Muskie Catch and Release from an Antique St Lawrence Skiff
Written by John Peach posted on December 13, 2014
I had just dropped back my antique Skinner Muskie spoon and started to pull on the oars of Perry, our antique St Lawrence skiff, when the reel on the pre 1920 wooden rod started to scream as line ripped off the reel.
My first thought was I had hooked bottom, as the rod bounced in the ancient iron rod holder mounted to a thwart clamped across the skiff’s gunnels. As I feathered my oars, letting them rotate in their oarlocks until they were gliding alongside the boat, and reached for the rod, the line still ran out too fast to be bottom. Pressing my thumb down on the leather drag piece of the reel, I realized I had a large fish hooked up. Perhaps a big pike or river catfish, but the prospect of a muskie did not occur to me until I first saw the swirl far behind the pointed stern of the 16’ skiff.
As the bass season slows down in late September, I switch from trolling Rapalas for bass to dragging lures and spoons for pike. By October, I have broken out my antique 4’ wooden Muskie rod and reel. The only drag device, the method of inducing friction to the reel of line as it unspools, is a pad of leather hinged to a bar on the reel. In hindsight, I can say you need to be an octopus to have enough arms to row a skiff, fight a large fish with a leather drag reel, and attempt to photograph and release the fish. Most mornings from May through October begin with me rowing Perry, our 16’ Spalding St Lawrence Boat Co skiff built in 1900 in Ogdensburg, NY. My 30 to 40-minute row usually includes trolling a lure for pike or bass, with an occasional catch and release bringing a rush of excitement to my exercise regime.
I like to troll antique Skinner spoons, manufactured years ago by GM Skinner on James Street in Clayton, NY. Made from the 1880s until the mid-1900s, they gained a worldwide reputation as the finest Muskie bait available anywhere in the world. The deep running spoons had their own metallic luster coupled with bucktail “feathers”, and were also available in a baked on red & white enamel pattern. My particular spoon was a 4” model with red and white feathers and a large triple hook. It had seen years of use before I found it at the swap meet years ago in Clayton. I have always been intrigued with the old prints of guides landing large muskies for their well-dressed sports in a net held over the gunnel of a St Lawrence skiff. My curious mind wondered if a little artistic license was taken when painting the scene, as all those people looking and leaning over the gunnel of a reasonable tippy boat looked like a recipe for disaster.
Fishermen who successfully catch and release a legal size muskie, currently 48” or larger, receive a special edition Michael Ringer print of the mighty St Lawrence muskie. The Muskellunge (Muskie) is considered by most fishermen the most highly prized North American fresh water fish. Fishing pressure and pollution had caused the numbers of mature muskie to become seriously low by 1987 when Save The River (Clayton NY) launched its very successful Muskie Catch and Release program.
To date, over 1000 prints have been awarded to St Lawrence River fishermen for releasing these magnificent fish. Save The River is about to launch its third edition Muskie print, thanks to the very generous support of Michael Ringer. Releasing the most mature large fish put the best breeding stock back in the River, which is critical to the continued rebuilding of the muskie population.
As I held the pounding rod and reel and applied friction, I realized I had a logistical challenge in my hands. I could just fight the fish, but he would tow the skiff around and probably break loose before I could get him close to the boat. I tried putting the rod back in the holder and rowing a few strokes to keep headway with the boat, but it was impossible to keep drag on the reel with my thumb and row the boat at the same time.According to John Farrell, PhD, the fish have also been under pressure from an evolving virus, VHS, which was first positively identified in a mature muskie in the River in 2006. Naturally occurring swings in water temperature, such as happened in 2005, also stress muskie, leading to weakness and death of some fish. Farrell, director of SUNY ESF’s Thousand Island Biological Station, has been studying the St Lawrence River muskie population for many years now along with the staff of the Governor’s Island biological center. I recommend the very informative article “Development, implementation, and evaluation of an international muskellunge management strategy for the upper St Lawrence River” by Farrell, Klindt, Casselman, LaPan, Werner, and Schiavone published in 2007 in Environmental Biology of Fishes 79:111-123.
I finally developed the program of rowing a few strokes whenever the fish slowed its run, and I could release the drag (I tried to put my toe of my sneaker up on the drag, but that almost caused an upset of the boat!).
After about 15 minutes of fighting the fish and seeing it swirl as it got closer to the boat, I heard a yell of encouragement from another fisherman standing on the shore line. He seemed almost as excited as me, and enjoying the thrill as much as me. About this time in the struggle I started to think about landing the fish for a clean release, but a quick glance behind my shoulder at my knot free net used for bass convinced me that device was seriously undersized for the event. I do stow a large club like stick for landing large pike, but that was not meant as a release device.
Lapstrake constructed skiffs usually take two to three days to soak up after being hauled out for a few days, so my first row after a relaunch usually gets my feet wet unless I stop to pump out the water every 10 minutes. I’m sure you can visualize the scene as the water sloshing in the bilge lapped at my feet. I was not too worried yet, as I was working closer to the shore and the water was still reasonably warm. As the magnificent fish got closer to the skiff, my excitement grew as I realized I had a huge muskie, and not a pike, on the line. Now I had two new challenges – get a photograph and make a quick and clean release. I always place my iPhone on the seat next to me as I row, looking for interesting photographs of the 1000 Islands and the fish and wildlife I encounter. But I was seriously short of hands at this point, needing two to row, two to hold the reel, and one to photograph. To say it was a challenge is an understatement. My skiff is normally a pretty dry boat, but several days of windy weather prior to this row had caused me to haul the boat and wait for calmer waters for my morning rows.
I finally feathered the oars, which is generally easy in the well-designed St Lawrence skiff. If you release your hands slowly, the oars will swing in next to the hull and trail along, providing you do not hit them with your arm and knock them overboard! Carefully burying the rod butt in my crotch and holding the reel and drag with my right hand, I grabbed my iPhone with my left and attempted to unlock the infernal device with my thumb which was now cramped from rowing and fighting the fish. The huge fish was now alongside the aft portion of the skiff, in perfect position for a trophy photo. I glanced up at the camera to see if I had inadvertently put it in “selfie” mode, and was surprised as the strong fish thrashed its tail and jerked the rod. That caused the camera to slip from my hand, promptly executing a swan dive into the bilge water in the boat. Luckily, it was enclosed in its LifeProof watertight case – a must for any boater and fisherman – but quickly slipped up under the seat in the sloshing water.
As I guided my muskie back along the starboard stern quarter, I reached down to my old wooden club which had a rough end that would be perfect to push against the two exposed hooks sticking out of the side of the fish’s mouth. Just as I put the rounded tip of the stick against one of the exposed hooks and exerted a little pressure the fish swirled away from the boat and the Skinner spoon popped free from its mouth. It slowly rolled away from the skiff, giving me one more glimpse of the most magnificent fresh water fish I have ever seen. I have caught much larger salt water species, but none gave me the thrill of catching this magnificent muskie within a mile of our own dock. I quickly decided my highest priority was to once more bring the fish alongside and make a clean release, allowing the trophy muskie to once more swim free and breed. Fighting the fish too long can injure it to the point where it can never recover and perhaps die.
My fellow fisherman on the shoreline was shouting his encouragement to me about the fish. He seemed almost as excited as me, and agreed to sign my Save The River certificate authenticating the catch. He did not use a camera, but told me he saw the fish jump once and swirl several times.
Talking to my new friend gave me an opportunity to tell him about Save The River’s Muskie Catch and Release program as well as the new Bass Catch and Release program. Launched at the opening of the 2014 Bass season, it has as its motto “…because a bass is too valuable to catch only once.” Fishermen are asked to send photos to Save The River, and weekly photo prize winners receive a Catch and Release sweatshirt provide by Ed Huck marine in Rockport, Ontario. The Bass Catch and Release program is also sponsored by ROSCO Terminal Tackle, the oldest and largest manufacturer of terminal fishing tackle in the United States. The fourth generation owner of Rosco is an avid fisherman and River Rat and was excited to be able to sponsor a program designed to return bass to the River. Save The River’s literature and media describe proper techniques for catching and releasing both bass and muskie, and can be viewed at www.savetheriver.org.
Upon hearing my fish story a good friend of mine commented “even though you don’t have the picture you will have the memory for your lifetime.” How right he was. Catching and releasing the River’s most iconic game fish from an antique skiff using turn of the last century fishing tackle was a thrill of my lifetime. It already has me planning for next season, and has me convinced those old muskie fishing prints portrayed superb fishing guides using just a touch of artistic license to keep the boats upright and dry.
By John Peach, Huckleberry Island, Ivy Lea
Published by ThousandIslandsLife.com on December 13, 2014