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Duluth woman goes all-in on muskie fishing — and it's paying off with huge fish

Karen McTavish, 56, wasn’t a truly serious angler until, during the COVID-inspired rush to get outdoors in 2020, she bought a pedal-powered kayak.

Karen McTavish with big muskie
Karen McTavish, of Duluth, holds the 53-inch muskie she caught and released on Lake Vermilion on July 3 with guide Matt Snyder. It's the second biggest muskie she's ever caught.
Contirbuted / Karen McTavish
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DULUTH — 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.

Karen <cTavish and a 44.5 inch muskie on Lake Vermilion
Karen McTavish holds a 44.5-inch muskie she caught on Lake Vermilion on July 5 fishing with guide Matt Snyder.
Contributed / Karen McTavish

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.

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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.

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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.

Karen McTavish's peddle fishing kayak
Karen McTavish's peddle fishing kayak is tricked out for muskie fishing with stout rods, big lures and a big net.
Contributed / Karen McTavish

“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 but also her lack of help, 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.

Lake Vermilion has seen a muskie rampage of sorts in the past week, with four muskies 55 inches long or longer caught in the span of three days -- two on one boat in one day.

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.

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“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 Seul (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.

53 1/4 inch muskie
The graphite replica of the 53 1/4 -inch muskies Karen McTavish caught and released on Eagle lake, Ontario, in 2021. She releases all the muskies she catches.
Contributed / Karen McTavish

“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 Lake Vermilion fish is the biggest of any woman Muskies Inc. angler on record for 2022 across the U.S. and Canada (and the biggest fish of anyone in her chapter has caught so far this year.) Her Eagle Lake muskie 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.”

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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 p.m., only two hours into their evening on the lake.

I’d call her an advanced muskie fisher lady. She knows her lures. She knows what to do.
Matt Snyder, Lake Vermilion muskie guide

“He really talked 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. She’s definitely not a beginner,’’ Snyder said. “I’d call her an advanced muskie fisher lady or fisherperson. ... She knows her lures. She knows what to do.”

Karen McTavish and the 53.25-inch muskie replica
Karen McTavish and the 53.25-inch musky replica that hangs in her Duluth quilt shop.
Contributed / Karen McTavish

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 are working work well for her right now.

“The husbands of quilters think the replica is pretty amazing, and they don’t regret waking 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.”

Quiet and versatile, Noah Jahr's fishing kayak is tricked out with gadgets and gear. And he catches lots of fish.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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