“If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles.” —Doug Larson

In the words of legendary late American radio news commentator Paul Harvey, there’s “the rest of the story.” And, as it turns out, evidently there’s “the rest of the rest of the story.”

When it comes to the elusive, cunning muskellunge, there are a lot of North Woods fish tales circulating around about legendary lunkers of yore that make Cal Johnson’s world record 1949 muskie catch — a 60.25-inch, 67-pound, 8 ounce behemoth — seem like a bait shop minnow by comparison.

Last week, I attempted to delve into the backstory behind Magnum Musky, a Long’s Taxidermy mount at the Eagle River Trig’s depicting an alleged Holy Shamoley 102-pound muskie “netted from a northern Wisconsin lake by a conservation crew.” 

Talk about the Scottish folklore Loch Ness Monster of muskies right here in the North Woods! Nessie meets Magnum Musky. Or maybe Mussie, leviathan of the Great North Woods — the aquatic equivalent of Rhinelander’s famed mythical Hodag. 

Both Eagle River store director Terry Tryggeseth and Trig’s founder and chain namesake Trygve “Trig” Solberg agree that the mount has been a conversation piece at two iterations of Trig’s supermarket in Eagle River dating back to the store’s 1970s Red Owl days, but Magnum Musky’s provenance is, shall I say, as hazy as the North Woods skies these past several weeks, their stories diverging.

Tryggeseth said Magnum Musky was reeled in near Land O’ Lake, citing a Field & Stream article that’s gone A.W.O.L. Solberg said the Magnum Musky mount was based on a deceased, disintegrated lunker washed up on an area lake. 

Added into the column mix last week was a Sports Illustrated Vault archive story from May 1980, “Musky Madness,” that referenced a May 1, 1902, Minocqua Times story and accompanying artist’s rendering lithograph heralding the “Largest Muskallonge Ever Captured!” 

After last Wednesday’s News-Review landed on newsstands and in mailboxes, reader Robert Gollonik of Plover emailed a copy of the referenced 1902 Minocqua Times story, which detailed how “Supt. Nevin of the State Fish Hatchery Commissioners” and E.D. Kennedy “captured the two largest muskallonge ever taken in these waters” while taking muskie spawn — a 102-pounder at Minocqua Lake in Minocqua and an 80-pounder at Tomahawk Lake in Lake Tomahawk, both of which were “turned back to their native waters, where they await the sportsman to try and land them.”

In other news accounts emailed to me by Gollonik, it was reported that the late Jim Kennedy, son of E.D. Kennedy, told The Lakeland Times in 1974 that while perhaps the Minocqua Times story was true, “the whiskey flowed quite freely in those days.”

Again, call me skeptical, but the prospect of a 102-pound musky raises my Mr. Spock eyebrow. 

While I’m not God’s gift to ciphering — Dammit, Jim. I’m a journalist, not a mathematician — using the time-honored “Standard Formula” of Length times Girth times Girth divided by 800, a rule-of-thumb developed and in use since at least the mid-1920s, Magnum Musky would clock in at 90 inches in length at 30 inches in girth in at least one of the calculations I ran. Or alternately, 125 inches in length at a 25.5 inch girth.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to fathom such a whale of a muskie.

Other materials emailed by Gollonik included mention of a July 6, 1923, Minocqua Times report of a 78-pound musky found dead in Tomahawk Lake, measuring 59 inches in length and 25 1/2 inches in girth.

Gollonick also emailed a Wausau Pilot report of unknown vintage detailing Eagle River resident James Burns’ discovery of an 80-pound “dead muscallonge . . . found washed up on the shores of Lac Vieux Desert,” measuring 58 inches long “without the tail, as that had been torn off.”

“The head was immense and showed that it had been often hooked and had broken away,” the Pilot reported. “It is probably the big fellow which we hooked last summer. He struck the hook just as a bunch of weeds was passed; the line sang a tune, being strained to the limit; the rod was pulled beneath the surface before the reel could let out enough play-line. Played the big fish for four hours and then with a sudden jerk the line parted and we fell backward into the lake. Now the poor fish is dead.”

Perhaps the most engaging read sent by Gollonick was a June 13, 1954, Milwaukee Journal article by Joe Botsford, datelined Rhinelander, referencing a muskie killed in June 1896 on St. Germain Lake by three Rhinelander fishermen — W.D. LeSelle, a hotel operator; M.J. O’Reilly, a timber buyer; and “a Mr. Coon, thought to be Fred Coon, a partner of LeSelle.” 

“According to sources considered reliable, the muskie weighed nearly 80 pounds and was just under six feet in length,” Botsford wrote, referencing a June 11, 1896 report in Rhinelander newspaper New North. “It was so big, in fact, that it survived a powerful blow with a club and had to be killed with an ax . . . The New North allowed for the possibility that people would think the story ‘tainted with fiction.’ So it reported that the muskie head was in possession of the fisherman and pointed out that the fishermen themselves were of high repute.”

According to New North, the three were trolling St. Germain Lake “when the head of a giant muskie was spotted moving in a wide circle some distance from the boat.” The anglers rowed toward the muskie, their equipment at the ready.

“Showing no alarm, the muskie swam close to the boat,” Botsford recounted from the New North story. “O’Reilly grabbed a club and smashed it onto the muskie’s head. The fish submerged in a swirl of water and was gone from sight. Disappointed, the three men returned to camp. They went back onto the lake the next day, again saw the fish and managed to get their boat alongside the monster. This time they came prepared One of the fishermen had an ax, which he brought down deep into the head of the muskie. The fish submerged in a pool of blood. There was again no sign of it.

“Four days later, according to the report, the body of the big muskie was spotted floating in St. Germain Lake. The Rhinelander fishermen were notified and the fish was towed to shore. The body, however, was so decomposed that only the head was saved and taken back to Rhinelander as ‘evidence of good faith.’

“The newspaper account relates that the size of the head ‘is about the size of a full grown mastiff’s head and weighs six pounds.’ O’Reilly, Coon and LeSelle said the muskie was just under six feet long and ‘round as a saw log.’”

Said Botsford of the New North story, “There’s a real fish story for you. Any questions?”

Is it me, or am I having a Yogi Berra moment and it’s déjà vu all over again — all over again and again. Fish tales — the original recycling. 

Magnum Musky’s backstory sounds a lot like Nevin and Kennedy’s “largest muskallonge ever captured,” while Solberg’s recollections bear more than a passing resemblance to the stories of legendary lunkers turning up dead on Lac Vieux Desert and St. Germain Lake.

Are these stories of leviathan muskies of yore fact or fiction? Were the muskies of those days really bigger, or were they the bigger-than-life fish tales of a Buynan-esque age?

Row trolling for answers, I turned to  Bob “Mepps” Bertch, a veteran 21-year fishing guide in “Musky Capital” Boulder Junction, for answers.

Bertch’s prize personal muskie catch to date is a 45-inch tiger muskie weighing in at 27 pounds. Last year, a client of Bertch’s reeled in a 50.5-inch long, 18-inch girth, 45-pound muskie on a jig and a minnow.

“Fifty and a half is a big fish, huge — a big, heavy fish,” Bertch said. “To the average person, you catch a 45-inch muskie and that’s one helluva fish.”

A 55-incher brought close to the boat by Bertch and fellow Boulder Junction fishing guide Erv Keller a few years ago, he said, “was giant.”

Asked about the scale of a real life 102-pound Magnum Musky, Bertch has trouble comprehending such a fish, saying it would be “a wild*** guess.” 

“You figure a 50-inch muskie weighs 45 pounds, it’d be at least double that — and I doubt that very much,” he said. “I would sincerely doubt it. A hundred and two is kinda questionable, because that’s almost double the size of the ones we got. That’s a pretty giant fish — you’re talking ocean-size.”

Then again, as a fisherman, Bertch also carefully hedges his bets. 

“Who knows?” he says. “I would say probably not, but back in the day, when nobody was up here fishing, I’m sure there was some giant muskies.” 

Magnum Musky — Fact or fiction? I dunno.

As Mark Twain once observed, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.