Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | Big Sis.
Big Sis is Big Sissabagama Lake near the town of Stone Lake, WI.
I first fished there in the summer of 1970.
One of my favorite hunting and fishing companions had left his management position at Sears, sold everything they owned and bought Pine Ridge Resort on Big Sis and had invited me and mine for a weekend. We drove up from Northern Illinois where we lived at the time.
I had read a lot about muskys and musky fishing and was anxious to try my hand at catching the fish of a thousand casts. Big Sis had the reputation of a good musky lake. From what I had read in the outdoor magazines that meant I might catch one musky per season if I did the right things.
Another of our hunting/fishing companions was there and was about to go out with a guide. He invited me to join him. So I left my family catching up with old friends and joined Walt in the guide’s boat.
I had only recently expanded my fishing techniques and tackle from a fly-rod-only, so my tackle was not really what experts would suggest for musky. I had a couple of Zebco rigs, an 808 loaded with 20# mono and a 33 loaded with 10# mono. My lures were an assortment of silver Rapala originals from 5” to 7” and miscellaneous Mepps spinners and DareDevl spoons. I didn’t think my fly fishing tackle was suitable for musky.
Walt was very kind after viewing my tackle. He offered to loan me one of his musky rigs, a pool cue stick about 5.5’ with a hand winch and a log of firewood with hooks on it. I admitted that I had not learned to use bait casting gear and would stick with my beginner’s equipment.
Walt had been at the resort for a week and this was his last outing. He had caught nothing and had only a couple of follows. He was tossing a gigantic swimming plug into deep water, grunting with the effort on each cast.
I tied on my 18S Rapala and cast toward emergent weeds and shallow rocks. The water in Big Sis was gin clear, so we could read a newspaper on the bottom in 10’ depths. Both Walt and the guide told me I would find no muskys there, only bass and maybe a walleye (The lake held no northern pike in those days). My fishing instincts insisted that I was casting to where ambush predators would lurk. I stuck with my instinct.
After a while Walt gave a whoop. A FBN Boomer cruised in behind his huge bait, then sank out of sight. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hang that monster. I visualized my rod shattered and my (mostly) plastic spincast reel a smoking ruin. I continued to cast toward structure at the ends of points and islands, almost hoping there would be no ballistic missile subs waiting to destroy my tackle and humiliate me.
I usually work surface baits, like a floating Rapala, as oversize popping bugs on a fly rod. That is how I worked this one. . .cast, let sit until the ripples are gone, twitch, wait, twitch, etc.
Pretty soon, splash!!. I had a nice smallie on. The fight didn’t last long and Mr. smallie was free again.
Then came a huge swirl and the Rapala disappeared in a cloud of spray. My rod bent and the “drag” on my Zebco screeched briefly. I could not see the fish at first and thought it felt like a 4-5# smallmouth bass. Then it shot into the air, twisting and turning. It was a musky, about 29”. I frankly expected a lot stronger fight than I got. It was over pretty quickly. After measuring the fish we released her.
In those days one could keep one musky over 30” per day in Wisconsin and fishermen often did. Since then, of course, we have learned that a 30” musky is about 10 years old and the 50”+ monsters that we seek may be as much as 40. Though most places will now allow a fisherman to kill one musky over 40” per season, very few are not released. The outcome of those changes in policy and in practice over the last 40 years is that quite a few really big (50”+) musky are caught every year.
We returned to Big Sis every Summer for years, as I had a regular seminar job at UW-Eau Claire, just a few miles south.
Over the years we caught quite a few respectable musky there, including Son John’s first musky, and a lot of tasty walleye.
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(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the iboats.com Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)