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A Fish Tale
One for “River Monsters”

Harbor Angler Report, December 5, 2021 Photo

I fished for muskies in the Fox River last week. I boated a fish five feet long. Now, those two statements are both completely accurate, though not necessarily related. Without context, truth can be an ephemeral affair. Kind of like saying you have been “immunized” when asked if you have been vaccinated. I know that anglers in general are considered to be loose with the truth and many assume anglers always lie about their catch. Indeed, I never consider anything I hear at a boat launch or watering hole concerning an angler’s latest catch to be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” so help them Glaucus. Now I must assure you, dear reader, that I never lie about my fishing exploits in these musings. If I tell you I caught a fish, I definitely caught a fish. If I state it was ten pounds, it was ten pounds, or so. If I told you I caught it in Moonlight Bay, I may have caught it in a body of water somehow attached to Moonlight Bay. As I said, without context, the truth can be ephemeral. So let me add some context to my opening statements.

Being late in the open water season, my group of fishing pals were desperate for one more outing before we were forced to retire the boats for the winter. Wind-chill and waves essentially eliminated the big water options for all but the most foolhardy anglers. Some impressive catches of muskies and walleyes were being reported from the Fox River near DePere by Green Bay guide Bret Alexander. Since we all had fished this area with some success in the past, we decided that would be our destination. We met at the Fox Point boat launch in the late morning under scattered sunshine. We had rounded up the usual suspects. Paul had driven down from Baileys Harbor with me. We were joined by Terry and Ed who had traveled from Appleton. Predictably, the parking lot was empty of boat trailers. Few anglers were venturing out on this blustery Monday. The landing piers had been removed for the season so launching the boats from the icy ramps was a challenge, but we had done this before. Once on the water, we expectantly set out rods and planer boards to target muskies. By expectantly, I really mean that we did not expect to catch anything, and our expectations were met. After several fruitless hours we decided to change tactics and see if we could put a few walleyes in the live well. Paul and I spent the next three hours vainly searching for active fish. With each empty cast, the cold biting wind underscored our discouragement. We had about had it with fishing for this day. Then I received a text message from Terry indicating they had found a spot where they had a few bites. Nothing in the boat yet except a few shad, but it sure sounded more promising than what we were doing. The spot had the added enhancement of being protected from the wind. I powered up the Maggie Leigh and we headed down river, dodging ice floes along the way.

Once we arrived at the “hot spot”, I sidled up near Terry’s boat and resumed fishing. Paul was using the classic jig/minnow presentation while I opted for a gold Rippn Rap. The technique I utilize with this lure is to cast out, allow the bait to settle to the bottom and then immediately, “snap” the lure off the bottom with a sharp upward movement of the rod. After taking up any slack line, I repeat the process until the lure gets boat side, hooks a fish or snags the bottom.  After about twenty minutes of this activity, the latter occurred. During a “snap” the lure abruptly stopped and was held firmly on the bottom of the river. I had undoubtedly hooked into a mussel-encrusted rock or other extraneous piece of bottom detritus common in this urban river setting. I endeavored to free my wedged lure when the piece of river debris appeared to move. Slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, but there was definite movement. Apparently, I had snagged some lowly bottom-hugging species. Not an uncommon occurrence in this part of the Fox River filled with large carp, catfish, and sheepshead. Over the years, I had hooked into them all. But this felt different. There was power at the other end of my line. The fish moved unwaveringly almost as if it was unaware or unconcerned that it was attached to a human being. I increasingly applied force to my rod attempting to lift the fish to the surface. It would have none of it. The fish continued to glide slowly along the bottom. I could feel the pulsations of its muscles transmitted through the 8-pound Fireline. This line, adequate for most fish, now seemed like a gossamer thread. I applied as much tension as I dared. My spinning rod doubled over. I had no choice but to allow the fish to lead me around like a puppy dog. I used my electric trolling motor to follow the fish as it meandered about, moving this way then that, unaffected by my feeble exertions.  Occasionally, a large bubble would come to the surface just above the fish. Apparently, the fish was releasing air from its swim bladder to decrease buoyancy. Or, as I imagined, was the fish taunting me? I was reminded of the mocking epithet hurled by the French soldier in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail; “I fart in your general direction.” It seemed personal.

As the battle ensued, Paul and I peered intently into the murky water just hoping to get a glimpse of our quarry. Ed shouted words of encouragement across the expanse of water between us and Terry busied himself videotaping the spectacle. After a time, we estimated between twenty to thirty minutes, I perceived the fish faltering a bit. I seemed to be gaining some control of the situation. Gradually I was recovering line and the fish began levitating from the dimness of the river bottom and edging to the sunlit surface. We were waiting for it. Finally, a fin broke the surface calm. Then a large swirl caused by the massive sub-surface movement. The fish made one last attempt to return to the safety of the bottom, but fatigue had gotten the best of it. The fish bobbed to the surface.  Our mouths fell open. A huge lake sturgeon had appeared. How big? Who knows? None of us had a proper frame of reference. This would be measured in feet, not inches. Four, five, six feet long? We had to find out.

I am not without some experience with large sturgeon. I spent many years fishing the waters of lakes Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Poygan and the upper reaches of the Wolf River. The Winnebago system has the largest, self-sustaining lake sturgeon population in the world. I have witnessed these behemoths breeching high into the air in the summer and I voyeuristically observed their spawning activities in the spring. I have unintentionally hooked into several large sturgeon. One evening while wading in the upper Wolf targeting walleyes, I was in the absurd situation of cursing my bad luck of hooking several huge fish knowing each encounter would only result in the loss of a lure, line and fishing time.  On another occasion, a younger version of myself was fishing late into the evening during the famed Wolf River walleye run. I was alone in a 12-foot aluminum boat anchored in the frigid, fast-moving water near Fremont. I snagged a large sturgeon and managed to wrestle the fish into the boat. I had just caught my largest fish ever and I had no witnesses, no camera and, of course, I had to return it to the river. That was my largest fish until now.

After gaping in awe for several moments, we debated the wisdom of bringing the fish into the boat. Obviously, the best course for the fish would be to pry the hook from the fish while still aside the boat and allow it to swim away. Astonishingly, my only connection to the fish was a single tine of the treble hook piercing the tough hide of the sturgeon. A water release would have been simple. Alas, curiosity and I suppose hubris, overcame me and I decided I needed to experience this fish more fully. Fortunately, we had the large muskie net in the boat. Paul managed to slip most of the fish into the large opening of the net. That was the easy part. Now two septuagenarian anglers had to lift this massive fish over the gunnel and into the boat. It took all our combined effort, but the fish made it to the floor of the boat. It was astounding. We quickly removed the lure from the fish and disentangled it from the net. I had a 60-inch measuring rod I use for muskies. It was not long enough. The fish stretched the entire length of the rod and maybe six inches beyond it. We had just boated a fish five and a half feet long. Taking any further pictures was not an option as neither of us could heft this fish by ourselves. We also knew we needed to get this fish back in the water quickly. We both grasped the sides of the behemoth, carefully lifted it into the water and watched with satisfaction as the fish glided back to its familiar bottom haunts. Fish, we were fortunate to have known thee.

Later, we estimated the weight of the fish to be about 80-90 pounds. An internet search indicated that a 65-inch lake sturgeon could weigh from 70 to 110 pounds and would be about 50 years old. We felt as if we had just become part of an episode of River Monsters. Or maybe this was my version of The Old Man and the Sea. Well, except the sea was really a river. And the fish did not get devoured by sharks. The fight lasted less than an hour, not the four days of Santiago’s epic battle. There was an old man. That part was definitely the truth.  

 

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Bruce

Questions or comments to bsmith733@gmail.com