Craft Culture offers tips on snagging the big one.
By Michael Dawson and Greg Fitz
The front table at Mend Provisions in South Minneapolis is covered by a collection of Brian Bergeson and Patterson Leeth’s hand-tied muskie flies. The small ones are six inches long. Most of them are closer to a foot or more in length. They look like particularly garish Muppets, but unlike Muppets, these conceal one to three massive hooks in their body cavities.
The assembled arsenal is the result of a long, cold off-season spent hunched over a vise, methodically lashing a metric shit-ton of deer hair, chicken feathers and Mylar flash to chemically-sharpened steel hooks. Some of these flies are bound for clients as far away as Poland. Most will get ripped through local waters. All are painstakingly designed to coax a vicious attack from the premier freshwater predator, the muskellunge.
When most folks think of fly tying, they think of delicate confections of rooster hackle and daubs of fur tied on tiny hooks, to be cast by tweedy trout anglers in cold-water creeks. But muskellunge don’t eat tiny, friends. This elusive member of the pike family eats prey up to two-thirds their own size. The bigger the muskie, the bigger the meal. To target what is essentially a swimming digestive tract with teeth, fly tying as a craft had to be expanded. Creating sixteen-inch imitations of prey that could still be cast and retrieved with fly tackle requires serious feats of engineering and imagination.
Bergeson and Leeth would be the first to tell you that they aren’t inventing from scratch. They are part of a community of dedicated muskie hunters trading ideas, techniques, and patterns, often through social media. Impressed what we’d seen online and in local fly shops, we reached out to them for an introduction to this new school of fly tying. Over homebrews and sodas, they helped us wrap our heads around these monstrous flies.
The fly patterns replicate the motion and silhouette of forage fish. Wherever muskies swim, everything else swimming in the water is forage. To mimic the way a forage fish swims, the flies tend to have big heads, often with eyes glued to the sides. The other materials are carefully stacked in alternating and overlapping layers to create the illusion of volume without unnecessary bulk. At first glance, the hair and feathers that form the bodies and tails of these flies seem packed all around the hook, but their placement is actually precise and deliberate. The taper of a fish’s body, the way the materials move in the water, and where the fly is going to be fished all factor into these design decisions.
The colors can be simple or complex, subtle or loud. Bergeson and Leeth make a point of studying the colors of forage fish in the watersheds they fish. In choosing a color scheme for a fly, they consider the color of the water and the time of day. Both laughed when describing the efforts to second-guess what will make a muskie eat a fly. In the end, the most important factor might be picking a combination of colors that give the fisherman confidence to fish the fly well and continue to cast during the long hours, even days, between muskie attacks.
In order to coax the most strike-inducing wiggle from the larger patterns, many of the flies are built with articulated joints. Multiple hooks, or level metal shanks, are bound together with a lattice of braided steel lines. These joints need to be loose enough let the fly move in a natural, enticing fashion and still be strong enough to not break when the fish of a lifetime tries to kill it.
Both Bergeson and Leeth have been fly tying for years and their skills are apparent in the details of their flies. The biggest flies can take up to an hour at the vise. Organizing a complex pattern takes experience, but a handsome pattern that falls apart isn’t much use. They also need to be durable enough to withstand a muskie’s teeth. Form and function balance perfectly in these big patterns.
Working on this scale requires a lot of high-quality tying material—
a clump of bucktail or hackle that would last a trout angler years could get used in a single tying session by Bergeson and Leeth. Both tiers have become obsessive connoisseurs of high quality feathers and deer hair. The wrong materials won’t lay correctly on the fly won’t behave properly in the water. Bergeson sells and ties with his own brand of materials custom-selected for this kind of tying. He calls these beautiful, flowing feathers Musky Bacon. As he says, “Everything is better with bacon.”
Thanks to fishery management, muskie can now be found all over the United States, but their true native range is the lakes and rivers of the upper midwest. Odds are long when fishing for muskellunge even with conventional tackle and bait, but hunting for these predators in their home water using handmade flies skillfully crafted out of natural materials adds a veneer of elegance to the obsessive masochism of the muskie angler.
FOR MORE INFO:
Brian Bergeson’s custom-tied flies for muskie and other toothy critters.
Patterson Leeth’s website covering all things fly fishing in Minnesota and the upper Midwest.
Specialty fly shop, with Bergeson’s muskie flies in stock: in meatspace at 2719 E 42nd, Minneapolis, on social media as @MendProvisions