Ozark muskies are guide's giant obsession

When Earle Hammond goes fishing at Pomme de Terre Lake, he focuses on the top of the food chain.

Your first clue? The lures he uses.

They're bigger than the fish most people catch.

"This one is only 9 inches," he said, holding up a Grandma crankbait he was soon trolling through the clear water. "But we'll troll baits as long as 13 inches.

"When you're going after a big fish, you use a big bait."

Spoken like a true muskie fisherman.

Hammond, like other muskie fanatics, lives in a super-sized world. You won't find any ultralight tackle in his boat. Everything's big - from the lures he uses to his rods and reels to the fish he pulls into the boat.

He has caught and released muskies as long as 42 inches at Pomme de Terre, a 7,800-acre reservoir in the Ozarks. But he still dreams of bigger and better things.

"I'm convinced there are 50-inch muskies in here," said Hammond, who runs the Pomme Muskie Guide Service. "That's what I'm after."

Hammond paused, then laughed.

"I'm one of those nuts who is obsessed with this," he said. "I fish almost every day for these things.

"Like everyone else, I go through long spells when I don't catch a fish. When you're a muskie fisherman, you learn the meaning of the word `perseverance.'

"But just catching one makes all that that work worthwhile. There isn't a fish I'd rather catch."

Nicknamed "the fish of 10,000 casts," the muskie has become the obsession of many a fisherman.

The fish patrols at the top of the food chain - known for its aggressive nature, savage strikes and legendary fights. It is a symbol of the Northwoods, where it is common in states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But it also is a resident of a few reservoirs in Missouri, thanks to a stocking program by the Missouri Department of Conservation. And Pomme de Terre ranks at the top of that list.

That's where Hammond was fishing on a recent overcast, windy day - an ideal muskie day, as he put it. With an oversized bait tied to his line, he started trolling through an area in the Lindley arm where he had marked an abundance of baitfish.

Holding the rod, he could feel the wobble of the large bait as it cut through the water. When it stopped, his heart starting pounding.

"Big fish!," he said as the muskie started stripping line out of the reel.

The fish dug for the bottom, then came to the surface, jumped and landed with a loud splash.

It left a large swirl in its wake, then descended again. But it wasn't long before Hammond was guiding the 38-inch fish into an oversized landing net.

"Look at how fat that fish is," Hammond said. "That fish must weigh 20 pounds."

Seconds later, Hammond was easing the fish back into the water, handling it as though it were some rare treasure.

"They all go back," said Hammond, who has caught and released 60 muskies in the last seven years. "We emphasize catch and release."

For Hammond, that fish was the sixth muskie he has caught this year. His guide customers have landed six others.

Many of them have come while trolling huge plugs through areas where the locator indicates an abundance of baitfish.

But there are no guarantees. You never know when a muskie will hit.

"Just a couple weeks ago, I was trolling a big plug and I started reeling it in," said Hammond, 64, who lives in Urbana, Mo. "Right when I got it to the boat, it stopped. I thought at first that I was hung up on the back of the boat.

"But it turns out it was a muskie."

To any muskie fisherman, such tales aren't that hard to believe. Muskies are renowned for following a bait before finally hitting it at the boat.

"I've caught several fish just doing a figure-eight (with the lure) right at the boat," Hammond said.

Hammond, a former Kansas City area resident, has been fishing for muskies since 1968.

He got started when he saw a brochure for the Muskies Inc. fall tournament and decided to enter. He caught a small muskie that first time out, and was hooked when he saw a 44-inch fish landed by another fisherman.

That began a long obsession with muskie fishing. Hammond spent his career working in the canine unit for the Kansas City Police Department, patrolling with and training police dogs. But on weekends, he was often at Pomme de Terre, casting or trolling for muskies.

After retiring, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Pomme de Terre. And now they are enjoying a rural lifestyle, where the fish they both love to catch are never far away.


-WHAT: The muskie is known as "the fish of 10,000 casts." It is a true trophy, growing to sizes of 50 inches or bigger. It is aggressive and can put up legendary fights. But as its nickname indicates, it also can be unpredictable and hard to catch.

-WHERE: It is best-known in northern waters, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. But it also is found in Missouri, where it has been stocked in waters such as Pomme de Terre, Hazel Creek, Fellows and Henry Sever lakes, and the Busch Wildlife Area.

-POMME DE TERRE: Pomme de Terre, in southwest Missouri, has earned national acclaim for its muskie fishing. The fish were first stocked in the Ozarks reservoir in 1966 to provide a new trophy fishery and to provide a predator to help control non-game species. Since then, Pomme de Terre has developed an outstanding muskie population. Though the fish don't reproduce in the lake, stockings by the Missouri Department of Conservation have maintained a trophy fishery.

-FISH OF 10,000 CASTS? Not at Pomme de Terre. A survey in 2005 showed that it took fishermen at the Ozarks reservoir an average of 11.6 hours to catch a muskie of any size and 31.5 hours to catch a legal fish (36 inches or longer). In comparison, it took fishermen 71 hours to catch a muskie at eight northern Wisconsin lakes and 91 hours in Minnesota waters.

-WHEN: There are two key time periods for catching muskies at Pomme de Terre. Most muskie fishermen look forward to early September, the first cool-down when water temperatures start to drop. That often triggers feeding activity among the muskies. But the period from mid-May to mid-June also can be good, especially for trolling.

-METHODS: During the spring and early- summer period, fishermen often troll with large crankbaits such as Grandmas or Believers. During the fall, casting is often more effective. Guides such as Earle Hammond use large bucktails, spinnerbaits, Super Shad Raps and topwater lures to catch muskies.

-WHERE TO FIND THEM: Big muskies are like many other gamefish: Find the food, and you have a chance of finding the fish. They often relate to cover such as stumps, brush and rocks. But they also will cruise flats, following baitfish.

-TACKLE: Big is the word. Hammond uses heavy-action rods, big baitcasting reels and 60-pound braided line.