Saturday, April 2, 2016

My own 'Old Man and the Sea' story

Lake trout on Red Lake had grown very large and were very plentiful in 1992, the first year that I had returned to Bow Narrows Camp after more than a decade working as a journalist in Thunder Bay.
It was evening and I had finished doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen in the lodge so I grabbed my fishing rod and tackle box, jumped in the staff boat and headed to Trout Bay, just a mile away.
It was late June, the temperature was warm and there wasn't a breath of wind. My boat glided across the mirrored lake surface like a shooting star in the evening sky.
I could see other boats trolling on the far shore of Trout Bay as soon as I reached this deep body of water. Since I wanted to be alone, I just stopped where I was, near the islands at the east end. It wasn't known to be one of the bay's hot spots for lakers but I couldn't have cared less.
As soon as the boat came to a standstill I tied on a big bucktail jig to the monofilament spooled on my old Phlueger Supreme baitcasting reel. The Supreme had once been the Cadillac of fishing reels. It was given to me when I was 14 by my favourite uncle, Ervie, who basically had taught me to be a fishing guide from the time I was 9 just by letting me steer him around every time he came to camp fishing.
Although the Supreme eventually was made with a star-drag and a free-spool, mine predated these innovations. You added or reduced tension on the spool of line simply with thumb pressure. I had grown up doing this and it was just second nature. Frankly, I thought people who used the newer, more-automated reels were sissies.
There were two ways to jig for lake trout. One was to let the jig fall to the bottom then move your rod up and down several feet, making the jig bounce. The other was to let the jig hit bottom, then reel it rapidly toward the surface again. I chose this second method, partially because it had worked best for me in the past but also because it would allow me to constantly gauge the depth of the water. I didn't have a depth finder and I knew each crank of my reel handle retrieved about a foot of line. The trout had gone down to their summer depth and would be in approximately 60 feet of water. If my jig broke surface in less than 60 turns of the handle I needed to move the boat farther away from shore. If it was more than 60, then I needed to be closer. It wasn't a scientifically accurate system but it didn't need to be. In reality the trout could be as shallow as 45 feet and as deep as 70.
I adjusted my distance from shore once or twice, was satisfied and started fishing in earnest.
I let the jig fall, just keeping light pressure on the spool with my thumb so it didn't start spinning out of control and create a backlash. It took 15-20 seconds before the jig reached the bottom and my line went slack. I immediately cranked it back up and started the process all over.
The theory behind this technique is that the trout, which are usually on the bottom, see the jig as a bait fish acting in a panic trying to escape and this entices the lakers to strike.
On only my third or fourth drop I started to reel up only to discover an immense weight on the line.
I stood up and set the hook, hard. Sixty feet of monofilament has a lot of stretch to it, and many a lake trout has been lost because the angler didn't jerk the hook into the trout's vice-like mouth. After a few minutes the trout can just open its maw and the lure falls out. I didn't want that to happen.
For a minute or two I thought it possible that I simply had caught the bottom. My fiberglass rod was bent in half and I was putting all the pressure I could on the 14-pound-test line without breaking it and nothing was happening. But it is rare to get snagged when fishing in water this deep. One of the secrets to why the west end of Red Lake, Ontario, is such a fishing paradise is its bottom. Except for near the shoreline the bottom mostly isn't composed of rocks or sand -- both relatively sterile -- but of productive clay. A lake is really like a farm. If you want a good one you must start with good soil. The nutrients in that soil will feed the phytoplankton which are at the bottom of the food chain. Many links higher up the chain, in this instance, are lake trout. Unless you are near a reef, which I wasn't, there is nothing to snag on the clay bottom, nothing but fish.
So I kept up the pressure on the rod. After a few minutes, the line and rod began to throb. Sixty feet below the trout was thrashing its head, realizing the thing in its mouth wasn't a fish at all but unable to get rid of the single hook of the jig.
My rod began angling higher -- the fish had come up a foot or two. I reeled in the line and kept up the pressure and again, the fish rose, almost imperceptibly but coming up nonetheless.
I started counting the cranks on the reel handle so I would know when the fish was near surface. Ten minutes went by and I still had only regained half of my line when what seemed like small fish began swirling all around the boat. The mystery was solved when I peered down into the depths and saw a giant bubble heading upwards. The trout was expelling air to compensate for the difference in pressure from being down 60 feet and now probably at 30 feet. Although hoisting some other fish from the depths can kill them as their air bladders inflate in the reduced-pressure atmosphere, not so with lake trout. In fact, anglers with depth finders who fish the drop-and-reel jigging system can sometimes "see" trout chasing their lures from the bottom right to the surface. The trout aren't committing suicide.
The trout made its first run when it was about 15 feet from the surface. I couldn't see it but suddenly the pressure became intense and I had no choice but let the line spool slip beneath my thumb while still putting on enough tension to tire out the fish. It was either that or let the line snap in two.
God knows how fast the fish was swimming but it seemed like it was shooting itself toward the bottom. The friction of the line against by thumb got so hot I had to switch hands and use the other thumb. In seconds that thumb too was burning and I went back to the first hand and pressed my palm against the spool until I couldn't stand it, and then used the other palm too.
The fish was not only plummeting downwards, it was angling away from me and that meant it was taking out a whole lot more than 60 feet of line. I only had about 200 feet of line on the reel and a glance showed I was running out fast. I started the outboard with one hand while thumbing the reel with the other and headed in the direction of the fish.
As soon as the fish stopped I killed the motor and started regaining my line, all the while keeping the pressure against the fish. It came in fairly easily at first but I knew that was because the boat was still coasting forward. Eventually the line was straight down again and the fish wasn't moving except for periods of head-shaking. A glance at the line spooled on my reel told me the fish was probably about 60 feet away, on the bottom again.
Five minutes passed and the force on my rod reduced, the fish was coming up again or rather, was giving into the pressure I was putting on it. I slowly regained my line, counting the turns of the handle. With about 10 feet to go I could see it but I mistook the immense shape at first for two fish. This happens sometimes, you have one fish on the line and another is following it. Then it came closer to the surface and I was stunned to see it was only one gigantic fish, its light-coloured pectoral fins a foot apart, its length unbelievable, probably four to five feet.
It spooked and with a humongous swirl from its foot-wide tail, streamed downward and away again, a repeat of its earlier performance. It was traveling at a sizzling speed and I choose that adjective for a reason -- my thumbs and palms were blistered from "thumbing" the reel.
Again I started the motor and chased it and again, it eventually stopped.
As I cranked in my line I felt my grip turn slippery. Both of my hands were bleeding so badly I was having difficulty holding the reel and reel handle. I knelt down in the boat and dipped my hands and the reel in the cool lake, all the while keeping up the pressure.
After just a minute or so the fish started coming up again -- it was tiring.
I couldn't reel in the line and keep the pressure on with my hands in the lake so I stood up and continually wiped my bleeding hands on my jeans.
The fish was spent and came right to the boat this time.
When the enormous fish was alongside I saw that the line disappeared right between its big jaws. The jig was caught somewhere inside and there was no chance of just grabbing the lure and twisting it free with the fish in the water. That is what I really hoped to do. I had no intention of keeping the trout although it was legal to do so in those days. Today's fishing regulations require all trout in Red Lake to be released.
In order to unhook the jig I would probably need to bring the fish into the boat and that would prove to be something of a dilemma because I didn't have a landing net. That wasn't an accident on my part; I never used a net. The reason was I always intended to let the big fish go and would just hand-land them. Landing nets with their limp, mesh bags would often get so entangled with the fish and the lure that the fish would die before you could set them free. That is why today at camp we use the conservation landing nets. They handle big fish just fine but don't wrap them up.
The enormous fish was just a foot from the boat and rolled its big eye toward me. I spread my hand as far as I could and tried to grasp the fish over its head, behind the gills. I have big hands. I have to hunt for gloves big enough for me. The problem was the fish was wider than my hand. As soon as I made contact it spooked again and despite being exhausted took out 50 feet of line.
I reeled it back in.
This time I tried to grasp it by the tail. No dice. I got a grip but the giant fish thrashed so violently that I couldn't hold it long. Besides, it was too heavy to lift with one hand. It got loose and took off.
I reeled it back in.
My next gambit was to grasp it by the jawbone, like I would a big northern pike. The problem was the fish held its gill plates so tightly together I couldn't get my hand into the space between. The fish shot away.
I reeled it back in.
Its eyes were white with fright.  I wanted to get the hook out and go away and the fish must have wanted the same thing but understandably, didn't trust me. It was a stalemate.
We floated like that for a couple of minutes. My last option would have been to just cut the line, but I didn't want to turn the fish loose with the jig still in its mouth, not because I wanted the jig but because I feared it might end up killing the trout although in truth it probably would not have.
After all we had been through, I didn't want this to end badly.
"I just want to let you go," I told the fish.
I reached toward it but it flinched away.
"What are we going to do?" I asked the fish, its eye rolled back to better see me.
As if in answer, it flared its gills to get a "breath."
I put my bloody left hand in the water near its head but not touching it and waited.
Eventually it gasped again and in that instant I slipped my hand inside its powerful gill plate and grasped it by the jawbone.
I let the fish remain in the lake, just raised its head. It opened its enormous mouth and I could see my jig caught on one side. I had my pliers at the ready and in a second backed-out the single hook.
I let go and the big old fish righted itself. It turned its frightened eye away from me and with surprising strength, considering how tired it must have been, flicked its big fluke of a tail and disappeared into the depths.
Back at camp I told my story to my Dad and some of the guests.
"What do you think it weighed?" they asked.
 I hadn't even thought about it. It was big. It was the biggest fish I had ever caught. It was the biggest fish I had even seen. Its weight wasn't important. I never intended it to be a big chunk of meat in the freezer.
Its real value was the experience it gave me. It was so special that I have seldom re-told this story. It just meant too much.
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Joe Overman said...

I had a similar story in Pipestone, but I never got a chance to see the fish! 20# test line, good drag, and still ran out of line, even backing the boat! Ran out of line, and She broke me off!
There be Monsters there!

Ray G said...

Hi Dan: Great story, and outstanding writing as usual. I had a similar adventure out by potato island. thought I had hooked on to the bumper of a truck. Took over half and hour to land and I was beat. Thankfully I was not alone and had a good net man. Those Lake Trout are extremely strong.

Ray G

TIM fireman said...

We got into the trout on Pipestone in front of the cabins 2 years ago when we were there over Labor day We go to a trout only lake at The Pas Mantiobia called Clearwater and catch large numbers bit the trout at Red Lake seem to be larger. Cant wait till September to return. Keep up the storied Dan.

TIM fireman said...

Hi Dan We got into the trout in front of the cabin on Pipestone 2 years ago when we were there over Labor Day. We go to Clearwater lake at The Pas Manatobia just for trout and catch many but yours seem to be quite a bit larger. cant wait till September to see you again. Keep up the sories . Tim Bigham

Dennis Sheble said...

We had a similar experience fishing in Slate Bay in 2009. While back trolling a jig for walleye in about 25 feet of water my buddy hooked onto an unmoveable object. His pole bowed onto a u shape as the object swam off. The previous day I had landed a 9lb Walleye in the same spot and could see my one day old group record was about to be broken. After a 35 minute battle we finally saw this huge Laker. We netted a 38" Lake Trout, took a couple pictures and successfully released it unharmed. Pictures available upon request.
Dennis Sheble
Joliet, I'll
Fishing Red Lake since 1976