beaten musky. I recall hearing a story how Mike Froelich used his .38 Colt to save the life of a duck.
Mike and his client, Sol Nagdeman, were fishing bass on Lower Allequash in the open pockets of water within the standing patches of wild rice. Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of a mallard quacking. According to Sol, Mike said, “That duck’s in trouble!”
Mike bulled his boat through the rice to discover a huge snapping turtle had grabbed Ma Mallard by the foot and was attempting to drown the bird prior to having fresh duck for dinner. Mike pulled his trusty .38 out of his tackle box, stood up, took careful aim, -- and blasted the turtle. The duck flew away while quacking a heartfelt “thank-you.”
Hearing a shot or shots being fired while one was fishing years ago was not all that uncommon. The uninformed would often question their guide as to why someone was shooting. My dad always replied, with a grin I might add, “Oh nothing unusual. Some fishless client just shot their guide.” His reply was always good for a laugh.
I believe 1964 was the last year it was legal to use a firearm to subdue a fish. The Wisconsin Conservation Department (forerunner of the present DNR) ended the practice by suggesting the method was not sporting and firing a bullet across lakes and streams was potentially dangerous to others. However, there was another underlying situation, which the media and the WCD decided not to mention.
“Lake Rage” was on the rise. Large, powerful boats towing water skiers were more and more frequently crossing paths with anglers who were increasingly becoming more hostile towards close encounters with speedboats towing skiers. To my knowledge no one was actually shot at, but threats were issued, firearms were banished, shots were fired skyward in warning, etc. It was time to end the practice before someone got hurt, -- or worse.
My favorite memory from that historic era took place on Ballard Lake one hot, sunny day in the early 60s. JR DeWitt and I were guiding four musky anglers staying at Froelich’s Sayner Lodge. JR packed a .45 automatic; I carried a much smaller .22 rim-fire revolver.
Musky action was non-existent, at least in my boat. About nine-thirty a loud “Boom” echoed from the far end of the lake. JR’s boat had a musky. Shots two and three took place about an hour apart later in the morning. It was apparent JR’s party had “limited out” on musky! Anglers in my boat were still waiting for a follow-up!
My ego was at zero when I pulled my boat up on the beach at the lunch ground where JR and his two clients stood grinning waiting for our arrival.
I looked at my pal and said, “Well, how big are they?”
JR laughed and replied, “We didn’t see a fish. I just shot three times to make you think we caught our limit.”
What are friends for anyway?
Mr. Leon "Buckshot" Anderson is one of the few old time hunting and fishing guides left in Northern Wisconsin. Buckshot is a personal friend of the family and has known and worked with my grandfather, Howard "Pop" Dean, both of whom are members of the fresh water fishing hall of fame, Legendary Guide. Buckshot has authored 7 books on the great outdoors. All of his books can be purchased directly from him, at a discount, by email: email@example.com or by mail to: 2220 Deadman's Gulch Road, St. Germain, WI 54558.
Books by Leon "Buckshot" Anderson Click Here
Yes; Deadman's Gulch is the correct name, I have been on that road many times. Sincerely David D. Cruger
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