Al Maas: Muskie man

At the age of 66, Al Maas is still playing on his field of dreams — sprawling Leech Lake.

Most of Maas' summer days — 150 or more — are spent guiding visiting anglers for a chance to catch a fish of a lifetime — a trophy muskie. It's the fish that made the lake famous.

"Getting a muskie to open its mouth is the challenge," Mass explained the other day. "As you know, I'm highly competitive so I know I've got to fish hard to trip its trigger."

Nearly a half-century ago, 1955, huge hungry muskies went on a feeding frenzy on Leech Lake. It's an event still talked about, still remembered. And Al Maas was there, a kid coming to Leech for the first time to catch a muskie.

"I remember there were 112 muskies caught in one day," he said.

Boy Maas didn't catch a muskie during the rampage (he lost one), but he's has been a muskie addict ever since.

Fact is, Maas graduated from the University of Minnesota and moved to Walker in 1962 with a job as Walker's head football coach. In 1968, his team was undefeated and unscored on. Maas retired in 1995 as athletic director.

Today, muskies (or walleyes or bass) fill his days and inventing muskie lures fills his nights.

"Al is so passionate about fishing," said Jeff Arnold, a longtime Walker friend. "He believes in and shares the outdoors and that muskie with everyone he meets."

Indeed, Mass the other day was attempting to introduce me to a Leech Lake muskie.

"Of all my muskie fishing days," I warned, "my worst have been on Leech."

Maas shrugged. "Let's see if we can change that," he said.

As a longtime observer of the fishing scene on Leech, Maas is convinced the best days of muskie fishing are now.

"We have more quality fish that I can remember. It's not unusual to see 30 or 40 muskies a day when they're going well," he said.

Maas said his own fish records over the years, measuring more than 1,000 muskies, shows the average size has increased from 41 to 45 inches.

"It's all because of catch and release. I haven't killed a muskie in 20 years," he said.

Maas' personal best is a 57-incher, estimated to weigh 51 pounds.

"I've seen them bigger," he recalled. "One had spots on its side the size of silver dollars. Had it in the net three times and it wouldn't fit and it got away."

Life for Maas and his wife, Dianne, hasn't been all touchdowns and big fish, however. On opening day of the 1984 duck season, their two sons, Chuck and Doug, drowned in Leech Lake when their boat overturned in high winds and heavy waves.

"You have your moments; you always will. We've tried to make something positive out of it," Maas said.

Meanwhile, we continued casting and casting and changing lures. Arnold held up an antique lure for me to try and Maas approved.

It was a topwater known as LeLure, with a spinning tail that sputtered over the waves of Leech. On my third cast, a massive bulge in the water appeared behind the lure.

"Keep it moving," Maas shouted. I did. Suddenly, a powerful tail swirled behind the lure and it disappeared into a gigantic mouth.

I didn't know it then, but the largest muskie of my fishing career was on the LeLure. It charged and swirled and jumped and surged. My knees were shaking. Hands, too.

Hours later (actually a few minutes), she was in the net and in my arms.

"She's 49 inches long," Maas announced, releasing the fish.

Good coaches and good fishing guides always have good game plans. I kept the memory.

Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling (888) 755-3155.

July through September 2004, Ron Schara's short feature, "Backroads with Ron & Raven," airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.