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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Tennessee Muskie Hunters Find Friendly Fishing in Wisconsin

MINOCQUA – Chicago accents blend into the cultural fabric and lure-jammed aisles of Rollie & Helen’s Musky Shop on Highway 51.

After all, there’s no denying the joint impacts of Illinois tourism and Wisconsin’s state fish on our Northwoods economy.

But ears perk and heads swivel in this muskie-centric store when veteran guide Steve Paul talks bucktails and jerkbaits in his East-Tennessee drawl, or when his client Maryglenn Warnock of Nashville gushes over wall-mounted muskies in her Music-City twang. Granted, Wisconsin’s legendary muskellunge draws anglers from across the state and nation, but most nonresident muskie hunters come from northern Illinois and northwestern Indiana. Southern anglers typically stay closer to home to catch catfish, crappies, stripers, largemouths or smallmouth bass.

Paul, however, is a lifelong muskie fanatic who grew up casting big baits beside his father on West Virginia’s lakes and waters. Though Paul’s father had two passions — muskies and marathons — Paul only inherited his dad’s love for fishing, not running. That pursuit keeps him active enough as he chases Esox masquinongy from North Carolina to northwestern Ontario for business and pleasure.

Besides guiding for muskies and collaborating on business ventures with the Musky Shop, Paul shares angling tips and insights about these trophy fish through “Musky Shop TV,” his book “Next Level Musky Fishing,” the “Musky 360 Podcast” with cohost Jay Esse, and the “Musky 360” smartphone app with co-owner Joe Bucher. Paul also owns Tennessee’s record muskie — which measured 51 inches and weighed 43-pounds, 14-ounces — which he caught on the Melton Hill Reservoir in March 2017.

Unlike Paul, Warnock didn’t grow up fishing muskies. In fact, she only fished for panfish during her childhood, and didn’t pick up a rod and reel until her late 40s during a “midlife crisis that began at age 25.”

Warnock caught her first muskie in December 2019 while throwing streamers with her fly rod. After bursting into tears and eventually composing herself for photos, she caught her second muskie three casts later. “That changed my life,” she said. “That hooked me on muskies, but I never saw another one for months during a bunch of fishing trips.”

Her short-lived muskie drought ended in August 2020 after booking her first trip with Paul and fishing for hours in a steady rain. Since catching her third muskellunge that day, Warnock has booked Paul for muskie trips across Tennessee and to Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Minnesota, Wisconsin and northwestern Ontario.

“My husband allows me to go fishing five days per month, but I push it a bit beyond that,” Warnock said. “I probably fish muskies 45 to 50 days each year, and I’ve probably fished 60 times with Steve. He takes me seriously as a fisherman. He knows I’m trying to catch fish and learn something every time I go. I won’t quit, and I won’t be out-stubborned.”

Paul said Warnock possesses “the grind,” an intense and purposeful tenacity unique to serious muskie anglers. “The muskie-fishing gang is mostly Type-A men, and they often pan women and treat them dismissively,” Paul said. “But Maryglenn will stand all day in the boat and go toe-to-toe with anyone. When we threw big, heavy jerkbaits on one of our trips, the palms of her hands were raw by the third morning. She didn’t sit down or take breaks. She wrapped up her hands and kept fishing. That galvanized my respect for her.”

Warnock, meanwhile, wears her passion proudly. Her forearms carry matching 6-inch muskie tattoos. The muskie on her left forearm wears a crown, and a line above — tattooed in her mother’s cursive — reads, “Long live the queens.” Warnock explains that the biggest muskies are old females, and her own muskie-hunting genes flow through maternal blood lines.

“I had a special bond with my mother’s father, Glenn Davis Williams,” Warnock said. “He was a small-town lawyer from Munfordville, Kentucky, and he graduated from Duke University’s law school in 1937 with Richard Nixon. He went by ‘Davis,’ and he was a cerebral man who taught me to curse at age 3. I never forgot those lessons. He died in 1981 when I was 10, but he’s been with me ever since.

“And here’s the weird thing,” she continued. “After he died, I could never remember his face. I recalled his voice, the many things he said, and the stories he told around the dinner table. But the day I caught my first muskie, the moment that fish hit my sparkly fly, I saw my grandfather’s face as plain as day; as if he were there with me. Only later did I learn he was a muskie fisherman, and that he represented a local fisherman in a lawsuit over Kentucky’s state-record muskie.”

Warnock’s grandfather pushed the dispute through state courts and endless appeals from 1965 through1974, eventually proving a local preacher had unlawfully claimed his client’s 52-inch muskie as Kentucky’s record. The fish reportedly weighed 51 pounds. After Warnock’s grandfather won the initial case in January 1966, a Chicago Tribune headline read, “Angler Takes $750 Bite Out of Fish Thief,” and reported the jury needed only an hour to find the preacher took false credit for the “Munfordville Muskie.”

Warnock thinks only a muskie fisherman would have persisted in that lawsuit, which forced the wayward preacher to drop his appeals and concede the record. Likewise, those genes help explain why she spends 15% of the year chasing muskies.

“I’m a respectable middle-aged woman who could be knitting, crocheting or play Mah Jong, but this is what I do,” Warnock said.

It also helps that muskie fishing takes her to special places to fish among remarkable people.

“I love northern Wisconsin in the fall,” Warnock said. “It’s a gorgeous area, the people are incredibly nice, and every day you can fish waters you’ve never fished before.”

Maryglenn Warnock of Nashville, and her guide, Steven Paul of Alcoa, Tennessee, often visit northern Wisconsin to fish for muskies. Paul caught this 40-inch muskie in Oneida County in late September. Patrick Durkin photos

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