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Phil Johnson's Account of the
 World Record Musky Catch of his Father, Cal Johnson

Come See Cal Johnson's
World Record Musky

The Story of Cal Johnson’s World Record Catch
By Phil Johnson, Cal Johnson’s Son
As Told By John Dettloff © 1993

"On the evening of July 23, 1949, Dad, myself and Jack Conner, outdoor editor of the Minneapolis Star, drove to the Moccasin Lodge o Lac Court Oreilles to do some fishing the next day. I was 23 years old at the time. During the night there was a severe thunderstorm—a pretty good ‘rip snorter.’ Dad, as usual, wanted to get a real early start the next morning but, when we awoke around daybreak, discovered that the storm was still rather threatening. So we impatiently sat around the cabin of a while, waiting for the storm to ease up.

At around 5 o’clock Dad and myself finally decided to go out. Jack Conner went fishing on his own to try for some bass that morning—a decision, I’m sure he regretted for years to come. It was a real fishy morning—very little wind at the time, just a little bit of a ripple on the water, and there was a kind of dull rumble of thunder in the background but it looked like there could be more to come.

Upon leaving the dock in one of the resort’s 16-foot round bottom wooden boats, equipped with a 2 ½ horsepower Champion motor, we began fishing immediately, row trolling straight out toward the drop off and then turning right and working up the shore toward Moccasin Bar, a weedy sand bar. Every inch of that shore is good musky water. I was on the oars and Dad was trolling—something he rarely did but, under those circumstances, he figured it would be the most effective way to present a lure.

We were working the outer edge of the bar, about 150 yards out from the big weed bed. Since it was still too early in the morning to see the deeper weeds—and having no depthfinders in those days—it was very difficult to fish the edge of those weeds but, from memory, that’s where I tried to keep the boat—I’d say in about 15 to 20 feet of water. Instead of us making a wide turn when out boat got to the end of our run across the bar, Dad reeled and then cast back out after I turned the boat around to row back across the bar allowing Dad to again let his lure troll behind the boat.

Dad was using a single piece wobbler, a chub-color South Bend Pike-Oreno—a relatively small lure, as far as musky lures go. Of course, the smaller hooks of the lure gave us a better advantage of hooking a fish.

It wasn’t very long after we’d gotten out there—I think it was on our second pass across the bar—when Dad hit into the fish. He knew it was a big fish. The musky immediately took a good run, headed out into the deeper water and went straight to the bottom. After that, it was a…I guess you’d have to say it was an uneventful and unexciting kind of situation. There wasn’t any time at all when Dad didn’t have full control of the fish. It never did make any real fast runs. And Dad handled it like all the rest of the large muskies that he had caught over the years—it was more a process of letting the fish tire than trying to land him.

This fish actually came as no surprise to us because we figured it was the same fish we raised three or four times earlier that season. One time it followed in within six feet of the boat and made a vicious strike at the lure. It was the biggest fish we’d ever seen!

I rowed the boat backward and followed the fish, trying to keep the fish about 50 to 60 feet away from the boat. We didn’t want to get too close to the fish, for fear he would cut under the boat. The fish just hung, real deep, and swam with kind of a slow sort of motion, depending more upon its great weight and strength to break away, rather than leap and swirl, such as the smaller muskies do.

It was a kind of tug-o-war and Dad knew that he would just have to keep steady pressure on the fish and be sure not to attempt to horse it. There was a lot of open water out there and it just took a lot of patience—something Dad had plenty. I think if this had been in a flowage with many underwater threes, we never would have gotten him.

It was about 20 minutes before the fish began to give in and allowed us to see it. As Dad began to work him closer to the boat, we prepared to get our first glimpse of what we had. We saw the huge shadow of the fish near the boat and just below the surface and, when it finally surfaced, it was probably about 30 feet from the boat. It kind of rolled on the surface—but not with a lot of motion. And of course, when we SAW IT…my GOD!! That’s when we started to really get excited. We thought ‘My GOD, this thing is REAL!’

That was really the beginning of the end of the battle. The fish really didn’t have much more fight left in him. At one point, Dad worked the fish in alongside the boat and, rowing with the gaff at the ready, I considered gaffing it. The fish rolled and went back out to deeper water. So Dad just kept very slight pressure on it and it wasn’t long before the fish was back near the surface and coming back toward the boat. By that time, the fish was starting to turn over on its side.

After that, I put any thoughts of gaffing the fish out of my mind, for it was just too large to handle in that manner. Dad thought it would be best to just slowly work the fish in toward shore and beach it. So we headed in toward shore on the resort side of the reedy bar, working the fish in very slowly. There was very little fight after that and the fish just kind of went along. At times the fish would go down a little and then off to the side, but then it would come right back up and allow us to move it along. Dad just maintained a steady and fairly light pressure on the fish.

Once we got within about 35 feet from the shore and the water was not quite waist deep, I jumped out of the boat and with gaff hook in one hand and the boat in the other, pulled the boat in toward shore. Dad, who saw sitting during most of the fight, stood up and brought the fish in closer to shore. I quickly slid the gaff under its gill and hauled it at least 30 feet up the beach before I stopped. Not really having time to panic, I wasn’t really thinking—I was just doing. And Dad was REALLY telling me what to do—he always did. The amazing part of it was that there was not problem. I can remember holding the gaff with two hands, expecting a heck of a lot more problems than I had.

But, of course. When it was up on the beach, then it really started to flop. So I turned on it with the gaff and hit it and knocked it out. The strategy that we used to both fight and land the fish seemed to be the right one.

Being down the shore about a quarter mile west of the lodge, out thoughts turned to betting the fish back to the resort as soon as we could. The early morning commotion and hoopla that we created when we arrived at the dock shortly after 6 o’clock awakened most of the guests at the lodge. People sleepily came out of their cottages wearing everything from clothing to their underwear.

The proprietors of the lodge, Mike Solo and Serge Bagny, used a platform scale to weigh the fish. They put some boards down on the scale first and, when the beam balanced, the weight read 87 pounds. And for just a split second we thought ‘My GOD…87 pounds!’ And then we woke up to the fact that ‘Hey, that’s with the boards, too!’ Minus the boards, the musky weighed 67 pounds 8 ounces, measured five feet and one-half of an inch in length, and had a thick 33-inch girth.

Knowing that the fish had to be well preserved, we immediately took the fish to Karl Kahmann’s taxidermy studio. And then the phone started ringing, and I don’t think it quit for two weeks! And that was the story."

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