WILLIAMS, Minn. — Vicarious thrills beat none at all, a lesson repeatedly reinforced during a late January ice fishing trip to Lake of the Woods.
While my catch consisted entirely of little saugers, my shack partner, Ted Wieland of Quasqueton, caught several big fish that fueled spectator adrenaline buzzes rivaling any I’ve experienced as an actual fish catcher.
It was a good week. Our party of eight caught fish enough for two big meals plus the six apiece the law allows us to take home. We also caught six walleyes that fell into the lake’s 19.5-inch to 28-inch protected slot, which was six more than we caught during last year’s visit.
Having gone unclaimed last year, our $5 per angler per day slot fish pool netted $175 for Mike Stafford of Winthrop, who caught the first slot fish on Day 1. Mike Mulnix of Quasqueton caught an unremunerative slot fish later that day. Don Dutler of Winthrop claimed the Day 2 slot fish pot, and my shack mate caught two slot fish on Day 3 and one on Day 4.
For me, the fun started on Day 2 when Ted set his tiny hook into a giant fish whose titanic resistance filled the shack with excitement, mystery and drama.
The wild throbbing of Ted’s tautly bent rod and the screaming of the drag on his petite spinning reel charged the interior of the fish shack with an electric sense of anticipation.
The fish’s extraordinary weight and might dashed our initial hope that it was a giant walleye, and we narrowed the suspects to sturgeon, eelpout, musky and northern.
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The drama mounted as we wondered how long light-duty ice fishing tackle could stand the strain of a heavy-duty fish.
Ted — who has caught 100-pound tarpon, 50-inch muskies, 7-foot sailfish and dozens of 30-inch walleyes — seemed less impressed than I with the force from the depths.
While I worried aloud that the fish would strip all the 8-pound-test braided line from his reel or that it would straighten his mini-jig’s tiny hook, Ted concentrated on adjusting the reel’s drag to optimize what little pressure his flimsy rod could exert on the fish.
Even so, the fish did as it pleased for several minutes, remaining close to the bottom in the 30-foot-deep water and managing to snag two of our other three lines that I had lacked the foresight to remove from the water.
Eventually, ever so eventually, Ted coaxed the powerful fish to the hole through which it must pass to be landed.
At that point the theretofore uncooperative fish stuck its massive snout in the bottom of the hole and more or less swam the 26 inches to the surface. where Ted, with his rod in one hand and a gaff in the other, completed the landing of a northern pike that snugly fit the 10-inch hole.
With the release of pressure on the line, the tiny jig fell from the pike’s toothy maw before we could ascertain where it had lodged.
If all pike had the same body shape as that one, people would refer to them as seals rather than snakes.