A few weeks ago in Ontario, Canada, three of our four days of fishing were plagued with high winds. A thousand miles from home in the Northland, you tolerate the hand Mother Nature deals or don’t fish at all.
After fishing Caliper Lake and Lake of the Woods, my wife and I decided to give South Narrows Lake a try. It is known as an excellent smallmouth fishery.
During the first dozen casts, three smallies went airborne and threw my presentation. I then landed a 12-inch bronzeback that resembled many I’ve caught and released in Ozark streams.
Around noon, I caught an 11-inch smallmouth off a rock ledge. A few minutes later, I was rewarded with one more than 15 inches in length.
While still battling 30 mph winds, I removed my Rapala firetiger medium-diving crank bait and tied it onto Cheryl’s line. At this point, she hadn’t caught any fish.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that!” my wife said when I was cinching the knot tight so it wouldn’t slip.
“I want you to catch some fish,” I replied. “Besides, I have other crankbaits like this one in my tackle box. I’ll tie one of those on and be good to go.”
With the winds playing havoc, I had a devil of a time tying the crankbait. The 20-pound test braided line with a 6-pound test diameter danced in the air while I failed repeatedly to tie a Palomar knot. For reasons unbeknownst to me — and I’ve had plenty of practice — I’m slower than a seven-year itch tying this type of knot. For lake fishing, it’s one of the strongest knots you can use. Bill, my father-in-law, can tie one in five seconds — blindfolded.
Around 1:30 p.m., action picked up. I caught 131/8- and 145/8-inch smallies on consecutive casts off a bluff in shallow water.
My crankbait, also a medium-diving lure, was proving to be as productive as the one I tied for Cheryl.
Less than five minutes later, Cheryl caught her first fish, a smallie foul-hooked in the dorsal fin.
At around 2:50 p.m., a 153/4-inch bronzeback in 27 feet of water engulfed my crankbait and fought like a mighty warrior.
Shortly thereafter, Cheryl caught what she called an “itsy bitsy teeny tiny” smallmouth; this time, though, it was a legitimate hookset in the mouth.
“You haven’t had that bad of a day,” I told Cheryl in an effort to put her in a less disgruntled mood. “You’ve caught two fish. That’s better than getting skunked.”
“Bait fish!” she replied.
At around 3:10 p.m. while using the same crankbait, my rod bent so much that I thought it was in danger of breaking. The tip of a St. Croix rod is extremely sensitive, allowing the most subtle of bites to be felt, but if an angler holds the rod tip too high while fighting a fish, high-sticking may occur. And when this happens, the rod snaps.
It was apparent I had a hefty fish to battle.
“I’ll definitely need the net for this one, Babe!” I hollered to my wife so she could hear me over the wind.
My rod quivered and bent sharply. I imagined landing an Ontario record smallmouth bass in excess of 9.84 pounds, an impressive wall hanger to show family and friends.
The fish burrowed deeply in a desperate effort to escape. Early on, it swam under the boat — twice — each time pulling the rod tip into the water. Three or four times, the fish stripped several feet of line from my spinning reel. Thankfully, drag was set correctly, and the reel performed as designed.
A half minute or so into into the fight, the fish abruptly changed direction and swam in front of the trolling motor to the lake’s main body. I now had plenty of open water to work with to wear the fish out.
Exhibiting patience took a toll on my nerves, but I knew in the long run it would pay off if something didn’t go wrong.
Finally, the fish played out; I was played out too. After seeing it for the first time a foot or two below the water’s surface, the moment turned bittersweet. Instead of an Ontario record smallmouth bass, I settled for a much better than average pike.
It measured 35 inches — 4 inches shorter than my personal best, and according to three internet pike length-to-weight conversion charts, it weighed between 10.85 and 12.2 pounds. Interesting to note is the pike conversion scale on my Northland ruler indicated that the fish weighed 12.2 pounds. I regret not weighing the gator.
After Cheryl took a few pictures, I released the pike for another fisherman to catch. According to the charts, the pike was 10 to 15 years old.
The boat had been trashed. The wind slammed my Nitro into a huge pine tree that leaned a few feet over the bank toward the water. Several dead, broken limbs, bark and hundred of needles littered the deck. To keep everything in perspective, cleaning up the mess was a small price to pay for landing a pike that big.
That evening at camp, a lady from Iowa in an adjacent cabin said she landed a 44-inch monster pike at midday while trolling on Lake of the Woods. Her husband estimated the pike to be between 23 and 25 pounds.
The lady said the northern didn’t put up much of a fight.
“I thought that I was hung up on a log,” she said.
“We’ve caught 25-inch pike that fought harder than this one,” he said.
Fight or no fight, a trophy pike all the same, and one they released.
My pike didn’t feel like a log. It put up a mighty fight.
I have a pretty witness to back my story.
Keith Costley lives in Baxter Springs, Kan., and is an avid fisherman and hunter.