A Really Big Fish Story…and It’s True!

5.30.2021 [archived ~ originally published 8.18.2019]

Last Sunday’s Reminisce column touched on the story about Minnesota’s current record muskellunge, caught in 1957. Fishing guide Art Lyons caught it just off the shores of High Banks Resort. It took nearly two hours to land the muskie, which officially weighed 54 pounds. And it took nearly twenty years for it to be recognized as the record fish. This is how the story unfolded.

Arthur George “Art” Lyons was born in the second week of May in 1900.  Perhaps his love of fishing and skill in guiding was because he was born in May when the fish are jumping.  Art’s parents, William and Annie lived along the shore of Lake Winnibigoshish.  The Lyons family, like generations before them, lived off the land by hunting, trapping and fishing.

Art married Elizabeth Hyde and according to early census records and later obituaries, their children included Thelma, Stella, Edward, Dorothy, Mary Alma, Kenneth, Alfred, Theodore, Lorraine, and Eleanor.  By about 1945, Art was guiding for the High Banks and Tamarack Resorts on the east side of Winnibigoshish. 

Lyons Big Muskie 1957

In the late afternoon of August 28, 1957, Art was out with two couples from the Twin Cities, Don and Betty Hanson and George and Theresa Ross.  Art was in one boat and the others in another, staying about thirty feet apart.  When Art got hits he would signal to the others and they would cast their line accordingly.  After about a half an hour on the water, Art had hooked a fish that took nearly two hours to land.  When they got it to shore and on to the High Banks’ scale, it weighed 57.5 pounds!

Bill and Ann Molzen, the owners of High Banks, thought it was probably a record muskie. Bill and Art quickly loaded the fish and drove to Deer River stopping first in Bena to show off the trophy.  By the time they arrived in Deer River, the fish had been out of the water a couple hours.  It weighed 55 pounds and measured 56 inches. The Deer River News snapped a photograph in front of the Sportsmen’s Cafe.

It was decided that the fish should be taken to Minneapolis and entered into a fishing contest sponsored by the Corrie’s Sporting Goods Store.  Bill drove directly to the store located on Marquette Avenue.  There the official weight was declared as 54 pounds.  The Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Aug. 30 1957, printed a large photograph with this story.

You Should Have Seen the One That Got Away!

The Minnesota season’s biggest muskellunge – 54 pounds heavy, 56 inches long – was caught by accident.  The lucky angler was Art Lyons, Indian guide from Bena, Minn., who caught the record fish Wednesday night while trying for a northern pike off High Banks Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish.  Bill Molzen of High Banks brought the fish to Minneapolis for a sporting goods contest and told the tale of Lyons’ luck, Lyons had taken a fishing party out on ‘Big Winni’ to show the anglers where to catch northerns.  He made a few experimental casts with 20-pound test line and a red and white spoon.  The monster hit.  One hour and 48 minutes later, Lyons was able to bring the fish close enough to stun it with a piece of pipe. ‘I lost a big muskie before,’ Lyons said, ‘so I played this one until he is tired out.’ The world record for a muskie is 69 pounds, eight ounces.  Lyons’ fish is the largest taken in Minnesota in several seasons.”

Art’s fish was just six ounces less than the muskie that had held the state record since 1931.  That fish was caught by John William Collins of Baudette in Lake of the Woods.  The recent catch was still considered a trophy and was displayed at Corrie’s Sporting Goods Store for several weeks according to George Ross, one of the fishermen with Art when the muskie was caught. “Art won the contest that included a diamond ring, a bunch of tackle and a new rod and reel. The ring was worth about $250 back then. But Art sold the ring and the tackle as soon as he got it.” [Interviewed by Terry Hagstrom date unknown, but prior to Ross death 2007.]

Molzen had the largest muskie caught in Winnibigoshish mounted, and it was proudly displayed at the Bena Bar.

Big Muskie Revisited 1976

In January 1976, Joe Fellegy, a writer for Fins and Feathers magazine, requested from readers reliable information about Minnesota record fish.  This prompted a review of the muskie caught by Collins, which still held the record.  The MN DNR looked at the evidence and declared that the Collins fish had been taken from Sabaskong Bay of Lake of the Woods, which was actually in Ontario!  Art Lyons’ muskie, caught nineteen years earlier, was proclaimed the new state record holder. 

The big fish was cleaned up, and a plaque proclaimed its status at the Bena Bar until a fire destroyed the building in 1979.

In the early 1980s, Fellegy was compiling a book of Minnesota fish stories and he contacted Art, who was in his early eighties.  Art suggested he talk to the fishermen who were with him at the time, Don Hanson and George Ross.  Fellegy did and included their memories in Classic Minnesota Fishing Stories: A Rare Collection of First-Hand Accounts, Anecdotes, and Reports.  The book was published in 1982 and is no longer in print, although copies are for sale on Ebay and Amazon.

Terry Hagstrom, a Minnesota muskie fishing guide, tracked George Ross down a few years ago and shared Ross’ recollections of that day in 1957 on his website.  One of the comments Ross made, that hadn’t appeared in other research, was about the fish just before they got it in the boat.  “Well, when the five of us saw this fish come to the top between the two boats, the women jumped. Don and I actually felt a little scared at the sight of it. The size of the eyes alone was enough to scare anyone. They were huge. It looked like a big log. The length! Its head was just huge!” [Interviewed by Terry Hagstrom]

In less than two weeks, Art Lyons’ state muskellunge record of 54 pounds, 56 inches, will have stood for 62 years. 

Art Lyons died in March 1983, so he was aware that his fish was indeed a record.  John Collins died in 1950, so he had no knowledge of how close Art’s muskie was to his own.  He was 66 years old at the time he caught his fish…did he know he was in Canadian waters or was it only his fishing companions who knew?  If he did know, and had still been living when Art caught the muskie, would he have given up the secret he’d harbored for years?  Hmm, an intriguing possibility for a book!

A beautiful replica of Art’s muskie is at The Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls, MN.

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