The wintry Nebraska air billowed with dust and debris as I opened the trunk of my old Chevy TrailBlazer, remnants of thousands of miles on cross-country back roads. As the air cleared, my project for the day was revealed. Numerous crates, decoys, rods and reels, camping gear and kayak accessories were strewn across the back of the SUV.
Every year, as ice begins to stake its claim on Nebraska's waters, I make the swap. The summer and fall equipment is replaced with winter hobbies. The bittersweet ending of the open-water season beckons nostalgia, and I find myself sitting cross-legged on my driveway reminiscing about the remarkable places my adventures took me this year.
My favorite traveling memories take me back to a quiet river, nestled among lush greenery, and protected by the subtle rolling hills of central Tennessee.
It was July 1st. My friend Erin and I had talked loosely about planning a kayak fishing trip but hadn't finalized details or destination. I suggested embarking on an exploratory trip to this small river in the South rumored to hold musky.
We were both anxious to explore new waters so with that, we loaded the truck down with the kayaks and hit the road for a four-day fishing excursion to chase the elusive waterwolf of the South.
While on the road, I pulled up google earth and noted the rivers character; sharp bends followed by deep straightaways. I closed my eyes and imagined chucking my inline spinner and burning it back, eyes scanning just below the surface for any sign of a follow. I pinned a few areas that look fishy and marked the nearest boat ramp. After a 14-hour drive, it was just shy of midnight as we pulled up to the campground. As the engine groaned from the drive, we tirelessly set up camp, anxiously awaiting dawn.
The campground was silent when we woke. 4:45 a.m. I unzipped the tent to reveal a cloudless night sky, and filled my lungs with crisp, Tennessee air. Headlamps on and coffee in hand, we hit the road.
The crickets echoed amongst the dense vegetation that blanketed the banks of the river as we unloaded at the ramp. Java fueled and weary eyed, we eagerly rigged up under the light of the full moon.
The world began to come alive as my paddle cut into the water. We reached a stretch where the current picked up around a bend, creating a deep pool pocketed between two eddys. I picked up my rod and pitched a jig just past the pool. As I felt the jig fall, I allowed enough slack in the line to allow the bait to drift back naturally with the current. Pop ... fall ... pop ... fall ... POP. My rod doubled over as I buried the hook into a river smallie. I yelled down river to Erin, and we spent the next hour landing fish after fish.
As amusing as it was, the ominous clouds that moved in overhead, and the bellowing thunder in the distance reminded us that this wasn't the species we came here for. We positioned ourselves on a long, slow stretch as the rain started to pelt the earth.
Suddenly, lightning flashed above us.
Before I could process what we should do, my thoughts were halted by Erin screaming to me from down river. She had hooked up. The rain was coming down in violent torrents as I made my way to her to help. I knew we had to act fast as the sky continued to put on a light show. She had the musky in the net ready for a release before I got there, so we rushed to the bank to take cover.
Adrenaline surged through my veins as the storm raced on. I knew this was peak fishing time, but Erin shot me a look from across the bank. She knew as well as I that my ambition far exceeded my good decision making and reason, so I forced myself to wait until the lighting ceased.
I stood in the rain, making cast after cast when all of a sudden, a large splash upriver caught my attention, indicating they were still feeding. Checking the sky, I immediately relaunched my kayak and made my way up river. I chucked my spinner as far I could in that direction. Nerves on high alert, I burned it back. All of a sudden, about 25 yards from my kayak, I saw it. The body of a giant river musky closing in on my bait.
I took a deep breath and kept my cadence constant.
This was it: the moment every musky angler lives for, the moment that will make or break the trip. Hands shaking, I mentally prepared myself for the fight as the amount of line I had out decreased. Then, about five feet from the kayak, I saw the gills flare as the river beast inhaled the spinner and took off under my boat. My kayak lurched forward and the fight was on. Despite my excitement, I tried to remain present, and execute the skills needed to land this prodigious fish in my kayak.
After several deep dives, two jumps, and what seemed like a full nail-biting hour, I pulled the 43-inch fish up onto my lap, both of us bearing teeth for the GoPro.
After a few shots, I lowered her back into the water and watched her massive tail propel her back into the river. Hands shaking, I sat back in my kayak, in awe of our first few hours. Two impressive muskellunge caught and released on day one. I smiled over at Erin and dipped my paddle into the water knowing that this would be a trip we would never forget.