By Nick Simonson
In the depths of the cold channel, I felt my line slowly pull away from the bottom and gave a steady tug back on the jig below. The end of my rod bowed in a long arch as the heavy fish moved along as if it hadn’t realized it had been hooked yet. The weight below was far cry from that of the 12-to-14-inch lethargic walleyes we had been dredging out of the reach upstream from us which required a 10-, 15- or even 20-count to ensure the hook was in their mouths on the cold spring day. Unlike the snappy hooksets that came after the delay for those fish, the one on the big fish below wasn’t as hard or direct and immediately I began to regret the slow realization.
It began to feel more and more like a bigger version of those pre-spawn males still stuck in their winter hole upriver, and in our discussions in the boat on the drift we wondered where the big female walleyes were likely to be this time of year on my home flow. Thinking perhaps we had found that spot under the orange I-beams of the hospital bridge – a place where I had spent my formative fishing years catching smallmouth bass and crappies along its pilings – I began to get nervous with each headshake as the fish below reached the conclusion it was hooked. While my brother guessed it might be one of the river’s recently introduced muskies now topping 40-inches and always entertaining especially on walleye tackle; I kept my assumption private, knowing that in the Sheyenne River, it could be just about any species of fish.
In the cold too, it’s tough to tell. At the start of spring, fish don’t fight quite like they normally do in warmer days and stumbling into a large smallmouth this early has happened before. I’ve pulled some big pike out of the little flow as well, and while the connection didn’t provide the sprints and runs that northerns are known for, even in the cold, I couldn’t rule it out. Then there are the oddballs. The catfish don’t get big north of the Kathryn dam, but one never knows how far a nice one could make it upstream and common carp are just that – common, so it could be either. My heart also jumped at the ridiculous notion that just maybe a lake sturgeon had escaped from the hatchery upstream or made a wrong turn off the Red River and taken up residence below the bridge. I hedged my bets and began to play the fish carefully, recalling my biggest walleye of 29 inches came on the Sheyenne, and knowing the hookset wasn’t the greatest, the process of elimination in my head narrowed it down to that conclusion. Before I could start to sweat the moment, however, the fish came to the surface.
“It’s a carp,” I stated with a roll of my eyes as the fish breached behind the boat, eliciting a collective groan from my brother and my buddy at the front of my little puddle jumper.
The hook of my jig was impaled squarely in the top side of the rough fish’s noggin, which explained the extra oomph provided with each headshake. A bit dejected, and certainly not as nervous, I decided to play the moment out as if it was a large walleye, managing the line, opening the drag a bit and bringing the fish back in after a couple of runs. Quickly tired in the cold waters, it rolled on its side and my brother netted it. It was then that I received a fun consolation prize for my efforts. As it slid into the net, large crescent shaped scales and a bare patch on its side and belly indicated that the fish was not a common carp as I had guessed upon first sight, but rather a mirror carp. Slightly rarer than their common brethren in most flows, it was a species that was not on my life list, and one that I had only seen landed one other time in all my fishing adventures.
After a quick picture I turned the fish back into the chocolate spring waters of the river with a splash and it disappeared into the turbidity below. While the ending wasn’t what I had hoped for, I enjoyed the moments of picturing what could be before it was known, which even with carp is one of the most exciting parts of spring fishing on a tiny flow that is always loaded with possibilities…in our outdoors.
Simonson is the Lead Writer and Editor for Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: What Could It Be? The author holds up a mirror carp, the end result of a fun fight and multispecies mystery on the Sheyenne River in Valley City, N.D. Simonson Photo.