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In search of the 'supertankers' of Lake Mille Lacs

Jack Supple
Courtesy of Jack Supple
Jack Supple and the "supertanker"

On a recent November weekend, we set out upon the looming gray waters of Lake Mille Lacs to find Minnesota's own version of Nessie. With us were two directors of the International Game Fish Association, Chris Hess and Jason Schratwieser. They had come all the way from IGFA Headquarters in Fort Lauderdale to experience firsthand the strange obsession and undeniable mystique of November muskie fishing in Minnesota.

It was not lost upon our little group that we had the very guys with us who actually review and approve the international game fish records. This would not be a bad time to land one of Mille Lacs' giants. The DNR says the state record was set in 1957, a 54-pound, 56-inch-long monster out of Lake Winnibigoshish.

While the old-timers will tell you a Minnesota November is not what it used to be, the dropping temperatures of the air and water still set off a chain reaction around Minnesota's second largest inland lake. The walleye fishermen have fogged their engines and put their boats in the pole barn, the glory days of May and June long behind them. Resorts make ready the icehouses for hard-water season. Blaze orange coveralls flap on lines outside cabins to waft away the human scent. There's the occasional pop of a rifle in the distant woods as a deer falls, or maybe the pop-pop-pop as the deer beats a successful retreat under a waving white flag. By night, the temperature drops, and by day, the winds blow in a relentless march of cold fronts from the Northwest.

All of this cools and stirs the 20-mile bowl of soup that is Lake Mille Lacs and, as the water temperature slides toward 42 degrees, it sets in motion a synchronous collision of biological clocks.

The ciscoes (also called tullibees), a small, slender-bodied relative of whitefish that inhabit northern lakes, begin to stage for their pre-winter spawning runs up on the rocky reefs of Mille Lacs. Love in their little hearts, the ciscoes school up somewhere between their vast open water range and the steep drop-offs that lead to their rocky love nests.

The muskies, apex predators of this great inland sea, know this.

Muskies are amazing eating machines
To a muskie — large, toothy, eating machines that they are — feeding is all about efficiency and maintaining a balanced budget. Will the energy collected by eating this meal outweigh the energy expended to catch it? The fat-rich cisco, piled high on the “In†side of the scale, is an excellent return on investment to the weight and girth of the fish. In the last weeks of open water, the ciscoes are manna from heaven, helping muskies make up for a lazy summer of goofing off, snacking on perch. Deep under the dark winter ice, those fish that successfully bulk up now on ciscoes will have the fat stores they need. Think polar bears and seals. Think grizzly bears and salmon.

The most successful of these muskies have been doing this, year in and year out, for almost 20 years in this lake. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources planted truckloads of muskie fry and fingerlings in Mille Lacs back in the late '80s and early '90s. These fish not only have survived, but also grown and thrived to mythical proportions. The DNR will tell you that the oldest of these fish is probably 20 years old. And well above 50 inches.

An important fish like this does not dart out of hiding places like nervous little hammer-handle pike. A fish of this stature does not fear that she will be eaten by something higher up the food chain.

A fish such as this moves with the quiet confidence of a supertanker in the Duluth harbor. Tiny little movements of her fins and tail rudder can move the great mass with ease. A fish like this will simply appear behind a lure, follow it right to the boat, stare down the muskie fisherman with disdain and sink slowly back into the depths, leaving him to babble in tongues and borrow tobacco products.

Among hard-core musky fishermen, it is now a commonly held belief that the next state record will come from Mille Lacs. The state record 54-pound, 56-inch muskie does not seem so distant now. The question among the diehards isn't IF Mille Lacs will give up a bigger one, but WHEN.

Most are betting on this year. Right now. Today maybe. Before the ice comes in early December.

True believers never give up
All summer long, the true believers have relentlessly flogged the water until way after dark, quietly working reefs and weed beds with huge lures, Bulldawgs and Cowgirls, tossed into the dark with a monotonous kaploosh, until the cell phone network rings: Did you see any? Really? How big? Wow, did you get a picture? How long? Did you get a girth? Good Lord.

The reports have climbed steadily all year long. Guy says there were eight 50-inchers over the past two days. Heard of a 53. Someone caught a 54 last night. The paper had a picture of a 55. At every bait store, resort bar and boat landing, you can hear the latest version of the report.

Guides are booking fishermen from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. They want to fish the Big Pond. They want to see the Big Girl.

So on Nov. 3, we set out in three boats to take our place among the lure-chucking pilgrims from all over the state, all over the country.

The two guys from Florida went with Bart the guide. The guys from the office went with a second guide. And in my boat I had the young blood, 27-year-old James, who had never fished muskies before.

On the first spot (of course), James connected solidly. The fish moved slowly, deliberately, and then spit the tasteless half-pound of plastic. That was all it took. James will be messed up for life.

All day long, we tried to find another one. All day long, nothing much happened. An occasional what-was-that, an occasional unconfirmed sighting. The mind plays tricks.

By sunset, our casts had become heavy, sullen, automatic and mechanical, like weary slot machine players at Grand Casino.

Weary but undaunted, we waited
As the darkness came and we moved slowly around the reef, James connected again. This time, the fish was hooked. A beautiful 44-inch-long muskie, his first, and we drifted off the spot in a flurry of flash photos and high-fives.

Now, in the happy glow of very last light, we slid back up on the rock reef. The pressure was off. We had done it. I put on a lure that I thought looked more like a tulibee (a white Storm Kickin' minnow) and threw it to the deep side of the reef, retrieving it slowly up into the shallows.

Without any golden trumpets, no fanfare whatsoever, a giant toothy mouth simply opened next to the boat and gently slurped the 11-inch lure as if it were an oyster on a half shell.

I set the hook and loosened the drag and started speaking to my Neophyte Net Man in very measured tones, as if I were talking him through a bomb defusing.

The fish was immense. And when I was finally able to turn it, I headed it back toward the boat, and James slid the net under her as if he'd done this every day.

In a lifetime of muskie fishing, I have never held a muskie this big. We measured it twice. It was 56 inches long, same as the state record, and 26 inches around. We didn't have a scale, but I guessed it was maybe 50 pounds. That would put it four pounds short of the record.

Do we take her in and weigh her?

We took her picture and slid her back into Mille Lacs. Her big propellers came to life, and she churned powerfully away.

Jack Supple is a partner in Pocket Hercules in Minneapolis.

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