Fishing with Don Meissner

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

As I sit here at this keyboard, the wind is howling in protest to the new wave of Arctic air that is bullying its way into our area. The last remnants of Autumn are being swept away as Winter’s decorations of frost, snow and ice stake their claim on our tough but vulnerable area. The chances to catch a fish without having to make a hole in the ice are disappearing. But I have always been somewhat of a stubborn die-hard, and most folks probably think of me as “one-more-cast-Don”.

Three days ago I made the one hour drive to my favorite winter spot along the St. Lawrence River. There is a short section of perhaps one hundred yards that forms a causeway along Rt. 37. Tons of broken rocks taper treacherously to a slippery uneven shoreline. The water drops off abruptly to form a deep sanctuary for wintering northern pike. In light of the recent rumors that have revealed an alarming decrease in pike numbers, I was somewhat doubtful that I would enjoy a combative reunion with my favorite adversary.

To help take my mind off the chill, I invited my great friend and accomplice in this Web site to join me. You know that old saying about misery loving company. It’s always great to see someone else’s jaws quivering in time to your own. Bill Haenel has always been eager to abandon what ever web crises he found himself in and escape to the nearest fishable water.

As cars sped by above us, and all necks strained in unison to witness the idiots that had forgot what season it was, Bill and I began our quest. I told him that in previous winters, I had found that pike will act as reluctantly as we might when asked to move in 35 degrees water. The best technique has always been to keep your lure crawling along the bottom. Fish will instinctively assess any opportunity based upon how much precious energy will be lost in latching onto what better look like an easy mark.

This is really going to sound suspect, especially since the air and water had found a happy match in temperature, but on Bill’s first cast, something hit his orange Hydra before it had traveled ten feet. He had never tried these fish on their winter turf, so he wasn’t sure whether what he was feeling was a strike. “That’s thirty feet of water you just cast into!” I encouraged him. “You definitely had one.” After several minutes of futile attempts to duplicate what had happened on Bill’s first cast, I realized that my rod was bending and I better react. I know that that sounds crazy, but sometimes things happen so suddenly that you seem unaware of the progression.

Somehow the hooks found purchase, and my rod took a further set. “This feels pretty big,” I said, knowing Bill had heard that before. They all seem to be at their greatest size before visual contact. Actually this fish lived up to expectations, and before long we were consumed with the problem of how to unhook the hydra, which was somewhere out of sight behind what threatened to be ten thousand razor sharp weapons. Neither ones of us thought to bring our pliers, although at least Bill had a pair back in his car. By now it became our unanimous decision that we were going to eat pike for supper, but one of us had to climb up the slippery rocks and trek back to where we had left the cars. Since Bill actually keeps a very neat car, we were both hopeful that he wouldn’t return empty handed.

In the mean time I tried everything from a sharp rock to a broken stick in an effort to remove the lure before Bill got back. Trust me: never go pike fishing without a pair of long nosed pliers! It turns out that the fish was a respectable 31 incher, although final boasting rights would go to Bill. However, my day was already a huge success.

The reason that we were using the Hydra was because it has always been the most effective pike offering. There are other lures that would probably work well under these conditions, but they would have to appear attractive in a very slow presentation. Here is how we caught our fish: We would cast out and then wait until the lure hit the bottom. This is more easily accomplished in low wind conditions, as you must watch your line in anticipation of it going slack. This would indicate that it had hit the bottom. It required a tremendous amount of patience as the wait was usually as much as a minute.

Then we would begin a slow jigging retrieve which caused the lure to hop or jump up off the bottom and then fall back. Most of the strikes will occur after it has fallen back and you begin the lift. Strikes do seem almost violent! This is in part caused because you are already sweeping the rod upwards, and the resistance is intensified by the momentum you have created. Once the fish were hooked, the battle (and that is a stretch although I guess for the pike it is indeed the ultimate battle) is uneventful. Some of the fish would lay motionless on the surface, patiently waiting to see what would happen next.

After more than two hours of casting the same short stretch of water, we decided that what was going to happen had probably already done so. I caught two fish and Bill only one…..BUT his was a real beauty that measured over 33 inches. Incredibly we each had lost more than our share. I am not sure why, as the ones we did catch were deeply hooked.

NOW for the really interesting stuff! Bill’s big pike had a huge lamprey eel attached just behind the head. That eel reminded Bill of some sort of demon, and indeed these creatures are very devils to the well being of Great Lakes fish. We tried to get video of the eel, but it unattached itself and squirmed under a rock before we could capture it on film. Bill told me that he couldn’t imagine the misery to that pike of having that thing sucking blood out of its neck. In a fish’s world, vampires really do exist.

But there was something even more interesting that happened. As I have already confessed (and will probably earn the ire of some of you purists) we had decided to keep some fish for a family feed. Little did we suspect that we had unwanted guests that were unaware that we had laid claim to the three pike. As I was doing my “one-more-cast” thing, Bill cautioned me that if I wanted fish for dinner, I’d better do something about the thief that was trying to abscond with our catch. As I turned around, a brown blur made me almost lose my balance.

A mink had somehow appeared out of nowhere and was obsessively focused upon dragging my first pike into his lair. When I say focused, I mean I could have reached down and petted him. Our new friend was only a fraction the size of his prize, but he seemed undeterred. He had decided that the best place to grab onto was the mouth of the fish. I can’t get my fingers within a foot of a pikes jaw without lacerating something. I almost cringed as I imagined the poor mink’s mouth becoming mutilated by what would surely be multiple punctures. To add further color to this drama, as we looked back at the rock where our other two pike had been stashed, the big brother or father or some such relative of what I now considered to be my mink, was trying to steal our other fish. Wow! Bill and I had apparently invaded a village of fearless weasels.

I urged Bill to grab his wife’s camera (he had already warned me to be careful with it) and try to capture this on film. As I moved aside, Bill took my place less than a foot from the first mink. It gave him little concern and seemed to have switched strategies. Since dragging the meal away hadn’t worked, he decided to chow down on the spot. The fins were the most natural place to start, and as we watched transfixed with amazement, it dawned on both of us that we really didn’t want to double dip our Saturday fish fry with a couple of minks. Enough is enough, as the story of Jimmy Carter’s encounter with an attack rabbit suddenly danced through my head. “Move closer and scare him off” I bravely coached from a distant perch. I wanted to comfort him with the fact that he was so much bigger than the two brothers (I was now sure that they were brothers as they seemed to approvingly glance over at each other between nibbles) but I was pretty sure that Bill was already aware of that.

Later at Bill’s home, as I prepared what was left of our spoils to a captive audience of Bill’s two youngest sons, I gave a theatrically animated account of our harrowing ordeal. Quinton and Ben were just as interested in discovering what a Pike’s eyeball really looked like, and I let them both carefully touch the still menacing teeth. They were more than willing to assist me as we inspected each fillet for unwanted bones. It was a great chance to pass on a little lesson on respecting and even honoring the privilege that had made our day so special. We all agreed that it was sad that these beautiful fish were no longer swimming free and that although we all were anxious for supper, maybe next time we’d go to McDonald’s.

The dinner was fantastic! Imagine four boys, their mother and father, their best friends, and finally an aspiring mink “warder- offer” all standing around the stove trying to get first dibbs on what proved to be a culinary masterpiece. I will leave it to Bill to share his recipe because I have to tell ya – food doesn’t get much better than this. After the fourth or fifth platter was licked clean, Bill smiled and said, “Wouldn’t this make a great holiday feast?” It really did…..

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