Midnight troll for big muskies
John Kubiak rowed toward another midnight with a new understanding of why the big muskies were falling.
His eyes strained into the black of a northern Wisconsin night for baitfish that here or there would pocket and patter the still surface like a rippling breeze.
When he saw it, he turned toward it.
When he found it, he watched the rods with a heightened anticipation that one would soon bow to the water; again.
Already, my brother-in-law had caught and released seven muskies from 38 to 48 inches in just a few days of row trolling the night.
Success on the water hadn't always come so easy. Although 84 muskies had fallen to his tactics over the years, like most musky hunters, Kubiak had paid his dues. In 2006 alone, he had spent 60 hours on the water for just one strike.
This trip to Vilas County in July of 2007 had been extraordinarily successful.
Any correlation between his method and that success though, had eluded him until just prior to the week's final trip. It was an enlightenment that took him back literally decades.
Kubiak, my wife Lori's little brother, had first stood on the Island Lake property of my uncle, Bob Ellis as a 12 year old boy in the 1980s, amazed at what he was being introduced to.
Known by Wisconsin musky authorities such as Joe Bucher and Tom Gelb as a musky "master" and a pioneer of fishing open water and using baitfish as "structure" to target big fish according to "Secrets of the Suspended Musky" published in Musky Hunter magazine in 2001, Bob Ellis was making an impression.
"I was 12 years old," Kubiak said. "Every one of Bob's cabins had a musky on the wall that was bigger than any I had ever seen before. One of the fish had a homemade lure hanging from its mouth. He had a small station wagon that he had pulled the passenger seat out of so that he could slide his little skiff in and troll other lakes. Everything he did was really foreign."
Bob Ellis was killed in his 12 foot skiff in a boat collision while rowing in November of 1989.
But his legacy includes scores of trophy fish taken to 41 pounds row trolling using tactics even 20 years ago, according to Musky Hunter, "thought to be cutting edge today." The legacy includes passing the baton to upcoming musky hunters like John Kubiak.
Today, Kubiak predominantly row trolls from a 15 foot Grumman but until this July had worked the night water only by casting from a Tuffy.
His baptism tonight, trolling included good company; rowing over deep water pulling a black Jake bait and black Depth Raider produced by Wisconsin musky experts Pete Maina and Joe Bucher respectively, intent on fishing a shallow shoreline.
Still in 30 feet of water, he missed a first strike and decided to alter his plan to work the shoreline from the deep. Fifteen minutes later, he caught and released a 38 inch fish.
"It was the first time I fished with two black baits," he said. "I like black baits at night casting because of the silhouette. I caught the first fish on a Jake and just never switched. The strikes kept going back and forth from the Jake to the Depth Raider."
By launching after 9:00 p.m., fishing deep, open water until the early morning, catching two or three hours of sleep and fishing the early morning black, Kubiak was catching big fish in big numbers.
"I was locked into two times," he said. "Trying to do both the late night and early morning meant no sleep. I could do that. My wife wasn't coming up until later."
Over several days of fishing the night in deep water, seven muskies were caught and released between 38 and 48 inches, bringing on a foreign feeling to one avid musky hunter.
It was almost easy, although still he could think of no correlation between the success and a "why" he was experiencing it.
"I wasn't tuned into ciscoes as the reason until I talked to a bait shop owner after catching three muskies at 40, 43 and 48 inches within 200 yards of each other," he said. "I just kept rowing in loops, marking the spots and getting more strikes with big fish. The guy said he knew musky fisherman having good success casting into schools of ciscoes on the surface."
"The light bulb went on; Ciscoes. I had seen schools of fish feeding on the surface out in the middle of nowhere before. Those baitfish come to the surface to feed and go right back down. The water temperature was 75 degrees. The thermocline was about 20 feet deep. My theory is that those big muskies were hanging at about 15 feet waiting for those ciscoes to come up when my baits would come though."
Kubiak had one last night to put the theory to practice and calm water to do it. Where ever the surface rippled with ciscoes, he rowed the Grumman into it.
Among the commotion, he caught a 40 inch musky, and lost another. His one week total was eight fish taken and released, with five fish over 40 inches and a large musky of 48 inches.
"After I got back I dug up a bunch of old Musky Hunter mags out of the archives because I remembered some articles about ciscoes," Kubiak e-mailed this reporter.
"I ran across an article written by Uncle Bob. In one part (fishing the midnight hour) he sees a school of baitfish and whispers, `ciscoes'. He catches a 31 inch walleye over deep, open water. A few times out on the lake, I felt like I thought he would have felt during a hot streak of musky fishing."
Seeds planted sometimes take decades to come to fruition. But the harvest, for this newest Ciscoe Kid, was well worth the wait.