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Big Muddy Ugly
Written by Jim Laing, Certified Casting Instructor with the Federation of Flyfishers.

There is nothing pretty about the scene below the dam of Rend Lake in Southern Illinois, USA. The terrain is littered with rotting fish carcasses, filling the air with a foul odor. I could barely breath as I made my way to the water.

The first strike was hard and fast and my reel was screaming as the backing disappeared from the spool. The fish shot 75' across the channel and then headed downstream after reaching the rip rap on the opposite side. About half way into the backing, I had to crank the drag system down and break the fish off before it ate up all 250 yards of 20 pound backing. The striper we were fishing for up in the channel reacted to the strip-set by running for cover down in the Big Muddy River.

Looking downstream below the riprap channel, the river gets wide and slows down. With a slight bend in the channel about 300 yards out, a large eddy is formed that holds some big fish.

The next cast I landed a two-pound drum, then hooked up with a nice Buffalo. I could tell the fish was false hooked, and my choice was to lose the fly or chase the fish downstream. As I stumbled over the large riprap, the fish continued to take line from the spool. I jumped from rock to rock as the fish ripped more line off the spool. I picked up the pace and kept up with the fish. About a 1000 feet downstream the fish took cover in the flats and I began slowly reeling in the line as I continued my balancing act on the rocks. The fight lasted for a good while and finally I was able to land the fish and release him unharmed. We guessed the fish might have weighed about 12 pounds.

This was a good test for our equipment, including the knotted leaders we tied for striper fishing. The rod says Winston XTR, 9 feet, 8 weight. XTR stands for “extreme” and this was the perfect choice for battling Big Muddy fish. The drag system on the Galvan Torque reel worked flawlessly. I like to keep my drag loose so that I can easily strip line off the reel while casting, then after a good hard strip set, I adjust the large drag knob down and as the torque increases, the crisp clicking sound of the internal drag slows to a “click”……”click”……and at this point, you hope your line system can withstand the pressure and shock of the battle, as you beat the fish early in the game.

We shared the water below the riprap channel with the garfish after releasing the buffalo. Occasionally we would see a gar swimming around with a shad in its mouth. It seemed like all of the Big Muddy Fish were feeding on shad. The shad we saw were approximately 3 inches, and our fly's were tied to imitate the shad - number 4 clousers, white on white and blue on white. We were able to position ourselves in the eddy, with enough room to backcast in the waist deep water. Casts less than 60 feet usually are not productive, and often ended up with a strike from a garfish. A good long cast slightly downstream at the edge of the channel often results in a strike from a striper or a carp or something unexpected. The big carp hit strong and solid, then often try to resume position in its feeding lane until it realizes something is not right, and then the fight begins. Stripers hit hard and shoot downstream into the next county, with intense velocity that cuts and pushes water with little resistance. I'm liking this and beginning to feel that I'm loosing my desire to hunt big trout in their pristine environment. This new striper fixation has become murky and clouded after experiencing the BEASTLY BIG MUDDY UGLY. If these fish had teeth, they could probably rule the world.

My friend Brad (who is often called Lars because of his Scandinavian looks) was working on a big fish at the toe of the riprapped chute, while I was casting beyond the eddy into the seam at the edge of the channel. I felt a strike and ripped into a solid strip set……hard……with my index finger burning, I saw the dorsal fin and tail come up out of the water 65' out. The fish swam into the shallows right to me. When he got close enough to read my name on the dark green rod, he turned and gave me a good soaking. I was able to walk the fish up into the shallows and tried to land him near Lars. I loosened my drag, and held the rod with one hand, while taking pictures of Lars and his BIG UGLY. By the time I finished, the fish was into the channel with 100 feet of my backing. I ended up walking back down where I started and recovered as much line as I could. While slowly pumping the rod deep into the boron, I whipped the lazy eyed ugly beast.

These fish are nasty. They smell like the rotting garfish lying on the bank that we passed earlier. The slimy coating of the fish collects on the tippet during the battle. We continued to crack those big lazy eyed tuna and hoped for the striper bite to return. The wait for striper wasn't pretty.

Lars' next cast produced another type of battle. “I think there is a fish on here but it feels snagged.” He pulled harder to see if he could get it to move but it wouldn't budge. Then after contemplating the situation for several minutes, Lars thought about his options, then the fish moved only enough to let him know he was in big trouble. We really were not interested in 50 to 70 pound flathead bottom dwellers and this fish didn't seem to understand that we just wanted to play. The fish burrowed deeper into the mud and probably didn't feel the tickle tugging sensation after eating that last shad fish. Feeling the need for a twelve weight, Lars gave in to the Flathead and broke the tippet. My mind now far from the world class trout streams of Arkansas that we have become familiar with, has a new, bigger, dirty and ugly fixation that requires heavy gear; like 30 pound tippet with a small section of sinking leader on a general purpose line. Ah…..hummm…..An actual use for that expensive saltwater gear I recently purchased for a tarpon trip in the Florida Keys. My dad isn't a flyfisher (or a

Presbyterian Minister like Norman McClean's father in his book), would say - “Boys, what have you done?”

By this time we were wondering if the striper habitat had been taken over by huge flying carp, toothy gar, and catfish that burrow deep into the Big Muddy.

A conservation officer then emerged from the brush behind us. He walked up with authority, as if he were a lawman from the OLD WEST who was ready to toss a couple of strangers from the saloon. Then with a closer look we realized he was a local who was just curious and needed to find out what business fly fishermen had swinging colorful lines through his fishing hole. The secret to fly-casting is timing he explained. “You are getting an interesting water load when the fly hits the water on your backcast. It's working for you, so I wouldn't change it.” At this point, there was no way I would tell this guy that I'm a certified casting instructor. He politely changed his subject matter and went on to discuss his youth. “I guided out West when I was younger…. I have guided hundreds of trips in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Idaho. You must be fishing for striper, because the carp here won't take a fly.” The conversation continued and my striping technique slowed as the fly drifted closer to the bottom. Fighting big fish was definitely something with which Rusty could help. At this point hooking up was good, but the big fish buzz had passed. We talked as I played the next big guy. Then finally after it surfaced, Rusty said “I don't believe it…..It's a buffalo. That is a twenty five-dollar fish. You can get a dollar per pound in the city.” With Rusty's connections in the city, I was thinking this could be a way to feed my big fish/tackle addiction. Had we been familiar with IGFA records, the fish would have been recorded as a world record for a flyrod. As for value, this is when angling for big fish becomes treasure hunting. The more I think about what I released back into the Big Muddy, the UGLIER IT GETS.

The Big Muddy Ugly are only an hour and fifteen minutes from my doorstep.


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