Breaking a Long Stretch of Futility

Super Bowl Sunday produced more than one winner

Breaking a Long Stretch of Futility

This story is part of a series on ice-fishing culture. To read all series posts, click here.

Tom Brady and I aren’t all that different.

He and I both approached Super Bowl Sunday with a chip on our shoulders. He lost the biggest game of the year last season. People were saying he’s washed up. He was seeking redemption. I had just put in eight days of fishing — including a string of five consecutive days leading into Sunday — without a single flag, let alone a fish. I needed my own redemption. 

On Sunday afternoon, that all came to an end. First, I had a flag in my deepest hole, but somehow the fish snapped my braided 20-pound line. A little while later in shallower water I caught a 14-inch northern on my second flag. 

And then sometime around 5 p.m. I was picking up my tip-ups. I had two wrapped up when I noticed my third flag flying. Same hole where I got broken off earlier in the day. I ran over; Pete and Ryan followed. It wasn’t spinning, but the spool was jerked to the side of the hole just like the last one. 

As soon as I knelt down it started ripping line out again. I slowly moved my board away from the hole and grabbed the line; I felt the fish immediately, set the hook and started pulling in line hand over hand. It had a lot of line out. The first 10 feet came in easy, then the fish started to fight. I worked it slowly, a little line at a time.  

At one point it started swimming back toward the hole and for an instant it felt like I’d lost it. I pulled in about 6 feet of slack line before I felt it again and then the fight picked up. Harder this time so I played it carefully, slower, keeping a handle on it with my right hand down close to the water and pulling line with my left. By this point I knew it was a decent fish. The closer it got to the hole the more I could feel its weight. I got it close and saw a flash below the hole before it pulled away again.  

When you’re pulling a fish in by hand, you don’t have the spring action of a rod or the drag of a reel to compensate for the quick jerks and runs a fish makes when it’s trying to escape. You either hang on, keep pulling line, or let it pull the line back out through your hands, and if you don’t use a soft hand you could lose it. I let it take just a little bit of line once after I saw that flash, and then I worked it up to the hole.  

All of this probably happened in less than a minute, but it felt longer. I finally got it up against the ice but it was sideways and took just a little more finesse to bring through the hole. Those last few feet are the most dangerous. You don’t have much line to play with, the fish is fighting as hard as it can and you have to bring it up through the hole. I’ve seen hooks catch on the ice and allow the fish to float back down to freedom. I’ve seen fish thrash back and forth from one side of the hole to the other and jar the hook loose, and I’ve seen them just barely break the surface of the water and spit the hook as if they were trying to politely return it.  

That wasn’t the case this time. As soon as its head turned up into the hole I lifted the line and gave one last pull, hoisting the fish up onto the ice. 

The fish that lay before me was both awesome and slightly, ironically, disappointing. The girthy musky, in the 35-inch range by our careful estimation, was probably the biggest fish I’ve ever pulled through the ice. It was also an incredible end to an impossible run of futility. But it’s February and I’m after northerns. Musky season isn’t open for another three and a half months and this wasn’t even a legal-sized fish. Instead of thick, flaky filets, I got a few photos from my friend’s phone.  

I don’t in any way mean to sound as if I wasn’t thrilled by catching that fish — I played it right, got some photos and released it in good shape. I mean, I’d just put in eight days without a single flag. I’m not complaining about a 35-inch musky. It was a great end to the day.  

In the grand scheme, between showing the leadership it took to move back into Coop’s Bay, tallying the most flags on the day and catching what will likely stand as the big fish of the season, I reasserted my position at the top of the Snake Chaser’s pecking order. It carries great responsibility, but it’s a great place to be.  

As I drove off the ice the Rams were kicking off to the Patriots, and Brady was entering a long, low-scoring affair. But he got it done when it counted and hoisted the Lombardi trophy high. 

We’re not all that different.

This story is part of a series on ice-fishing culture. To read all series posts, click here.


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