Ask muskie fanatic Jason Hamernick if he plans on spending any time hunting this fall, and he might look at you like you’ve just arrived from another planet.
“I am hunting,” he’ll say heaving another cast into the darkness that is broken only by the twinkling lights of Mille Lacs’ distant shores. “I’m hunting for a 60 pounder.”
Swallowed up by the chill of November, the constant drone of summer boat traffic is gone as water temperatures drop into the mid 40s and big fish develop big appetites.
Hamernick is among a handful of dedicated muskie anglers from around the state and even the nation who will quietly stalk Mille Lacs this fall until the last access freezes with the hope of shattering Art Lyons’ 54 pound state record that has quietly stood since 1957.
“Hands down, this is the lake,” said Hamernick who spends well over 100 days on Mille Lacs fishing and guiding for muskie during the open water season.
“They’re just built different out here than anywhere I’ve ever been,” he said reflecting a common opinion held by avid muskie hunters on the topic of Mille Lacs.
It’s an opinion that has led to a lot of excitement within the ranks of muskie hunters over what will happen this fall as the lake’s healthy population of 50 plus inch muskie begin to prey on the fat rich tullibee that are converging on the shallow rocks to spawn.
“Got one yet James?” Hamernick asks an old high school friend who struggles from the bow of the boat with the biting wind to form a grin.
“No, next cast,” James answers back before Hamernick makes a prediction.
“One of us will get one in the next 200 yards,” he said glancing at a GPS that is littered with bread crumb trails alongside a long spine of rocks.
“There ain’t a bad rock pile in this lake, you just have to find the sweet spot,” said Hamernick.
It was a statement that fit well with his 200 yard prediction and the fact that James’ rod had suddenly doubled over.
Heavy line audibly cut the surface tension of the water before the overfed 46-inch fish made a weak attempt at breaking the surface.
Soon after, glowering eyes belonging to nearly 40 pounds of predator blazed a ruby red under the light of Hamernick’s headlamp as he reached into the net, which was now filled with teeth and treble hooks.
“He’s still looking for his 50,” Hamernick said, not dismissing the impressive weight of the fall fish his friend had just landed.
With Internet chat boards, media and guide chatter all pointing to Mille Lacs’ potential for producing a muskie of state record proportions, Hamernick said the number of muskie anglers on the lake has skyrocketed.
“This year, the north end was just out of hand,” said Hamernick, adding that he really broke away from the high pressure areas this year. “I just went and did my own thing.”
It was a departure that led him to the conclusion that Mille Lacs muskies use literally every acre of the big lake.
But as the wind calmed on an unseasonably warm night for November, fishing pressure was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Lights from several walleye boats blinked across a nearby rock reef, and the eerie silence was broken only intermittently as one-pound soft plastic baits called Bulldogs, hit the water before being brought back to the boat with a slow straight line retrieve.
There is a definite sense of anticipation in the boat, following the night’s earlier success.
The pace is a methodical crawl alongside the reef, as Hamernick follows one of his well trodden paths.
“I don’t cover nearly as much water in the fall as I would in say August or September,” Hamernick said before recalling a particular fish from last November with an estimated weight of 51 pounds — just three pounds shy of the record.
With that in mind, every retrieve takes on a sudden immediacy, like an addiction. Tunnel vision sets in as headlight beams follow the next cast.
Hamernick, who is known in the guide business as Muskie Breath, caught his first muskie at the age of 16 by accident on Forest Lake.
“It fought hard and I was hooked,” said the 32-year-old, who struggles to balance family life, his real job and the desire to catch Minnesota’s state record muskie.
His early obsession led him to seek out Mille Lacs muskie legend Butch Sears. “I tried weaseling information out of him, following him around. I told him, I want to be a guide,” Hamernick said. “He told me, ‘There ain’t no money in it son.’”
As the end of his seventh guiding season fades into the darkness of mid-November, it’s apparent that Sears’ advice hasn’t had much affect.
What drives him to continue? “My wife asks me that question 100 times a day. I think I’m just in search of huge fish. I want to catch the state record really bad.”