MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- In the angling world circa 2010, killing a trophy musky is an invitation to criticism, not kudos.
So it would be understandable if Ryan Doran of Pewaukee would have stayed under the radar.
But Doran called me after we ran a photo and story seeking information on the 48-inch musky caught last week on Government Pier in Milwaukee.
"I'm the guy," said the 26-year-old Doran.
A fellow angler snapped Doran's photo as he held the massive fish last Wednesday and e-mailed it to me.
A notable catch anywhere, it attained star status in southern Lake Michigan where giant muskies are about as rare as perfect World Series games.
Some refused to believe it was caught off Milwaukee; others called the photo a fake.
This much we know: The catch was legitimate; the photo is real. And the story, it can be argued, is more about the value of fishing in one man's life than a single, outsized musky.
Doran said he has been drawn to fishing since he was old enough to cast.
"Love it, love it, love it," is the way he puts it.
His family moved to a home on Stumpy Bay on Okauchee Lake when he was 12, said Doran, and he has since fished year-round. Ice fishing, shore fishing, fishing from boats.
In fact, you could say in recent years fishing has been his foundation as he's battled through some of life's tougher times, including unemployment and illness.
Once a resident of group homes, Doran is now living independently.
"Fishing has saved him," said Jo Doran, Ryan's mother.
When life appears like an insurmountable mountain of problems, fishing can provide lessons in self-reliance, in achievement. It's a source of hope and optimism. Significantly, fishing also links humans to the natural world.
Doran has been fishing along the Milwaukee lakefront about twice a week this summer. If conditions are right, he targets salmon. If not, he tries for perch.
On a recent Wednesday, he walked out on Government Pier about 6:30 a.m. and began his ritual of catching fresh alewives for bait.
It took him about 10 minutes to catch a silvery 5-inch alewife by jigging with small hooks.
He quickly attached the lively minnow to a hook on a spinning rig outfitted with a pyramid sinker. He heaved the rig into the big water east of the pier and sat the rod down.
In seconds, line was peeling off the reel. Doran picked up the rod and set the hook.
"It took me longer to hook an alewife than to hook the musky," said Doran.
The fish ran several times, not unusual for the Great Lakes trout and salmon that typically hit alewives along the Milwaukee shore.
But when Doran was able to gain line and work the fish into view, it was clear it was something else entirely.
"I was in shock," said Doran. "Unbelievable."
Doran carries the tools of the Great Lakes pier angler, including relatively heavy tackle and a long-handled, large-hooped landing net.
When Doran worked the fish to the base of the pier, a fellow angler lowered the net and scooped up 48 inches of musky.
The fish was legally caught, hooked in the mouth. The fish was also legal (the minimum size limit for musky in the Lake Michigan waters off Milwaukee is 34 inches).
And yes, Doran has a valid fishing license.
He was elated, said Doran, and "not able to function." He held the fish for a couple of photos and contemplated releasing it.
But a nearby group of anglers, whom Doran sees occasionally on the pier, asked if they could keep it for dinner.
For many of us in the angling fraternity, a big musky is nothing but a catch-and-release proposition. Doran, in fact, also supports and often practices catch-and-release.
But there are others who fish more for food than sport. Doran, between jobs, understands such motivation.
Though he didn't want to eat the musky himself, he decided his fellow anglers needed it.
He handed the musky over. They took it home.
"I guess I thought it was the kind thing to do," said Doran. "I know they ate it all."
Doran kept fishing and proceeded to land four chinook salmon in the next few hours; the fish ranged from 6 to 9 pounds.
"It was the best day of fishing all year," said Doran.
The big musky, which attracted scientific interest, was never examined by fisheries biologists.
Though stocked since 1989 in the waters of Green Bay and now the focus of an outstanding fishery there, muskies have not been known to travel this far south. Did this big fish buck the trend?
Some muskies also enter the Milwaukee River system from stockings in Random Lake. Could the fish have come from there?
Or is there a naturally reproducing population elsewhere on the lake?
Judging from photos, the fish appears to be a Great Lakes spotted muskellunge, said DNR fisheries biologist Dave Rowe, one of the state's leading experts on the strain.
Rowe and colleagues have stocked, netted, tagged and surveyed the Great Lakes spotted musky for more than a decade, mostly in the waters of Green Bay.
He said if the fish caught by Doran in Milwaukee last week was stocked in Green Bay, it would represent one of the longest journeys taken by such fish.
The longest documented journey was a musky netted by Michigan DNR biologists working at Garden Island in northeastern Lake Michigan, a distance of about 150 miles from its stocking site in Green Bay.
Most muskies stocked in Green Bay don't stray. If Doran's musky was indeed a fish stocked in Green Bay, it would be just the fifth such fish caught more than 12 miles from its stocking site, Rowe said.
So the origin of the fish will remain a mystery.
The 48-inch musky was not "just" a fish, of course. It was a heretofore once-in-a-lifetime event in Milwaukee and all of southern Lake Michigan for that matter.
The catch has highlighted at least the presence of musky off our state's largest metropolitan area and reminded us of the success of reintroduction efforts for the fish farther north.
Perhaps it also casts a ray of hope for the troubled Great Lakes, a sign that a native top-predator can live and thrive in additional areas of Lake Michigan.
Though many of us have difficulty with such a grand fish ending up as table fare, the story also is a reminder that not all anglers think alike. The fish was legally taken and legally given away.
If we really want to protect such fish, a change in the regulations would be necessary.
Though the fish is gone, Doran said a reproduction mount may be made of the fish and displayed in an area sporting goods store.
For his part, he'll keep fishing, even if a repeat performance is unlikely.
"It's what I love to do," said Doran. "It's what I know how to do."