Written by: Seth Walker
Each spring, a group of outcast fly fishermen gather in the hills of Tennessee for the annual Hardly, Strictly Musky fly-fishing tournament put on by Todd Gregory, owner of Towee Boats.
It is not a hard group to spot. In fact, I am pretty sure that if you were to sell a “Musky Fly Fishing Starter Kit,” all you would need is a pair of Chacos, plaid shirts, a few pairs of board shorts, and a pair of Costa sunglasses. Oh, I guess you would need a 10-weight fly rod, as well. At home, folks like us tend to stand out, but at HSM you are just another derelict. I mean, come on: Musky fishing is hard enough when you are using live bait and gear. Why would we want to do it with Flashabou and deer hair tied on 6/0 hooks?
This year, only two from our regular group were able to make the trip, myself and Musky Dave. A few of the guys decided that having babies and fulfilling “more important” obligations took precedence. They were missed, but I was in good hands. Dave is a special individual. He lives and breathes fly-fishing for musky. He is an artist, an innovator, and all out fish bum.
I love how this event kicks off. Everyone gathers at the Foglight Foodhouse in Rock Island, Tennessee. Here you have an opportunity to meet new people and gather with friends from past events. At the Foglight, you are surrounded by the likes of McMinnville mayor Jimmy Haley, as well as members of the local chamber of commerce and the highly regarded musky guide, Chris Willen. You pick everyone’s brain trying to speculate on what the coming days may bring. Everyone is in high spirits. Sure, the weather and water conditions could be better, but whatever. The food was incredible, and craft beer was flowing from an endless fountain.
Todd always gets things going by reviewing the rules and regs, but the main thing he always stresses is “don’t be an asshole.” Easy enough, right?
After a ride that was more than a little bit sketchy in the wee hours of the day, we found some water that looked productive. Dave and I got off to a solid start. We had located fish and had multiple opportunities come and go all within the first few hours. With the sun high overhead, the water levels dropping, and temperatures on the rise, our day saw less and less action.
Come lunch time, I was already looking forward to the evenings activities. Getting back to camp that night was as eventful as the morning ride up. As if the musky fishing wasn’t hard enough on my central nervous system, Dave found it appropriate to just “send it” off of a few rocks on the ride back. I guess he enjoys filing down scuffs on his jet foot.
We were due to meet that night at the Collins River BBQ in McMinnville. As usual, the food was on point: pulled pork laid inside a large baked potato and smothered in your favorite house sauce. By this time Friday evening, people were starting to show some wear. Muskies have a way of taking it out of you–mentally, spiritually, and for sure physically. With eight fish registered, Day One was in the books.
We didn’t have to think too hard about where we wanted to fish. With plenty of activity on Day one, it would have been foolish to start anywhere else. It didn’t take too awful long for Musky Dave to secure his end of the deal. A nice cast to a muddy bank up off a drop, followed by a couple of short strips, and Dave was looking at the working end of a nice 35-inch musky. We were on the board, and spirits were high.
As the day progressed, we had fish after fish come to the side of the boat, see a few quick swipes of the fly in front of their nose, but they just wouldn’t commit. This is by far the most frustrating part of musky fishing for me. For many people, it is the ones that get away that haunt you the most.
We spend hours, days, and weeks trying to figure out why a musky just won’t eat. In the end, I believe it all comes down to one thing. Muskies do what muskies want to do, when the hell they want to do it. After thousands of casts, we were unable to put another fish in the boat, and it was not because of lack of effort. We fished, and we fished hard.
The final fishing report showed around a dozen fish landed. The largest fish, a 40-incher, was caught by Justin Damude. The tournament also gives out an incredible prize package–including Yeti Coolers, Costa Sunglasses, rods and reels, Patagonia swag, and numerous other items–to the team with the most total inches of fish caught. Since no team landed more than one fish, this prize pack went to Justin’s team as well. That is a a lot of gear to enjoy!
Everything hurts. My hands are raw. The tops of my feet are burnt. My shoulder is tight, and my ego is once again back in check. I really enjoy this event, and I cannot say enough about the people who put it together. They say it takes a village to raise a child. What Todd Gregory and the town of McMinnville have here is a slimy, toothy, stubborn child, and they would not be able to do what they do to make us all feel so welcome if they were not working as a community. I look forward to seeing this child grow, and I will be back for my redemption.
Seth Walker, a member of the Streamer Junkies family, is the owner/guide of Uber Fly Ops and is dedicated to chasing anything he can on the fly. You can find him on the water in Northwestern Pennsylvania.