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Muskies On the Prowl by Richard Simms

Editor's note: Richard Simms is an outdoor writer and multi-species fishing guide from Chattanooga. Richard operates Scenic City Fishing Charters and is the author of An Outdoor State of Mind, a collection of touching and humorous outdoor stories and columns accumulated from 40 years of hunting and fishing. Many thanks to Richard for this contribution to TRF!

Guide Dwayne Hickey (left) and Tom Kelly from Dalton Ga.  Hickey says he has about a 50 percent success rate on clients who land a Collins River musky. Photo Courtesy, Dwayne Hickey

            The lure stopped its rhythmic dance and seemed to just glide downstream like a dead stick. As it came into view from beneath the surface glare however, it was clear why the lure wasn't wiggling. 

            The bright orange 6-inch Husky Jerk was sticking like a cigar out of the mouth of a muskellunge nearly 40 inches long. As the fish swam by the boat in the clear Collins River water, it sneered up at the anglers, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson sneering at Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest."

            This fished owned the river and was so far, unaware that it had been "caught." That is until the heavy line came taught and this beast of a fish began to turn the Collins River to a froth.

            It is a sight that Dwayne Hickey has never tired of watching, although he has been doing it more than two decades.

            "Me and a buddy had heard about the musky and decided we wanted to try and catch one. I was fishing a plain old white spinnerbait like you'd use for bass," said Hickey. "The first fish I ever hooked was a 30-pounder. Two of them followed the spinnerbait out, the big one hit and the battle was on… until he broke my line right under the boat and I was hooked. I was back two days later and caught my first one and I've been doing it for 25 years."

            In recent years Hickey has been sharing his passion as the official "Musky Guide" for www.TennesseeBassGuides.com owned by Rick McFerrin.

            "Fishermen fly to Canada or to the Northern states and spend thousands of dollars trying to catch a musky when they could book a trip with Dwayne right here," McFerrin said.

            The Collins River drains 811 square miles in all or parts of six Middle and East Tennessee Counties. Hickey lives in McMinnville, just barely a long cast away from the Collins.

The Collins River drains 811 square miles in six different counties. Photo by Richard Simms

            In spite of its huge length, access to the pristine river is extremely difficult. It flows almost exclusively through private land.

            "There are very limited public access points," said Hickey. "What I call the VFW Bridge and Turner's Bend. That's the only two public access points I know of. After that it's all private land and you have to secure permission to reach the river." 

            Hickey grew up in the area and knows enough folks who let him do that. It was a bumpy ride as we hauled his 14-foot flat bottom jon boat through hill and dale in the bed of his pickup truck. The only motor he carried was battery powered.

Huskey prefers to use nothing but a trolling motor to navigate the "skinny water" of the Collins River. Photo by Richard Simms

            "We're 20 miles up in the 'skinny' water of the Collins River," Hickey explained. "It's all what I call 'roughin' it,' and I kind of like it that way. I definitely wouldn't suggest anything above a 9 horsepower motor… I've used a 6 horsepower but usually I stick with a trolling motor. That's the best way to cover the river that I've found."

            The trolling motor helps the Collins remain a very quiet river. In the Chattanooga area it's hard to fish anywhere that's not within earshot of a highway. Not so on the Collins. The only sound was the whir of casting reels and the "kersplash" of monster fishing lures. It is skinny water, but Hickey still uses big baits.

            "I don't call it fishing for musky, I call it hunting musky," said Hickey. "It really is a hunt… the following fish, the way they flare their gills when they hit, right-at-the-boat hits on figure-8's… there's no other fishing like that in freshwater that I know of."

            Of course a favorite line of all musky fisherman, or outdoor writers, is to refer to them as "the fish of a thousand casts." Hickey laughs every time he hears it.

Guide Dwayne Hickey definitely believes in "big baits for big fish" when he's hunting musky on the Collins River. Photo by Richard Simms

            "It's not that bad," he said with a smile. "From my experience it's a lot better ratio than that around here. I would say my success rate with clients (landing a musky) is about 50 percent.  And if they don't catch one, they've probably had one or two on the line at least. We see fish and have follows every trip. It's rare if we don't have some kind of action."

            "Follows" are when a curious musky eases up off the bottom to look at a lure, but doesn't necessarily strike. The boat rarely scares them. These fish consider themselves the biggest, baddest things in the water. They don't scare easily.

         We saw seven fish in about three hours fishing, including the one of the end of the line.

           As the musky with the bright orange husky jerk in its mouth swam downstream, it finally realized something was pulling back. It immediately headed back upstream and around the bow of the boat with one or two short flicks of its tail.

            Then the big bronze fish tore back downstream in the middle of the bright green Collins River in two major, drag-screaming bursts of speed.

            "Sometimes they hit with absolutely savage strikes," explained Hickey. "Other times they'll just come up behind a lure to get a little taste. But when he realizes he's hooked, hold on."

            That's what I was doing. It was about all I could do.

             There was no way to know if this fish occurred in the Collins naturally, or if it was stocked by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. There are some of both.

             "Last year we stocked 410, eight-to-10 inch musky in the Collins," said TWRA Asst. Fisheries Chief Bobby Wilson. "We stock Melton Hill Lake, the Collins River, the Caney Fork, Emory and few other scattered Cumberland Plateau streams. The number varies year-to-year because we depend almost entirely what Kentucky gives us."

           Wilson says slowly but surely, Tennessee is becoming a "destination state" for musky anglers.

            "I think because of our location, southern water with a longer growing season, we have the potential of producing some world class musky," said Wilson. Folks from other states are taking note and we get a lot of folks taking those destination trips to come fish for musky."

I repeat: "We ain't crappie fishin'!" Photo by Richard Simms

           Of course that is what Hickey is banking on. And he is doing all he can to encourage local anglers to get involved. He organized one of the first-ever musky fishing tournaments on Great Falls Reservoir this year. He hopes the tourney will become an annual event.

            "All-Pro Rods has sponsored us along with Interstate Batteries," he said. "There are more musky fishermen out there than you know and the sport is growing. Great Falls Lake is an overlooked fishery. Just ask the bass fishermen that hook and lose these things on a regular basis."

            "Anyone who can cast a spinnerbait at a fallen treetop stands a chance of catching the winning musky," he said. "It's a 100 percent payout, catch & release tournament so bring your digital camera."

             Imagining how the photograph of me and this monster musky was surely going to impress all my fishing buddies, my ego had already climbed a notch about the time the sneering beast came to the surface. He thrashed his huge head back-and-forth several times and I ducked as the bright orange Husky Jerk nearly caught me between the eyes. I swear the fish was aiming at me.

            Hickey simply laid the big net back in the bottom of the boat, picked up his own rod and said, "That's musky fishing."

             If you're interested in fishing with Hickey, visit www.TennesseeBassGuides.com. If you'd like to know more about the musky tournament at Great Falls, call 931-668-3008.

 

 

 

 
     

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