By Brent Frazee
Jim “Coach” Wilson fits the description of a crusty, old muskie guide.
His hands are weathered and scarred from years of battling the toothy critters. And he has the aches and pains of a man who has put in thousands of hours in the boat trying to entice one of the “fish of 10,000” casts to hit.
But just try to keep him at home at this time of the year. September is a magical month at Pomme de Terre Lake in southwest Missouri, where Wilson guides. When the water starts to cool after a long summer of heat and humidity, the odds start to shift in the fisherman’s favor.
The muskies head to the shallows and they start to feed again. For Wilson and hundreds of others, that’s all it takes to get them back on the water to resume the chase for the “ghost.”
“We live for days like this,” said Wilson, 74, who runs Coach’s Guide Service. “Muskies like it when it’s cloudy and there’s a little bit of drizzle.”
“That’s what gets them stirring.”
Wilson proved it minutes later. When he cast out a battle-scarred Eddie bait and started retrieving it through the shallows, a muskie came out of nowhere and savagely attacked.
“Did you see that fish explode on that bait?” Wilson said excitedly as he fought the fish. “That’s the top of the food chain in action.”
The muskie put up a spirited fight, but it wasn’t long before Wilson had the fish in a landing net. He quickly unhooked his catch, then put it on a measuring board.
“Thirty-seven inches,” he announced. “Not the biggest muskie in here, but I’ll take it.”
He carefully released the fish, then took a minute to catch his breath.
“I’ll never get tired of that,” said Wilson, who got his nickname after coaching high-school sports for 27 years. “You’ll be casting forever, you’re tired and half awake, and then one will come out of nowhere and just blast your bait.”
“I don’t care who you are, that will raise your heartbeat.”
Wilson has enjoyed those heart-stopping moments since the late 1980s at Pomme de Terre, a nationally known muskie lake. He went two years before landing his first fish, but he stayed with it.
Today, he is considered an authority on muskie fishing at the Ozarks reservoir. Since 2004, when he started keeping records of his catches for Muskies, Inc., he has caught and released several hundred muskies 30 inches or larger.
Most of those came at Pomme, where the Missouri Department of Conservation has established a successful management program. Though the reservoir doesn’t have much natural reproduction, the state agency stocks it regularly and has built an impressive population of muskies.
Surveys show that the catch rate at Pomme de Terre rivals those of better-known northern waters where the muskie built its fame.
Catching one still isn’t easy, though. It takes hours of casting – and perpetual optimism – to succeed. Days like the one Wilson was experiencing help.
Not long after he caught and released that 37-inch fish, he caught one slightly smaller. Then as Wilson stopped to chat with his guiding partner, Gary Pearson, he watched him land the biggest fish of the day—a muskie close to 40 inches long.
“They’re aggressive today,” Wilson said.
He catches many of his fish on an Eddie, a wooden glide bait that is missing most of its paint and is scarred with the teeth marks of muskies that have been fooled.
“I don’t think it’s the color so much that it attracts them, it’s the action,” Wilson said. “When this Eddie bait glides from side to side, they can’t resist.”
Wilson also fishes with everything from bucktail spinners to large crankbaits to topwater lures. He tries to get out several times a week from September into November.
He fishes traditional spots on Pomme de Terre such as flats with stump fields, humps, boat docks and coves.
As is common in muskie fishing, his gear is large-sized. He uses 50-pound-test braided line on heavy-action rods and his baits are often as large as the fish some anglers catch.
“You need patience to be a muskie fisherman,” Wilson said. “But I love it. I can’t get enough of it.”
(To reach Wilson, call 417-399-3111 or go to his website at www.coachesguideservice.com.)