"They have this terribly annoying thing of following a fly, opening their mouth — then looking right at you and sinking away," says Todd Gregory, founder of McMinnville, Tennessee's Hardly, Strictly Musky festival, held each May on the Collins River to celebrate the small and eccentric sport of fly fishing for muskellunge.
The festival, which began in 2012, says Gregory, "is not so much a tournament, but a tribe gathering of the people across the country who fish for musky. Compared to the delicate little trout, the musky is a nightmarish fish." Not only does the fish look more menacing, but it is a beast to catch, requiring special gear, Gregory says.
The flies are about a foot long. The lines are heavy duty. And the rods must be made for saltwater, which are more resistant to wear and tear. Some fly fishermen try for years before snagging their first musky, Gregory says.
And it isn't just the fish or its challenge that sets this niche sport apart. It's the fishermen, too.
"Fly fishing used to suffer from a terrible image problem. Then a wonderful thing started to happen about 15 years ago. Instead of stuffy, old white guys in Orvis clothing, it became more guys with tattoos and mohawks," Gregory says.
It was around this same time that some hardcore fishermen realized that musky could be fly fished, too — adding a more extreme edge to the sport.
Hardly, Strictly Musky festival-goers are an eclectic bunch, Gregory says. "So many different walks of life — from young, nomadic fishing guides to regular anglers, from factory workers to celebrities in the fishing world," he says.
In addition to musky fishing, Hardly, Strictly Musky features live music, art exhibitions and cookouts.
"I don't want to say that fishing is secondary, but the festival is a social gathering. It's about being outside, traveling, going to different places. It's about that personal challenge," Gregory says.
Meet the Muskellunge
Description: Often mistaken for the northern pike, the musky is long, slender and flat-headed with needle-like teeth.
Length: Males range from 22-39 inches; females from 22-50 inches
Weight: Males range from 3-20 pounds; females from 3-40 pounds
Diet: Muskys eat mostly fish but may also prey on frogs, ducklings, mice and other small mammals and birds. They are ferocious hunters, known to hide in vegetation and ambush their prey.
Range: Tennessee is the southern terminus of the musky's range, which stretches north to Ontario, east to New York and west to Minnesota. They are indigenous to the Great Lakes region and upper Mississippi watershed.
Record: The largest musky ever caught measured 58 inches long. It was captured in Wisconsin in 1949. The largest musky caught at last year's Hardly, Strictly Musky festival measured 42 inches long.