It is approximately 24 miles from Valentine to Merritt Reservoir. I have made that trip to go fishing many times. I can remember as a kid it seemed closer to the 200-some miles I now have to drive to get from home to those holy waters. I am not a patient boy when I am on my way fishing. On one of those long drives from Valentine to Merritt I can remember asking my Uncle Ivan what he thought was the biggest fish in Merritt. I can remember his answer, will never forget it–a muskie, a really big, toothy, bad muskie. A variety of Merritt’s big fish have intrigued and kept me going back over all these years. My first Nebraska Master Angler fish, a smallmouth bass, was caught from Merritt’s shore. Over the years there have been big channel catfish, crappies, yellow perch and walleyes; fond recollections of really good fishing fill my memory. But, I have always wanted to catch that muskie. . . .
Yesterday, I told you that my son and I experienced another Nebraska fishing trip that will remain legendary in our minds for the rest of our lives ( Adventure Report, Ten Yards, and. . . . ). I teased you that there was one more fish we caught on that trip, actually she was the first fish of the trip. She will remain as a very special fish for both of us, a fish that still gives me the shakes even as I type this.
I believe I caught one of those beasts my uncle told me about. . . .
Here, I have to post a couple more views of her.
My son and I went on the trip expecting to catch muskies. We had options, but in fact knew that might be the only fish we pursued on this trip. We were prepared, heavy casting rods and reels, heavy line, leaders, big baits, big landing net, jaw spreaders, bolt cutters, extra-long needle-nose pliers–muskie gear, the whole “nine yards”. We had talked about the potential for big fish, we were prepared. We knew that some 40+ inchers were a real possibility. We even talked about the sky’s-the-limit fish we knew were swimming in Merritt’s waters.
We were ready, and it really happened.
I have used some “artistic license” to weave accounts of coyotes barking or howling into some of the fish stories I have told here on my blog. I am going to do it again, but I am not making this up. As my buddy Dick Turpin would say, “If I’m lying, I’m dying”. The coyotes were howling, northwest of us, up in those beautiful Nebraska sandhills the coyotes were howling. As I pulled my bait forward, it just stopped, dead, run-into-a-brick-wall, stopped.
For a moment I thought I might have been snagged, but I knew I was not. I tightened up, watched the rod, and saw tell-tale signs of life on the end of my line. I hollered for my son, and started reeling. At first I do not think the beast even knew she was hooked, she just swam along with my reeling until she was directly in front of me. Then, she just kept swimming. She never went berserk, never jumped nor panicked, but when she wanted to take line, she took line, yards of 30-pound test line.
On our first glimpse of the fish, my initial thought was “Oh yeah, that one will go 40“. We could see the bait in the corner of her mouth, looked like a good hook set. And then she would turn and swim away, again, peeling line off my reel. I would work her back and each time we got a glimpse of her, she got bigger and bigger; there was no “ground shrinkage” with the beast. My son had the net, was ready to go in after her, “No, not yet, be patient, we will get her“. When I would work her in, she would get in front of us, open those massive jaws and shake that huge head back and forth, back and forth. Each time she did that my heart would sink; I have seen a lot of big fish throw the hooks on those head-shakes. I was constantly maneuvering the rod to keep pulling the hooks back into the corner of her mouth even as she shook her head.
Do not ask me how long I fought her. I have no idea. It could have been 5 minutes, could have been 5 hours. I do not know. All I know is after several rounds of reeling her in, watching her head-shake and then peeling off line, she was finally ready to go in the net. Now, my son and I have an over-sized net we use for big flatheads and muskies. It has a deep bag and a large hoop.
We are going to get a new net. Daniel was able to get her head into the net and then lift, she slid in, but we would have been more comfortable with an even bigger hoop.
And then we just stood there with our jaws on the ground. Silent. The fish was unbelievably big. Daniel says I was shaking. OK, yes I was, so what? Take a look at the pictures, you can see it in my eyes.
We left her in the net, in the water; had to pry her jaws open to get the hooks out of the right corner of her mouth. Then I pulled out the tape measure, and it took both of us to measure her from the tip of her snout to the tip of her tail–49 inches!
I have dreamed of someday catching a 50-inch muskie. Hoped that maybe, one day, I could make a trip to one of those famous waters I dream of fishing where they catch muskies of those proportions. Although I have told you here on my blog that I knew we had fish like that swimming in Merritt and maybe a couple of other Nebraska waters, I dared not dream that I might actually catch one of those milestone muskies from my home state waters.
Now, I am going to make a claim, one that you should be skeptical about. Lord knows I would be. Our state record muskie stands at 41 pounds 8 ounces. It measured 52 inches and was caught from Merritt back in early August of 1992. I believe my fish might have been enough to beat that record. How could that be when it was 3 inches shorter? Well, throughout the year the girth and weight of fish will change; they simply are “fatter”, heavier, at certain times of year. Most of the fish species that live in Nebraska will be at their heaviest in late fall, winter, and then spring before they spawn. The beast I caught was a pre-spawn, female muskie. She would have weighed her maximum in early spring. I know of longer muskies that have been caught from Merritt, some longer than mine that weighed less than the state record. Of those big muskies that I know of, they have been caught after the spawn period in late spring through summer. Those fish likely would have been state record size at their peak “fatness”.
I will confess we did not measure the girth of that fish; did not even think of it. We kept her in the water, snapped some photos and then released her. I have done some “ciphering” to estimate the girth of the beast. I can tell you she was massive. If I had it all to do over again, the only thing I would do different is to get a girth measurement. Depending on exactly how “fat” she was, it is definitely within possibility that a 49-inch muskie could weigh 41 pounds 8 ounces or more.
You can dispute my claim, and I may be telling a story. We know that all fisherman are liars except you and me, and sometimes I wonder about you (and sometimes I even wonder about myself). It will not make any difference to me; that fish will always be a trophy, one of my best. I am considering a graphite replica, but I have to find enough wall space for her.
Let me leave you with this. My son and I caught & released 10 of those beautiful muskellunge beasts at Merritt this spring. We feel like we have a personal connection to every one of those fish, those are “our” fish. The statewide minimum length limit for muskies is 40 inches. If you believe there is even a remote chance that you might catch a muskie from Nebraska waters, you should be prepared to properly handle those fish ( A Fish-Handling Review ). Chances are you will be required by law to release them. Do NOT drag ’em up on the shore, do NOT let them flop around in the bottom of the boat. Keeping them in a net, in the water, is absolutely the best way to handle them. I would also tell you that in muskie fishing circles, it is considered bad form to harvest any muskies, even the biggest fish. Muskie fishing around the country is right now better than it has ever been before and that largely is due to the catch & release practiced by most hard-core muskie anglers. We can have that in Nebraska too! Take a camera with you or pull out the cell phone, take some pictures and then turn ’em loose!
“There is no better feeling than watching your trophy swim away”–Muskie Hunter Magazine.
As we watched her fin away, she just slowly, calmly, vanished. She was in no hurry, she had nothing to fear. I believe she knew it. I know there is a state record muskie swimming in Merritt, I knew before and casually promised that I was going to catch her. Although I am still waking in the middle of the night wondering if it was all a dream, I believe I did! She is still there, there are even bigger fish there too. One of these days I will catch them also! Now YOU know, and some of you will go there and try to get one yourself. If you do, remember what a magnificent beast they are, and treat them with the respect they deserve. If I hear of anyone abusing just one of those fish, our fish, well, just remember there are beasts in those waters, beasts big enough to eat you, just like my Uncle Ivan told me!