It’s about more than fish

I didn’t catch any muskies on a recent guided trip on a lake I am not at liberty to name, but the outing was worthwhile for what I learned about fish behavior, and about my lake, even though that’s not the one we were on. Who knows more about lakes than fishing guides? Limnologists, I suppose, but their knowledge is broader and usually has more to do with lake science in general than with specific lakes and the nuances of fish activity.

Musky guides’ knowledge is more specialized, and it has to be, since they depend on it to help clients put fish in the net, and money in their own bank accounts. y guide was William (Will) Buhler of Rhinelander, grandson of long-time friend Jim Force of Wausau, who was with us. Even though Will didn’t connect us with any muskies, I have no doubt about his expertise – a picture of a 47-incher he caught on the very same lake the day before (see above) was all the proof I needed.

I paid close attention to Will’s commentary as he steered us around the lake. Much of his and any guide’s knowledge comes from electronics, basically different varieties of sonar. Will has the full array of sonar devices, looking downward, out to the sides, and forward from the boat’s bow. He showed me how the sonar detects the type of bottom, from soft sediment to hard gravel and sand and rocks. He explained how the fish relate to each. For example, he observed that at certain times walleyes are not in the weeds but out on the mud flats dining on emerging mayflies; muskies follow those migrations. He knew that swirls of small fish on the surface were juvenile perch, a forage fish for larger predators. He detected schools of walleyes out in deeper water beyond the weed edges and explained how I might pursue them in similar conditions here on Birch Lake.

Will also managed to remove my skepticism about solunar tables, which are charts that forecast fishes’ activities – peak feeding periods in particular – based on the petition and phase of the moon. He noted that he caught his 47-incher right in the middle of a solunar peak period. And the one musky that followed a lure during my trip did so during a peak time around moon set at 11:30 a.m. Seeing is believing.

Will’s teaching didn’t help when a friend and I fished for walleyes on the same lake that evening – we got skunked with prejudice. But sometimes fishing is like that. It’s worth noting that out trip was on the day after a cold front, generally a downer for fishing success. I’m probably a better angler for what I learned from Will; for example, he explained why I’ve been having so much trouble lately finding walleyes on Birch Lake. But that’s not the only reason I’m grateful to have spent time in his boat.  It’s satisfying just to know more about how fish behave as part of the larger realm of a northern lake ecosystem. I’m richer for the knowledge I gained, whether or not it translates to more tight lines and more fish in the landing net.