HAYWARD, Wis. – I’m writing this report from the belly of a beast.
Yes, I feel a bit like Jonah must have after he was swallowed by a whale. I’m standing in the stomach of a muskie that measures one-half city block long and towers 4 ½ stories high.
It’s not real, of course. This structure is made of concrete, steel and fiberglass and is the eye-catching centerpiece of the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in northern Wisconsin.
Called a Shrine to Anglers, the giant fish and its surrounding buildings are a museum that highlights fishing’s glorious past.
The likeness of a muskie is only fitting. It sits in one of the world’s premiere spots for muskie fishing; a region where the giant predator is—and always has been — king. No matter where you go in this Wisconsin town with a population of 2,320, you’ll get a reminder.
Stop in the Moccasin Bar, a dimly lit bar known for its novelty taxidermy such as boxing raccoons, and you can ooh and aah at a mount of a 67- pound, 8-ounce muskie caught by Cal Johnson in 1949.
Or you can visit the Fresh Water Hall of Fame and gaze at the 69-pound, 11-ounce muskie caught by Louie Spray the same year, a replica mount of the fish that was destroyed when a fire ripped through Spray’s bar.
The argument on which fish should be recognized as the official record continues today. Some say Spray’s fish lacked authentic verification; in fact, the International Game Fish Association recognizes Johnson’s giant as its world record. But the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame honors Spray’s fish.
The Hall of Fame is about much more than giant muskies, though. It is a freshwater fisherman’s dream world.
Not only is the keeper of all freshwater fishing world records, it is a monument to fishing. It includes more than 100,000 artifacts, and allows fishermen to take a trip down memory lane.
After climbing the steps to an observation platform in the giant muskie’s toothy mouth, I toured the Hall of Fame with director Emmett Brown and Dave Perkins, a longtime friend of mine and a member of the Hall’s board of directors.
I loved visiting the Motor Graveyard, which included Evinrude’s 1909 motor, believed to be the first production outboard. We also paused to look at a vintage egg-beater of a motor that was the first electric trolling motor.
“A lot of fishermen have no idea how long electric trolling motors have been around,” Brown said. “Who knows how reliable they were? But they beat having to row around a lake.”
The museum includes more than 100,000 artifacts, including a wide array of vintage fishing lures.
“It’s like taking a peek into granddad’s old tacklebox,” Brown said.
Honorary plaques of fishermen, communicators, lure designers and illustrators line the walls. I found many friends, present and late, among the legends section. Seeing the displays honoring Missouri and Kansas fishermen whom I have shared a boat with over the years — Ned Kehde, Thayne Smith, Ken Kieser, Joe Tomelleri, Virgil Ward, Harold Ensley, Denny Brauer and others – was fun.
I also enjoyed seeing the kids fishing along an 80,000-gallon manmade pond, stocked with bluegills and other sunfish.
“I’ve had parents come up to me and say, ‘My kids caught their first fish today,’ “ Brown said. “That’s what we like to hear. We want this to be a family destination.”
Today, the museum attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year, many during the tourist season of June, July and August. But Brown hopes to see that attendance grow even larger.
“This is like an amusement park for fishermen,” he said. “It’s something every fisherman should see.”
The Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, is located in Hayward, Wis., in the center of some of the nation’s best fishing for muskies, smallmouth bass, walleyes and northern pike. For more information on the museum, access the website www.Freshwater-Fishing.org.