I tried. I gave it every ounce of energy I had. Just when I finally put the 12 weight with a full 450 grain sinking line and a double-jointed articulated chicken with hooks down, just then our guide, Matt Reilly, set the hook on a 28-inch trophy. I can hear some of you mumbling: “But Cola, a musky should be 40 inches to be considered a trophy.” That is beside the point for this adventure.
It may have been mine and my father’s last fishing trip together, and I wanted it to be perfect for him. A little over a month ago, my father’s neurologist revealed that he is afflicted with Alzheimers, and consequently this diagnosis explains his terrible short-term memory loss. The musky trip with Matt Reilly was supposed to be something I did on the back end of a second opinion in Baltimore, and I had loosely configured a group of guys to join the adventure. From the moment I planned the trip my father wanted to go. In some ways he wanted to see this part of Virginia because he understood it to have genealogical significance to the history of our ancestors. The burden of Southern family history was still a very real force in what was left of his memory.
Reilly came highly recommended by a fly shop owner that I respect, and as I had never tried for these lazy-toothy-bastards, I only knew it was going to be physically taxing to cast that heavy rod for about 10 thousand casts. I knew it was 37 degrees and sleeting a bit. I knew my father was not the same physical fellow who had taught me to double haul 20 years ago. His brain really wanted to fish for musky, so my friends were assembled to do two things: put a musky in the boat and be understanding of my father’s limits.
Sam Bailey is no stranger to muskellunge as he had been an organizer for Hardly Strictly Musky years ago, and his friend Scott Stevenson was who he brought to ride in the drift boat with the photographer who wishes to remain anonymous. Scott has an intriguing mind, I learned rather quickly, when he explained to me that he was the one who came up with the “Jesus Loves Musky” sticker. Who but for Jesus could love a musky with all those jagged teeth? Scott’s presumption was that Jesus loves all creatures, even musky. I could not stop considering the act of fishing for musky as being like the flagellant Catholic monks who whip themselves for Jesus.
Then there was Colin Dunahee. That is his real name. He is a boisterous fanatic when it comes to musky, though this would be his and my first time fishing for the musky. Colin had caught a few pike. This made him speak as an expert when Sam and Scott had both caught several musky. No one knew Colin yet, and he was filling in for my good friend Shane. Though Colin had the air of a know-it-all, he really did know it all when it came to foraging for edible mushrooms. He did me a terrific solid by choosing the day that was most cold and miserable, so my father could go on the second and less terrible day. Colin was also a skilled chef, and so he fed us every night of the trip. It was like he had the spirit of a nunahee riding a spiritual bicycle around in his brain. It seemed to be rather three tracked: hunting, fishing, and foraging. Sam kept joking about killing the Dunahee to extract the nunahee sprit inside him.
On the first day, my father was forced to stay in the cabin from 7 am – 7 pm with no keys to drive around the commonwealth. His driving made me terrible nervous since he could barely figure out how to use his phone, let alone GPS map a destination. So I took the keys and went and fished in a terrible cold with Colin. I raised a leviathan and performed a figure eight right over its head, but to no avail. Instead of elevating to the fly the 30-plus-inch fish just lowered itself to the deeper part of the pool. Colin got one to eat as the fly flew back to him all wadded up and twisted, then the fish was off. We got home late, and my father was bored out of his mind, since he could not figure out how to change the Netflix watch options. Colin made venison meatballs and spaghetti.
The next day went similar to that ‘80s film, Weekend at Bernie’s. We dressed my father for the trip in waders that he borrowed from Sam. It was in the upper 30s when we started so he really needed the extra layer. He tried casting early on, but it was not long before his 73-year-old limbs gave out.
The whole day passed with Matt navigating some very treacherous parts of the New River, and ultimately my father blended into this hunt for musky while allowing Matt to cast for him. He sat and watched patiently until Matt caught one in the last hour of the second day. Thirty feet out a musky blew up on the lure and he hammered it with the stick.
I started to celebrate.
“Get the net, John!”
I managed to scoop the musky and Dad had sense to counterbalance the boat while we took pictures. When we were done with the glorious photo shoot, we all looked at my father who was then sitting on the gunwale. He looked as I imagined he must have looked right before he flipped over his rail at home breaking his back in two compression fractures years earlier. This time the frigid water would catch him.
Matt and I grabbed him, and set him on the cooler before our comedy turned tragic. I will always have the memory of my dad being on the first musky outing of my life. He may not always remember the event, but I will.
Thanks to all my nunnahee friends for sharing this outing. It was a lot of work and very little leisure, but we caught one. Matt Reilly is a skilled guide, and brings excellent conversation. He served fine streamside cooking, and my father did not die, or break his hip in spite of his bad knees and the slippery rock. Jesus and the Nunnahee live for muskellunge.