WALKER, Minn. — The northwest wind was howling; screaming, in fact.
On that point there could be no dispute.
When you fish big water such as Leech Lake, though, you make the best of what Mother Nature throws you, and that was Toby Kvalevog's mindset on this August afternoon muskie excursion.
Best-known around Grand Forks as a goalie for the University of North Dakota from 1993 to 1997 — he figures he holds the school record for most times pulled from the net—Kvalevog, 42, teaches physical education in Brainerd, Minn., and spends his summers as a fishing guide and partner in Leisure Outdoor Adventures guiding service.
As a guide, the Bemidji native mostly fishes walleyes, but he chases muskies whenever he gets a chance.
"I muskie fished when I was in high school a lot," Kvalevog said. Little Wolf Lake east of Bemidji, known more for numbers than size, was a popular muskie destination, he said.
"It's like a learning curve lake," Kvalevog said. "You'd see 10 to 12 fish (in a trip), but you never got giant ones. I think my first one was like a 42-incher."
These days, Kvalevog does most of his muskie fishing on his adopted home water of Leech Lake. Seldom a numbers game, muskie fishing success typically is measured in terms of sightings or the sheer, knee-knocking anticipation of what can happen when the stars align. As one of Minnesota's premier muskie waters, Leech presents an excellent venue for pursuing that passion, Kvalevog says.
"Some days you catch them, and some days you don't," he said. "But if you can see a few fish and have an opportunity if you're willing to put in the time and grind, that's muskie fishing."
Learning the lake
Through time on the water, often after full days spent guiding walleye anglers, Kvalevog says he's gradually building up a good "milk route" of muskie spots on Leech. GPS mapping and side-scanning technology also helps unlock the big lake's muskie secrets, he says.
"The learning curve is coming around," Kvalevog said. "Now, I'm seeing seven to 10 fish in a full day, and people generally get a bite."
Leech Lake covers about 112,000 acres, but only a fraction of the water holds muskies, Kvalevog says; the key is learning where that fraction is.
"There's so many places to fish on Leech Lake," he said. "There's cabbage weed, there's sand, there's rocks, there's deep Walker Bay, where the fish are kind of nomadic and swim around and on windy days they'll bump up to shorelines.
"It's fun to fish. I have to learn all that," he added. "Last year I had pencil reeds and rocks. This year now, I've got sand, coontail, different little bays and lakes off Leech Lake where you can go when it is windy."
Some wind — "some" being the key word—almost always is a good thing on Leech Lake, the thinking goes, but the gale on this blustery Tuesday afternoon was too much of a good thing. Then again, muskie fishing — muskie "hunting" would be more accurate — is an endurance test anyway, so perhaps the addition of misery would work in our favor.
The windswept expanse of the main lake and its abundance of shallow rocks and weeds that muskies favor wasn't going to be an option. Instead of pounding the big water, Kvalevog's strategy was to concentrate on sheltered bays that offered protection from the brunt of the wind.
All of the spots held muskies, he said, so it wasn't like he'd be fishing vacant water. The new moon and a solar-lunar table that showed an afternoon feeding window also heightened his optimism.
"It's as good a chance as any to catch a muskie," Kvalevog said. "And with the wind, I think we'll have a lot of chances.
"I expect we're going to get bit by something, let's hope it's the right kind."
Kvalevog's optimism wasn't unfounded. The previous evening, he had capped a day off and 16 hours of slinging big lures, covering miles of water in the process, by landing his biggest muskie to date.
The behemoth measured 51½ inches and hit a bucktail Kvalevog cast toward a series of submerged boulders he had marked on his high-tech Lowrance side-imager.
The strike came about three cranks into the retrieve, Kvalevog says; 30 seconds later, the muskie was in the net.
That might not sound like very long to a layperson, but the intensity of what happens in those 30 seconds is unlike any other experience in freshwater fishing, Kvalevog says. In the same way deer hunters pursue big bucks, muskie fishing is about the adrenalin rush that occurs when the fish appears.
"I'll remember it forever," he said. "I caught the fish, it hit the net, I threw my rod down, hit spot lock (on the trolling motor, to hold the boat in place) and laid down on the floor of the boat and screamed.
"Just the emotion, you know — YES! — and I got up and was just shaking, just like when you pull the trigger on a buck, like 'Oh my Lord, what just happened?' The whole experience, the 30 seconds or whatever it was of mayhem, you're under control but as soon as you relax, it's just craziness and that's truly why you do it."
Seeing is believing
Keeping the wind at his back to minimize the risk of backlash on our baitcast reels, Kvalevog sets up a drift near a weed bed in the middle of a large bay and begins casting bucktails. The drift produces two sightings — both respectable fish — including one muskie that likely would have hit Kvalevog's bucktail if he'd done the "figure-eight" at boatside like he'd done nearly every other cast.
The fish definitely was interested in eating.
Despite the wind, which must have exceeded 30 mph at times, we see four muskies during our time on the water and have two other bites we don't see.
The last "follow" of the day, a fish we estimate in the high-40s in terms of inches, was the kind of fish that keeps muskie anglers everywhere coming back for more.
There'd be no muskies in the boat, no big-fish photo opps, but we'd seen more fish in a few hours than Kvalevog and a buddy had sighted in 16 hours the previous day when wind and weather conditions were much more favorable.
"I think we made the best of the weather that we were given," Kvalevog said. "The best muskie fishing this time of year, day to day, is fishing the main lake rocks on Leech Lake. But today was too windy and that would have been unfishable.
"We fished Leech Lake 'small' today, but we still fished it, and I think we had some success without a fish in the boat," Kvalevog said.
Sometimes, just seeing fish is good enough; that's muskie fishing.
"It's really about the chase — I don't know how you explain that — it truly is," Kvalevog said. "It's a fish like no other. People say it's the fish of 10,000 casts, and it's truly not. It's one cast at the right fish at the right spot at the right time, and that's what people don't understand."
The muskies are out there. Just waiting.
For the chase to resume.
• On the net:
Here's a look at the boat and muskie arsenal fishing guide Toby Kvalevog used during our recent Leech Lake muskie excursion.
• Boat: Lund 219 fiberglass Pro-V powered by a 350-horse Mercury Verado outboard. The WavePro air suspension seat pedestals were a godsend in the rough conditions.
• Trolling motor: Minnkota Ulterra i-Pilot with Spot Lock.
• Electronics: Lowrance 12-inch Carbon and HDS Series linked.
• Rod: Abu Garcia Fantasista Beast casting.
• Reel: Abu Garcia Revo Toro Beast baitcast reel.
• Lure: Big Tooth Tackle Co. Juice bucktail.
• Line: Suffix 832 braid, 80-pound test.
• Leader: 100-pound fluorocarbon.
— Brad Dokken