By Nick Simonson
Recently I wrote a column on that moment when you set the hook into something big. You just get that feeling; that sense of knowing that the fish on the end of the line from the moment it’s connected is a big one. During a recent return for walleyes on Lake Sakakawea with a pair of fishing buddies from days past, however, I was reminded that no matter how much we think we might know, we really can’t predict everything by feel and past experience, and any water can surprise us in ways unexpected and enlightening.
Rolling onto a well-populated point – by both the fish below and the anglers who pursued them – we dropped our slow-death rigs tipped with crawlers onto the 22-foot spit that jutted out from the shore toward the deeper main channel. Weaving our way through the stationary vertical jiggers, we rose and fell over the small outcropping and it was there that the first tap-tap-tap of the morning came up the line and through the rod I was holding. Dropping the tip to that telltale sensation of a walleye below, I swept back and connected with the fish. I knew it was a good-sized one, from the dead weight that followed and the non-movement of the line against the drag, which I quickly tightened.
However, unlike those sixth-sense weekends of the past couple months where the big one was a certainty from the start, I quickly realized that the “one” below might not be the big walleye I was thinking it was on the hookset. The deep slow pull gave way to wobbling headshakes and charging runs, and then an odd scraping sensation that wasn’t the toothy jaw of a pike but something odd. By the time the fish was halfway up the column, it was safe to say I had no idea other than it was of decent size. Gaining line on the fish, it neared the surface, but as the bottom bouncer came up and the leader of the rig began to show, it made one more run, concealing its identity for a few more seconds.
A moment later the flash of gold brought slight satisfaction, thinking indeed it was one of the nice-sized walleyes that were coming in to the boats around us, but a second glance as the fish rolled to its side elicited a belly laugh as I made a positive identification of the large-shouldered opponent. It was a five-pound carp, with the rig wrapped tightly around its head and the red hook tagged squarely in the bottom between each gill, which served as the primary reason I couldn’t tell exactly what I had hooked at the outset. After shaking loose the sucker-mouthed fish, our three-person team was into the walleyes and a pair of three-pounders were in the livewell by the time we departed the spot twenty minutes later to search out new and less pressured places on the sprawling western reservoir.
Rolling into a backwater bay, we began by tracing the winding shoreline breaks of an old creek channel with the same presentation and quickly a 20 and 26-inch walleye were in the boat for Taylor, with whom I manned the lines at the stern. Spinning around and retracing our way along the clay breaks of the adjacent hillside which disappeared into the 10-foot channel below, I felt a slight bump on my in-hand rod and set the hook to what felt like a partial connection. Reeling up, the odd sensation of an almost-there fish caused me to set the hook once again, but a solid connection couldn’t be established.
Out of the corner of my eye, motion in the rod stationed in the stern holder provided a clue as to what had happened. A deep arc and jump with each pull of my line made me realize that my rod was not the one with the fish on it, and I immediately handed it over to Chris, who came back to investigate the situation from his perch on the bow. Reeling up on the stationary rod, a large walleye came to the surface, at least 27 inches in length, and ahead of it, a tangled mess of bottom bouncer, leader, hook and nightcrawler from both rods led it to boatside where I quickly unhooked it and let it back into the dingy waters of the winding bay.
“That wasn’t what I expected,” I joked as we diagnosed the spiderweb of line, leader and lead, and determined in this instance it was better to cut than untie.
Reeling in the morning’s end, and a trip to the State Fair with my family set for the afternoon, I headed home from a better-late-than-never first trip to the big water with fun memories, and a solid reminder that no matter how much we might think we know about angling, there’s always those moments where it’s never for certain, and it isn’t always what we think it will be…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: Good For a Laugh! The author with his mystery fish, a carp from Lake Sakakawea. Simonson Photo)