BY GARY THOMAS
" Muskie fishing is an extreme sport," says Al Nutty. "It's like going out to play a round of golf and only counting holes in one. This is an idealistic sport. There's a lot of anticipation, but the pay-off is small compared to the investment."
That sounds like the voice of someone disenchanted with muskie fishing, but Nutty is a dyed-in-the-wool muskie angler and guide on southern Illinois' Kinkaid Lake. He just thinks he's a realist.
"This sport is an obsession," he says. "No fish provides the thrills this fish does. You'll see guys out in bitter cold weather, braving howling winds in terrible winter conditions, with reels freezing up, fingers freezing and all for the chance to just see a fish. Muskie fishing fosters a mystique that defies description."
Nutty started fishing for muskies about six years ago-throwing bass lures and using bass fishing equipment. Today his boat carries St.
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Guide Al Nutty holds up a 42-Inch muskie he caught at Kinkald Lake last year. The fish spent less than a minute out of the water.
and the fish quickly returned to the water to provide the same thrill for another angler.
"This also can be a very strenuous sport," Nutty says. "You use heavy action 71/2-foot rods and cast 4- to 5-ounce lures. Do this all day and your shoulders and arms will feel it. It's a lot different than casting 3/8-ounce bass lures on a light action 6-foot bass rod."
While guiding for muskies is a tough business, Nutty's motto is: "Refuse to lose."
And "refuse to lose" is something Nutty understands. While working at a quarry when just 20, he was caught in machinery and broke his back, bruised every major organ and almost lost an eye. He wasn't expected to make it to the hospital alive. He was paralyzed for 31/2 years, in a wheelchair for 51/2 years and in therapy for 71/2 years. But he walked out of the hospital from his final therapy without the use of a crutch or cane. Now 41, he and his wife, Brenda, and their daughter Allyson, live in Carterville.
A native southern Illinoisan, Nutty learned fishing from his mother and grandfather while growing up in Johnson County. But guiding was never anything he planned to do.
"I was doing advertising sales for an outdoor magazine, and I started getting telephone calls from anglers wanting to know where they could hire a muskie guide," he says. "I tried to find guides, but none of the local ones wanted to fish for muskies. I finally agreed to take a couple of anglers out. I've been doing it ever since."
Nutty does about 80 trips a year, but he does it a little differently, putting his clients in the front of the boat so they get the first chance to fish areas while he operates the trolling motor and fishes from the back of the boat.
Nutty fishes for muskie from late January through February when weather permits, then from March through June. He starts fishing for them again in early October and continues through December.
"Muskie can be caught during the hotter summer months, but I usually don't fish then," he says. "Despite being a big fighter, they don't hold up well during the hot months. They are easy to stress in warm water, so I just leave them alone those months."
That's not to say Nutty stops guiding then. He just turns his attention to other lakes and fishes for bass and crappie-plus takes clients night fishing for rainbow trout and bass at Devils Kitchen Lake.
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Two Kentucky anglers enjoy a day fishing for muskie at southern, Illinois' Kinkaid Lake.
Nutty has caught hundreds of muskies since taking up the sport, the largest of which was 461/2 inches long. He's had bigger fish on the line, but didn't get them to the boat.
"No one catches as many muskie as they would like," he says. "There are days when you do everything right, but don't even see a fish. On those days you have to enjoy your surroundings. I tell people I have the messiest desk and most beautiful office in the state. My boat is my desk, and my office is 2,700 acres of water."
Muskie fishing can be phenomenal on Kinkaid Lake.
"What made muskie fishing so good early on was this lake was really unpressured," Nutty says. "It still isn't highly pressured because there aren't that many local muskie anglers. Locals prefer fishing for bass, crappie and catfish."
Like most Illinois lakes, muskie reproduction is probably non-existent in Kinkaid. That means fish must be stocked yearly, further emphasizing the importance of catch and release fishing.
"The Department of Natural Resources has been great about making sure we have adequate numbers of muskie for stocking each year," Nutty says. "And my hat goes off to DNR for putting up the fish retention barrier that keeps muskie from going over the spillway. The spillway loss of muskies used to be tremendous."
Nutty advises novice muskie anglers to read up on the species, and to make sure they have the right equipment.
"Muskie are an ambush predator, just like the largemouth bass," he says. "If you know where bass will be at different times of the year, you'll find muskie living in the same areas and using the same habitat, but usually in deeper water. They will respond to the same instincts as bass."
During the spring, Nutty fishes two distinct patterns depending on whether he's looking for size or quantity.
For large fish, he casts large shallow running, twitch baits shallow shorelines.
"The average fish you'll catch with this method will be 40-plus inches and usually be a female," Nutty says. "However, don't expect to catch many fish. Using this method you'll be looking to catch two fish in about three days of fishing, although two or three fish per day is possible."
If you're looking for abundance, Nutty recommends trolling with lures like the Jake, Ernie or Believer in the upper creek channels. He says you can get three to five fish on a good day. The size will almost always be under 38 inches, and 90 percent of the fish will be males.
During the summer months, Nutty moves to the main lake points and over green weed beds, and casts large minnow baits and diving crankbaits.
During the fall Nutty uses jerkbaits in standing timber and bucktail spinners over weedbeds. He also uses topwater lures near weed beds early in the morning and evenings, and will troll smaller
"You need to make the same presentation changes on muskie as you would with bass," Nutty says. "Downsize your lures during cold fronts, fish tighter to cover on sunny days and use smaller baits and move your lure faster in clearer water. And don't worry about reeling your lure too fast. Muskies are capable of doing short bursts of speed at 25 miles per hour. If they want your lure, they'll catch it."
Although fishing for muskie is best in late-March and April, Nutty says you will see good activity in May and June. He says muskie are most aggressive in early fall. Best time of day is during the low light periods (early morning and late evening), but fishing can be good throughout the day on overcast days.
"A guide is just a collection of facts, techniques and tricks shared with and gathered from other anglers," Nutty says. "I'm not necessarily a better muskie fisherman than anyone else fishing for this species. I just have more experience and a good idea where I should be looking."
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