Northern Wilds Magazine
Fighting a spoon caught brook trout. | GORD ELLIS
Northern Trails

The Fish that Got Away

There is something very satisfying about sharing a successful fishing adventure that ends with a huge fish. However, when I think back over 50 years of fishing, some of my most vivid memories are about those big fish that got away. The agony of defeat has left some very easily accessed memories on the mental hard drive.

One story that I often think of involves a huge muskie on Rainy Lake. It was late October and a friend and I were trolling through a tight narrows that was known to hold big fish. I was trolling a lure called a Jake that was 10 inches long. The lure ran about 7-8 feet down, so it only would tap bottom when we got shallow. Going through the narrows, there were some boulders that jutted up to about 6 feet below the surface. Once you were passed those, you broke into deeper water. This was where the big muskie lurked. At the time, I was desperate to catch a 50-inch muskie. It was a box on my fishing list I had not yet checked off. As we trolled through the gap, I felt my Jake tag the boulders hard, then break free into the open water. Then, just as suddenly, the lure came to a dead stop. Fish!

The fight was short but very exciting. I could tell it was a giant muskie, as it stayed deep and was pulling 80-pound-test line off my large baitcaster quite freely. When the fish finally showed itself, both my buddy and I knew. It was the one. There was, however, one major hurdle. We had to land the fish without a net. In those days, my partner did not use a net and hand-landed all the fish. So when the massive muskie drew up next to the boat, he had to grab it by the tail. The Jake was barely hanging on to the fishes lip by one treble point. My partner tightened his grasp and the fish responded with one mighty tail kick. The hook pulled out and the fish disappeared. That muskie was well over 50 inches. It took me nearly a decade more fishing to finally check off the 50-inch muskie box. My friend never fished without a muskie-sized net again.

Steelhead fishing on Superior’s North Shore has always been a favourite of mine. Yet steelhead fishing is not a game for people who don’t like to lose fish. There are just too many variables that can make it all end badly. It’s hard to pick a single story from decades of lost steelhead, but there is one from my youth that I still recall vividly.

The river was large and deep, and required you wade nearly to the top of your chest waders. The technique used was a quasi-form of fly fishing that involved drifting a small, green yarn fly along the bottom. The fly rod and reel were standard issue, but instead of fly line, monofilament was used.

At the time—in the late 1970s—money was tight, but I had just bought a new Martin fly reel that was a little lighter alloy than the classic 72. The other major difference in this reel was a handle that was a bit unwieldy. The line would also occasionally catch on the handle. It was annoying, but manageable. As I drifted my fly along bottom, the steady tap tap of the sinkers on bottom was replaced by a solid thump. The rod was swept up and the fish was on. The fish surfaced—a huge silver steelie of over 10 pounds. My heart leaped as the fish held just a few feet from me. Then, in one incredible run, it broke free of the water head shaking. The spectacular sight of that fish in the air, a halo of water drops around it, was followed by the shotgun loud snap of 10-pound Maxima line parting. My heart sank. I looked down to see the line wrapped around the handle. That brand new fly reel was never used on a steelhead rod again.

One last tale to share. A dozen years ago, I was fishing the Nipigon River with my father Gord Sr. It was early August and prime time for trophy brook trout. We were slipping with my boat in the current, holding above some rapids and tossing bucktail jigs into the smooth slick before the whitewater. There was a big fish feeling in the air. I pitched out the jig, engaged my spinning reel and felt the line go immediately tight. The slow head shakes of a large brook trout were transmitted up the rod.

The trick here was to keep the fish out of the rapids, as I could not follow it with the boat. The usual technique was to slowly lead the fish upstream and into slacker water. This fish was not having it. I began moving the boat forward, and could feel the drag slipping. The big trout was holding tight. I had no choice and began to apply more sideways rod pressure to try and get it swimming. The brookie came to the top, rolled and showed the largest, reddest, square tail I have ever seen. It was THAT fish. Then, just as quickly as it was there, it was off. The brookie of a life time. Gone.

Some fish you just don’t forget.

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