Hayward, WI – Growing up, ‘Up North’, I took small town festivals for granted. Whether it was the Birchwood Bluegill Festival, Winter’s July Jubilee, or my hometown of Hayward, WI’s Musky Festival, they were little more than an annual tradition and the opportunity to do fun things with friends, family, and the community. As I made the trip ‘Up North’ to celebrate 10 years since my high school graduation (for the 4th time, but who’s counting), I decided to take a deeper look at the festival that largely defined what it meant to ‘grow up Hayward’.
The festival started in 1950 to commemorate the slew of world record muskies taken from Hayward area lakes. With record anything comes questions. Since my childhood, the accepted world record has changed multiple times and has been owned by Louie Spray (1949 – 69# 11 oz, Chippewa Flowage), Cal Johnson (67# 8 oz, Lac Courte Oreilles) and Art Lawton (70# 10 oz, Saint Lawrence River, not a Hayward area body of water). There is a lot of controversy with the latter 2 (folklore, lack of evidence, ‘fishy’ politics, and more) pretty much making the Johnson fish the most verifiable record. Regardless of who owns the current record, it is undeniable that more world record muskies have been taken from Hayward area lakes than any other region in the world. This fact has brought hundreds of thousands of anglers and others, Up North, to celebrate over the past 72 years.
First on the agenda was to capture people catching and showing off their fish. Way back in the day, it would have been easy, since successful anglers would bring their trophies into town to put them on ice and on display for the masses to relish. Times have changed. There are no longer fish on ice, but rather, in a catch and release age, photos are the only way to display. It is great for the fish and the attendees (the smell is MUCH better), however, it means I had to go looking. Thankfully, a local Hayward landmark, Shue’s Pond, was open for fishing and the fish were biting. Now no record anything will ever be taken from the pond, but I did manage to catch a young Elon reeling in a nice bluegill and his brother, Edwin, showing off the biggest catch of the day, a largemouth bass. I talked to their parents, local Hayward residents Marcus and Alisa, and they love Wisconsin summers, Hayward outdoor activities, and everything Musky Fest brings to the area. To be honest, their willingness to talk and share their stories with me was the Up North I remember.
Hayward Musky Festival Gallery 1
Of course, if it was only about fishing, the turnout would be low as those who did come to town would be on the lakes and not everyone likes to fish. The Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce does a wonderful job of creating an Up North atmosphere that has something for everyone. I started with the food contests (not to be confused with the food vendors selling all things fried from fried cheese curds (oh my lord, I was in heaven), chicken wings, and even a fried grilled cheese sandwich).
The watermelon eating contest was a blast. Divided into different age groups it was fun to watch how the older one got the more barbaric the devouring of a watermelon became. Probably the most barbaric was Hayward Mayor, Charlie Munich. While he did not win, he definitely tried to intimidate his competition demonstrating his ability to both eat and inhale the target fruit.
The other notable contests were the Dilly Bar eating contest (the adults got this all wrong, the kids had it right, a Dilly Bar is not to be eaten quickly, it is to be savored… I think the youngest age group took about 10 minutes to finish while the Mayor’s age group took all of 10 seconds).
The final contest of the festival that I was able to catch was the Hula Hoop competition. again, divided by age groups. This time the older kids showed us all how it was done. For the sake of time, the competition had to resort to hooping 2 at the same time.
Every Up North, tradition summer (and even winter) festival, requires the crowning of a royal court. The Musky Festival Queen has been crowned, with her court, since 1950. They are high school age and compete for scholarships with others based on a variety of criteria, including academics and community involvement. This year’s court consisted of Hailey Moreth (2nd runner up), 2022 Musky Festival Queen Rachel Perfecto, and Sadie Campbel (1st runner up). They not only provided a lot of support for all the competitions (and competed as well), but will also be representing Hayward in almost everything Up North, until a new court is chosen next Musky Festival. In my brief interaction with the ladies, I know they will represent Hayward well.
Musky Festival would not be complete without live music. The first band was a local duo, Oddly Specific. They were so much fun. In the middle of their set I met Abby and her parents who came to Hayward by accident. Danielle, from Milton, WI, told me they had come to town to support a local candy landmark, Tremblay’s Sweet Shop, only to find themselves in the middle of the festival. Upon hearing the music from the stage, Abby said, “Stop, I need to dance!”. And dance she did! I loved the dance so much I had to make it the cover photo! Thank you Abby (and your Mom and Dad!)!
Other music acts included Friday night’s Molly and the Danger (a well known group of local artists), Todd Hurst on Saturday afternoon, and Eau Claire band, Bumblefist on Saturday night. All the bands rocked with originals and covers, with the biggest crowd taking in Bumblefist! Beer tents and local bands, that is what we call Up North Style!!
Rounding out the festivities were a farmers breakfast on Saturday (mmmmm, local food!), a carnival on the grounds where my former middle school once stood, a 5 and 10K Musky Festival race (I placed dead last in the 10K… I am so ashamed! Too much Bumblefist I guess!), and a parade. The farmer feast was out of town but drew a massive number of hungry attendees. Supported by the local farmers and 4H participants, this is definitely a must do! I talked to people from all over the US, ranging from California to New York and they all said the same thing, they loved the people, the loved the atmosphere, and recommended Musky Festival weekend for anyone looking for the Up North experience.
Hayward Musky Festival Gallery 2
As the event drew to a close I was so happy I took the time to dig deeper into what made my hometown and Musky Festival so special. As I talked to locals and visitors alike, I came to realize how much growing up in an Up North sort of way made me who I am. I understand, the laid back culture may not be for everyone (at least not all the time), especially for those who relish in the hustle and bustle of big city life. With that said, I will all but guarantee, one dose of Up North and you will be hooked (not in the fishing sense). Hayward is a very special place and a great community where everyone knows and looks after everyone else. Musky Festival 2022 brought back fond memories and reinforced many things I hold dear. I guess it goes to show, the dude can leave Hayward, but Hayward will never leave the dude! That is what it really means to be Up North!
Festival Dates: June 24-26, 2022