A good musky fly fishing partnership is a thing to behold. Like a powerful, well-oiled, and finely tuned (if at times debauch) machine, musky fly buddies spend long, uncomfortable and idle hours together, experience atmospheric highs and crushing lows together, and mitigate moments of high-stakes, adrenaline-fueled chaos together. They do all this with the knowledge that when the time comes, they must be relied upon to turn limited opportunities into lifelong celebrations. The absence of this harmony, on the other hand, is an awkward, embarrassing thing characterized by bickering, swallowed (or not) frustration, lack of confidence, and missed opportunities. Nearly all bad musky fly fishing unions have one thing in common: a lack of adherence to the musky fly fishing crew commandments. This is true even if team members follow the explicit rules such as consistent figure eighting, lunacy level persistence, honoring cooler commitments, and the ever-pressing “Keep your god damned Buford out of my eye”.
Luckily, we no longer have to rely on unspoken oaths and hidden understandings to keep the dream team together. What follows draws inspiration from accumulated insights targeting these apex predators on foot and by boat, and lends a heavy nod to experienced expedition leader Howard Tomb’s finer points of behavior. Ignore them and you may quickly end up the star of a Green Day song about being by yourself. Understand they are tenets which I have certainly violated (and likely will again) and have paid dearly for. I am not the author, merely the messenger. Behold, the ten musky fly fishing crew commandments:
Get the hell out of bed. Suppose your fishing buddy gets up early to have the boat in the water and the gear loaded on time while you lie comatose in your new sleep number bed. As they run an extensive equipment check, rig up lines and stow all the tools for the day, they hear the sweet singing of birds and the wafting smell of mixed gas as another boat launches in front of you, or another group of anglers head towards your hole of choice. Last night you were their buddy; now they’re drawing up a list of things about you that make them want to drop your pliers into the water or worse yet, loaf with the net on your next hook up. They will devise cruel punishments for you. You have earned them. The team concept is now defunct. Had you gotten out of bed, nobody would have had to suffer.
Bring what you say you’re going to. Signed up for lunch duty? On cooler patrol for the day? Bringing your new musky net this trip? Regardless of what specific item or items you commit to bringing, make sure they show up. The difference between an awesome day on the water and a day spent wallowing without isn’t all that broad. A few items present or absent can have a big impact on the comfort, quality, and outcome of the day. Be the person who always brings what they said they would. Reliable fishing partners tend to get invited on a lot of cool trips.
Be seen but not heard while your buddy launches the boat. Your intentions are pure. You arrived at the boat launch a couple minutes early and are ready to help wherever necessary to be a good fishing partner. You’re a team player and you want the world to know it. This is awesome. However, it is now time to trust your partner’s process. If you don’t own the boat then quietly respect their order of operations. Your buddy (who presumably owns the boat) has a system in place. If they need a hand, they’ll let you know. Wait for them to ask you to do something before you get all handsy with the winch or at best you’ll slow them down or tick them off, and at worst, the boat could be in the middle of the water while you stand and watch from shore. That story you’re regaling or the weather report you're summarizing can wait until the plugs are in and you’re on the water. If you don’t buy this, google boat launch fails. It gets brutal quick.
Do not complain. About anything. Ever. It’s ten degrees, visibility is four inches and sideways sleet is strafing your face like 00 buckshot. Must you mention it? Do you think your friends haven’t noticed this sufferfest? Pass around the thermos. Offer a suggestion. Tell a joke. Send up a plea to the musky gods. Do not, under any circumstances, file a complaint! Your feet are numb, your guides are frozen, and you feel like every cell in your body has been wrung free of any moisture. Were you promised a climate-controlled bite window? Did somebody cheat you out of a saline drip? Are you due karmic compensation in the form of a massive fish eating under ideal circumstances? You decided to fish for muskies on the fly. Managing discomfort is baked into this thing. If you can’t grin and bear it, head to the stocker pond.
Focus on your cast and retrieve, and figure-eight every time. While this may seem obvious, it’s worth stating. We could write an anthology on the things we can’t control while targeting these elusive apex predators. Know what you can control? The attention paid to each cast, and taking the extra 5 seconds to ensure you haven’t unknowingly tickled the fancy of a fish who isn’t convinced yet. Reach the point where you can get your fly into the strike zone with minimal back casts. Keep your rod tip in the water at all times when stripping and setting the hook. Learn to expect an eat and try to visualize where/how it might occur. Take the time to make intentional casts, focus on your retrieve, and figure eight at the end every time. You might surprise yourself (and your crew) with the result. The crew works better when musky hit the net every now and then. Do the few things within your control religiously to make sure you’re maximizing your chances at landing one.
Do not get excessively sunburned, dehydrated, hungry, or drunk. Allowing yourself to get over the top in any of these conditions is not only a bummer and potentially dangerous, it’s also an obvious sign of inexperience. Most greenhorns wait too long before applying sunscreen, drinking water, and getting calories on board. They also fail to realize how quickly the effects of alcohol, if consumed while you’re fishing, can add up. We all know what it’s like to have “that person” with us on the water (the author, for one, has been that guy and had to learn from experience), and it’s a perfectly avoidable outcome. Once you’ve crossed into excess in any of these domains, it’s all but impossible to fix the issue while you’re still out fishing. Anyway, you get the idea. Wear sunscreen, eat before you’re hangry, mix in a water every now and then, and if you’re drinking alcohol while you fish, keep it under control. What’s excessive? I don’t know for you. But likely you and your fishing buddies do. So, figure it out ahead of time. Even if it means a potentially awkward conversation. Unlike UV rays, dehydration, hunger, and alcohol, a little upfront awkwardness in the name of shared expectations is 100% non-toxic.
Do not ask if anybody’s seen your stuff. Effective musky fly anglers have systems for organizing their gear. They very rarely leave it strewn around the boat, the shoreline, or lying back on at the boat launch or vehicle. Your buddy is focusing on the myriad steps necessary to hook and land one of these toothy dragons. They aren’t preoccupied with where your pliers are. Avoid at all costs asking your buddy if they’ve seen the truck keys you thought you packed 2 hours ago. Should you ever leave the keys, or other critical items miles or hours away, don’t ask if anybody has seen them. Make sure you’re certain. Then, simply announce, with a good-natured chuckle, that you, in your innate humanity, are prone to error, have blundered mightily, and that you are sorry. Then commence owning the impacts of your mistake which suck the worst. If someone needs to travel on foot to the put-in to retrieve them, that person is you. If it costs 50 bucks for a thumbed ride in the back of a pickup rolling coal all the way to the landing, grab your wallet and hop on back.
Understand and honor the issue of spot sharing. Here’s the thing. I do not and can not know the particular nuance regarding protecting, sharing, and/or burning spots in your specific example. What I do know, however, is that the sanctity of locations for a musky fly fishing crew matters. In some cases, it impacts the real or perceived quality of the fishery. In other cases, it can literally mean the financial viability of individuals who stake their livelihoods on the productivity of the area. A careless error relative to sharing spots can quickly erode even the most resilient and time-tested crews. Do not be flippant in making assumptions regarding spot sharing. Should you post grip and grins with obvious landmarks in the background? Is it cool to take an outside buddy to a spot the crew found? If you’ve got a guide in your group and they show you a spot, can you target it on your own? I don’t know. Your crew might not either, but violations in spot sharing are kind of like pornography: you might not know how exactly how to define it, but you know it when you see it. Take the time to communicate with your crew, and then honor agreements and expectations.
Volunteer to row before you’re asked, and bury those oars when you’re on the sticks. Your fishing buddy is a great person. They’re fishy peacemakers who want to see you land a baker’s dozen of 50 inchers. They will avoid asking to switch until they believe they’ve been aggrieved. Be the same way, and don’t let the situation get there. Volunteer to hit the oars a few casts earlier than you think you’re owed. The truth is you aren’t owed anything, and setting the tone that you’re down to row cements the idea that musky fly fishing is ultimately a team sport (it is). And when you’re on the oars, make sure you’re actually on them. No one asked to be burned through that honey hole at the mercy of the current while you scope your socials. Dig in, back row, and give your partner the best shot at putting their articulated double in front of a hungry musky’s face.
Embrace the culture of this tribe and this fish. Here’s the thing about musky fly fishing. It’s not walleye fishing. It’s not ice fishing. It’s not carp fishing. And it’s damn sure not trout fishing. I mean it when I say that all of those different forms of angling are valid and awesome, but fishing for musky, especially with a fly rod is a heritage and culture all its own. Take the time to read, watch, and learn about the legends and OG’s in this game. The culture around this fish is as fascinating and epic as the fish itself, and musky mania has resulted in some seriously wild events through the years, including but not limited to the hiring of the Pinkerton Investigators to help validate a record catch. These fish have a way of blurring and dissolving your old favorite types of fishing. Embrace it. Lean into the madness. Relish that you and your fishing partners can count yourselves among the privileged few able to experience it. If you and your fishing buddies are willing to dive in and let go of any illusions of control, these fish will take you to some amazing places and into some amazing stories of your own.