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Russel Schaller, Award-winning muskie fisherman, dies at 54

Russ Schaller famed Muskie fisherman from ChaO'Lakes region.

Russ Schaller, famed Muskie fisherman from the Chain O'Lakes region.

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Updated: March 2, 2013 6:32AM

The muskie is an unlikely siren.

Its name, derived from the Cree term, “Mashk Kinonge,” translates to “deformed pike,” according to George Becker’s “Fishes of Wisconsin.”

With its Jabberwocky jaws, the muskie gobbles down ducklings and small muskrats, in addition to fish. Green or silver, striped or leopard-spotted, this apex predator is sometimes called the shark of North American lakes.

Like an ichthyological Icarus, it explodes out of the water, shaking its head from side to side. And yet it can be as coy as a cat, following lures but not striking; just beyond reach — and the measuring stick.

“It’s like you can almost touch them, but you can’t,” said Steve Heiting, managing editor of a Wisconsin publication devoted to this freshwater infatuation: Musky Hunter Magazine. “There’s a whole industry based on a fish that frustrates the heck out of us.”

It’s no coincidence that the highlight of the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum in Hayward, Wis., is a four-and-a-half-story sculpture of a giant muskie. Twenty people can stand inside its lupine jaw.

There are even bumper stickers that read, “Muskies: All Other Fish Are Just Bait,” said Jim Ziebka, a board member of the Fox River Valley chapter of Muskies, Inc.

You could call Russ Schaller a muskie whisperer. Known as “Muskie Russ,” he was an award-winning fisherman who spent 35 years on the Chain O’Lakes. He spoke at clubs and workshops, educating people on how to stalk the elusive fish. Most muskie hunters catch and release. They know it can take 12 to 25 years for a muskie to reach what most consider trophy size: 50 inches long, or more.

Mr. Schaller, the winner of many fishing tournaments, died of complications from a stroke Jan. 19 at Alexian Brothers Medical Center, Elk Grove Village. He was 54.

Anglers can be notoriously parsimonious about trading tips on lures, bait and good spots to fish. Mr. Schaller was different, friends and relatives said.

“Russ was always there for advice for the young guys just starting to fish,” said Ken Sponseller of Fox River Valley Muskies, Inc. “He was always very open and free with any kind of information. Everybody knew him as the expert on muskie fishing, but other types of fishing, also, on the Chain O’Lakes. . . . He would always be willing to talk about where the fish are, what lures to use.”

“I heard him on the phone, many times, before a big tournament, and he told [his callers] where to go” to find fish, said his wife, Cindy. “And I said, ‘You’re fishing in that tournament — why are you telling them?’ ’’

“That’s OK,” he told her. “They’re my friends.”

If Mr. Schaller spotted a muskie but failed to hook it, he would suggest to other anglers, “We just moved a fish in here. Why don’t you go in and give her a try?” said his friend Rich Gallagher.

He was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and grew up all over the country because his father was in the service. He sharpened his fishing skills on Petite Lake in the Chain O’Lakes.

A design engineer, he met Cindy when they both worked at NCG Electronics in Antioch.

“He just radiated niceness. He was kind. I was divorced and I had a daughter, and he took to my daughter, and it was wonderful,” she said.

She knew he was special when he performed surgery on her crummy old car. “He got all the parts and fixed the car, and never asked me for a dime. He was worried about me and my daughter,” Nicole Moore, she said.

“We were crazy about each other,” she said. “We dated four months and we got married.”

They were wed 29 years.

Being married to a serious angler meant waxworms in the fridge and fish scales in the kitchen sink. She loved that fishing bonded him with their son, Chris.

Mr. Schaller, of Lindenhurst, enjoyed John Wayne movies, camping and hanging out at Triangle Sports and Marine of Antioch, swapping fish stories. He was working at ZF Electronics in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., when he died.

Other survivors include his mother, Shirley; his sister, Lynn Kennedy, and two grandchildren

Services were held last week.

He loved to wear a worn, blue 10-year-old T-shirt that said “Champion,” from one of his fishing competitions. It’s what his family buried him in. His son tucked two of his favorite lures in his casket.

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