Only a few casts separate “goofing around’’ and busting a 54-inch muskie, perhaps the greatest verified in Illinois.

“I did not want to keep the fish, I am a die-hard catch-and-release guy,’’ Jim Hack said.

But circumstances intervened.

Note that wording, greatest verified muskie.

The Illinois record remains 38 pounds, 8 ounces, caught April 20, 2002 by Matt Carmean while he was walleye fishing below the Lake Shelbyville dam. It was 50 3/4 inches.

Hack’s muskie dwarfs Carmean’s.

Fisheries biologist Andy Plauck, who verified the fish, emailed, “He had the fish in a large tote on ice and when he pulled it out I knew it was bigger than any muskie I had handled. I’m quite certain that if that fish had been caught in the spring (full of eggs) we would be talking about a new state record.’’

I’ve been waiting months to tell this story.

THE SETUP

On July 5, Hack, of Kildeer, went to make a few casts at a Lake County lake.

“Kind of goofing around, just throwing it,’’ he said.

That’s all I have on the lake. Some day I hope to know exactly which one. Maybe some day Hack and I will have a beer and he will share it. Until then, the fanatics known as muskie fishermen can have a go at figuring which lake.

THE CATCH

Hack, a financial advisor at UBS Financial Services in Barrington, was working a Double Cowgirl when she came out of four feet of water on the edge of weeds.

“I literally landed on her,’’ Hack said. “I startled her. And she startled me. She came in like a torpedo. But she had no interest in a Figure 8. And I catch 30 percent of fish on Figure 8’s.’’

He drifted off with the wind, then re-found the spot and used different baits.

Magic came on an orange and black Musky Buster. He was using 100-pound braid with a a 150-pound monofilament leader on an Abu Garcia reel and a 6-6 St. Croix muskie rod.

“I think she would’ve hit a hook with a fork on it,’’ he said. “She was on that spot feeding. She hit the second or third cast.’’

Slammed it so hard she engulfed the Musky Buster.

“Usually it is a two-minute fight, but this was 12,’’ Hack said. “She jumped. I was surprised. It was like a lumbering cow jumping. There are a lot of weeds in this lake and she kept digging in the weeds.’’

He finally fought her in.

THE DILEMNA

“Head on this fish is probably 16 inches, the lure was eight to 10 inches back,’’ Hack said.

He’s good at getting hooks out. He cut the front hooks, then unhooked the back hooks backwards. Even so, she was stressed and would not revive. He spent an hour and 20 minutes trying to revive her, conceding at 9:20 p.m.

“She just couldn’t recover,’’ Hack said. “I hadn’t even taken a picture, just trying to get her back in. I did not want to kill this fish.’’

CERTIFYING

But Hack, whose previous best was 46 inches, knew he had something special.

When he reached home, he put it on “probably 200 pounds of ice.’’

“It looked like an alligator, it was something to see live,’’ he said.

Then he contacted the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Conservation Police officers told Plauck, who met Hack the next day at the Salmon Stop in Waukegan, where there is a certified scale.

The certified weight was 35 pounds, 10 ounces. Length was 54 inches; girth, 22 1/2.

PERSPECTIVE

Doug Petrousek of Douglas Taxidermy in Elburn is mounting the fish. He has done skin mounts and made replicas of many record and historic fish.

Here’s his perspective, from decades of experience, on Hack’s fish.

“I remember when Illinois had yet to break the 50-inch mark,” he emailed. “In ’99, I mounted a 49 7/8-inch muskie caught out of the Fox river in the Geneva area. We just couldn’t get that extra 1/8 inch to make it a 50-incher. It may be quite awhile until we see a longer fish than 54 coming out of Illinois.

“The longest muskie I’ve mounted as a skin mount was 58″ and came from Cass Lake [in Minnesota]. The fish weighed about 45 [pounds]. but was completely empty. With some stomach content it could have hit 50 [pounds] easily. Replica muskies that I’ve done are pretty much 54-55’s.

FINAL WORD

“I swear to God I just went out goofing around,’’ Hack said.