Barbara: If catching fish were a crime, imagine all the versions of fish stories that investigators would have to wade through in order to get at the truth. One version of the truth in our house is written down in Ted's fishing journal at the end of every day, whether we catch any fish or not. More about that later. Another version of the truth happens when we tell in narrative form our recollection of events. Here, for example is Ted's version of the big fish story I told in my article "Landing a Big Fish." You can decide where the truth lies between the two.
Ted: Thursday, July 18, was a hot 86 degrees, clear, sunny, and breezy after a calm morning. It was the half-moon period, six days before the full moon, and a cold front was expected to move in late that night. Except for the approaching cold front, it was certainly not my favorite kind of muskie day. My wife and fishing partner, Barbara, and I had begun fishing at daybreak on one of my favorite weed edges on Chautauqua Lake. Things were dead. There were no fish breaking the surface and no muskies were showing any interest in any of our lures. I moved along my milk run of favorite spots, but it was turning out to be a poor day. I finally had one follow from a small fish at about noon.
The wind was gradually building out of the west as the day progressed and I worked my way back to the weed edge where we started the day. At the leading edge of the weed bed, I made a cast with my favorite Bagley crankbait and after retrieving the lure a very short distance, bang, the lure stopped. I set the hooks hard, and started fighting the fish. I told Barbara, "This is a small fish and it sure isn't fighting like a muskie." I got the fish up to the boat and it was a big walleye, probably 30-32 inches. It wasn't hooked very well so I got it up beside the boat and shook it loose without even touching it. We continued our drift along the weed edge with no interest from any muskies. At the end of the drift we went back to the beginning of the weed edge and started again in a little deeper water. Nothing--no follows, no fish. It was shaping up to be a fishless day.
At about 2:00 PM we decided to make one more drift and if nothing happened call it a day. This time I started our drift a little shallower, where the weeds were clumpy and coming almost to the surface. Still nothing and we were nearing the end of the drift. I made a cast directly into the wind, as I usually do, and I was cranking the lure relatively deep and bringing it up fast as it approached the boat. I saw the lure and was getting ready to turn into a figure 8 when a fish came from nowhere and sucked the lure in. "I got one! Big fish, big fish," I said to Barbara. The fish made a surge just under the surface after I set the hooks and then came to the top and jumped. She got her body about 3/4 of the way out of the water. Then she dove and went around the boat. She kept her fight deep and we took turns gaining line from one another. As she tired, I worked her to the surface and told Barbara to get the net. This is where things started to go wrong. Barbara had never netted a fish of any kind in her life, and I should have given her the rod and netted the fish myself, but the fish was becoming fairly tired and cooperative so I decided to let Barbara net her. I told her to put the net in the water and I would lead the fish in. So far so good. The net was in the water the way it should have been, and I led the fish in. Then things went bad very quickly. I told Barbara to "Lift the net! lift the net!" "I can't, it's too heavy," she said. Then the worst possible thing happened.
The fish straightened out and was lying across the top of the net. She made one flop and was out of the net, but the hooks were, of course, still tangled in it. I knew the fish would be gone in a minute, but I had one last chance to land her as she lay for a second resting. I dropped my rod and grabbed the fish by the operculum with my left hand. Just as I was putting the death grip on, she came to life and started thrashing her head back and forth, and drove the front trebles of the lure into my forearm. At this point, I was attached to both a net and a thrashing fish trying desperately to shake loose. I could see that the hooks in the fish's jaw were just about torn loose and my worst fear was that I was going to lose the fish and be left with nothing but these stupid hooks sticking in my arm, and worse, no pictures! I had one last chance and grabbed the operculum with my right hand, got the grip I needed, and lifted the fish and net into the boat. Barbara was hollering, "What do you want me to do? What do you want me to do?" I kept saying, "Just grab the camera and get the pictures." She snapped three quick pictures, and then cut the net, freeing my left arm. I quickly slid the fish back into the water. I got a measurement with my measuring stick... 51 inches! By then, the fish was ready to go. I released her and she swam away strongly. We made a quick trip to Westfield Hospital to have the hooks removed from my arm and what started out as a poor day became one of my most memorable muskie days ever.
That brings me to the main subject of this article. When I got home that evening I made notes of everything that happened. I keep a journal, as many dedicated muskie anglers do, of moon phase, weather conditions, number of fish hooked, number of fish caught, follows, fish depths, and any other item that I think may be relevant. I have been doing this since I began muskie fishing in the mid 1970's. I frequently look back in the journal to see what worked, when it worked, what weather conditions were like when I caught fish, what phase the moon was in, and any other factor that might help to predict good fishing days. It's great to look back on what conditions were like on days that fish were caught and to think that those are prime days to fish, but we often overlook other similar days on which we were unsuccessful. That doesn't mean, however, that all our details and notes about conditions are meaningless predictors. There is a simple way to make sense of it if we analyze our success based on different variables and in a way, that makes the data easily comparable. To illustrate how these variables can be analyzed, I'll use some the data that I collected from our 2002 muskie season.
I fished either with Barbara or alone, and combined we landed a total of 34 muskies, and hooked and lost a total of 20 muskies. All of our fishing was done in western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania, primarily on Chautauqua, Tionesta, Woodcock, and Pymatuning Lakes. We fished a total of 33 days and 217 hours for an average of about 6.6 hours per day. All our fishing time was spent casting, the method we both prefer. I tallied this data from my journal at the end of the season, although you could keep a running tally if you knew you were going to analyze it. I didn't mind doing it all at once, because it was a way to think again about the season during the winter.
Barbara: I never even look in Ted's journal, because I prefer photographic records, but it is true that I rely on him to have information about the day's conditions, and to be able to tell me what lure I used or how deep the water was. One place I need that information is for Muskies, Inc. . As a member of that organization, I send information on all my catches, which they gather for their own research, and then it is posted on their website for members to view. I can't tell you how often I have to ask Ted what the weather conditions were, much to his dismay.
Ted's journal is pretty plain, and it works fine for our purposes. We keep a photo album for all our pictures, as well as an online photo album, but I can imagine someone keeping a journal where photos are included along with the day's water and weather conditions. You would then be able to view not only the fish that were caught (or not), but also the conditions that were just right. Such a journal can be as elaborate as your time and skills permit.
Well, now that you have all that data recorded, what do you do with it other than look up information for your forgetful fishing partner?
More about that in Part II: Making Sense of Your Fishing Journal.