June 20, 2002
It was a cold clear Sunday afternoon typical of January in Minnesota. It was early 1979 and as usual I’m sitting in the fish house. Battle Lake is a happy little town and as it’s name suggests, its on the water. In January in Minnesota, it’s frozen water. I, along with many other locals follow church and a big Sunday breakfast with a day on the lake. Almost by design, one leads to the other and it seems right and natural to spend Sunday afternoons fishing for sunfish and crappies and the occasional northern pike or bass.
You don’t just sit on the ice by the way. When you hear the phrase “ice fishing” you might picture someone sitting on an overturned bucket next to a hole in the ice shivering against the cold winter wind. But not the case in Battle Lake. We build and bring out our own shelter. They’re called fish houses and some of them are quite luxurious with stoves, beds, furniture and even TV. It’s really just a glorified hut. In those days it was not uncommon to see small cities on the ice. In some cases up to 150 or 200 houses bunched together complete with roads and make-shift street signs. All in the pursuit of scaly little critters (and bragging rights).
I would always laugh when the word got out that one particular house was catching lots of fish. Within hours that house would be surrounded by others. It was as if the houses themselves would inch there way over imperceptibly. Sometimes there would be so many houses in one area that you could no longer fit a vehicle between them and you were forced to walk. What’s worse, if you can’t get your car next to your house, you have no power, no lights and this far north it gets dark about ten o’clock in the morning (exaggeration). That was just how things were done. Nobody liked to get surrounded but everyone did it.
On this particular Sunday, I was fishing alone. On most days I fished under Dad’s watchful eye, but today I was on my own. No big deal, I knew there would be a lot of people to talk to in the neighboring houses. And if I got bored or the fish were not biting I could wander around and visit. That was one thing nice about fishing on West Battle, you could always stop in and visit with your fellow anglers. It was also a good way to find out what they were using for bait and how deep they were fishing. Most of the time you didn’t even ask, really. You just sort of chatted and observed. A little fisherman’s secret trick. You get useful information and as an added benefit, people begin to believe you’re friendly.
I had not been to the fish house for a couple of days so when I arrived there were holes to open up. The ice holes are drilled in the floor of the fish house. Some houses have wooden floors with trap doors that fold away or pull up. Other houses have no floors. You just drill down through the ice, and toss around a rug or two and you’re set. But if you leave a hole unattended long enough it will refreeze and that’s what I was facing.
That’s when I realized I had forgotten to bring the ice chisel along. No big deal, I had a key to my cousin’s fish house which was a short distance away so I just walked over and borrowed his. I knew I was rigged for sunfish and crappies on this day so no need to hack away making the hole any bigger than needed. I just wanted to get my bait in the water and figured size wouldn’t matter. Make note of that little mistake. I had just settled in and within a few minutes I had my first strike. Soon I was landing nice little sunnie’s and seemed to get a hit every few minutes.
Outside I heard my cousin Gene roll in. I stuck my head out the door and told him I had borrowed his chisel. He just looked up and laughed and said, “ Forgot yours again, huh?”. I told him I would bring it over in a few minutes. Gene was one of the few people who would kept his fish house heated all winter. Partly because it was nice to enter a fish house that is warm when you get there, but also the warm air would prevent his holes from freezing shut so he was not immediately concerned about his chisel.
I went back to fishing and figured I would go over and see Gene in a few minutes. I was jigging with a small Swedish pimple in one hole and had a crappie minnow down in the other hole. I makes sense to use jiggle reels when you’re fishing alone. It was easier to fish with two lines if you did not have to watch both holes at the same time. If a fish hit the rod behind you, you could hear the bells inside the reel jiggle. Truth is you didn’t have to watch either hole. You could fish with your ears and devote your eyes to the most recent Field and Stream, or Sports Afield or better yet, you could spend hours examining your eyelids for leaks.
I had a few nice sunfish in the bucket when I decided to see Gene. I was out of sunflower seeds anyway and I knew he would have some. I pulled up my jig stick as it required movement to be effective and would not likely catch anything unattended, and I checked my crappie line to make sure everything was set right and off I went.
When I got over to Gene’s house he was fiddling with the TV, trying to get the football game to come in clear. We sat and talked about different stuff. Who was catching fish and how my basketball season was going at school. Just the normal talk when the fish are not biting real fast. I stayed long enough to drink a can of pop, one of his, and yes we say pop in Battle Lake. When I got up to leave I filled my pocket with sunflower seeds and said I was going back to my house where the fish were biting. He just chuckled and said I was buying the seeds the next time. When I walked back to my house I checked out who else was on the lake and to see if any new houses had been put out. Nothing out of the ordinary. But wait.
As I stepped into the relative darkness of my fish house I immediately noticed that my bobber was down on the crappie minnow. Or at least it looked that way. I stood there for a moment trying to force my eyes to adjust faster. As the situation became clearer I also noticed that quite a bit of line had been pulled off the reel.
I sat down and started pulling in line to see what had taken my minnow. Trust me when I say I was not expecting much to be there. If a big fish hits an unattended rod, they can pull the whole works into the lake. You come back and your rod’s gone. As I was pulling in line and methodically laying it across my leg so as not to tangle it I came to a point where there was a very heavy tug on the line. I instinctively set the hook and the fight was on.
This was no small fish. This fish pulled like an old workhorse fresh off a good nights sleep. I fought this brute for a couple of minutes and suddenly it seemed to give up. I thought at first I had lost it, but as I was pulling in line I could feel a tug every once in a while.
Then the bobber came back up through the hole and I knew I was close to seeing what I had hooked into. That’s when all hell broke loose. When the fish got to the bottom of the ice it rolled on it’s side and the hole went dark. I just about passed out. This was a very large fish. It was a Northern Pike and a healthy one at that. I know I’ll lose some credibility when I say this but I think the fish even winked at me when she glided past the hole. Then she sank and disappeared into the clear blue water.
The line was sizzling through my fingers as she made a dash for the bottom and I figured it was all over. This fish had total control of me at that point and all I was doing was holding on. In my mind I could hear Ernest Hemmingway saying, “Run you beautiful bastard, Run !!”
It was at that point that began to realize my earlier mistake. The hole I had chopped when I first got to the house was about a third of the size it needed to be to get this brute out of the water. The fish went to the bottom and just laid there, probably waiting for me to give up and believe me that was not going to happen. I had to make a decision real quick as to what to do. There’s no point holding on to this fish because I will never get her through this hole. I can’t make the hole any bigger because I gave the chisel back to Gene. So unless I was willing to sit there until spring, or maybe start chewing on the ice, I had no choice. I let go of the line and shot out the door to get help from Gene.
Nine seconds and nine frantic steps later, I threw open the door of Gene’s fish house and started shouting breathless and somewhat incoherent that I needed his help and to bring his chisel. I shot right back out the door and back to my house.
When I got back to my house I grabbed the line and very nervously started pulling it in but there was nothing there. I thought I had lost that beautiful monster but after I had pulled in about half the line I felt the familiar tug and I knew it was “Game on!”
A couple agonizing minutes later Gene walked into the house quite convinced that this was not really the emergency that I had portrayed it to be. Right about that time the fish came to the bottom of the ice for the second time and he got a look. “Holy $#&% !!!” is the required response in situations like that.
We quickly laid out the plan for getting this gator up into the hole. We quickly adopted the angler’s equivalent of a War Room mentality. Options and contingencies were flying everywhere and we finally settled on the only workable plan of attach. I would hold the line to the left side of the hole and he would chop out the right side of the hole. Then we would work our way around a little until the hole was big enough to get this fish out. Now, anyone with common sense knows that chopping ice with an axe, and a chisel right next to nearly invisible 5 lb test fishing line is was not the best plan but it was about all we could do. Gene started chopping while I watched and cussed at him when he came close to my line. At one point, I think I even told him if he cut my line I would stuff him down the hole. He just laughed and kept right on chopping.
Believe me when I say this went on for about fifteen minutes, with me cussing at Gene and Gene cussing right back at me and telling me to keep that damned line out of his way. Fifteen minutes wouldn’t seem like much if you were sitting on a park bench, or watching a baseball game, but when you’re inches away from the fish of a lifetime and you’re one miss-hit away from cutting your line, fifteen minutes was the emotional equivalent of about 7 or 8 hours sitting on a hot stove.
We had the fish to the hole three more time in that span of fifteen minutes. I say “We” because this was now a team effort. Granted, Gene was doing most of the work. During all this time we were far to focused to noticed that a crowd had gathered outside my fish house door, wondering what all the shouting was about. Distant fish houses were already inching their way closer. When I realized there were all these people outside I hollered for someone to bring me a gaff hook to assist in getting this brute through the ice. The next thing I know an anonymous arm is coming through the door with a gaff hook at the ready.
By this time Gene is about wore out and I figure we have to get this fish out of the water before something gives… the line, the lure, the knot, chisel operator, something had to give. At this point we figured the hole was plenty big enough and Gene gets down on his hands and knees with the gaff hook ready for action. He looked at me and in his most serious, secret-operative/undercover voice said “Get this monster up to the hole.”
So I start pulling in line and noticed the fish is not pulling back like before. The magnificent man-eater probably figured she had met her match and was giving up. We got the fish to the hole and after a few aborted attempts finally got her head started up through the ice. The bad news was, this hole still may not be big enough. The good news was, the fish definitely was. Even after all that chopping it was still going to be a tight fit.
When the head came out of the water Gene got the gaff in her mouth and pulled. The fish popped out of the hole like a cork out a bottle. He reeled around and threw the fish out the door like a live torpedo that was about to explode. Only then did we truly realized the size of the fish that had our hearts pounding for the last twenty-five minutes.
The hand shakes and pats on the back came from everywhere. I held the fish up to get a good look at it and to show everyone what we had just done. I could not have been more proud if I had been holding the Stanley Cup above my head. As for the spectators, this always creates a dilemma. Do you stand here and bask in the success of your fellow angler? Or do you quietly hurry back to your fish house and get on with the hunt with new conviction driven by the knowledge that there are nice fish in this lake. You just saw one.
Within minutes everyone was gone and it was just another fish that had been caught that day.
To this day the fish hangs proudly on my wall. It measured 39” with a girth of 22”. It weighed in at 18 ½ pounds. Funny thing, the next day I went back out to the fish house to retrieve some personal items and low-and-behold there were houses all around mine.
Dad and I built that fish house and it’s long gone now. My Dad too is gone now but I still remember the smile on his face when I brought that fish home. I am sure he wished he had been there to witness it in person but he enjoyed it every time I would tell the story. He had the fish mounted for me and when I look at it I still remember all the times we would go fishing, just the two of us. Too bad you can’t mount that.