DULUTH, Minn. — On land, Karen McTavish is a mild-mannered quilt shop owner serving customers with a bolt of fabric and a smile.
On the water, McTavish turns into a muskie maniac, bitten by the esox bug three seasons ago and now obsessed with catching giant fish.
And she’s getting good at it.
Last week on Lake Vermilion, she landed a 53-inch muskie Sunday and then a 44.5-inch fish Tuesday. Last fall, she landed a 53.25-inch giant on Eagle Lake in Ontario, a graphite replica of which now hangs in her Chester Park quilt shop.
McTavish, 56, came to muskie madness later in life. She grew up as a shore angler but wasn’t a truly serious fisher until, during the COVID-inspired rush to get outdoors in 2020, she purchased a pedal-powered fishing kayak. “That gave me a lot more options and places to go,” McTavish said.
That year, while fishing smallmouth bass on the Cloquet River, she had a giant muskie come up and visit. The fish didn’t bite, but the muskie bug did.
“It was a 4-footer, right alongside the kayak, just staring at me,” McTavish said.
At first, she was downright scared. Then she was intimidated. She didn’t dare wonder what it might be like to catch such a fish.
“I had it in my mind that I couldn’t do this, that a woman couldn’t land a fish like that. That I wasn’t strong enough to even hold it,” she said. “I had a lot of negativity about it in my head.”
But McTavish is persistent. She wouldn’t let go of the idea of landing a muskie and then of becoming a serious muskie angler. So she started reading about muskies, downloading fishing apps and watching videos. She purchased some muskie gear, heavy rods and big lures, and she worked to overcome not only her fears and doubts from her but also her lack of help from her, the absence of any muskie mentor.
“I’ve mostly been on my own in this all the way. I don’t have a big boat and I really can’t find many guys who want to fish with me,” she said. “I am single. It is a blessing and a curse in the muskie world.”
To gain confidence, McTavish fished often, practicing casting, putting in her hours on the water in the evenings and on weekends, noting her shop is busiest in winter, allowing her to fish more in the summer. Late in fall 2020, McTavish finally boated a modest 37-inch muskie on Dumbbell Lake near Isabella, her first ever. And that’s when the muskie bug bit even harder. By 2021, she was fishing for muskie more and more often, including the trip to Eagle Lake, where she caught the monster on the wall.
“I have to book my trips with guides because I don’t have a boat, so I plan it out in advance,” she said. “I have another trip planned to Eagle this year, and to Lac Seoul (in northern Ontario) and probably another trip to Vermilion.”
Closer to home, McTavish fishes the St. Louis River often, but still hasn’t landed a muskie there.
“That’s my goal now: catch one on the St. Louis and one in Island Lake,” she said, noting both are muskie hotspots. “I’ve had some good follows in the river.”
McTavish has become active in the Lake Superior Chapter of Muskies Inc., the national muskie angler’s group, and in Women Anglers of Minnesota. As of July 8, her Ella Lake Vermilion fish is the biggest of any woman Muskies Inc. angler on record for 2022 across the US and Canada (and the biggest fish of anyone in her chapter of Ella has caught so far this year). Her de ella Eagle Lake muskie de ella last year was the third largest of any Muskies Inc. female-landed fish in North America in 2021.
“It’s kind of fun to be on the list,” she said.
Members of Women Anglers of Minnesota have been helpful and supportive, she noted, but nearly all members live in the Twin Cities area. Local members of Muskies Inc. are mostly men who already have fishing partners.
But over the Fourth of July holiday, McTavish was doing just fine fishing with her son, Storm Krause, 17, and veteran muskie guide Matt Snyder.
“I really wanted him (Storm) to come with me and catch a muskie and get excited about it like I do. … But he was ‘Mom, please, not muskie fishing.’ … He’s a good angler, but he thinks muskie fishing is torture because you don’t catch a lot of them,” McTavish said. “But he agreed to come for one morning. And he got to see me catch a big one.”
McTavish praised Snyder’s helpful tutoring for her landing two muskies in three half-days of fishing. She caught the big one on a 10-inch white tube jig casting over deep water in an open basin for suspended fish, Snyder said. The muskie hit about 20 feet from the boat, about 5 feet under the surface. The action came just after 6:30 pm, only two hours into their evening on the lake.
“He really talked to me through everything. I learned so much from Matt,” McTavish said. “He told me about the cadence of retrieving a lure, the right speed. … And he walked me through how to hold it, how to cradle the fish right so it wouldn’t overpower me. He’s great.”
Snyder had the same to say about McTavish.
“She’s on point. Ella she’s definitely not a beginner, ”Snyder said. “I’d call her an advanced muskie fisher lady or fisherperson. … She knows her from her lures from her. She knows what to do.”
The 53-inch fish is right up there with some of the biggest in the lake, Snyder noted. “Anything from 53 to 56 is getting big up here,” he said, noting the Minnesota record catch-and-release muskie comes from Vermilion, a 57.5-inch monster.
McTavish admits that a muskie hanging in a quilt shop may seem a little incongruous. But her two worlds of her are working well for her right now.
“The husbands of quilters think the replica is pretty amazing, and they don’t regret walking into the quilt shop,” she said. “I will add another one (fish replica) to my shop soon.”
McTavish is already looking forward to more muskie trips this summer and fall.
“I guess I’m obsessed with it,” she said. “I’ve become fascinated with this fish, with the muskie.”