It was a cold morning, with the winds whisking down from the north at fifteen to twenty miles an hour. For anyone who lives along the river, outside it was only a good day for duck hunters or musky fishermen. For the sane, it was a good day to stay inside, where it was warm.
With only three days left in the musky season, Wisconsin musky hunter, well known lure manufacturer and good friend Gale Radtke (above) was in the dumps. He had spent 19 days searching the 1000 Islands area of the St. Lawrence River for a real trophy muskie. One that not only would dwarf his wife Donna^s 34-pounder, caught here several years ago, but one that would tip the scales to the other side of 40 pounds. The previous evening Radtke had expressed total disappointment, and said he was heading home in the morning. I suggested that he stay one last day and we both would give it one last try. It wasn^t that I had any rabbits in my hat, but as the lottery slogan goes, "Hey...you never know."
We left the dock and headed through the choppy seas towards 40 Acre Shoals. Most River Rats know "the Acres" as an area that spreads itself north four miles from the head of Grindstone Island to the Canadian Admiralty islands, near Gananoque and then west five miles to the area stretching south from Howe Island to Wolfe Island. Of all the noted musky fishing hot spots in the 1000 Islands this is the largest, covering an area of over twenty square miles. Among experienced musky hunters though, it has the reputation of holding the largest fish.
Fishing Radtke^s lures from downriggers we rode the choppy waters, warmed in the enclosed cabin by a kerosene heater. At eleven o^clock we were startled by the sound of the drag on the port reel. This was what we had come for. Maybe this would be his lucky day, I thought.
Radtke lifted the rod from the holder. The fight lasted about thirty seconds when the rod went limp and the fish was gone. Among musky hunters words are useless at a time like this. An expression tells it all. But then again...that^s the way musky fishing is.
With rods set again, the hunt continued. At one o^clock, just a half mile to the north from where we had the first strike the same rod again snapped free from the downrigger release. Once more, Radtke was on the rod in a flash.
With the boat headed into the wind, I slowly circled to the northwest to gain a downwind advantage on the fish in order for Gale to keep constant tension on the line. With the second line in and downrigger weights up and secured, the fight ensued.
After a five minute struggle the fish came to the net and then onboard. It was a nice healthy fish with an exaggerated girth, typical in late fall. It measured 45" long. We estimated its^ weight at between 25 an 28 pounds and its age around eight or nine years.
After a few pictures it was released and disappeared from the surface, observed on the video sounder as it quickly returned to the bottom, more than 40^ below.
Although not what he was looking for, Radtke^s face beamed. This was only the second musky he had landed since his arrival almost three weeks earlier. The first was 35 inches. During those 19 days he had also lost two others, one with me on an earlier trip and another with fellow guide Merle Bauer. His score was now two fish for four hits.
Again the rods were set as the we reflected on the two fish. Both had struck one of Radtke^s personal favorite lure colors, gold with black stripes. The other lure we trolled was his original perch color, generally considered by guides to be a consistent producer. Why would the fish choose one over the other twice in succession?
On the other hand, the boat was going the same way on both strikes. Could both fish have been hanging along the shelf off to the port instead of on the humps off to the starboard? As usual, speculation reigned supreme as it always does on musky hunts. After all, muskies have to be outsmarted. "They don^t get big from being dumb," I often remind my musky clients.
With the winds climbing, it was apparent that the weather was changing. I decided to change course and head northeast across the Acres to get in more sheltered waters and cover an area we had ignored all day. Directly in the path were two deep underwater humps that had produced several fish for me in the past. We both also knew that a big musky had been taken here a week earlier by Merle. "That fish was big enough to have had to have a mate" I told Gale. "Maybe it^s getting lonesome and the time is ripe." We both smiled with hopes I might be right.
As the first hump began to appear on the sounder, anxiety rose. Come on fish! As quickly as the hump appeared, it was gone, leaving only a "bell" curve on the sounder. We have one last chance, I thought. As we reached the top of the second hump, still nothing. "Damn," I uttered under my breath.
Then as the hump began to disappear from the sounder, the air came alive from the screaming drag. "A third one, I don^t believe it," Gale hollered as he again jumped for the rod. Now crossing the open water, there was no need to maneuver the boat. The second rod was cleared and the downriggers secured. "This is a good one Al, a big fish," Radtke said. "I can^t even gain on him."
The boat drifted a half mile in the three foot seas as the fight wore on. After fifteen minutes, the fish had still not been seen. Progress reports were sent to both wives every few minutes, mine in our office and his in their motor home, via radio. Finally a white flash twenty feet off to the side indicated that the fish was indeed big. "He^ll probably run when he sees the boat," I said and just about on cue, it did. Out of sight again, it became visible on the video sounder as it struggled for freedom in the 50^ depths below the boat.
The last run exhausted the fish and it was finally worked along side. Quickly it was netted and just as quickly, with our four arms heaving ho, it came into the boat.
We looked at it in amazement and shook hands, as sportsmen do in the midst of achievement. For those landing their first muskie, this means becoming a "musky Man," the most exclusive fraternity of fresh water anglers in the world. In the case of seasoned veterans like Radtke, this was another major step up the hierarchy of musky fishing accomplishments. This was his largest muskie, ever.
"I^m freezing," exclaimed Gale. "Lets go in and get it weighed" I replied. Despite the increased winds and steady rain that began to freeze on the decks, with all thoughts on the fish, the choppy ride back to Clayton went almost unnoticed.
On the way we both admired the giant, as successful musky hunters can^t help doing. Although it wasn^t a long fish, we guessed the weight to be about 40 pounds based on its huge girth. We guessed it to be a female between 17 and 20 years old. "My knees are still shaking from the excitement," Radtke exclaimed.
"Mine are too, but from standing out there in the cold watching you," I countered.
Docking the boat downtown, Gale proudly carried the trophy in his arms across the street and we hung from the weigh board in front of our Thousand Islands Inn. As all local folks know, traffic jams in November are unusual in Clayton but nothing will create one quicker than a hanging Muskie. This trophy tipped the scale to 41 pounds and measured 53 inches. The girth was 25 inches, nearly half its length.
Finally, Gale had what he had dreamed of for the forty years he has hunted trophy muskies. While we both admitted that there are still larger fish "out there," only a handful of living musky hunters can say they have caught a larger one. For many, a musky lives up to its reputation of being the fish of 1,000 hours. For Radtke and most others who share the distinction of breaking the 40 pound barrier, these are fish of 10,000 hours.
The fish was frozen and returned to Wisconsin to be mounted by Radtke^s regular taxidermist. Until a larger one is caught by Gale or Donna, it will join the Radtke^s as they crisscross the eastern half of the nation from January to April on the annual outdoor show circuit.
It is there that they sell their famous lures, the Radtke Pike Minnow, from an impressive booth enhanced by beautifully mounted trophies they have caught on their lure since inventing it in 1978. The Radtke lure is also used by more professional area fishing guides and is responsible for catching more St. Lawrence River muskies than any other single lure on the market.
Although his fishing career has taken him to every noted musky water in the U.S. and Canada, Radtke considers the St. Lawrence the absolute finest. He affectionately refers to the 1000 Islands as the "the land of the giant spotted muskie."
With his latest achievement now the centerpiece of their display, he can share this affection with hundreds of thousands of other anxious anglers with proof positive hanging on the wall, right behind the proud angler who finally, after forty years, happened to be in just the right place, at just the right time.
For free Fishing Trip Planning Packet, including fall St. Lawrence River musky hunts, contact 1000 Islands Fishing Charters at 1-800-544-4241.