|Whale of a Tale
Against all Odds
After a day of wind and rain, Nancy and I were looking forward to launching the canoe and going for a paddle and for me to get some fishing in. Back in 77 on a visit to the Northwood’s, I fished a lake that I had some good success on. I caught a few small walleyes and a nice sized bass.
The name of the lake is Two Sisters Lake. It is one of the many crystal clear, spring-fed lakes in this area. There are not very many private homes on the lake, so it is very peaceful and serene. The lake was to be a fun spot to paddle around and for me to try out my rusty fishing skills.
Nancy surprised me and was up bright and early on the appointed day. It was a dazzling, clear, and cool morning. The passing storms left unseasonably low temperatures for the region. The weather geeks were talking about fall being in the air.
The wind was blowing at a pretty good pace outside, so we dressed in long pants, long sleeves, and jackets for our nature outing. We had some urgency to get going, so we planned on getting breakfast at a full-on tourist type restaurant we pass every day on our outings. There is a 30 ft Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statue outside and the huge building is, of course, all rough log construction. The business also houses their bakery. There is no breakfast menu! The fare is an ‘all you can eat’ with coffee, juice, and a cinnamon doughnut included.
Shortly after getting our coffee, the waitress arrived with platters of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, Kielbasa sausage, sausage links, honey cured ham, French toast, and pancakes. I don’t think I left anything out. It is ‘family style’ dinning.
Egad! These people up here did not get ‘the memo’ about eating light and healthy. The waitress looked at us as if we were from another planet when we declined any and all offered platter refills. We got the same look last Friday at our first ‘all you can eat’ fish fry.
Well, enough about the gluttony plague, and back to the fish tale.
The wind was still blowing at a robust clip when we got ready to leave. Nancy had seen a couple of interesting hats in the gift shop section of the restaurant and wanted to look them over closer. We both wanted large hats to cover us when we are out paddling.
While she shopped for a hat, I zipped back to camp to turn off our blue flame heater, which we had used briefly this morning. It was the first time since early last May in Camp Verde that we needed it to get the morning chill out of the air. We were out of practice on our ‘leaving camp’ check list. When I got back to pick her up, she had found the perfect hat for our maritime endeavors. It is pink and has many shapes and configurations that can be formed. Perfect!
Nancy and I had checked out the route to the lake a few days ago so we didn’t drive around in the thick forest all day looking for a launching spot. When we got to the lake it was still ‘blowin like a bastard’ with no sign of dying down anytime soon. We both are pretty flexible when it comes to unexpected changes of plans, so we broke out our map and started to plot a course to see if we could locate my aunt and uncles cottage where I spent many idyllic days as a youngster.
I had placed a phone call earlier in the day to my friend David, who I grew up with in Rhinelander. I had called to gloat over the fact that Nancy and I were on the way to the lake he and I had fished together so many years ago. He and I have kept in sporadic contact with each other over the years. I got his voicemail. He called back as we were driving through the woods and past multiple lakes. While talking with him, I asked if he could suggest any good fishing holes that we might be able to fish from shore being as it was too windy to launch the ‘Nancy Gail’. He mentioned a spot that was very close to where we were at the moment. He said he had caught many Walleyes below the dam at Rainbow Flowage. I was familiar with the Flowage for several reasons. One being when I was thirteen or fourteen, I and a few buddies took a two day canoe trip down the Wisconsin River from Eagle River to Rhinelander. We camped on an island in the Rainbow Flowage and had to portage round the dam. The other reason I was familiar with the large lake was my Dad had taken us kids fishing on the lake. He always insisted there were big Muskie’s in the lake though conventional wisdom of the day said the lake had been fished out for the fabled, monster, game fish. Catching a legal sized Muskie (36”) is the holy grail of fishing in the Northwoods.
We located the dam and found the state had put in a nice parking lot, a few picnic tables, and a public fishing dock below the spill way. There was great access to the churning river for about 100 yards or more. There were some fisher folks scattered along the banks on both sides of the Wisconsin River. The public fishing dock had about four people on it, so Nancy and I walked toward the dam a little ways and set up our chairs above the large rocks lining the rapid filled river. She had a good book along and planned on enjoying the book and the scenic forest lined river while I tried out my rusty fishing skills. Because we were down below the large lake, the spot was protected from the wind. Conditions were perfect for enjoying the great outdoors and fishing.
I rigged up one of my poles and climbed down on some large rocks to try my luck. Nancy was sitting in her chair up above me looking very pretty in pink. She had on her pink light weight jacket and her new pink floppy sun hat. Cute!
So, now that the table for my fishing yarn is set, I begin. The time was around 11:30 AM. I have subscribed to the Solunar Table theory for over twenty years. Without getting too technical, the theory says there are two major feeding cycles for all game and fish, every day. The major cycles last for about two hours, with an hour on each side of the major still being good for feeding activity. One of the advantages to practicing the theory is I don’t go fishing at dawn on a freezing morning unless the tables call out a major at that time. Mostly, I fish during the majors when it is warm and convenient. Another advantage is I don’t have to waste much time getting fish to bite. The day’s major during daylight hours was to be between 10:30 AM and 12:30 PM.
I was using a time tested technique, a worm on a hook, very technical. Over the course of the next two hours I managed to drown three night crawlers and lose two hooks. It was close to the end of optimum fishing time, so, I loaded up a new crawler and tossed it far out into the eddy, right next to the fast flowing current. I looked up at Nancy who had now moved to some shade and was deep into her book. Her pink jacket and new pink floppy hat stood out vividly against the blue sky and green forest. What a great day!
Oh, oh! I was getting a nibble on my bait. I calmed my breathing, senses alert. Earlier I had caught a small blue gill; the crawler it tried to eat was at least six inches longer than the little bugger. I was after Walleye, considered to be the most delicate and flavorful of all freshwater fish. I had read online earlier that they were slow feeders, unlike bass or Muskies who hit violently with a rush. I felt the slightest of twitches on my line. Could be dinner! Easy now, let it take the bait; eat the whole damn thing, hook, line, and sinker, so to speak. Two minutes, three minutes, I hadn’t felt any tug, maybe ‘it’ got away with my crawler.
Just as I started to reel in my line to check the status of my crawler, the line took off upstream with my drag screaming against the strain. Shit! That wasn’t any bluegill. I was hoping to catch a one or two pound fish, just enough for dinner for two. This was bigger, whatever it was. My mind is now racing. Shit! I have broken every rule in fisherman land. I was using 7 year old, already stressed, 6 lb test. Basically, I was fishing with a high Sierra trout set up. Stupid! Then I really got stupid. I lightened up my drag setting, thinking I would let the fish take a little line before I attempted to tire it out. There was no way I could bring in a 3 or 4 pound fish hot, on old tackle. Big mistake! The unseen adversary took off like a bat out of hell, stripping my line at an amazing rate. Then I committed the ultimate sin, I increased the drag setting in the middle of the big fishes run. With new line this maneuver usually results in a snapped line and a broken heart. But if the denizen got to the end of my spool, which was imminent, the line would break anyway.
Once or twice, in the early minutes of the struggle, I caught a glimpse of a flash of greenish, yellow fish, but the water below the damn is a murky copper color and I didn’t get an ID on what species I had on the hook. Once I thought I saw a tail flash when it made a run towards the dam, but it was so large, I figured it must have been a wave from the turbulent waters below the spillway.
As I increased the drag, the fish made a drag screeching run down river towards the dock where four or five people had gathered to see what the commotion was. I took a gamble, pulled heartily back on my pole and attempted to turn the beast toward me. That is when things changed dramatically. A massive fish cleared half of its body out of the water in a jump, right in front of the fishing dock. SHIT!
I was over thirty yards away when it broke the surface. I couldn’t believe my eyes, talk about biting off more than you can chew. I had a trophy Muskie on the line. The most fabled, and feared of all freshwater fighting fish. And we had only seen half of it!
Early in the fight, when I had caught just a glimpse of the fish, I had yelled to my neighbor asking if he had a net I could borrow. He was fishing with his wife and daughter right up next to the dam, about 30 yards from me. It was at this time that the fish went up river and did a jump right in front of them. He yelled back, “I don’t have a net big enough.” His eyes were bugging out of his head.
By now we had gathered quite a crowd. Nancy had been pacing up and down the bank up above me, camera in hand. She went down to where the guy was and said, “any net will be better than none.” That motivated him and his daughter. They came running up the bank and climbed down onto the rocks where I had anchored myself for the struggle. He had a net that was appropriate for a two or three pound fish. The guy went into his waist a couple of times. It drops off very quickly and deeply and the current is strong. His daughter was standing knee deep right next to him. I was concerned for them and said so.
The fight had been going on for some time now. The guy again reiterated that the net was too small by a lot. I was in the zone now, when that monster jumped downriver in front of the dock. I went from ‘excited to have a large fish on my line, don’t care if it gets away’ to ‘I am catching this monster even if I have to dive in for it’. I anticipated every run and gave just enough to not snap the line. It no longer mattered that I was using old 6 pound test. If it was brand new, it still wouldn’t be rated to handle a fish that was over 6 times in weight than what it was rated for. It was me and the fish.
Nancy was on the bank with the gathering crowd and suggested that “maybe two nets would be better.” Someone showed up with another very inadequate net. The man’s daughter now had that in her hand. Over the roar of the current, I worked out a strategy with them. The plan was for me to keep playing the fish, attempting to drain off most of its strength, and then I would bring it in head first into his net. I have used this strategy a time or two in my life, but never on this scale. Sometimes a lot of fish’s weight can be up near the head. If you can get it started into the net, sometimes the body will follow enough so it won’t spill back out. What a dream that was! I turned the big guy towards us, as it came close; we saw that the head was too massive to even start it into the net. The big fish caught sight of the Good Samaritan and his daughter standing in the water with nets poised and took off in another drag screaming run downriver.
This has been going on now for countless minutes. My arms are getting tired. I am staying calm though; I might even be breathing every now and then. I am pulling on my pole almost as hard as I can without breaking the line. My whole goal now is to keep the fish working steadily against me, just easy enough so it doesn’t struggle violently, but strains against me nonetheless. I will tire this puppy out so he is so exhausted that I can gill land him. There is a small niche in the rocks below where I am standing, the man and his daughter are knee deep in the water next to it. During the ensuing minutes, I try to bring ‘ole Mo’ into the niche and waiting nets. Two more times I bring the monster towards us, and both times he makes another run. Each time I brought it towards shore, we got a better look at it. It was truly a monster Muskie. The guy and I looked at each other in the eyes, he was totally committed to the task at hand. He and his daughter were as excited as I was.
We also knew this was a mission impossible. But we were in for it.
I could tell the big fish was starting to tire. I was reclaiming more line than he was taking out. I was concerned that if it got deep out into the white water below the spill way with his mouth open, the sudden weight would end it and snap the stressed line. I turned him again. “Get ready”, I told my new comrades in action. “I am bringing him in.”
The monster came straight in at us, like a giant log. It was exhausted and I was able to pull it into the niche. The Good Samaritan, as you can see from the picture, is a beefy dude. He lunged for the head with the woefully inadequate net, but the net bounced off the giant fish’s head. By now I was slipping off my rock into the niche, with pole in hand. The man slipped more into the water almost chest deep, and between him, his daughter, and I, we pinned the creature with our bodies in the watery niche. The Good Samaritan made an attempt to get his hand up into the fish’s gills for an ‘end game’, but got cut on the sharp cartilage or teeth (Muskie’s are all teeth) and pulled back. He had part of the fish pinned against his chest, the daughter had hold of the middle section of the tail, and fortunately for us, the fish was spent. If he came biting and snapping, we would have gotten seriously hurt. At this point I had a clear shot at the opposite gill and rammed my hand way up in there and grabbed hold with all my strength. I got cut, but no way was this fish getting away. Game Over! We had him. Three people, two nets, and a ton of luck. It was a team effort, and that made it all the more sweet.
Nancy was up above us snapping pictures and shouting words of encouragement. The man’s wife was next to her taking pictures, and breathing a sigh of relief that her daughter and husband were able to escape the struggle without harm.
We had landed a trophy, 48 inch, approximately 40 pound, mature Muskie. When I was a kid, serious Muskie fisherman carried .22’s and would shoot a large fish in the head before they would bring it into the boat. They truly are very powerful and are all teeth. They are a freshwater version of a Great White.
What a blast the whole darn thing was. Nancy took pictures of the three comrades in arms and the mighty Muskie as we sat exhausted on the water’s edge. After she took a few pictures, The Good Sam and I worked the fish back out of shock. He cradled it like a baby as he moved it back and forth in the water while I cut the small pan fish hook loose. Then, to the disbelief of many of the onlookers, we released our trophy to fight another day. With a strong whoosh of its mighty tail the magnificent fish disappeared into the depths.
What a remarkable day!
For those avid fishermen who might stumble across our website, here are the stats; 48 inch, approximately 40 pound mature female Muskie
6 year old 6 pound test
#6 Eagle Claw pan fish hook
6 inch crawler, slightly dehydrated.