Honored by the Ojibwa Indians who gave it its name, revered by anglers for its sheer size and difficulty to catch, the fabled "fish of 10,000 casts" struck on the first cast just 2 feet from shore and was immediately lifted out of the water.
More than a little surprised, Mike Hetrick of Lower Burrell lowered the biggest musky of his life back into Tionesta Creek with the hook still firmly embedded in its jaw.
"I wanted to fight him. It was the biggest one I've ever caught," said Hetrick, of the 43-incher he ultimately landed and released May 25. "Plus, he was thrashing. I didn't want to bring him in like that with big treble hooks sticking out."
In most cases, the hunt for Pennsylvania's apex aquatic predator requires every one of those 10,000 casts, usually made from a boat covering lots of water. Hetrick said his first-cast catch was an anomaly -- like most anglers, most of his musky trips come up empty.
But the Tionesta muskellunge was the fifth Hetrick has hunted, caught and released from shore. In recent weeks, Pittsburgh fishermen have reported several muskies caught or nearly caught from shore including, said one angler, a "50-inch fat monster" that bit through an 80-pound test leader.
Usually, shore-caught muskies are accidents -- the angler was targeting another species. But when Hetrick isn't fly fishing for trout, he's hunting for muskies. The hunts, he said, are careful evaluations of habitats favored by the big fish. When he finds the right spot, usually near submerged ledges or wood, he saturates the area with casts. When the target zone has been thoroughly fished, he switches lures -- changing color and size -- and methodically starts over again.
"I got bored with regular fishing," said Hetrick. "I want to catch something bigger, harder. Muskies are not your average fish."
A coolwater native to the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes and Ohio River watersheds, the muskellunge is a voracious and fast-growing predator. In Pennsylvania, muskies reaching 4 feet and 35 pounds are not unusual.
Although generally targeted by boat, habitat preferences make it possible for shore anglers to get in on the action. Muskies are solitary and territorial with relatively small home ranges -- the biggest among them often stay in, and dominate, a single pool or lake feature. They like depths of 15 feet or shallower, and favor quiet backwaters with rocky shoals, ample aquatic weed growth or stumps or fallen logs. Ambush strikes can be quick and savage, or the predator can stalk its prey -- the strike triggered by a sudden change in the bait's direction.
"I cast about 40 feet to fallen timber and weeds with a little drop off from about 5 to 12 feet. I think he was at the drop off and followed it in," said Hetrick. "As soon as I changed [the retrieve] he took it. I didn't see him until I did the figure 8 and was about to pull out of the water. "
Hetrick was fishing a 6-inch jointed perch crankbait on 80-pound test Fluorocarbon leader and 50-pound line with an 8-foot medium-heavy bait casting rod.
"The long rod lets you do the figure 8 at the end," he said. "A lot of times, that's when they take it."
Rather than moving up the shoreline to cover more water -- a common tactic for bass and other game fish -- Hetrick scouts for "high percentage areas" based on his knowledge of muskellunge habitat, and stays put.
"It's like archery hunting. You wait in the spot you picked -- you wait for the moment to happen," he said.
Jim Burr, a retired musky guide and former president of the Three Rivers chapter of Muskies Inc., said targeting musky habitat works both ways, casting from a boat toward shore and from the shoreline casting out.
"That's a good way to do it. I'd use different baits fishing from shore, smaller than when I'm trolling," said Burr. "Casting, I like bucktails, some jerkbaits. There are some soft plastic baits for muskies."
Most of the musky trips booked by Muddy Creek Fishing Guides involve a Lake Arthur boat ride. But in March, 2013, co-owner Todd Young pulled a 50-inch musky from Slippery Rock Creek while shore fishing.
"I have a photo from 1922 of my great-grandfather and grandfather with muskies on Slippery Rock Creek," said Young. "Those are native fish. A lot of rivers and streams can have them. Some really good bank fishing is going on at French Creek, and at the mouths of some feeder streams around Pittsburgh they're catching muskies."
On some waters, muskies and anglers may be targeting the same trout. Young admitted to feeling a little uncomfortable with 8-inch lures on Slippery Rock and Connequenessing creeks while everyone else was using trout flies. And while the trout were hitting, the muskies weren't.
"That's part of musky fishing," he said. "People might try it and not catch anything and think there's no muskies there. But you have to get good at recognizing their habitat, be confident in your tactics and just keep with it."