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Surprise on Woman Lake

My friend, Jerry Peters - he's the one that cost me my Walleye Outfit, in "Forty Feet and Mud" – himself caught a fish one year, on Woman Lake. A magnificent, magnificent fish... A fish worthy of note...

Here's how that happened.........


The strong north wind again drives the waves across the point, and again it's the wrong direction. It keeps shoving Jerry's 17–foot Sylvan runabout up on the rock bar. We're forever backing up, moving the boat around, fighting the wind. Our Lindy Rigs end up under the boat, around the propeller, snagged in the rocks. Peters may like to drift, (as you'll find out later), but this time it's too much.

Jerry finally gives up. "Let's just drift past the point onto the flats one more time."

Yeah. This business of working the point is a clear loser today. Peters runs the boat upwind, off the point of the rock bar. We position ourselves in the back of the boat (our regular stations, well established over many years), and start the drift.

Sure wish I had a beer. Can't do that, though. It's Monday, we're going home in a couple of hours. The tradition is we don't drink beer on Monday. You're supposed to be sober when you get home and face the wife. I'm not sure that the wife is fooled by that, or really even cares. But if a man came home in some other condition and......

In the midst of my idle thoughts, Peters claims fish action. "Gotta bite!" he announces.

I've heard this a million times. Based on actual recorded data (I kept track one trip) the "gotta bite" thing will be followed shortly by a hookset and 75% of the time a "Pulled the minnow out of its mouth!" result. The other thing that will happen is a snag.

I ignore Peters. He waits the proper length of time, closes the bail on his reel, leans forward, tightens the line, and sets the hook. Skillful Lindy Rig technique. I glance at his pole, to assess the situation. After many years of watching Peters set the hook, I can tell with professional accuracy whether he has a fish, a snag, or weeds. In the right situation, I can even tell the difference between a perch and a walleye.

This time the rod is solidly bent, the tip is steady. If that's a fish, it's the biggest one he's ever caught. Hah – snag time. So now we have to go back to the other side of the snag, jockey the boat around, try to get it loose without breaking it off. A major pain, in this wind.

"I'll back the boat up for you," I tell Peters, and get up to start the motor.

"Gotta fish!" he responds. Jerry is a man of few words.

Baloney. The rod is still solid, the tip isn't twitching. If he had on a big walleye, the tell–tale "thumps" of the rod tip would be obvious. Nothing. No walleye. Snag. See, Peters still hasn't started to reel in. You can't reel in a snag.

Then, as I watch, the line slowly comes up. That explains it. When you get a bunch of weeds on, and they break loose, they rise to the surface. I've seen that a million times before, too.

I haven't seen weeds do this though. Not only is the line coming up, but it's also slicing through the water, from left to right behind the boat. Well, so much for the snag. But it isn't a walleye, either. I still haven't seen any "thumps" of the rod tip. So Peters must have tied into a northern. Northerns like to run around behind the boat. That "swishing" sound the line makes slicing through the water tells you it's a northern, and looks like a nice one too. This isn't a five–pounder, maybe more like ten.

"I can't move it!" Peters still hasn't reeled in any line at all. Then the fish makes a run away from the boat. The rod bends even more, the line tightens dangerously. Hey, this fish is looking better all the time!

"Backreel, Jerry, backreel!" I yell at him. Over the last few years I've tried to teach him that. Since I've known him, Jerry's believed in using the drag on the reel. I don't trust drags – I backreel. Boettcher and Kelly picked it up right away, Peters has come around more slowly. (The huge walleye he lost a couple of years ago due to a sticking drag may have helped, although he still argues about it.)

This time he listens to me, clicks off the anti–reverse on the reel with only a little fumbling, and immediately gets control of the runs by the fish. The tension on the rod eases up. We still haven't seen the northern. Wonder how big it is?

Then the line starts rising again, the fish comes to the surface. And there, fifty feet behind the boat, the enormous head and back – the bronze and not dark green back – of the fish break the water. Both of us recognize it instantly – it's a huge smallmouth bass!

A moment of shock – a frozen moment. We both stare at the spot where the fish has disappeared back into the water, still on the line. We know, without a word being spoken, that it's by far the biggest smallmouth bass either of us has ever seen. A trophy, a record fish even, a fish that someday will be worthy of a story in a book......

I myself have caught two 19" + smallmouth bass, one here on Woman a couple of years ago, another one on Grindstone in Wisconsin (I released both.) These fish were maybe in the five–pound class. Both jumped clear of the water, putting up a good fight. But I handled them without any real problem. This fish is unquestionably bigger. Too big, in fact, to jump. This is not a fish to lose!

Okay, here's the situation. The wind has blown us several hundred yards away from the point, toward Horseshoe Island. The island is still a good distance away, not problem there. We're in some ten feet of water, with no rocks or reefs between us and the island, so no problem there either.

The real problem is the power of the fish. With the force of the wind and waves – the whitecaps keep breaking into our boat's transom – there's no way to bring the fish to the boat. The fish, swimming back and forth in arcs behind the boat, is too strong, the drift too fast.

[Let me interject the following thought: We have a grave situation here, a crisis situation. But of all the crises a man encounters in this life, this has to be at the top of this list of outstanding problems to have. I would pay money to face that predicament again. And you notice the I didn't catch anything that day. Just thinking about it, though, as I write these lines on a snowy Thanksgiving day, gives me goose bumps. It's six months until next year's fishing opener. I can't wait......]

Peters keeps losing line, as the fish makes occasional runs away from us. There's only one recourse. "I'll back the boat up to the fish, Jerry." Peters only grunts in reply. His total concentration is on the fish. I'm not sure he even hears me.

I lean over the driver's seat, start the motor. As always, the 70–HP Mercury fires instantly. I slip it into reverse, and it dies. Damn! We don't need that now. I do it again, a couple of times, finally get it running, backing up.

The boat makes slow progress. Coming against the waves now, we take a lot more water in the boat. I turn on the bilge pump, and decide to leave it on. We're not really in danger of sinking, but there's a constant stream of water from the pump. I ignore it. I'm also getting spray all over my glasses from the wind. I ignore that too.

"Get the net," Peters reminds me, as we begin to gain ground (water?) on the fish. Good idea. A vague thought of trying to "hand-lip" the fish comes and goes. I don't like nets, and routinely land my fish by hand, but this is not the time. I disentangle the net from behind the seat.

As we get closer, the fish is still making runs, but at the surface now. It must be getting tired. We've been fighting it for over fifteen minutes – talk about heart! Jason Lucas was right with his "inch for inch, pound for pound......" thing about smallmouth bass.

"Back the boat to the left," Jerry tells me. Another good idea. We'll come at the fish from an angle, try to keep it away from the outboard. The motor makes me nervous. I'm afraid the fish will run under the boat and cut the line. I'd like to raise the motor, but then we'll start drifting again. Peters is just going to have to be careful.

We're finally ready. The fish is some ten feet behind the boat, still swimming back and forth. We can see the hook of the Lindy Rig fully inside its mouth, so no problem with a "skin hooked" fish that could break loose. Peters is in the back corner of the boat, rod held high, a moderate bend. Good technique. Tension on the line is fine.

"Get the net down, I'll bring him over to you," says Peters. (I refrain from observing that the fish is undoubtedly a female.) Peters is using professional technique here too. Have the net in the water, bring the fish to it, head first. Never try to net a fish from the back.

"I'm ready." I'm bending over, as far out as I can, net in the water, windblown spray in my face, joy in my heart, here comes the fish...... scoop up now...... and...... oh no!

The boat lurches in a wave, the fish - what a monster! – breaks the surface, I smack it in the side with the net, and it dives down and away. Peters backreels madly to stay with it. By some miracle, I don't fall in the water, even though I deserve to after my thoroughly inept performance with the net.

I look sheepishly at Peters, afraid to face the wrath that I so richly deserve. He's laughing, enjoying my embarrassment. Apparently no harm done - the fish is still on. I didn't touch the leader with the net, so no danger of nicking or breaking the line. We're still nowhere near Horseshoe Island. Let's try again.

Second pass, same situation. We come at the fish at an angle, I lean out, net up in the air. Peters brings it in...... fifteen feet...... ten feet...... the fish circles away, then toward us...... five feet...... it turns away again, heading out......

I plunge the net into the water, and scoop up the fish from the rear. The hell with proper technique, I got him!

As I lift the fish over the side and into the boat, the tension on the line relaxes, and hook pops free. I'm delighted to see that. In every account I've ever read describing the capture of a notable fish, the author has always thrown in the bit about the lure coming loose when the fish is landed. It must be a rule – I'm glad we're complying.

Peters stands there hands shaking (more rules). I pick up the fish by the mouth, one hand under the belly to support it. Spring is late this year, this fish hasn't spawned yet. The belly is enormous, clearly full of eggs. No wonder it couldn't jump. I place the fish against the "Fishing Hot Spots" tape measure glued to the rail of the boat: 21 1/2–inches! Unbelievable! But now what?

I'm proud to say there was no question that we would release the fish. We knew bass season opened only the next Saturday, but it didn't matter. We didn't even talk about keeping it.

The only questions concerned what would be best for the fish. We decided to put the bass in the livewell to let it recover from the fight. That also let us run back to the cabin and get some pictures.

At the cabin we tied the boat up at the dock and I went in to get the rest of the crowd. "Camera time!" I announced.

Boettcher, Kelly, and Zieman dutifully got their cameras out and trooped down to the dock. All the appropriate words of wonder and congratulations flowed freely. We also got shots of Jerry holding the fish, and then releasing it. And that majestic smallmouth slipped back in the water, in perfect shape, to lay her eggs and to battle another angler on another day.

Jerry's Record Smallmouth

(Later that summer, published in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune
newspaper was a smallmouth bass listed at 21 1/2–inches caught
on Woman Lake – I can't help but wonder ....... Can You???)

One final observation. We didn't weigh the fish. We were too hyper, the risk of injury to it too great. We didn't try. But we did measure its length. Various "length/weight" charts put an average smallmouth bass at approximately 6.2 pounds for a 21 1/2" fish. If that pregnant, swollen belly didn't contain at least 2 pounds of eggs – just look at the picture – I'll eat my "Bearwhiz Beer" fishing hat.

That would put the fish at 8.2–pounds. The official state record smallmouth, caught by one John A. Creighton in 1948, is 8–pounds even. So, what do you think?

Juris Ozols

Numerous trophy sized smallmouth (over 19–inches) have been caught on Woman Lake over the years. And a complete listing of the top ten can be found in All Time Smallmouth Bass Fishing Records for the group!

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Date Created: July 29, 1996
Last Modified: April 3, 2004
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