“Do not tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish.” —Mark Twain

It’s said the toothy and elusive muskellunge, a fickle biter, is “the fish of 10,000 casts.” The ambush apex predator, Wisconsin’s state fish since 1955, may well be the fish of 10,000 stories as well.

Inspired by a reader query about late Sayner taxidermist Neal Long’s credulity-stretching “Magnum Musky” mount at the Eagle River Trig’s, an alleged 102-pound leviathan “netted from a northern Wisconsin lake by a conservation crew” in 1902, I landed enough Paul Bunyan-esque muskellunge stories to fill two consecutive August columns with a live well full of North Woods muskie tales.

Since then, Eagle River native and News-Review reader Walter L. “Terry” Frykholm, of Rome, N.Y., wrote me in the hopes of lending some credence to the Magnum Musky claims, noting he was “quite familiar with a story about a 102-pound muskie.”

“I was a close friend of Gene Richter, and spent a great deal of time with him and his brothers,” recalled Frykholm. “Sometime in the 1940s I saw a picture in a publication that showed three men who were working with the conservation department holding a huge muskie that had to have been between 8 and 10 feet long. One of the men in the picture was Art Richter. He was the one who had the publication. I vaguely recall that the article said the fish weighted 102 pounds. Art was a well-known fishing guide at the time, but also worked for the DEC in the spring when they netted fish for spawn . . . when they brought up this fish. He had brought the publication home to show Gene and his brothers the size of the fish . . . Hope this either sheds more light on the situation or just causes more confusion and questions.”

I went trolling for answers, casting lines of inquiry in several directions, looking for a bite of veracity to the Magnum Musky claims. In the end, Frykholm got his wish on both counts. I came up with “more confusion and questions.”

With World War II veteran Long having passed away in 2017 at age 92, I turned to his nephew, Sayner resident Will Maines, a fellow News-Review columnist, and Long’s son Art, an Arbor Vitae artist, for background information on Magnum Musky’s pedigree.

“I don’t think there was proof of any sort offered,” Maines said of Magnum Musky’s 102-pound claim, noting his uncle made the mount “based on the story that circulated” around the North Woods. “I’ve always regarded it as a tale. I’m skeptical of those claims, I guess, but it makes a good story. I think in those days if you went into a tavern and said, ‘I’ve got this 102-pound muskie — and drinks for everybody,’ immediately it became fact. I don’t know if there was any real photographic evidence or not, but that story circulated for a long time. I never saw any documentation. I don’t put much stock in the story. I’m guessing it was probably a fish more in the 60 pound range that, when the story gets told enough times, it gets a lot bigger.”

But like any good angler, Maines also hedges his bets.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible — there could be something to it,” he said, noting the current all-tackle world-record muskie, caught by Cal Johnson in 1949 at Lac Courte Oreilles near Hayward, weighed 67-1/2 pounds, the skin mount still serving as a centerpiece conversation-starter at Moccasin Bar in Hayward. “I would imagine if you had a hundred-pounder it would have to be at least seven feet long.”

Long said his father made a number of ginormous musky mounts over the years to match the equally larger-than-life fish tales floating around the North Woods.

“He made several giant muskies, and even a walleye one time, supposedly based on true stories,” recalled Long, who worked alongside his father as a taxidermist before hanging out his own shingle as an artist in 1975. “There were several stories around about those huge fish in the past. I grew up around that whole business of taxidermy. At a very early age I knew all the old guides and there were a few stories around. I guess you’d like to believe, once in awhile, that these things are possible.”

While the vast majority of muskies that passed through his father’s taxidermy shop were in the 40-45 pound range, “as big as they are normally caught around here,” Long believes there may well be larger muskies out there, recalling a monster musky that caught the eye of late Boulder Junction DNR conservation warden Ben Bendrick, a “very close friend” of his father and the posthumous namesake of the scenic road hugging the western shore of South Trout Lake.

“He had seen one in Trout Lake and followed it,” Long recalled of Bendrick. “He was not a storyteller. He said it could eat these other fish.”

For his part, Eagle River resident Art “Dunnie” Richter, Jr., the last surviving son of Art Richter, has no recollection of the photo referenced by Frykholm in his letter.

“I tell you, Eric, I don’t remember anything about that musky,” he said. “My dad never mentioned it or nothing. Sorry, I can’t help you out at all on that.”

An email query to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Public Information Officer Molly Meister, meanwhile, connected me to now-retired DNR “fish historian” and Vilas County fisheries biologist Steve “Gilly” Gilbert, a 37-year North Woods fisheries veteran who offered up a May 1, 1902 Minocqua Times article reporting that Supt. Nevin of the State Fish Hatchery Commissioners and colleague E.D. Kennedy had netted a 102-pound muskie in Lake Minocqua while collecting muskellunge spawn for raising muskie fry at what is today’s Art Oehmcke Hatchery in Woodruff.

A skeptical Gilbert, who retired from the DNR in July, isn’t buying the Minocqua Times’ story — “LARGEST MUSKALLONGE EVER CAPTURED” — despite the fact that Nevin and Kennedy’s kraken was subsequently listed in Field & Stream magazine as the largest muskie caught by any method from 1936-’60, having made its debut in Field & Stream’s February 1936 issue spotlighting “World Record” catches.

“There’s no other pictures, there’s no nothing,” Gilbert said of the lack of corroborating accounts, noting the Times’ article is the only account of the catch he’s run across in his extensive research. “The fish was never weighed. They didn’t weigh fish back then. It wasn’t put on a certified scale — not at that time and place. This Minocqua fish story has always been kind of the myth of them all. It’s right up there with the Hodag and Paul Bunyan’s blue ox. It’s bigger than life. I would put this fish in the category of biologically impossible. Even under the best conditions you’re not going to get a fish anywhere near that. In talking with the Kennedy family, there’s some wink and a nod about that fish.”