Solitary. A voracious ambush predator. The fish of 10,000 casts, or at least countless hours of zig-zag lake trolling.
But that's not the relationship Jherek Christy has with the elusive muskellunge.
Twelve years of fly fishing for the big fish on Western Pennsylvania creeks has given him a different perspective. A former educator for the state Fish and Boat Commission with a degree in park management, Christy has studied muskies close up in shallow creeks, contemplated their reaction to his hand-tied flies, learned things, he said, that challenge the conventional wisdom regarding the apex predator of the Ohio River watershed.
On one creek, he said, he witnessed more than a dozen "solitary" muskies lounging together near a shallow log jam. On another Christy watched 150 bait-sized suckers casually swimming near a "voracious" musky, apparently unafraid. He's gotten so close to the big fish, he said, he could smell them. Fishless days are many, said Christy, and success is more often measured in "follows," "takes," "hook ups" and "bite offs" than in actual "catches."
These days, Christy provides a unique service for clients of Portersville, Pa.-based Muddy Creek Fishing Guides, leading fly-fishing catch-and-release-only musky trips by drift boat on Western Pennsylvania streams.
"I had done some [casting rod] musky fishing with the Three Rivers chapter of Muskies Inc. I caught one and was all excited," he said. "I tried it myself with a fly rod, and in the first five casts I lost one. There were no books you could buy at the time, so I just kept experimenting. Bigger flies, smaller flies, different weight lines. I went from that first fish in 2002 to 2006 without catching another [musky], even though that's pretty much where my time and resources went."
Finally, Christy set the hook on another on a creek in Northwest Pennsylvania.
"That triumph was amazing," he said. "I had four takes that day, two solid hook ups, one pulled me into a brush pile and the other I managed to finally land. After that fish it was like mayhem -- I was seeing [muskies] on almost every other cast."
That was Christy's last day of musky mayhem.
"Sometimes you have four takes in a day -- it's amazing. Other times, nothing," he said during a recent morning while slowly rowing his drift boat up the muddy waters of an Allegheny River tributary.
This year he's had six follows, one hook up and has seen a muskellunge on almost every trip.
"That's pretty good for musky fishing, even trolling on a lake," he said.
Big fish require big tackle. Christy rigs his clients with 9-foot, 10-weight fly rods sometimes strung with 420-grain sink-tip line and home-made 4-foot leaders tipped with 50-pound Fluorocarbon bite guards.
With few musky fly patterns to follow, Christy ties his own wildcat Deceiver-style flies built around heavy 2/0 saltwater hooks in the front and 3/0 short-shank Wacky Worm hooks in the rear. Most of his flies are 7 to 12 inches in length crafted from deer hair, plastic eyes and a rattle with long tails made from a mix of schlappen hackle feathers and flash.
"I try to fish as deep as I can, but sometimes that's not going to happen," he said. "I experimented with lead eyes or adding split shot to the leader, but it's very unstable in the water, makes the fly swim unnaturally."
Graceful 60-foot dry-fly casts? Not so much.
"These fish are big and fearless. They have no predators," Christy said. "You can plop that big fly right next to him in shallow water and he's like, 'I don't care, I'm a musky.' "
To master Christy's retrieve, a veteran fly angler has to forget everything he's learned about working the current, rod motion, line management and setting the hook.
"I like to think there's this magical moment when you get that fly to go, not necessarily perpendicular to the current, but just downstream," he said, although he fishes every cast -- even the bad ones.
"You wouldn't believe the embarrassingly bad casts that have resulted in a hook up," he said, laughing.
Christy holds the rod tip in the water to reduce shake and strips in line alternating from one-hand strips to fast double-hand strips to long pulls followed by a pause. No rod action, no line swing, no dangle -- just the same Figure 8 motion at the boat performed by musky trollers.
"It's a lot of work casting these big flies and heavy line for eight hours at a time," he said. "Some of this [technique] is for the fish, some is just to make it easier on the angler."
The reels, he said, are low-budget spools with no drag. Despite the muskies' size and ferocity of the strike, Christy never puts them on the reel.
"A lot of times the strike is right at the boat, or you suddenly feel weight when you're stripping," he said. "You don't have a lot of time. Don't lift the rod to set the hook, just strip hard and long -- you'll know when there's a fish on."
Christy says he avoids lakes and big rivers, focusing on smaller waters with less favorable habitat, making it easier to target big muskies that have never seen an angler's fly.
"When you get that fish -- especially if you're one of us, I'll say, fortunate souls who spend a lot of time between fish -- it's ultra-rewarding," he said, "like you've accomplished this task that is almost insurmountable."
Muddy Creek Fishing Guides can be reached at www.mcfishnguides.com, 724-674-3839, firstname.lastname@example.org.