116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WILLIAMS, Minn. — The deepest mystery of the depths — what lurks there? — revealed itself Jan. 13 through a 10-inch hole in the ice atop Lake of the Woods.
With the exception of Doug Reck’s three big walleyes, including a 28-incher, our annual ice fishing trip had lacked luster.
The walleyes and saugers we go there to catch had been fewer and smaller than usual. Still the seven of us — Doug, Jim Brace, Mike Stafford and Phil Steffen, all of Winthrop; Dean Baragary of Monti; and Mike Mullnix and I of Quasqueton — had caught enough in four days for three delicious fish fries.
Unseasonably fine weather, with no precipitation and daily high temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, almost compensated for the slow fishing, and we were having comfortable fun in heated shacks on the fifth and final day of our visit.
By 9 a.m. I and my shack mates, Jim and Dean, had caught several skinny saugers. Like every other fish I’d caught that week, they put up little resistance as they traveled the 28 feet from the bottom to the ice-covered surface as fast as I could turn the handle of the little spinning reel attached by electrician’s tape to my ice fishing rod.
The next bite itself was inauspicious, unheralded by a fish-indicating red mark on my sonar unit, just a “tick” barely felt through the cork handle of my slender graphite rod. The tick triggered a reflex strike that bent my rod tip straight down toward the hole.
The presence at the end of my line would not move, and I’d have thought I was snagged had there been anything on the lake’s smooth bottom to snag.
Big fish, I reported to my shack mates, who promptly reeled in their lines to prevent tangles with an uncontrollable fish, while I removed my sonar unit’s transducer from the hole through which I hoped to land the fish.
Soon the fish noticed the meager pressure I was exerting with my rod tip and began to swim away from it, stripping the line from my reel at an alarming rate. While the fish swam and the drag on my reel screeched, I contemplated my terminal tackle, which consisted of a 3/32 ounce tungsten jig, tied to a short length of 6-pound monofilament leader tied to a minuscule swivel, which was in turn tied to my reel’s 6-pound braided main line.
Needless to say, I was not heartened that three of my notoriously suspect knots stood between me and a fish with the potential to make my week.
The superior weight and strength of the fish soon dashed my initial hope that I’d hooked a big walleye. I next reckoned it too big and strong to be an eelpout. That left sturgeon, muskellunge and northern pike, the latter seeming most likely. Time would tell — if my knots and light tackle held together.
Twice I coaxed the big fish off the bottom, hoping to get it close enough to identify. Twice it made drag-screeching, tackle-straining runs that threatened to strip all the line from my spool. Only the tight grip of my right hand kept the too-loosely-taped reel from separating from my rod.
On its third ascent the by-then tired and befuddled fish came all the way to the bottom of the transparent ice, permitting its identification as a giant northern pike. As it lay there, its back against the ice, Jim pushed downward with his gaff, allowing me to pull its massive head into the hole.
Jim lifted it out with the gaff, while I dropped my rod and held it still on the wooden floor of the shack.
I borrowed Jim’s pliers to remove the jig, which I could not find. It was out of sight in the fish’s belly, with only my gossamer line visible among the several hundred fang-like and needle-point teeth lining the northern’s jaws.
Jim snipped the line and photographed me and the fish. The big yellow ruler affixed to one of the shack’s walls said it easily exceeded the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ 40-inch trophy standard, according to which we could have kept the fish had we been so inclined.
Our fun having already been had, we pushed her beak first back into the lake. With a whoosh she dived for the bottom, any curiosity she might have had about what lurks above the ice presumably satisfied.