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Be prepared to handle muskies

Moments after the hook, was set the power of a strong fish was transmitted into the deep bend of the rod. The moment was exciting but not unanticipated.

While my friend Dave Keith and I were targeting walleyes, I felt pretty confident a musky would make an appearance at some point. Now, I was equally convinced that was what was on the end of my line.

Earlier that day, as I was loading things up for our trip to the Venango County section of the Allegheny River, I’d remembered to include my musky net, having long ago learned that muskies often inhabit the same deeper, low current holes as walleyes during the winter months.

As the fish made another strong run, I suggested to Dave that he get the musky net ready for action. Unfamiliar with exactly how a Stowmaster net deploys, it took him a few moments to accomplish this. But he did, in plenty of time.

When the musky had adequately tired, I led him toward the boat. Dave slipped the net in the water, the fish made it over the rim, and down into the safe confines of the huge bag it went.

With the fish secured in what is basically an in-the-water livewell, we could take our time to prepare for its safe release. After getting a secure grip on the fish’s gill flap, I reached in this long nose pliers and popped the quarter ounce jig free. Once Dave had his camera ready, I lifted the fish out of the net’s bag and place it back in the river, all the while holding it. As Dave snapped off a couple pictures, I felt the strength of the fish return. Releasing my grip, the muskie, which I conservatively estimated to be in the low 40-inch range, strongly swam off.

As we regrouped, I noticed a trickle of blood coming from a finger, a common occurrence from handling muskies and northern pike, fish whose gill rakers have the texture of cheese graters. As I reached for a band-aid from the first aid kit, I was happy we were prepared. Good thing, as we caught one more musky that day, and lost another next to the boat.

For those who regularly target muskies, having the right “stuff” to manage them is standard fare. But muskies are often caught incidentally by those aiming for other species such as bass and walleyes. Having a modest level of equipment to handle such events is good for both the fish and the fishermen.

As noted earlier, we had access to a net of such proportions to manage a musky. In this case it was a Stowmaster net, the rim of which folds in half, clamshell-like. With the net folded up, and its handle slid up into the rim, the net takes up little space.

We also had available long handled pliers, which allow one’s hands to be kept a safe distance from the fish’s toothy mouth during the unhooking process.

I’ve shed a lot of blood handling muskies and northern pike over the years, and little of it has come from teeth or hooks. As was the case here, the culprit is the sharp, bony structure on the back side of the gills. The gill plate provides a safe handle for lifting a musky, but in grasping it this way you’re exposing your fingers to the back of the gill rakers.

If the fish struggles at all, and they usually do, expect to come out of it with some bloody scrapes. Again, we were prepared with a kit with plenty of band-aids to plug up the bleeding and alcohol wipes to clean the wound beforehand.

Whether targeted specifically or caught incidentally, muskies add much excitement to a day’s fishing. Being prepared for such events keeps things safe for all concerned.

Jeff Knapp is an outdoors columnist for the Butler Eagle

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