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Zieman's Muskie

I'm a liar. They caught me, and I can't deny it. I lied. But now, when I eavesdrop on Zieman, I have to laugh. He's given me so much crap so many times about my own lie. But you know what? That asshole isn't so shy about tiptoeing around the edges of truth himself.

Here's the thing. The other day, somebody – it might have been Johnson – was in Zieman's office, across the hall from mine. Johnson wanted to talk about the way Rick runs projects, how much time it takes to update schedules, all kinds of professional stuff. But Rick wasn't having any of it. He had the pictures of his muskie, all 45–inches of him, on the table in no time, and he launched into his spiel real quick.

Like with the other 347 people that Rick collared in his office, and all of whom I listened to, the well–oiled patter rolled smoothly off his tongue: How the day was just right, how he himself picked out the weed bed, his technique with the "Giant Jackpot" surface bait, the way the muskie attacked his lure, etc. ad nauseum.


He'd rehearsed his story a bunch of times. I'd heard it a bunch of times. He could put a nice spin on it, yes he could.

But that's the problem. When I caught my own muskie, on the earlier trip to Eagle Lake, it all happened a lot faster. I never had time to get my act together, before it was too late. I hooked it, brought it in, did my best to measure it and release it, in the water. But it turned out badly. The muskie ripped around beside the boat, jumped, thrashed, twisted up and over in the line, just put up a hell of a fight. And, like a dumb-ass, I tried to measure it in the water, when it was doing all of that.

Peters didn't help any, of course. He just stood there and filmed the whole damn thing with his video camera. And he did a horseshit job of it, at that. Later on in the evening, at Century lodge, when he replayed the video for the rest of our crowd – including Zieman! – the picture bounced all over.

You couldn't tell anything, from looking at my muskie.

But you could hear me saying, plain as day, "It's thirty–six inches!" on the video. You could hear that. "Thirty–six inches..."

And it caused me enormous grief, at the time and has ever since. For you see, right before Peters showed the video at the lodge that evening, I'd just finished registering that muskie as "37–inches" in our "Biggest Fish" contest for the trip.

And the bastards nailed me. Rightfully so, I have to admit. They skewered me. I gave them a knife, and they twisted it.

My fellow fisherman at the lodge ridiculed me, scorned me, killed me. They didn't "catch and release" me – hell no! They netted me, hauled me into the boat, kept me, filleted me, fried me in beer batter, ate me up. They finished me off with beer belches and grins, real shit–eatin' grins...

And I would have too, if I was them, and somebody else had tried to pull that kind of crap.

My defense was pathetically feeble.

I tried to point out that I really had no idea how long the muskie was, given all its flailing, as I tried to measure it and release it in the water. Who the hell knew its real length? I tried to claim that it could've been anywhere from 33 to 40–inches. So why shouldn't I enter it at 37–inches? They all agreed – Peters and Zieman and Kelly and all the rest – that 36–inches was a real common length. They conceded that somebody else was bound to catch one that long, and that I'd probably end up being tied with one of them, when my muskie could have been a lot longer.

But so what? It didn't fly. The muskie was 36–inches – I said so myself! – and I had recorded it at 37.

I suffered humiliation of the worst kind. A caught and proven liar. My friends laughed at me....

And now, how about Zieman? That son–of–a–bitch had a lot more time to get his story straight, as he fine–tuned it in the telling. And he also didn't have a tell–tale video to catch him at things.

But just listen to some of this:

Johnson: "How long'd it take you to bring it in?"

Zieman: "From when I hooked it? Fifteen minutes. I've never had a fish fight like that.

Comment: It was less than five minutes. Baker and I were watching from our own boat, fifty yards away. Zieman hooked it, on his yellow and black "Jackpot," and basically just cranked it in to their boat, where Peters grabbed it by the gills and hauled it in. Peters himself admitted as much to me, a couple of weeks later, at the bar. I quote him: "Zieman just horsed it in." That's what Peters said.

Johnson: "How big was it? Looks like ten, twelve pounds."

Zieman: "A hell of a lot bigger! We didn't weigh it, didn't want to hurt it, but it's at least 45–inches. That's 25–pounds by the charts. And Kelly didn't pinch its tail together, when we measured it. It could've been even longer, maybe 30–pounds. More. Who knows?"

Johnson: "Gotcha... Couldn't tell from the picture, how far you're holding it out, away from you..."

Comment: Where's the video, when I need it?

Johnson: "Well, I have to admit I've never seen a Northern that big"

Zieman: "It's a muskie."

Comment: Well, that part is right..

Johnson: "Is that right? You keep it?"

Zieman: "Released it. Wasn't hurt a bit. Put it back in the water, swished it back and forth, and it took off."

Comment: The fish lost a tooth, there was slime and blood all over the boat. Ask Peters. It took Zieman ten minutes to revive it, in the water. A couple of times, he tried to let go of it, and it started turning belly up. That fish, when it finally swam slowly off, was not a happy camper..

Well, crap! Ignore all that. It's just sour grapes. It doesn't change the fact that I'm a liar. But I am glad – honest – that Rick got the fish, a truly beautiful muskie, no matter that Johnson thinks it was a pickerel, or whatever. Baker and I saw the whole thing, from my boat, and Kelly and Peters were right there in the boat with Zieman. It was a knee-shaking experience for all of us. We'll all remember it.

Let me tell you the story. Here's how it went....


Baker and I pull up in my seventeen-foot Blue Fin and coast to a stop in the calm water and midday sunshine of Leech Lake, a few dozen feet from Peters' Lund. He has Zieman and Kelly with him. They're fishing the "flats" in the entrance to Walker bay, just south of Goose Island. We all fished there a lot, during the Muskies Inc. tournament, just finished yesterday. But we didn't catch diddlely of any consequence there, during the tournament, nothing.

I did hook a half–ass Northern, and somebody in our other boat got a follow there one day. We also saw someone else – one of the thirty or forty tournament boats fishing the "flats" – bring in an undersized muskie. Other than that, nothing.

So it's baffling that Zieman, casting his faithful Jackpot from the bow of Peters' boat – is agitatedly waving us away. Jim and I stare at him in wonder. And then his words drift across the flat water. "Get out of here!! We got a huge muskie workin'! Four follows! Go away! You're gonna mess it up. Get outta here!!!!"

Jim and I look at each other, eyebrows raised. I nod to him. He reaches over, picks up our yellow "dumbbell" buoy off the floor of the boat, and throws it overboard to mark the spot. Jim jumps up to the bow of the boat, puts a Hawg Wobbler on his Daiwa muskie rod, and winds up for a cast. I pick up my St. Croix, already set up with my Depth Raider, and do the same.

The Hawg Wobbler and Depth Raider fly directly toward Zieman, and enter the water with a splash, some ten–feet from him. Jim and I both start our retrieves. We ignore the frantic obscenities emanating from Peters' boat.

Zieman has to give in to the inevitable. He shuts up in disgust, turns away from us, and throws his Jackpot off in the other direction. His rod starts the "jerk–jerk–jerk" pattern to get the Jackpot nicely "walkin' the dog." It's fun to watch, as we cast toward the same general area where he's fishing.

But nothing happens. He doesn't catch anything, we don't, Kelly and Peters don't. The only ripples on the water are from our casts, the air is calm, the sun brings out sweat to our foreheads. The muskie, if there was one, must be off somewhere else.

Our boats drift apart, away from the buoy...

And then...

"Holy shit! He's got it!!"

Peters' shout snaps up our heads.

There Zieman is, still in the front of the boat, back arched, rod bent, line tight. Fifty feet in front of him the water churns. All we can see is froth, with a brief glimpse of a red tail. Damn! Zieman got it! There really was a muskie and Zieman caught it! He's got the muskie!

Baker and I frantically reel in our own lines and throw the rods down. Jim grabs his camera and starts shooting. I slew the trolling motor around and start pushing us closer to Peters' boat. Zieman is still in the bow, reeling the muskie in. Kelly is behind him, just trying to stay out of the way. Peters is putting on his "fish glove." He forgot to bring a net with him on the trip, so this is obviously going to be a hand landing.

The muskie stays in the water, it doesn't jump, like a lot of them do. And I can't see where it's any size at all.

Well, that's disappointing. "Not much of muskie, really," I say to Baker, as we watch Zieman bring the fish closer to the boat. "That's not the 'monster' Zieman was babbling about. I bet it's only 36 or 37–inches or so." Jim just nods, as he's concentrating on taking pictures.

Muskie at Boatside

But then, as our boat gets closer to the action, I can see I'm full of shit. Zieman brings the muskie up to the side of their boat – the side toward us, as of course he should, to show it off – and I can see a massive back and a huge tail. That son–of–a–bitch isn't a three footer – it's closer to four feet! Damn! That's really a nice fish, a lot bigger than any I've caught.

The fish froths the water at the side of the boat, turns away, spins back. Zieman maintains control. He's doing fine, but I can just imagine how his heart must be pounding, his hands and knees shaking. A muskie, especially one that big will do it to you. It's a good feeling, one ever so rare.

I stop the boat some twenty feet away. I don't want to get too close, in case the muskie comes our way and breaks the line on our motor or whatever. Shit! Wouldn't that be something? Zieman snags the muskie of his life, and I screw it up and lose it for him by barging in. But that danger passes.

Muskie Hanging in the air

The muskie quiets down for a moment at the side of their boat, and Peters grabs the line with one hand. He reaches down with the gloved hand, grabs the fish under the gills, and lifts it up.

As he pulls it out of the water, into the boat, the muskie hangs there for a moment suspended: a huge, fat, brightly colored, wonderful fish. Zieman's done well, he really has. I'm jealous.

And then, to comply with the standard rules and processes of being caught, the muskie has to give a ferocious shake. The glove rips off Peters' hand, inflicting a slight hook stab on him, as we find out later. The fish falls down into the floor of the boat, and continues to thrash around. Zieman drops his pole, throws his hands on the fish, and actually uses his foot to keep it still. I'm not sure all of this is good for the muskie, but hey! They've got me on video messing up a release worse than this, so who am I to pass judgment.

Of course, Zieman has the problem of unhooking the fish. It's solidly hooked by the front treble of the Jackpot, in the back corner of its mouth. The Jackpot's other treble is free, which is good, because trying to unhook both of them would make it even a lot tougher. But this is tricky enough.

"Cut it!" somebody yells, and that's clearly the right thing to do. Messing around with needle–nose pliers, trying to back out the hooks, would be a disaster. Peters already has the wire cutters out. Rick grabs them, holds the muskie down with one hand and a foot, and works the wire cutters with the other.

Zieman Cutting The Hooks

The right way to do it, if you're a pro at it, is to cut each of the three hooks individually. But that's too much for Rick, as it would be for any of us, given the level of adrenaline flowing. He tries to cut the base of the treble – through all three hooks – first with one hand. That's too hard. He lets go of the fish, puts both hands on the wire cutters, and the Jackpot snaps off, leaving parts of two hooks embedded in the fish. No problem – they'll eventually drop out. The fish is free.

So, how long is it? Kelly has the measuring thing out. It's one of those plastic folding rulers, that goes out to 5 feet. And the fish isn't that far from stretching out to the full length. Pat holds it down over the fish on the floor of the boat. He's not close to the nose, though, maybe a couple of inches away. Our boat is up against theirs by now, and I'm looking straight down at it, so I can judge.

"Kelly! Move it up farther," I say to him. He shifts the ruler. Still not there.

"Forty–three inches," says Kelly. But that's not right

"Farther!" That's better, still an inch gap. "More. " Finally it's okay at my end, I don't know about the other.

And Kelly pronounces the official length: "Forty-five inches. That's it. "Forty-five inches."

And it's time to release the fish. It goes without saying – I've trained these guys exceptionally well on the issue – that it will be released. I don't believe the thought of keeping it even enters anybody head.

Zieman Holding His Muskie

Zieman lifts it up, and Kelly and Baker take a couple of "classic " pictures, of Zieman and the fish, with Peters lurking in the background. Rick holds the fish up by the head, one hand supporting the belly. It really is a beautiful fish. And with that, the final part of the ceremony. We push our boat away from theirs, and Rick puts the fish down in the water, between the boats. He grabs the tail and starts swishing it back and forth.

Muskie Being Released

All of the rest of us hover around to watch. It's a sight none of us have seen yet this year – somebody releasing a huge muskie – and we want the full experience. And finally, after a couple of false starts, the fish gives a shake of its tail and swims slowly away, past the back of the boat, down into the water, into freedom.....



Okay, that's my story. I've told it the way I saw it. And we've got the pictures for you to look at, so you can verify at least parts of what I've recorded here.

But it strikes me that I made some claims about my longtime fishing buddy, Rick Zieman, early on in this modest tale, that he might wish to comment on himself. And I also know that there was a part – about the fish "coming up behind the Jackpot like a submarine" – that only Rick is qualified to relate. So I'm leaving some room here for his response or amplification, or whatever he wants to do. And I'm looking forward to seeing what he has to say myself.

It truly was a magnificent fish. I'm glad Rick got it and I'm glad I got a chance to see it happen. I wouldn't lie to you about something like that.

But before I turn it over to him, though, let me note just one other thing. The day prior to all the above happenings, Kelly and Zieman were fishing Cedar point in Walker Bay from their own boat. And they came back with a tale: a massive, record-class muskie hitting Zieman's Jackpot there too, striking, jumping once, twice, but not getting hooked, diving back in, disappearing...

It's head was "twice as big" as the one on the fish that I've told you about...

Or so Rick relates to us in The Zieman Addendum

And you really should believe him, shouldn't you? About the one that got away? After all, we've never caught Zieman in a fib on a video, have we....

Juris Ozols

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Date Created: October 31, 1997
Last Modified: February 29, 2004
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