Mens Adventure Travel Writer/Photographer Andrew Slough travels to distant corners of the planet208 720-5356

Canada: The Water Wolf

It is past noon on an unseasonably hot July day when a family spreads a blanket on the mowed grass above a municipal boat dock. Here, a few miles upstream from Ottawa’s historic Parliament Hill, the river moves with a slow, reptilian intent across drowned logs and rock ledges. Except for a slick boil where the current plows against a shallow boulder, the Ottawa seems tame, even innocent.

While the parents open folding chairs and arrange a picnic cooler, their young son plays with a white Miniature Poodle. The poodle sports a show clip–a ball on its tail, a clipped waist, fluffy feet and bouffant head. It is a frivolous style that perpetuates the image of small dogs as ambulatory squeak toys. Though the poodle might predictably be named Fifi, the boy calls it “Ahnri,” a play on the Quebecois form of Henry. The name like the clip, however, suits the dog which spins, strains and lunges until the boy kneels and unfastens the lead.

Freed of the restraint, Ahnri races through the park until the boy throws a tennis ball into the water. The Poodle has played this game before. Running the length of the dock, he jumps into the river. Size aside, Ahnri proves to be a strong swimmer and quickly retrieves the ball. The boy throws the ball farther from the dock, well away from the bank where the current, spins in silent, sinuous eddies. Again Ahnri does not hesitate and, with the ball held firmly in his mouth, is making good time when he is brought to a sudden jarring stop.

Like a lion ambushing a gazelle, the following moment is swift, savage and irrevocable. Ahnri takes one, confused stroke before he is jerked violently underwater. One second the small dog is swimming toward the dock, the next he is not. Three seconds later Ahnri reappears well out in the current. Running down the bank, the family hears Ahnri’s frantic cry, then watches his white, bouffant head disappear into a huge boil. The last thing they saw was the roll of massive dark back.

The boy is at first stunned, then panicked and runs along the bank, screaming, “Ahnri!!”.

It’s hard to know if Ottawa native, Jeff Cyr embellished the story. A web page designer by trade and fisherman by passion, Cyr is six foot one, a hundred and seventy pounds, with dark hair and an engaging manner. Though he seems more like a Chesapeake, or even Labrador than a Poodle man, Cyr didn’t particularly dislike Ahnri. It’s even possible he felt sorry for the family as they stumbled hysterically along the bank searching the swirling water for their pet. As much as Cyr might empathize with the family, he nurtures, a profound, even obsessive, admiration for any fish that would inhale a splashing Poodle as readily as a rainbow trout rises to a dry fly.

Called “Water Wolves” for their legendary ferocity, a mature Muskellunge can grow to 70 pounds and more than five feet long. Much of their size depends upon habitat. If big water grows big Muskies, the broad Ottawa clearly supports huge fish. And yet, despite its reputation for eating anything that swims, crawls or flys, a Muskellunge that would eat a dog–even a miniature poodle–would have to be a truly gigantic fish. Skeptics will wonder if perhaps the late, unfortunate Ahnri was snagged by a submerged strand of barbed wire, panicked and was dragged under.

And yet recent studies tend to support Cyr’s story. Known by the scientific name “Esox masquinongy” from “Esox” for the European name for Pike, “masquinongy” from the Cree “mashk” or deformed and “kinonge” or pike, the fossil record reveals that the Muskellunge has remained unchanged for millions of years. Shaped like a broad finned torpedo, from its dark primordial eyes, heavy body and dorsal, pectoral and anal fins that sweep back to a powerful, arrowhead shaped tail, a Muskellunge’s anatomy amounts to a propulsion system for a stupendous set of jaws. Record Muskies have been known to attack, kill and swallow prey that can reach up to forty five percent of their total length.

Muskies are ambush fish and, as such, are both extremely territorial and cannibalistic. The biggest defend clear, quiet water filled with submerged weed beds, sunken stumps and logs. Lying in wait for hours, they’ll attack fish, frogs, snakes, mammals, ducks or, less often, feet and hands that are carelessly dangled off boats and docks.

Case in point is ten-year-old Marley Hillen, of Oshawa, Ontario who was fishing with worms off a dock south of Apsley on Jack Lake, when she bent to wash her hands. “I saw this big fish coming up fast,” she said. “It grabbed my hand near my little finger and came right up out of the water.” The Musky eventually let go but not before leaving its tooth marks in Marley’s hand.

There is also a story of an Arnprior, Ontario man who was sitting on a log boom trying to cool off by dunking his feet in the Ottawa River. He paid for his inattention when a large musky sank its teeth into his ankle leaving lacerations that required medical attention.

It could have been worse. Muskies never stop growing. After five years a Musky will be, on average, 32 inches long and weigh approximately 8 pounds. Most fish reach their full size of roughly 35 pounds and 53 inches by 21 years. The world record however, is 65 pounds and, in all probability, that is five pounds shy of the upper limit.

Cyr intends to break the record and believes the fish that will do it lives on this stretch of the Ottawa He holds the Ontario light tackle record for a 59-inch muskellunge taken on a fifteen-pound monofilament. Obsessive doesn’t adequately describe his attitude toward these fish. In fact, describing the female Muskellunge as the “Queen of Chaos,” and “The Mistress of Distress” he sounds more like a smitten suitor than a hard core angler who fishes 120 days a season, waiting for the lone strike that could make him famous.

Though Muskies are highly prized as sport fish, they are relatively rare and difficult to hook. Cyr believes the most productive trophy fishing occurs on freezing fall days, when the wind chill can push temperatures to bone chilling lows. Musky feeding cycles peak at water temperatures in the mid-60s and drops off as temperatures reach the mid-80s. On this June day, gusts of sleet rake the Ottawa and fog drifts above the forested banks, it could well be that the heavy bellied Musky hens are on the bite. Cyr is hoping the late spring runoff, chop and cold moist winds will stir what he is convinced are the most opportunistic of aquatic predators.

Starting the outboard, he guides his eighteen-foot bass boat into the breaking white caps. When the river rises, you must have an intimate knowledge of the meandering channels to avoid grounding on the sunken islands and submerged trees Keeping the bow pointed toward a flooded spit he yells above the wind, “Everything about trophy Musky fishing is extreme. It helps if it is cold and windy but the most extreme of all is the quarry. These musky hens are truly world class trophies.”

Because Muskies are notoriously hard to hook and extremely difficult to land, our chances depend as much on luck, as skill. During the increased flows of early summer, the Ottawa runs off color from the weedy, banks out to a center, clearer channel. Muskies and Walleyes are both attracted to this silt line. Cyr believes the huge Muskie hens use the silt as cover to ambush walleyes. Trolling a black colored ten inch “Believer” in the murky water, a white “Believer” in the clearer channel and a reflective scale “Grandma” as a shallow center lure, Cyr consistently takes big Muskies on the white Believer. Explaining that a predator sees the white of a prey fish belly as it rises for the kill, Cyr believes the white Believer triggers a conditioned response. Conversely, seen from above it appears to be a belly up cripple which the ravenous hens simply can’t resist.

Cyr removes the front treble on any three-hook lure. While the majority of fish are hooked on one or both of the last two trebles the front hook consistently spells trouble for seats, boots and hands but rarely a Muskie’s mouth Another problem is the front treble usually rotates into the fish’s eye or gill. Removal of the front hook not only ensures more snag-free trolling but, since it often catches on the line when Muskies roll, its absence helps land more fish.

A recent study found that between 10% and 13% of Muskellunge die after being released. Attributing this mortality to less-than-expert handling, the study noted that many anglers who were inexperienced with handling muskellunge, feared personal injury. They thus removed hooks with extreme caution, increasing the time the fish were out of the water. When a big fish is brought to the boat, Cyr advises against lifting it out of the water by its gills, jaw or tail. In place of a net, he uses a cradle made of slat fence material lined with canvass and insists on leaving the big fish in the water.

It is sleeting hard when Cyr drives the boat to the lee side of an island, where he cuts the throttle, then raises the outboard and switches to a small trolling motor. For a mile downstream the Ottawa snakes between chaotic beds of lily pads, fallen trees and logged over stumps. Grebes, hen mallards and clusters of down fledged ducklings, swim cautiously, perhaps suicidally around the pads, populate the lilies. The area offers everything a Muskie needs and rigging a rod with a crank bait, Cyr flips the lure into a shallow bay.

Muskellunge are known as the fish of one thousand casts and for the next half hour we cast, reel and cast again, trying to tempt a fish out from beneath a log, or weedy overhang. Flipping his lure into a jackstraw of stumps and downed limbs, Cyr produces the day’s first fish–a decent pike that he quickly brings to the boat.

Removing the hook, he slips the pike back into the dark water then confesses. “The angling world has no idea how good the Muskellunge fishing can be on the Ottawa. This stretch of river has produced some truly huge fish.” Almost as proof, he casts the lure to the edge of the weed bed, allows it to sink, then begins to reel. A second later his rod bends in half as a tremendous explosion erupts along the edge of the lily pads. This is not simply a splash, it’s a deep ground swell that rips a dozen feet off line off the reel, before the rod straightens and the line goes slack.

Cyr cannot believe it. Dropping to his knees on the casting deck he berates himself for missing the strike. He refuses to acknowledge what we both suspect. Though it could have been a Muskellunge, he tells me it was a bass, a big bass. However, no bass ever moved that much water, that quickly. Cyr waits two hours then circles around to the bay again. Amazingly, whatever hit the first time follows the lure again but turns away in a huge boil.

We both want to catch, or failing that to see the fish. Perhaps it was the record. That morning we catch pike in abundance, and one or two walleye, but the Muskellunge eludes us. The wind increases and rain falls in a heavy torrent that lifts a mist off the water. But it is only when the bite slows that Cyr lowers the big outboard. It’s clear he won’t forget this bay or the exact point his lure fell. He tells me for the third time that Muskellunge are territorial. There will be another day and, if he is very lucky, another chance at this huge Water Wolf and starting the outboard he turns the bow into the chop and heads toward the dock.


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