I didn’t want to return home and give up the last few hours of Indian summer on this September evening, so I headed to nearby Twelvepole Creek in West Virginia. I was grasping for a way to stay connected to the memory of my father, who had passed that year from an autoimmune disease. He used to take me to this spot when I was too young to even cast. I’d throw rocks in the water. Yeah, I was that kid.
I was 20 now, and he was gone. I stood on the rocky side of the shallow river and finally made a decent cast with one of his old musky lures. It landed in a gorgeous piece of slack water that looked like it had secrets to hide. After a couple of turns on the handle, I felt a heavy weight as my rod loaded, and time stood still. I was tight to my first river musky.
My eyes followed the line down to where I’d last seen my lure, revealing the silver flash of the fish’s large body. Adrenaline pumping, I could feel every thumping head shake from the thrashing fish. My lack of experience led to panic. As the fish headed upriver into the current, more head shakes brought more concern. The fish put so much pressure on my gear that I feared something would break. I had my drag locked down for the hookset, as I was taught, but I now feared my terminal tackle would fail.
I was a wreck. This fish wasn’t giving up. I gained a little line, and now the fish was midriver, tail-kicking and pushing its massive head out of the water, thrashing side-to-side and trying to throw the lure. At that moment, I saw that most of the lure was outside of the fish’s mouth, which sent me into a tailspin.
How well is this fish hooked? Would more pressure tear it loose?
Eventually, the fish weakened. I splashed my way to a sandbar as the tiring musky gave in a little more. I led it into shallow water and worked it into a pocket at the bottom of the sandbar. The battler laid at my feet, still upright as though it were preparing for another round.
As I fumbled for a pair of long-nose pliers and bent over the fish, I realized I might be more exhausted than the musky. I unhooked the fish and ran my hands across its back and down its sides. I felt the power in its streamlined body. I was in awe — shaking — and not realizing how this moment would shape my future. I cradled the fish back into deeper water and watched it quickly regain strength before shooting off into the darkest section of river. I took a knee, rinsed the slime and sand from my hands, and smiled. At that moment, I knew this was going to be my life.
After 20 years of chasing musky and tournament fishing, I started guiding about seven years ago, mostly on remote rivers in Kentucky and West Virginia. John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” paints a picture of our beautiful hill country, full of rivers and streams. The color of our water changes with the seasons: Rainfall brings varying shades of dark greens to chocolate browns and every tone in between — just not blue.
I grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, a small town reminiscent of the 1950s on the border of Kentucky and Ohio. My grandfather introduced me to the outdoors. He lived next door in a brick home that was built as strong and sturdy as he was. Grandpa was a smaller man with a build that could best be described as a tree stump — the average size for men of the Greatest Generation.
He often shared war stories as I kept him company every day after school. My grandpa’s name was Harry E. Jackson. He told us the “H.E.” stood for high explosives. He had fought for Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, and his attitude, grit and discipline were precisely what you’d expect from a man who marched through four German winters. These also were the characteristics I’d draw upon as I learned the ways of the musky.
My father, Mark, was a semiprofessional bass fisherman. After bass, he turned his focus to trout. Later in life, he found musky fishing, which he considered the pinnacle of freshwater angling, as do I. Musky fishing became an addiction. These fascinating creatures have consumed me.
I’ve spent the last two decades — as many as 200 days a year — hunting muskies anywhere they can be found. In doing so, I’ve traveled all over the musky range, from Lake of the Woods in Ontario to Lake St. Clair in Detroit. I spent weeks up North on the mighty St. Lawrence and Niagara rivers. (My personal best fish were from the St. Lawrence system, a 52½- and a 53-incher.) But no matter where my search for muskies has taken me, I always return to chase them on my home waters in Kentucky.
The rivers in eastern Kentucky wind through the Appalachian Mountains and vast Daniel Boone National Forest, through farmland and coal towns lost to time. These ancient rivers are covered by a deciduous forest canopy in summer and lined with twisted sycamores during winter. Full of fallen timber, our rivers resemble a submerged lumberyard atop a bottom mix of rock and sand.
This is the place I call home, and it’s where I’ll spend the rest of my days, fishing and guiding for muskellunge. People can’t believe the size of the hefty muskies we catch in smaller streams and rivers. My largest Kentucky fish measured 51¾ inches. The largest fish shown in the photos for this story (taken in December) was a healthy 44-inch female that was wearing what I call her “winter coat.”
Musky hunting is not a leisurely pursuit. It’s a tough sport that tests the endurance and mental fortitude of the most experienced anglers. We fish heavy tackle and throw massive lures from first light to last. Sometimes it takes days to get a chance encounter with one of these elusive gamefish. They don’t call the musky a “fish of 10,000 casts” for nothing.
The reward for this effort is difficult to explain. After hours of casting and miles of beautiful scenery, everything turns to chaos the moment a musky whacks a lure. It’s like someone pulled a fire alarm. I’ve watched grown men shake and tremble with adrenaline just seeing a fish take a swipe at their lure. When someone gets hooked up and the guide is running for the net, you can hear feet stomping, rods cracking, all sorts of commotion.
Big fish require stiff rods, heavy bait-casting reels and large lures. I use steel leaders when working walk-the-dog glide baits and 100-pound mono leaders for almost everything else. I fish 60- or 80-pound braid, switching to 80- or 100-pound braid for jigging due to the violent hits. I’ve caught muskies on everything from half-ounce Rattle Traps in the spring to 12-ounce swim baits during fall and winter. I throw a lot more crankbaits than most anglers, so the majority of my lures range from 3 to 12 ounces. Sometimes it’s a sound or vibration that gets the attention of the fish. Other times, they are looking for a large, slow-moving, easy meal. Color selection is important. In muddy waters, we use a lot of bright colors to stand out. In clear water, I select natural colors.
I usually give each spot a few casts before moving to the next. I prefer to cover a lot of water in a day. But if I work spots that should be holding fish and didn’t give up any, I’ll revisit those areas and beat on them using different angles and presentations to pull a musky out of the cover and get it to eat. Sometimes I’ll make intentional contact with the cover, such as banging crank baits into the timber to get a reaction. When a crank bait hits a log and pauses, that’s when an ambush often occurs. And I always work my rod tips low and finish my retrieves with an underwater figure eight beside the boat.
A common misconception is that muskies hurt the population of gamefish such as largemouth bass. A lot of bass anglers who’ve had a tough day often return to the dock claiming muskies have eaten all the bass in the lake or river. Fishery biologists have shown that a musky’s primary diet consists of shad and suckers, which are easy prey. Muskies are no different than other predators in that they must conserve energy. That being said, a musky will eat just about anything, including ducks, baby beavers and squirrels. Ancient populations of Native Americans in the area called them “water wolves” — a moniker that’s still used. In cold water, they go days without eating. But when they do turn on, they’ll eat anything that moves.
I’m now 44, and I spend most of my time on the water guiding people from all walks of life into encounters with these special creatures. I’ve made lifelong friendships. For me, there is no greater reward than introducing someone to my world and witnessing their reaction when a musky chases their lure right to the boat.
I share every bit of experience I’ve gained through the years, talking with them, coaching them, inspiring them to keep casting. I always tell my clients that the next cast could be the one that changes everything.
To fish with Jackson, contact the guide at firstname.lastname@example.org.