As an admitted muskie fanatic, Jim Hejlik says he's been chasing the 50-inch mark for the past 35 years.
A muskie of any size is a trophy for many anglers, but for those who really have the fever, a 50-inch fish is the benchmark in the same way a 30-inch walleye sets the standard for walleye anglers or a 170-inch rack sets the standard for deer hunters.
Hejlik, 80, of Fordville, N.D., was part of a seven-person crew fishing a lake north of Vermilion Bay, Ont., in late July when he finally broke what he calls the "50-inch hex," landing a 52-inch muskie.
He hooked the big fish July 27 on the last afternoon of a weeklong fishing trip with six other anglers: Ken Omlie and grandson Jordan Omlie of Lankin, N.D.; Paul Hetland and Steve Delaney of Crookston; Dan "Woody" Berry of Grand Forks; and Tim Wasut of Grand Rapids, Minn.
Good things come to those who wait, as the old saying goes, and the muskie was the only one Hejlik caught all week. He was fishing with Ken Omlie when he hooked the muskie trolling a 9-inch Shallow Raider muskie lure over 28 feet of water.
"It was exciting," he said. "It came out of the water at least 4 feet when she hit. It pooped this old (guy) out, I know that."
The big muskie had a sore on its side that Hejlik says detracts from the photo, but he says he was too tuckered out to wrestle the fish into a different position for more than one photo before releasing the fish.
"(Omlie) wanted me to straighten it out to get a picture of the tail, but I said, 'You get one picture, and it's going back in the water,' " Hejlik said.
He sent a photo of the muskie to a retired fisheries biologist friend who said the sore likely resulted from spawning and appeared to be healing well. The muskie topped Hejlik's previous personal best of 48½ inches, which he caught in 1999 while fishing with his son, Jimmy, on Lac Seul in Ontario.
Hetland also caught his personal best, a 51-incher, on this year's trip, Hejlik says, adding he was reluctant to name the lake for fear of word getting out and attracting too many other anglers.
No, he said, it wasn't Eagle Lake, a popular muskie fishery near Vermilion Bay; nor was it Lac Seul.
"It's one of the small lakes up north of Vermilion, and this is our fourth year going there," Hejlik said. "It's about 350 miles from Fordville to where we go."
We'll leave it at that. Muskie fanatics are entitled to their secrets, after all.
Catching the fever
Hejlik says he caught the muskie bug in the early 1980s after attending a meeting of the now-defunct Grand Forks chapter of Muskies Inc., with Morgan Huset, a former school superintendent in Fordville.
"Then he took me muskie fishing up at Lake of the Woods, up to Morson" on the Ontario side of the lake, Hejlik said. "I sort of fell in love with it. It's been a disease ever since."
Hejlik was a member of the Grand Forks Muskies Inc., chapter until it folded in the early 2000s and now belongs to the Fargo-Moorhead chapter.
Just seeing a muskie, "watching them come in," is part of the attraction of muskie fishing, Hejlik says. Widely known as the "fish of 10,000 casts," muskies have a knack for showing up at boatside seemingly out of nowhere.
But the allure runs deeper than that, adds Hejlik, who fishes muskies maybe once or twice a year.
"We go up into Canada, and I think the scenery and just being out there in Mother Nature is what does it," Hejlik says. "I can go out there for a whole week and not catch one, and if I have two follows, I'm happier than heck.
"When they come in like that, it's exciting."
Hejlik says he's netted bigger muskies for his fishing buddies, including 53½- and 54-inch fish for Ken Omlie-whom he introduced to muskie fishing about five years ago-and a 53½-incher for Huset.
So, breaking the "50-inch hex" after all these years was gratifying, Hejlik admits.
"I don't think any of them fought as hard as this one here did," Hejlik said. "This one was crazy."
Hejlik, who spent 16½ years as a mail carrier, continues to work in sales for S&S Promotions, a Fargo-based company that sells specialty products and also has an office in Grand Forks.
He's been with the company for 35 years, he says.
"People ask me why I don't retire," Hejlik said. "No, I say; people get sick and die when they retire. I never want to retire until I kick the bucket."
The same, it can be said, applies to Hejlik's passion for muskie fishing.
"I'm 80 years old, and I'm still buying muskie lures and muskie rods," he said.