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How To Catch The Elusive Musky Fish, Release It And Still Have It As A Trophy

Northwoods fishing guide Colin Crawford holds a Lax Reproductions musky replica he won in a musky league in 2019.
Northwoods fishing guide Colin Crawford holds a Lax Reproductions musky replica he won in a musky league in 2019.

Imagine catching a trophy fish and celebrating with a mount of your big catch on the wall, but only after you actually released the fish back into the lake.

That's happening now in Wisconsin's Northwoods, a north central area of the state with more than 3200 lakes, streams and rivers, as anglers turn to replica trophies to celebrate snagging the notorious musky—a freshwater predator that can span up to 5 feet and weigh up to 70 lbs.

The muskellunge long, more popularly called the musky, is Wisconsin's state fish and it's known as a freshwater equivalent of the barracuda. It's sometimes called "the fish of 10,000 casts," as it's so elusive.

Northwoods fishing guide Ken Jackson describes the adventure as "hours of boredom followed by seconds of panic."

"It's a challenge because it's a difficult fish to catch," Jackson says. "They're very unpredictable. And basically, your job as a guide is to prepare the people for what might happen."

To protect the state's musky population from decline, like the extirpation of the Great Lakes muskies in Green Bay more than 30 years ago by commercial fishing, and to ensure the ecosystem of the thousands of lakes in Wisconsin's Northwoods, some fishermen practice catch and release. Fishing guide Colin Crawford explains the protocol.

"Back in the mid to late '90s, a 35, 36-inch fish on this body of water was a nice fish. But through Muskies Inc. [a non-profit group founded in 1966 made up of musky anglers] and catch and release and education about the big fish, you know, we have 50-inch class fish in this chain," Crawford says.

Crawford is piloting his 20-foot tiller fishing boat through the water – continually casting his bait and reeling it in. He and his fishing partner aren't able to nab a musky on this recent August evening but they're part of a Monday night musky league, and by the end of the night 18 others caught and released muskies.

Theirs is one of many musky leagues in the area, sort of like your average dart league or a bowling league, but for catching muskies. The leagues are sponsored by stores or bars or tackle shops. After fishing the anglers traditionally meet up at a local pub to socialize and record their catches.

Brothers Chris Lax (left) and Rick Lax (right) of Lax Taxidermy in the showroom with dozens of musky replicas.
/ Mayaan Silver
Brothers Chris Lax (left) and Rick Lax (right) of Lax Taxidermy in the showroom with dozens of musky replicas.

"It's like putting a model together"

Whoever gets the most points at the end of the league gets a gift certificate for a faux musky replica at Lax Reproductions. It's a taxidermy-turned-reproductions shop that can create life-like trophies of the big catches.

"We can do about anything," says Rick Lax, who took over Lax Reproductions from his father in 2003, referring to poses, patterns, and styles of musky reproductions. The company started transitioning to replicas in the '90s after amassing hundreds of molds of actual muskies.

Lax has a combined studio and showroom in Conover, Wis. About 30 musky replicas hang in the showroom in a variety of poses: teeth bared, chasing a school of perch, facing left or right.

Here's how it works: You catch a fish. You take a picture. If you can, you measure the fish's length and girth and then release it back into the lake. The company uses the photo and measurements to build your fish trophy, using two-part polymer plastic molds taken from muskies caught in days gone by.

The angler can choose if they want the trophy to replicate how the musky looks in the photo or if they want any other pose. The trophies can mount directly on the wall, sit on a base of driftwood or a plaque or even balance on a pedestal. People display their replicas anywhere from mantles to man-caves.

Lax is one of a handful of places around the country doing this work, and the company professes to have the largest supply of sizes and molds in the world. It it takes six to eight months for people to get their replica shipped once it's ordered.

"It's like putting a model together; a model plane, a model train, we're putting those together, we're putting everything, all the pieces together. And then we do the artistry of putting all the coloration into it to make it more look like the picture," Lax says.

Lax injects the model fish with foam, so it doesn't crack. And painting the replica brings the trophy to life. Lax does his airbrushing in the corner of his studio.

"We got different colors here. We got red, yellow, and brown and white. Don't use a lot of different colors, but we do a lot of shading. Yellow and red, and next thing you know you got all the shades of a fish."

Rick Lax holds up a musky head mold alongside a musky reproduction in his showroom.
/ Maayan Silver
Rick Lax holds up a musky head mold alongside a musky reproduction in his showroom.

"Every time you look at it, you've just re-live that day"

Lax then sprays an auto body finish on, so the replicas glisten just like a fish out of water.

For many, this is like buying a work of art – with a prized 50 inch replica costing $800. "It's a big investment. but after fishing for muskies for 10, 20 years, you finally catch that one, it's probably a small price to pay for all the money you spent trying to catch it."

Jim Stewart of Rollie & Helens, a Northwoods fishing supply shop that bills itself as "the world's largest musky shop," says people can spend anywhere from $200 to $2000 outfitting themselves to hook a musky.

Back out fishing at the Monday night musky league, fishing guide Colin Crawford tells the tale of how he tied for biggest musky in a league competition back in 2019.

"We were on I do believe on Cisco Lake on the Cisco chain of lakes and just fishing a weed edge and throw in a big black medusa, and two cranks in, she hit, and I set the hook and that was it, 45 and a quarter incher and that's what tied for winning the league that season in 2019."

The prize in that league was a full-price manmade replica of that fish from Lax Reproductions.

"Every time you look at it, you've just re-live that day," Crawford says.

In the end, replicas can commemorate what some consider an epic struggle to catch a musky while helping preserve the ecosystem for future anglers.

Copyright 2021 WUWM 89.7 FM - Milwaukee's NPR. To see more, visit WUWM 89.7 FM - Milwaukee's NPR.