Learning on the fly
RAVENSWOOD - Nathan Rees is obsessed.
Other 21-year-old college students are obsessed, too, but their obsessions mostly center on dating, partying or athletics. Rees' obsession is muskie fishing.
"Yeah, I've gone off the deep end," he said, reaching into his truck to pull out a black lure box. "Not only do I spend almost all my spare time fishing for a fish that's really hard to catch, I do it in the most difficult way possible - with a fly rod."
He opened the box and displayed an assortment of gigantic muskie flies, most of them 10 to 12 inches in length, and most of them bristling with bucktail hair, Icelandic pony hair, flashy tinsels and wickedly sharp hooks.
"It took me two years to finally catch a muskie on a fly," he said. "That was five years ago. But after I finally caught that first one, things started clicking. I've caught 17 so far this year, and I'm on pace to have my best year ever."
Many muskie fishermen are fortunate to catch 10 in a year, even with conventional tackle. How does Rees catch so many - and with flies, no less?
"I spend a lot of time on the water," he said. "And I concentrate on streams where there are plenty of fish."
Fortunately for Rees, there are dozens of such streams within a 100-mile radius of Marshall University.
"The Tri-State area is great for muskie fishing," he said. "I call it 'the southern north woods.' I can get out of class and be fishing really good muskie water in less than 20 minutes."
At least now he waits until he gets out of class. It wasn't always that way.
"I started out at Concord [University], and fishing definitely affected my studies while I was there," Rees said. "After I transferred to Marshall, I buckled down. But I still go muskie fishing every day I can."
Rees traces his fascination with fly fishing to the movie, "A River Runs Through It," which he saw when he was 11 years old.
"I thought it looked awesome, and I wanted to do it," he said. "I got a fly rod and started learning to cast. When I was 14, Chris Shockey and Bubba Holt of the Blennerhassett Chapter of Trout Unlimited sent me to the TU Fly Fishing School. Up till then, most of the fly fishing I had done was for trout, but after the school I started trying to catch a muskie."
With his father rowing the boat, Rees spent countless hours pounding the waters of Jackson County's Sandy Creek and Mill Creek. He had muskies follow his flies and sometimes take them, but he never could seem to get one of the big, toothy fish into the boat.
But then, in the autumn of 2007, the inevitable happened.
"I caught my first muskie," Rees recalled. "It was 18 inches long. The fly was 12 inches long. My dad was laughing at me. But that first fish kind of opened the floodgates. The next time out I caught my first legal muskie, a 30-incher, and then a little while later on that same day I caught a 43-incher."
Rees began traveling to any stretch of muskie water within driving distance. He fished lakes, big rivers and small streams. He fished muddy water and clear water.
Along the way, he discovered that fly tackle seems to be uniquely suited for catching muskies in small streams, and especially in streams with clear water.
"I think flies work well in small streams because they hit the water without much of a splash," Rees said. "Plus, the hair and feathers in these flies make them pulsate, so they look much more natural in the water than solid lures.
"Clear water allows me to watch how muskies respond to flies. In some streams, I can see the fish coming from 20 feet away. Seeing how they stalk and strike the flies gave me a good idea of when to speed the retrieve up and slow it down."
Rees also credited Robert Tomes' book, "Muskie on the Fly," for helping to shorten the muskie-fishing learning curve.
"It allowed me to see how other people's flies were constructed, taught me how to properly set the hook, and how to figure-eight the fly at the boat to draw last-second strikes," Rees said.
Not surprisingly, Rees uses tackle foreign to most fly anglers.
"I use a 400-grain sink-tip line on a 10-weight rod, and with that rig I'm throwing 10- to 12-inch tandem-hook streamers. When I'm fishing 12- to 14-inch 'mammal flies' to imitate baby muskrats, I use a 12-weight rig usually intended for saltwater use."
To date, the biggest muskie Rees has landed on fly tackle measured 48 inches in length, a trophy by any measure.
"I don't know if I'll catch a bigger one," he said.
He's seen bigger ones, though. One in particular haunts him to this day.
"I was fishing a creek near Portsmouth, Ohio, and had just swung a streamer under a mat of floating debris," he recalled. "A huge fish came out from under the mat with its nose almost touching the fly. It followed the fly all the way to the boat.
"I figure-eighted the fly for close to 10 minutes, and the fish stayed right there watching it. I tried every trick I knew. I ran the fly deep and shallow, ran it hot - everything. The fish never took. It sank down out of sight and disappeared. I had to sit down. I was shaking so hard the boat started shaking too."
Rees knows it's natural for "the ones that got away" to linger in anglers' minds.
"That's why fishing for muskies is so addictive," he said. "They're hard to catch, and it's those fish you miss that keep you coming back for more. I know that once I got into fishing for muskies, all other kinds of fishing went away. I've been pretty narrow-mindedly focused on them ever since."
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231, or firstname.lastname@example.org.