By Nick Simonson
I can’t tell you what I was reaching for in the boat when I set my rod down. Likely, in the chill of the start to an otherwise perfect Saturday, it was the blue coffee tumbler I had borrowed from my mom when meeting my brother and a buddy for a drift down my home flow of the Sheyenne River. It could have been one of the tiny krystal flash jigs I had been taking from the small pile for the soft-biting walleyes we were pursuing which had required me to downsize to that ultralight rod with four-pound test, to give them something smaller to match their appetite. Perhaps it was to exhale through my hands in order to keep them warm. Whatever it was, when I lifted the rod from the floor of the boat and pulled the line tight, the beacon created by the orange thread wraps on the recently reinstalled final eyelet bent toward the surface of the river.
At first, I called it a snag but felt the weight below give way, and as if to acknowledge its plan to stay under the boat, the weight pulled back and settled tight to the bottom again. Putting a full bend in the rod, I lifted it up and the load on the far end of the already strained monofilament woke from its slumber in the chilly spring depths and began an annoyed upstream charge. The orange threads traced each powerful pulse along the deep breakline and the fish’s odd movements left the three of us in the craft wondering what exactly the unseen opponent could be.
The slow-motion movement along the bottom and labored head shakes left me thinking it was a large walleye, a step up from the six- and ten-inchers which had slowly nibbled their way up our offerings of fatheads, stripping the scales and swimming off on our hooksets, even after we’d allow a 10-count for them to find the point of our jigs. A few strong sprints which took the orange bead from the air and down under the hull of the old Sportsman 1675 suggested the fish was a pike, and my brother made that call as I worked with the reluctant ball bearings on the crappie reel which were straining to pay out line in respect to the challenger below. However, with the still chilly spring waters of the Sheyenne playing to my advantage, and that of my maxed-out equipment, the fish began to tire and rise toward the surface. As it did, it dashed toward the trolling motor at the front of the boat. I was able to turn it away and as it swam by, revealing itself, the factors which created this situation came to me.
Since 2016 or so, the Game & Fish Department has stocked the species in Lake Ashtabula about 10 miles north of town, separated from the river by Baldhill Dam. Over time, they grew fat on the suckers, bullheads and other prey species in the long reservoir, and in 2019, during extremely high waters, anglers began to report increasing incidental catches on the Sheyenne as the gates opened up and their entrainment into the flow increased through the dam. At the time, many fish were around 30 inches, far from their potential of 50, but still an exciting and unusual encounter for anglers in just my situation. Likely by now, in the deeper stretches of the river and in areas with good structure, the occasional one has set up shop between Valley City and the Red River due to that combination of stocking and a season of solid rainfall.
Returning to the battle, I saw the silver and green spotted sides of one of the region’s newest residents – a pure strain muskellunge – zip by. More importantly, the sun shining between the shadows cast by our forms glinted off the white and moon flash of the jig securely stuck in the corner of the fish’s mouth away from its toothy maw. I knew if I could just keep things tight and off the metal of the boat or its motors, even with the wispy four-pound test, we’d likely be able to land it. That is, if we had a net suitable for an outlying encounter of this size, as the small, rubberized model I keep in the boat for trout, crappies and the smaller walleyes I more often hooked, could hold the muskie. With no other option, my brother – well known for his abilities with the fish of 10,000 casts, and his do-anything nature when it comes to catching them – suggested a hand landing. After a first attempt where it slipped through his grasp, the fish rolled back and provided a second grab.
As gently as if handing his nine-month-old daughter over for me to hold, he squeezed the shoulders of the fish, cradled its belly and passed it straight from the water, covering the distance between us in the blink of an eye. After a few quick pictures, the thick, three-foot long surprise went back into the flow and disappeared down to the bottom, hopefully to entertain another stunned angler later this season and in years to come. Overmatched for certain, and definitely unprepared for the interaction which started on a set-down rod, the turns and twists and factors setting up yet another amazing chapter in the beginning of this unusual spring reminded me once again that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: The author with a Sheyenne River muskie caught while utilizing light tackle for early spring walleyes on the flow. Simonson Photo.