It wasn’t so long ago that I remember seeing a rainbow trout. It was swimming from my childhood pier to the next door pier, aloof, brilliant, without purpose or direction. It was electric, shockingly bright like a rainbow without the storm. I cut my teeth on smallmouth and largemouth bass. The former falling between bronze and sage, the latter darker, steely blue, almost. I remember great clouds of bullhead minnows, one or two adults surrounded by so many offspring. The purple of the bullhead was matched only by the purple of the carp that would cruise the shallows two by two, under the early morning sun.
That purple was dark and serious, not at all like this rainbow trout. The trout was shimmery, silver and pink, red and orange. All of the colors, that’s what it was. And it was huge and it was football shaped and my young eyes could hardly believe what they were seeing. It was mysterious, foreign, something out of my most surreal dreams. But it wasn’t a dream at all, it was swimming in this lake from one pier to the next, in the middle of summer under that high yellow sun. I’m quite certain that I will never, ever, forget my first fleeting encounter with that trout.
I have not found my way to the pier this summer as often as in the past. There are conflicting reasons for this absence, each important and meaningful but also useless and mundane. Work, that’s what it is. But it’s also the rainy pattern of the past two weeks. Summer is well underway, but with a cold front slowly meandering through the Midwest it feels less like certain summer and more like an uncertain spring. Still, the pier has called and I have only seldom listened. Perhaps the calling has passed me by in favor of my son, for his ear is always bent toward the lake, always hearing the call of the waves and the fish and the diving board.
Several weeks ago I was delivering magazines and happened upon a scene in the White River Park, in the middle of downtown Lake Geneva. A police officer had his eyes trained on the water, that lake water that rips through the locks and provides life to the White River before joining other rivers and making its way to the ocean. How I feel for that water, once born of this lake and this place, to be forced to travel through so much ugly before ending up overwhelmed in a salty sea. The police officer’s gaze caught my attention. I know better than to walk past a policeman who is investigating something.
It was a musky. Four or five, maybe six. Large dark bullets in that clear swift water. They were holding in the current, like salmon pointed upstream. These fish measured 40 inches, some better, some worse. They were beautiful. In the coming days and weeks anglers would arrive, prompted by ridiculous youtube videos, to try their hand at these few fish that had been swept through the spillway out of Geneva Lake and were now stuck in this skinny water. Lures were presented. Snags were committed. Pictures were taken. No shame appears to have been felt.
A week or two later I was on the pier with my son, casting a small fly hoping that something might bite. While pier fishing, many fishermen find their eyes trained towards bikinis on neighboring piers, but my eyes find their way to the water, under the surface, scanning for movement. Looking for fish, for bass and bluegills, for crappies and gar. Perhaps for an elusive rainbow trout, but not likely. This is when the musky showed up. Rising out of the darker depths, 40 inches, likely more, of musky pushed slowly through the distance off the edge of the pier. My son was frenzied. Excitement filled his eyes.
A few years ago, the DNR stocked Geneva Lake with a large handful of fingerling musky. The DNR undertakes such experiments often, throwing darts at a wall in hopes that something sticks. Fast forward a few years and the musky experiment has worked. The ciscoes and bluegills and perch would argue that the experiment has been a collosal failure, but the muskies disagree. The population has grown to such a degree that the fish being caught this summer are of trophy size. This summer, children will accidentally catch 44″ musky off of the piers.
This, of course, is exciting news. But it’s also delicate news. The fish are not reproducing in this lake, at least not to the knowledge of the DNR. So the experiment will yield only one real benefit: angling pleasure. Still, I have one bit of advice. Treat these fish well. Don’t keep them. Musky doesn’t taste great. Just enjoy the fight and release these monsters to the dark depths. If you see one stuck in a shallow river, just leave it alone. If you see one swimming slowly off the end of your pier, tease it with a lure, but don’t snag it. It’ll be a memorable summer for those who are lucky enough to catch a big Geneva Lake musky, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, just take a picture and let it go.