For the folks who know him, it’s not news that Joe Flater is a skilled fisherman and guide.
After all, a guy doesn’t get the nickname “Musky Joe” for no reason.
But now Flater’s status is official. Flater, 61, who co-owns Flater’s Flambeau Point Resort near Holcombe with his wife, Dawn, was inducted last month into the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward.
For someone whose livelihood is based on fishing, that is a big deal — almost as big as the six 50-plus-inch muskies he has landed in nearly five decades of stalking Wisconsin’s state fish.
“There are millions of people who fish but only about 400 or so in the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame,” said Dave Carlson, the longtime award-winning host of “TV-13 Outdoors” and “Northland Journal” on WEAU-TV and “Northland Adventures” on WQOW-TV.
Flater, a rugged outdoorsman who also hunts bears and has completed 10½ Birkebeiner cross country ski races, acknowledged being choked up when hundreds of friends and family members showed up for the induction ceremony he called a “great honor.”
Carlson, who was inducted into the national Hall of Fame himself last year and has fished with Flater at least a dozen times, said Flater deserves his spot alongside such legends of the sport as “The Old Man and the Sea” author Ernest Hemingway, outboard motor inventor Ole Evenrud, ABC broadcaster Curt Gowdy, Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams and fishing legend Babe Winkelman.
Asked what made Flater stand out from the angling masses, Carlson immediately rattled off a list of HOF-worthy traits: “His character, his ability to instruct, his ability to communicate fishing, to make it fun, to present the artistic challenge of fishing for muskies and the other species that inhabit the same waters.”
“There are other people who are probably as good or better at fishing for muskies, but not many of them excel as much at talking about what they’re doing and portraying it to the guests they take out. Each person you do that for, they become a convert if they’re not already converted,” Carlson said. “Joe knows he’s in a pulpit, and that pulpit is his boat and he’s got the ability and the skill to make it happen for just about everybody.”
It’s clear Flater has come a long way from the 12-year-old boy who got hooked on fishing when he caught his first musky, a 36-incher, off the bank by the family’s resort. About a month later, Flater recalled complaining when his dad, who owned the resort before Flater, invited him along on a guided trip and advised him to keep casting in the middle of the river. A grumpy Flater was sure he was wasting his time — until he hooked a 46½-inch musky.
“That’s when I caught musky fever, and I still haven’t gotten over it,” said Flater, who started guiding when he was 16 and still guides 30 to 50 trips a year on the Flambeau and Chippewa rivers in his trusty 14-foot aluminum rowboat.
Flater enjoys fishing for other species as well and called the smallmouth bass fishing in the Flambeau “phenomenal,” but it’s clear his true love is the musky. Flater estimated he and his clients have landed 1,500 to 1,800 muskies over the years and said every one provides a unique thrill.
“They can give you a good tussle,” he said in a classic understatement about the famed fighters that he acknowledged can spur shaking hands and racing pulses among even the most experienced anglers.
Just the other day Flater led a father and daughter from Eau Claire on a guided trip. The girl had little fishing experience and never had fished for muskies. Flater patiently worked with her on casting and then, as if to show the student had absorbed the lessons of the master, the girl promptly caught a 49-incher.
“It’s always fun to take someone out and see them get their first musky,” Flater said.
Carlson said Flater is a master at maneuvering his rowboat through wild rapids and setting up clients to catch fish. “When Joe says, ‘get ready,’ you’d better get ready,” Carlson said.
Even Carlson said his best day of musky fishing came with Flater as the guide. That day Carlson landed three muskies and his party of four caught a total of nine. For the uninitiated, that is not normal when seeking the elusive musky.
“They weren’t all monsters, but it was a fantastic day, one I’ll never forget,” Carlson said.
Though Flater has been guiding for decades, that doesn’t mean his methods have stayed the same. One of the biggest changes is that he practices and strongly advocates almost exclusively catch-and-release fishing, particularly with muskies.
“I haven’t kept a fish for the last 20 years,” he said. “We wouldn’t have any fish left if we kept them.”
It’s clear Flater still gets great joy from fishing and from sharing his passion with others.
Regarding his future, Flater said he plans to keep rowing, casting and guiding “as long as my body holds out.”
Recent evidence suggests Flater hasn’t lost his touch or let his Hall of Fame status go to his head. His wife reported he just caught a 50-inch musky last week.
That success would come as no surprise to Carlson.
“He takes great pride in his nickname “Musky Joe,” and he should,” Carlson said. “That’s who he is, plain and simple.”
“It’s always fun to take someone out and see them get their first musky.” Joe Flater,
reknowned Musky guide