Birch Lake isn't big. At 198 acres and a maximum depth of 27 feet, it's far from ranking anywhere near the top of the largest lakes in Oneida County. Even so, the fishing here is abundant. As lifelong residents and operators of Jung's Cottages for nearly 40 years, we've heard plenty of fish stories—and whoppers, too! But Michael Rhines, who stayed with his family in Tranquility this summer, has the photo evidence to prove his catch—just not the photo he wanted most. Michael has kindly let us cross-publish this story from his blog, North Woods River Runner.
BY MICHAEL RHINES
When we were kids the first thing that my sisters and I would inquire of my Dad, upon his returning from a fishing adventure, was if he had caught anything. He’d usually reply, “Well, I swam as fast as I could, but I couldn’t catch any.” Our typical response to him at that point was, “Dad, you know what we mean! Did you get any fish?” It was a standard “Dad Joke.”
This morning, after sleeping in a bit longer than expected to make sure potential storms had moved northeast of us, I prepared my gear for fishing. As my wife, daughter, and I are staying in a rented cabin this week, I flipped over the kayak included in the package deal. I had already grabbed a life jacket from the hallway closet, and picked up both my pole and backpack full of lures and other helpful equipment.
I started southeast from our dock and pitched my six-inch Rapala towards the shore and neighboring docks, reeling it back out over the drop-off. I worked my way around to where I knew a twenty-foot hole extended diagonally across the lake. Once lined up, I continued casting ahead, allowing the drag of the lure to pull me slowly ahead as the paddle lay across my lap. After reaching the opposite shore, I proceeded through a channel into a wider, enclosed bay; working lily pads as I entered. I hadn’t gone too far before a bald eagle flew over me, and two loons serenaded me with their wailing cry. Their sound was unique; both exciting and haunting.
Weeds began to show as the depth shallowed, so I switched to a Scum Frog lure that my Dad had given to me. It allows you to cast onto lily pads and over underwater vegetation without getting snagged. My wife likens it to an all-terrain vehicle. Still, I moved on without anything even slightly resembling a hit from a fish.
After almost two hours of being on the water, I began to exit the bay by way of the channel I had come in through; this time working the southwest bank with a #5 silver spooned Mepps spinner. Occasionally on my cast I would remember to swirl my lure in a figure-8 pattern, or at least back and forth as much as my low profile in the kayak would allow me. It’s a technique that many fisherman use for those trailing, lurking fish that need encouragement and a little extra time to think twice about opportunistically hitting what looks like food and the catch of their day.
One of my casts at that time landed on the outside edge of some lily pads sandwiched between two docks. I was about to consider making the extra patterned movement before lifting the spinner from the surface of the water when at 7 to 8 feet off my starboard bow, I finally had a hit. It was both immediate and solid; doubling my pole. Elation was my first thought, as I just knew this was going to be a really nice pike. The fish dove for the bottom of the channel, wrapping my pole under the bottom side of the kayak and then surged for the lily pads, dragging me with it.
The great fish made several more runs like that before rolling at the surface, and triggering that inner voice that had kept trying to tell me that this was probably more than a pike. On that roll the fish looked greenish-brown, with none of a pike’s horizontal yellow dashes along its flank. Several times I tried to bring it alongside me as I held on with one arm and scrounged through my backpack laying in the bottom of the kayak; looking for my phone to try to take some pictures of what was going on.
This fish was big, dwarfing the silver Mepps lodged in the side of its mouth. It slapped its tail, dove, and sprayed me when I reached for my gripper. I had managed to fire off a few quick pictures of the fish on the surface of the lake, but I was struggling to get the gripper attached to its jaw. It would pass so swiftly through the water that I couldn’t get it fixed on like a person might that could lift the fish’s head while standing in a boat. At water level, the points of my treble hook, and the points of the teeth in its huge head were a bit more “up close and personal” than one might like, but I finally got the gripper hooked into its jaw on around pass number ten. I also got thoroughly soaked in the undertaking! I was now solidly attached to a 40-inch-ish muskellunge!
I quickly saw that the small forceps I use to extract hooks from the trout that I typically catch was dangerously akin to bear hunting with a switch. While my right arm was being wrenched from its socket, I again dug into my backpack for my multi-tool. The pliers on that could do the trick. In fact, they had to do the trick.
If elation was my first thought, panic was a close second; not for the fish and the catch, but more for the release. I was attached to what some might term a predicament. Fortunately I was able to get the Mepps lure out of the corner of its jaw and out of the muskie using the pliers. Unfortunately, once I did that I saw that my line came down from the tippet of my pole and through the small gap between the sides of my gripper, which of course was attached to my wrist and the muskie; the cheaper quality, smaller model of gripper at that!
If the fish had thrashed again with a loose lure, it could have gotten ugly (-er). I worked desperately to cut the fluorocarbon, threw the lure in the bottom of the kayak, whipped my pole out of the way, got my phone ready, grunted to lift the muskie up out of the water for at least a partial selfie with half of me and half of the fish… and then the #%@$ phone wouldn’t work! No matter what I tried (with one hand), I couldn’t get it to take my picture as my phone had gotten wet. “Nooooo!” In frustration I thought to myself that this couldn’t possibly be happening now. I wanted a picture. I needed a picture!
I was getting nervous about getting the fish released, however, so I lowered him into the water and undid the gripper. It was just that easy. Suddenly all was calm. I watched the silhouette of the fish descend into the murkiness of the water and then scoot up under a dock. I know muskies can grow much bigger, and that in these parts, a “keeper” only starts at 40 inches, but considering I was sitting in a kayak at water level, with an average pole and gripper, it was still a respectable catch. Most likely it was the new braided line and fluorocarbon leader I had recently put on, coupled with the knots I had learned how to tie that certainly made all of the difference.
I could see the muskie gently finning in place and his tail even came up out of the water once when he bobbed down, but after about five minutes or so the great fish disappeared back into the channel. I felt confident that it would survive the ordeal. I had gone from elation, to panic, to frustration with the camera, and now finally relief.
The release was not how I had pictured it, as in a perfect situation I would have wanted to hold the muskie and slowly work it back and forth before letting it swim strongly away. Catch: A+; Release: C-/D. I was definitely a rookie in tight quarters, but admittedly it would make for an exciting story.
I restarted my phone as I paddled away, and of course it instantly worked again. And once I was back at our cabin, I took the case off and dried it entirely so it was back to normal on all accounts.
Later when I told my family about my experience, Mom said that she wished she could see a whole movie of that adventure, while my sister replied that she could picture the craziness. Dad had wondered what would happen if he ever got a hold of a big pike or muskie while in a kayak, adding, “Now I know. Think I’ll stick to a boat or canoe at least… if I have a choice!” My Uncle Bob wrapped it up commenting, “When you have a fish like that, anything can go wrong and always does. It’s part of the fishing experience!”
I suppose the story of what I caught and how I caught it became the picture that only I can see inside of my head. I’m not gonna lie that even several hours later I was still a bit jittery from the whole darn experience… but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take another shot at it given another chance.
See you along The Way…