Remembering the Leech Lake musky rampage…let’s look back!
With the possible exception of those who pursue Atlantic salmon, no other anglers endure such barren expanses between strikes as muskie fishermen, for the muskie is the most capricious, the least predictable of gamefish. It may rise like a U-boat to follow a lure only to dissolve into the depths as the bait approaches the craft; but it could just as easily strike when the lure is inches from the rod tip, bending your rod as if it were a willow wand and stripping line with such fury you’d swear the pitch of the wailing drag could shatter glass.
That’s what muskie fishing is all about. Because the fish is so cunning, and the passions of those who practice the sport so intense, it’s natural that legends have arisen. The great muskie waters all boast their own stories. From Ontario’s Rainy Lake to Wisconsin’s Chippewa Flowage to New York’s Thousand Islands, these are accounts of muskies whose heads and tails were simultaneously visible on opposite sides of the boat; of muskies attacking water-skiers; of boats sunk by anglers trying to subdue muskies with .22 pistols; of reels that puked up their guts like beer-drunk teenagers; of splintered rods and shattered nerves.
There’s even a mystery novel, The Muskie Murders, about a man dragged overboard by a huge muskellunge and drowned when he became entangled in the heavy line. Yet one well-documented legend exists that overshadows all others. As Ron Schara wrote in Muskie Mania: “Of all the tales and tribulations . . . none matches the events that began on a hot, muggy July day on Minnesota’s Leech Lake.”
Leech Lake. It sprawls across 126,000 acres of north- central Minnesota, defining 316 miles of shoreline. Its reefs, islands, and weedbeds are home to walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass, panfish . . . and muskellunge. The lake’s fishery was based on the popularity of walleye, and numerous resorts and launch services sprang up near the towns of Walker, Whipholt, and Federal Dam.
A few muskies were accidentally hooked every year, but no one thought much about fishing specifically for them until 1953, when Dick “Perchy” Pence, a guide from Huddle’s Resort on the south side of the lake, began fishing muskies with his clients. Pence was perhaps the first to use large bucktails and plugs, as well as heavier line and rods with more backbone; in other words, bona fide muskie tackle. A handful of other guides followed his lead, but most of their clients were interested solely in walleye.
And walleyes were the bread-and-butter of the launch operators located at Federal Dam on the lake’s northeast shore. The occasional muskie pulled aboard the large charter boats would prompt the skipper to raise a “muskie flag” (a white handkerchief or T-shirt flown from a pole to signify a muskie had been landed) in imitation of the pennants displayed by saltwater charter captains.
It was not until the weekend of July 16 and 17, 1955 that the muskie came into its own on Leech Lake. Variously referred to as the Rampage, the Uprising, or the Explosion, the bizarre behavior of muskies those few days was unlike anything seen before or since, and after 30 years these facts are still hard to believe. This amazing incident permanently thrust Leech Lake into muskie fishing history, and thousands of anglers, upon the mention of Leech Lake, still remark: “That’s where the muskies went crazy, isn’t it?”
In its condensed version, the story of the Leech Lake muskie uprising entails a two-week fishing orgy that began on Saturday, July 16, 1955. The exact number of muskies taken during this period will never be known, but at least 163 fish from 18 to 421⁄2 pounds were recorded at Federal Dam alone, and the action was no less furious in other parts of the lake. What had been a seemingly mediocre muskie fishery now boasted a catch unmatched anywhere in the United States or Canada. The local press pounced on the story. The Walker Pilot reported on July 22, 1955, under the headline “Muskie Fishing on Leech is Terrific”:
All muskie fishing records, for action on these freshwater tigers, were broken over the past ten days on Leech Lake.
“They must have gone crazy from the heat.”
Almost unbelievable accounts of muskies leaping out of the water for bait were told by launch operators on the North end of Leech. It has been estimated that during the past week at least 100 muskies have been taken from Leech. AS many more were hooked and broke lines or got away from fishermen.
They hit hard. They hit viciously. They took practically any bait offered . . .
Veteran Leech Lake guides say they have never seen the likes of such fishing. . . .
Incidentally, the muskies have given Leech Lake $50,000 worth of free publicity during the past week.
Another newspaper, the Grand Rapids Herald-Review, reported in its July 25th feature entitled “Muskie Catch Shatters All Records”:
Modern day fishing history was made Saturday and Sunday, July 16 and 17, when 51 silver muskies were brought into the landing at Federal Dam on Leech Lake. . . . Records are not well established for muskie fishing, but there is little doubt that this two-day catch establishes a new world record. Fishing authorities here have never heard of such luck, and the catch at Federal Dam is almost certain to go down as the all-time record catch for two days . . .
Demands were so heavy for special muskie lures that operators were not able to furnish enough to go around. The situation was solved by renting the lures for the next time the guest wanted to try his luck . . .
Last year this area of Leech Lake gave up almost 20 of its muskies during the season. . . . Specialists in muskie fishing often go season after season without landing a muskie.
The two-day catch is an unheard-of record and one which will qualify Federal Dam, on the north end of Leech Lake, as one of the greatest muskie fishing areas of the world. Even the so-called muskie fishing “capitals” of other areas can’t match this record-breaking catch. . . .
The July 21 headline in the Deer River News read ” Fantastic Fishing Spree Continues at Federal Dam Landing”:
The fantastic fishing spree now going on at Federal Dam, labeled ”Muskie Madness,” is just what the term means . . . What makes this fish story a whopper and of unusual interest which is being wired around the United States, televised, and broadcast, is the unbelievable number and size of the tiger muskies taken, and so foolishly, on the part of this massive fighter, who is striking on just about anything a fisherman will drop in the water . . .
As C.P. Jones, a 35-year resident of Federal Dam, describes the action: “They must have gone crazy from the heat.”
They are still being taken in such surprising numbers that veteran anglers in this area and guides who have been here for almost half a century admit they have never seen or heard of anything like this ever, not only in this particular area but anywhere in the world . . .
Bob Bushnell, writing in the September/October issue of Minnesota’s Sports and Recreation magazine, summed up the phenomenon in an article called “Muskies on Rampage.” He termed it “the most fantastic explosion of fishing activity in modern day history” and predicted the cause of the rampage would be an issue to “help warm hot stove league discussions for many a winter.”
Indeed, the possible causes of the Rampage have provoked endless debate. The brittle, yellowed news clippings may contain the bare facts, but each Leech Lake “local” has his own theory. Talk to muskie expert Jeff Arnold behind the counter at Reed’s Tackle Shop in Walker. A trim, youngish man of medium build with steel-blue eyes that never seem to blink when he speaks in his confident rapid-fire manner, Arnold thinks he has the Muskie Uprising wired.
“There’s no mystery behind it at all,” he declares while simultaneously writing out a hunting license and filling a spare spool with monofilament. “There were two weeks of hot, absolutely still weather, causing a massive die-off of tullibees, the muskies’ primary food. These precise conditions never existed before, nor have they since. The muskies’ food supply was depleted.
“Before 1955 no one really fished muskies.”
“They were literally starving. But,” he continues, “anything I tell you is secondhand. Go up to Federal Dam and ask around. They know why it happened. You’re dressed okay, but don’t carry the camera. Those people don’t play show-and-tell for a living.”
The village of Federal Dam is nestled along the Leech River, 35 road miles from Walker, 27 river miles from the Mississippi. The original timber dam, one of a series of six designed to control downstream water levels, was finished in 1884. The dam as it now stands was completed in 1957.
Federal Dam is typical of resort country communities: two taverns, a filling station/general store, cottages for rent, and a scattering of permanent residences. The village seems fatigued, despite the presence of the spanking new campground developed by the Corps of Engineers. To the west of Highway 8, above the dam itself, the navigable channel winds toward Portage Bay through a lush expanse of bulrush marsh, the playground for dozens of half-tame mallards and Canada geese. Five frame buildings overlook this scene from the south side of the river, the offices of the launch operators who cater to walleye and muskie fishermen.
In 1955 the five buildings were named Federal Dam Boat Livery, Westcott’s Landing, Neururer’s Landing, Spillman’s Landing, and Warren’s Bridge Landing, the names most prominently identified with the Rampage and the men who appear in the photographs that still startle seasoned muskie anglers. Only two of the buildings retain the same business titles, and only one has the same ownership: Warren Bridge’s Landing.
Warren’s Bridge Landing belongs to Warren Bridge, as it has since 1936. It’s painted white with a huge, bright green “Bridge’s” written in inclined cursive above the doorway. I step from my car to see a heavy-set man sitting in a metal chair on the lawn. He’s wearing new dungarees, an insulated vest that had seen considerable use, and a cap. A walking cane is propped between his knees, and he smiles like a Cheshire cat as I approached.
“I’m looking for Warren Bridge.”
“No one around here by that name,” he chuckles, extending a huge hand.
Warren Bridge enjoys reminiscing about the Rampage. “Before 1955,” he recalls, “no one really fished muskies. But in the fall of ’54 I bought a 6800-series jointed Creek Chub Pikie minnow. It had been gathering dust in Fuller’s Tackle Shop in Grand Rapids for two years. It was so big it looked like it belonged in saltwater. But I got the idea that it might work for muskies. I went out and cast it a few times that fall, had some strikes, but couldn’t get the hooks set. I knew it would be easier to set the hooks trolling, though.
“Well, next summer the walleye fishing in mid-July was terrible, and I had a customer who wanted to try for muskies. I had the Pikie, and I got the idea that a big Dardevle might work, so after dinner we trolled and caught two muskies weighing 28 and 32 pounds, and three northerns weighing 16, 17, and 19. The next morning we went out and caught a 221⁄2-pound muskie right away; that was enough for my customer. He had the muskie in the trunk of his car, ready to leave for home by 9:30! We’d found that the best method was to troll fast with that jointed Pikie. The next day we landed four big ones, and by then everyone had pretty much given up on walleyes and had started fishing muskies. I went out and bought all the big plugs and spoons I could find, and heavier line there was a lot of busted tackle.
“That Sunday afternoon, I built the scaffold out of two-by–fours for the photograph, and we used a well- driller’s pipe to hang the muskies from.”
It was the most famous photograph of muskies ever taken: Allan Rossman of the Grand Rapids Herald- Review lined up the Federal Dam launch operators and their guides behind 25 muskies weighing 18 to 40 pounds. Warren Bridge is the crew–cut man at the far left of the photo; his father is fourth from the left, in cap and glasses.
When the photo appeared in the Herald-Review on July 21, 1955, part of the caption read: “This, it is believed, is the largest number of silver muskies that ever got into one picture.”
“When the word got out,” Warren remembers, “it was like a fair. Cars were backed up into town it was hard to get around! We had a large cooler out back that we put the muskies in, and one person had to stand there all the time just to show the fish to all the people. There were always 75 to 100 people hanging around the docks waiting for all the launches to come in.
“We had people fly in from France and South America. I saw a guy fishing from the pontoon of a floatplane. There were still a few people who wanted to try for walleye, and all the launch operators hollered back and forth to see if anyone was going out for them. ‘Hey, I got two walleye fishermen over here, do you have any?’
“Why did it happen?” Warren asks. “The biologists came out, and they couldn’t explain it. I think it was a freak of nature. We have tullibee die-offs almost every year, but the fishing had never been like it was then. The biologists did find out that most of the muskies were eleven years old, so 1944 must have been that one year out of ten that hatched well. No doubt they were hungry. A lot of the walleyes we were catching had scars where muskies had chewed on them.”
A man who appears to be in his 40s comes in to purchase a hunting license, and I’m introduced to Jerry Bader. His father, Al, had run the Federal Dam Boat Livery in 1955, and young Jerry had landed one of the heaviest muskies taken during the Uprising, a 40-pounder.
“I don’t think they ever figured out what caused it,” Bader says, shaking his head. “I doubt they ever will.” I follow Warren down to his dock and he shows me his muskie equipment: stout, one-piece trolling rods, Penn reels loaded with 60-pound test, and an arsenal of muskie lures kept in a bucket, where they hang by the hooks from the rim.
“You know, I think I still have the first jointed Pikie I bought in 1954,” he exclaims, while rummaging through the toolshed adjacent the dock. He opens a small metal tackle box and produces the lure, its finish reduced to bare wood by the jagged teeth of countless muskies. Briefly, I consider asking if he would sell it, but it occurs to me that removed from this man, this landing, and these launches, it would be nothing more than a battered lure, a conversation piece, its story pale and without context.
From 1940 to 1975 the third office on the launch row, next door to Warren Bridge’s, belonged to Garry Neururer and his brothers. Garry and his wife still live in “downtown” Federal Dam, across the alley from Abe’s On-Off Liquors. In the second most famous muskie photograph, Garry is at the handles of a wheelbarrow groaning under the weight of a load of muskies. The photo originally appeared on the front page of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review under the headline “Muskies Too Heavy To Carry.”
Garry Neururer is a tall, reserved man, and where Warren Bridge is expansive, Neururer is hesitant. “I don’t think I could tell you any more than what’s in the book,” he shrugs. “The book” is Classic Minnesota Fishing Stories by Joe Fellegy. One chapter is devoted to Neururer’s account of the Rampage. “And it was such a long time ago.”
I assure him that I would try not to disturb him too long and as we sit at the table in his neat, sun- warmed kitchen, Garry opens up. On a map, he points out where the action had been. The west side of Portage Bay from Two Points north to Grassy Point had been the hottest area, though the best fishing was concentrated in the first mile-and-a half north of Two Points. A few fish were taken on Portage Bay’s east side, near Five mile Point.
“We had that real hot weather,” he recalls. “Walleye fishing was terrible. Before that time, no one had really fished for muskies from the launches. We caught a few, mostly when we were fishing northerns.
“Back there in ’55, some people started hooking muskies on walleye rigs, and when a few of them came into the docks, everyone forgot about the walleyes and went for the muskie. Then we started looking for muskies, and I thought I was seeing things. You’d see them swimming just under the surface, not 15 feet from the boat! God, I tell you, you wouldn’t believe it.
“I guess you can’t call it buck fever, but that’s what those people got. I gaffed one muskie, swung it aboard the launch, and the guy got so excited he jumped on it. When you had as many as eight people trolling from one launch, they were tangled up all the time. Six people was better.
“One afternoon I had three people who had come down from Judd Daniels’ place on Lake Winnibigoshish,” he says. “He told ’em that the stories about the muskies were just rumors, that nothing was going on. They caught three muskies that totaled over 100 pounds! One of ’em was a woman, and she’d get tired of holding the rod and start knitting instead. But she caught two of the three muskies!”
Neururer grows more animated with each memory. “We had no idea it would get that big. We just thought, ‘The walleyes aren’t biting; the muskies are, so we better fish muskies.’ There were always people waiting at the docks, and you could pull out a couple 25-pound fish and they’d say, ‘Oh, see you got a couple of small ones.’ It took a muskie over 30 pounds to raise any eyebrows.
“You know, we could have had twice as many muskies hanging from that pole for the picture, but like I said, we didn’t know it was going to be a big deal. A lot of people had taken muskies home to eat or to a taxidermist. Those are just fish that came in off the launches. People who had their own boats caught plenty of ’em, too.”
“You’ve got to be damn crazy or damn stupid, or maybe a little of both, to be a muskie fisherman.”
Gary Neururer was indirectly responsible for the rapid spread of the news. It so happened that Stu Mann, an outdoor writer and TV personality from the Minneapolis- St. Paul area, was in Federal Dam when the Rampage erupted. Mann wanted movies of the action, so Neururer took him out with a party of fishermen. Time after time, Garry maneuvered his launch near boats that were fighting muskies, and finally one of Neururer’s clients hooked and landed a 37-pounder.
“That has to be the best muskie film ever taken,” states Neururer. Mann returned to the Twin Cities, and portions of the muskie footage appeared on television throughout Minnesota. But to this day, the Neururers have never seen it.
“We didn’t even know we were on TV,” he says. “Relatives called to say they‘d seen the film, and we didn’t know what they were talking about. I’d sure like to know what happened to that film.”
The largest muskie recorded, a 421⁄2-pounder, was caught from one of the Neururer launches.
“We had two things that really helped out the business over the years,” he says. “The Muskie Rampage, and that time the Big 10 football coaches came up and fished with us and it was on TV.
“After ’55, they started calling Leech Lake the Muskie Capital and all that, and more people were interested in muskie fishing. But the fishing has tapered off over the years, and the memory of 1955 is wearing off, too.”
But not to the Neururers. While Garry reminisces, Mrs. Neururer brings in a sheaf of clippings that she had saved for 30 years. We finger through them, and they point out relatives in the photographs and remember how crowded the village became. Both agree that nothing like it will ever happen again.
Because of the television exposure and the photographs that appeared in the Herald-Review, it’s often assumed that the Portage Bay-Federal Dam area was the sole site of the Rampage. In fact, the muskies were hitting all over Leech Lake. Through the efforts of Roy Huddle, the third-generation owner of Huddle’s Resort on the south shore of Leech, I was able to meet with the three men who could boast of more than 100 years of guiding experience.
Dick Pence pioneered muskie fishing on Leech Lake in the early 1950s, and though emphysema cut short his guiding career a few years ago, every evening he roars past the lodge at Huddle’s on his Kawasaki to check the catch on the dock. Pence will talk muskie fishing at the slightest provocation, and often he’ll conclude a tale by gazing at the lake and saying, “Man, we had a ton of fun.”
Marvel Utke is the dean of Leech Lake guides. A quiet, thoughtful man who considers his words carefully, he started in 1934 and still takes an occasional party out on the lake.
Keith Ogle, the youngster of the group at 48, talks with an almost discomforting intensity about muskies. Widely regarded as Leech’s top active muskie guide, he’s caught as many as 97 muskies in a season.
All three men agree that weather conditions in July of 1955 were unusual. “The lake was like a sheet of glass for ten or twelve days,” recalls Marv Utke. “You won’t get those conditions again in 50 years.”
Keith Ogle adds that “it had been hotter than hell for days and days.”
Before the Uprising, no one realized there were that many muskies in the lake. “They laughed at me when I told ’em,” says “Perchy” Pence.
“Why, I’d seen 45 in one day without trying,” adds Utke. “They told me I was crazy. You could back down one of those weedbeds off Pelican Reef and see all sizes of muskies right under the surface, and you could get within six or eight feet of them. They weren’t scared.”
Utke and Pence argue that the muskies were never “thick” in Leech until the less wary northern pike had been thinned out, allowing the muskies to increase in number. And they bristle at the notion that Federal Dam was the only hot spot.
Claims Pence: “We’d brought in something like 60 muskies, 17 to 38 pounds, before they started hitting at Federal Dam. I’m the one who showed Merle Westcott (one of the Federal Dam launch operators) what baits to use!”
Uteke agrees: “We caught just as many down off Pelican Reef as they did up in Portage Bay.”
“We were so busy down here,” says Keith Ogle, “that I didn’t get up to Federal Dam until about four days after it started. Man, there must have been 300 boats trolling those weedbeds in Portage Bay.”
Marv Utke remembers seeing a man fishing from a tractor inner tube. “You couldn’t rent a boat once the word got out. Someone must have towed him out there, and he had some sort of harness so he could sit in it. There he was among the boats, casting away!”
Pence admits, ruefully, that he was guiding walleye fishermen through most of the Rampage. “Les (Roy Huddle’s father) wouldn’t let me take my muskie rod in the boat,” he says with mock irritation, glancing at Roy. “He didn’t give a damn about muskies then. The one day I fished muskies, three fellas and I caught seven and also four northerns. The smallest muskie we took, one of the northerns, weighed 141⁄2 pounds. Man, if I could have fished muskie all that time, I would have put a bunch of fish in the boat!”
Keith Ogle was booked to guide two men for muskies July 16 and 17, the weekend the Uprising began. “They came early, so we went out in Trader’s Bay for awhile. One of the guys lost a spool of line and two plugs to muskies, so that night they went to Reed’s Tackle in Walker and bought six spools of line and eight big Pikie minnows. That was all they had in the store.
“We went out next morning to a big weedbed right in front of the resort, and that man made eight casts, hooked eight fish, and never got the first Pikie minnow back to the boat. No sir! He lost them all. He’d get a strike; the muskie would take out line so fast the reel would backlash, and that was all she wrote. The Pikie Minnow was the best lure going, but then it was the only really big plug available.
“But they were hitting everything. After we lost all the Pikies, we found the best lure was a white Heddon River Runt with black stripes. We ended up catching 14 in the two days, but we lost a hell of a lot more.”
Marv Utke remembers seeing a man fishing from a small boat near Pelican Reef. “He was casting a plug, and all of a sudden a big muskie hit and started thrashin’ and wallerin’ on the surface. That guy dropped open his mouth and asked, ’What is it?’ as if he’d seen a ghost. He had no idea what he’d hooked, and he ended up losing the fish.”
The three muskie guides talk long into the night: of knuckles beaten to a pulp by reel handles, huge muskies seen but never hooked (they agree that an 80-pound world record exists somewhere in Leech), changes in tackle, and transformations in the lake itself. True, there aren’t as many weedbeds as there once were, and perhaps not as many 30-pound fish are caught these days, but the overall population is as healthy as ever, they believe, and anyone who pays his dues will get his share of muskies. Nevertheless, as “Perchy” Pence says, “You’ve got to be damn crazy or damn stupid, or maybe a little of both, to be a muskie fisherman.”
The Muskie Uprising. A flood of adjectives comes to mind: unprecedented, extraordinary, unbelievable, fabled. What caused it? No one will ever know for sure. One can only speculate that contributing factors might include the weather, the food supply, the effects of a diminished population of northern pike, and the simple fact that for the first time hundreds of anglers were fishing specifically for muskellunge with outsized lures that proved peculiarly effective.
Those who were there clutch their memories as tightly as babies, keeping the old clippings and photographs secure and safe; those who have inherited the legacy feel no less proprietary. There is a kind of aura, an intangible presence to this great body of water that comes from knowing it alone can lay claim to the Muskie Rampage, the Uprising that distinguished it so plainly among the great muskie waters. In the bars, lodges, and roadhouses of Minnesota’s north country, beneath the now ubiquitous mounts of impressive muskellunge, fishermen will speak of it over shots and beers far into the future, but none will improve on the unadorned words of Nuerurer: “God, I tell you, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Published in https://sportingclassicsdaily.com/when-the-muskies-went-wild/
on April 24, 2015
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