Presented by Bernard+Associates: A few years ago my wife suggested I find a cottage “Up North,” as we say in Wisconsin, where we could spend a week’s vacation in midsummer. It had to be on a lake, of course, and it had to have that woodsy, rustic character that all the cottages we remember from our youth seemed to have, but distressingly few have today.

For once I got lucky. Other than deciding to focus on the Boulder Junction area – a.k.a., “The Muskie Capital of the World” – it was sheer serendipity that led us to Lynx Lake, and to the homey cottage nestled there among the birches, pines and cedars. The place was everything we’d hoped it would be and more, from the eagles that wheeled in the sky by day to the loons whose haunting cries pierced the night – and the best place on the whole lake to fish for smallmouth bass was the long, narrow reef that parallels the shore about a hundred yards out.

That, too, was a happy accident. In my several conversations with the cottage’s owner, I didn’t mention fishing once. I swear.

The cottage rental included use of the dock, along with a little aluminum boat and a pair of oars. On evenings when the weather was fair and the winds were light, I liked to row out after supper and peck my way down the reef with deerhair bugs. The hour before dusk is a magical time to fish for smallmouth, and a smallie exploding on a bug – the sight, sound and feel of it – is one of those pleasures I can never get enough of. Like the roar of a ruffed grouse breaking cover, you’re never truly prepared for it. It reduces your wits to pudding, and I love it.

The first time I fished the reef, I was anchored at the far end, fanning casts across the cannonball boulders that tumble into the deep water, when I attracted the attention of some people enjoying sundowners on the deck of their cottage.

“Hey, look at that guy fly fishing!” somebody exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

“It’s just like in that movie, A River Runs Through It,” a different voice piped up.

I don’t know about that, but at least my casting’s recognizable as the same basic motion. I have an old Scott rod that’s a joy to fish – a model they don’t make any more – and because I never approached these after-dinner outings with high expectations, the chance to spend an hour or so throwing a line was pretty satisfying all by itself. Once in a while, I even caught a bass.

That boulder field at the far end of the reef, in fact, was the honey hole. I was slinging a chartreuse Dahlberg Slider when I hooked one of the hardest-fighting smallmouth I’ve ever tangled with. I realize that’s like saying “one of the hottest days in equatorial Africa,” but I think you get the point.

The take was gentle – the big ones will fool you like that on occasion, sucking the bug off the top instead of detonating on it – but when I reared back on the rod, whatever was on the other end didn’t budge. And when it catapulted out of the water, torquing in mid-air before crashing down in a geyser of spray, I knew, with as much certainty as I knew anything, that I was going to have my hands full.

The jumps take your breath away, but it’s those bulldogging, boring-for-the-bottom rushes that wear you out. This bass didn’t have an ounce of quit; gaining line on it was about as easy as dragging a refrigerator up a flight of stairs. Then, when I finally felt I had the upper hand, the fish surprised me with one last, desperate lunge and wrapped the leader around the anchor line. I was using a pretty stout tippet, though, so when it became clear that my only recourse was to haul up the anchor and hope for the best, everything held.

The bass taped 18 inches – a good smallmouth anywhere, and a really good one, I thought, for a resort lake that boasts no particular reputation as a fishing hotspot. After the release, I had to wait a while for my rod hand to unclench – and for the throbbing in my forearm to subside – before I was ready to row back. The loons were beginning to tune up by then, and when I looked over my shoulder to get my bearings, the lights from our little cottage seemed like warm golden beacons in the gathering darkness.

We returned to the cottage every summer for several years, and I always managed to catch a few nice bass. But then came a summer when I couldn’t buy a fish. Oh, I picked up a small one here and there, but the honey hole had gone sour. I threw every bug in my box, even tried dredging with Clousers and Woolly Buggers, but I couldn’t drum up any business. I was mystified.

Well, if you’ve fished the north country much, it’s likely you’ve already solved the mystery. The reason I wasn’t catching bass is they weren’t there, and the reason the bass weren’t there is that an “undesirable element” had moved into the neighborhood.

The sun was melting into the skyline pines by the time I got to the far end of the reef, and the whisper of breeze ruffling the surface gave it the look of a sheet of hammered copper. I was throwing a yellow Dahlberg Diver when suddenly my antennae went up. There was something different about the water behind the fly. It was hard to put a finger on it, exactly, but it was almost as if it was vibrating. I was familiar with the concept of “nervous water,” but while I understood its implications on a bonefish flat, I was a little unclear about what it might mean on Lynx Lake in northern Wisconsin.

I had a hunch, though. And when that vague disturbance resolved into a wake vectoring straight at the Dahlberg, all doubt fell away.

It was over before it started. There was a ga-womph! like the sound of an aircraft carrier being launched, a washtub-sized hole appeared in the water where the bug used to be. The rod was nearly ripped from my hand . . . and then it snapped back like the limb of a bow when the muskie razored the leader and the whole shebang went sickeningly limp.

I was tempted to utter an obscenity, just on general principle, but I was instantly resigned to this outcome. You don’t show up at a gunfight with a peashooter, and you don’t stay attached to a muskie with a 12-pound mono tippet. I suppose if you hooked it in precisely the right spot you might have a chance – about the same chance you’d have of walking barefoot through broken glass without spilling blood.

The ironic thing was that I’d spent a sizable amount of time in the previous decade or so specifically trying to catch a muskie on a fly – and failing spectacularly. In fact, I’d made a conscious decision that very spring to give it up, having concluded there are a lot more enjoyable and interesting ways not to catch fish.

But now the landscape had changed. Here was a muskie demonstrably willing to eat a fly, so why not take another hour out of my life and give it a shot? These twilight excursions were stolen moments anyway – I was on a family vacation, remember, not a fishing trip – and it seemed to me that failing to act on this revelation would be like ignoring a visible sign from God.

I gave the fish a couple days to lick its wounds; then, on the last night of our vacation, I rowed back out to the far end of the reef. But this time I was armed with a wire bite tippet and a 1/0 chartreuse Mega Diver, a fly that resembles a small parrot. The necessity of heaving ungainly patterns like this goes a long way toward explaining why I’d given up serious fly fishing for muskies; after a couple days of it, it’s all you can do to close your claw-like casting hand around a bottle of beer and tremblingly raise it to your parched and swollen lips.

It was a lovely evening, mild and still, the colors of sky and sunset pooling on the mirrored surface as if they’d dripped from the brush of Van Gogh. Casting the Mega Diver was a chore, but soon I found a rhythm: pick up, false cast, haul, grunt, haul, grunt, shoot. It wasn’t pretty, but I was covering the water. And because I fully expected the muskie to show itself at any instant, I was laser-focused on each and every glugging retrieve.

Or at least I was until I realized it was growing dark, and that I’d whipped about five acres of water to a froth without getting so much as a half-hearted follow – a bitter microcosm of all the years I’d devoted to this feckless and quixotic enterprise.

I was about to reel up when a thought popped into my head. That very afternoon we’d visited the local historical museum, which has a wonderful exhibit on the area’s old-time rowing guides: photos, tackle (it’s deeply impressive to see a plug the size of a fungo bat and realize that the damage inflicted on it – as if it’d been attacked by a hatchet – is the result of muskies that shook it like a bone), enormous mounted muskies, even several achingly beautiful wooden guideboats.

What you have to understand is that in this part of the world where muskies “built the schools” thanks to the dollars spent by anglers, motor-trolling has always been considered roughly equivalent to sleeping with your best friend’s wife. It may be acceptable in such Gomorrahs as Minnesota, New York and Ontario, but in Wisconsin, where the architects of tradition staked out the moral high ground, it you want to troll for muskies, you row.

This isn’t just the custom; it’s the law. There’s probably no defensible biological basis for it, and it’s always seemed faintly ironic to me, in this context, that the man who invented the outboard motor, Ole Evinrude, was a Wisconsinite. (According to legend, he was inspired by a dish of ice cream that melted before he could deliver it via rowboat to a girl he was courting.)

So with all this history fresh in mind, it occurred to me that I had nothing to lose by row-trolling back to the dock. I could follow the reef almost all the way, and when you’re dealing with as unpredictable a fish as the muskie, there’s a lot to be said for simply keeping your fly in the water for as long as you can.

I settled into a leisurely cadence with the oars, the Mega Diver chugging along about 70 feet behind. The handle of the rod was on the seat next to me, with the tip balanced on the transom. Someone had a bonfire going on the beach; I could smell the woodsmoke from a distance, and as I drew closer I could see the faces of parents and children, illuminated by the dancing flames.

At the near end of the reef it humps up into a tiny island, little more than a blister of rock with a few scrubby birches and cedars. I was about to make the turn for the dock, but at the last moment decided that since I’d come this far, I might as well go the extra 50 yards and bend around the drop-off at the island’s tip.

I glanced inshore to check my position, heard a scraping noise, and turned to see my prized Scott rod doing a swan dive off the stern. I’ve done a fair amount of fishing in my life, wet my line in Labrador and Alaska, Belize and the Northwest Territories, but never in my angling career have I experienced such comprehensive disbelief. The part I couldn’t believe wasn’t that I was about to lose my favorite rod, but that my half-baked plan had actually worked. The spirits of the rowing guides, some of whom undoubtedly fished this very lake, must have been with me.

I made a frantic grab for the rod, and my first impression, as the line came tight, was that the fly had snagged bottom. But then I felt the heavy, purposeful throb that is the signature of a good fish. It stayed deep, fighting against the pressure, taking line with short, surging runs; every muskie reacts differently, so there was no telling its size. After a couple minutes of slugging it out, it changed tactics and planed toward the surface, the line sawing the water as it rose. Knowing what was coming, I reminded myself to bow to the leap.

But when the fish went airborne, all I could do was stare, dumbfounded. My muskie had morphed into a giant smallmouth!

A 20-incher, to be precise. It was thick through the back, deep in the belly and hard as a slab of marble, with dark vertical bars striping its flanks and eyes as red and glowering as a goshawk’s. I’ve caught a couple smallmouth that were bigger, but for reasons that I hope are at least partially obvious, I’ve never caught a more memorable one.

I wondered what I’d do for an encore, but the problem was solved for me. The property got sold, and the new owner, in what’s become a familiar pattern, razed the cottage to make way for a palatial summer home. It’s a funny thing, but since then we’ve had no desire to look for another place to rent Up North. I guess we were more attached to the little cottage than we knew.

Or maybe it’s just that we know we could never get that lucky again.

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