Life List Lunkers

January 20, 2010 by  

By Nick Simonson

There are hundreds of days booked in my fishing logs and countless others banked in my memories. From watching a field of tip-up flags pop for northern pike on a chilly winter morning to a steamy July evening spent fishing an inexhaustible school of white bass, it is tough to keep track of all the outings over the past decade or so. To help with that task, each January I pull out my life list and add new fish I have caught in the last year, recall the biggest specimens I have landed and make note of others that I have hooked in my lifetime.

SteelheadcloseIt seems odd that a fish as lowly as the common carp sits at the forefront of my most memorable catches, but it’s true. For a good two-week stretch one spring, I had been chasing after carp on the fly rod and had met with no success. Then one humid May morning before work, I biked over with my fly rod to a spot on the river where I had seen a good school circling the day before. I tied on a woolly bugger and flung it out from shore along a developing weedline. The fly was barely in the water when the line jumped and I pulled up on the rod. The reel spun and let out a “ziiinnng!”

I knew the fish was big from the get go. My rod stayed bent for the entire fight, pulsing and shaking with each charge the fish made as we battled for nearly 20 minutes. When all thirty inches of the fish came to shore, its rows of golden scales were set alight by the sunrise in stark contrast to the gray silt swirling in the water at the river’s edge. Soaked from the knees down and shaking with adrenaline and morning caffeine I had finally bested the golden bonefish I had so doggedly sought on the fly.

Another golden fish rests atop my most memorable list, and it is one most anglers would expect to be there. While fishing with a couple of friends on my home water for springtime smallmouth and walleye, I offered up a jig tipped with a minnow and cast it into the current of a feeder creek. I hopped the jig along the break and lowered my rod tip when I felt the tap of a fish. I reeled in the slack and set the hook. Initially, the fish felt a lot like a keeper and I was pretty sure it was a walleye destined for the dinner table.

NS29WEYELsmMy suspicion about the species was correct, but I had underestimated its size…greatly. As the fish neared the surface, it thrashed wildly. I saw every inch of the massive walleye as she arched back and forth in super-slow-motion. Her mouth was as big around as a grapefruit; her head as wide as the blade of a spade shovel. My friend lowered the net into the water as I guided the fish to the side of the boat. The tail hung out of the green mesh by about six inches, and I was certain it was the biggest walleye I had ever caught. At nearly 30 inches, she would have been over ten pounds before the spawn, but her body was thin, beat up and ragged from the efforts of the spring ritual, completed shortly before my encounter with her. Even with much of her girth gone, she was still an impressive fish.

Another pair of post-spawn fish, my first two steelhead, were proud additions to my life list this year. I had weathered two very bitter springs on the north shore of Lake Superior over eight trips ranging anywhere from Duluth, Minn. to near the Canadian border in search of these lake-run rainbows. The prize was well worth the pain of numb fingers and cold toes when they hit. The first fish came in the presence of my brother and the second one struck while fishing with my cousin on the Sucker River. It was the second encounter that showcased the true power of these fish, as after taking my hand-tied glo bug fly, the steelie bolted from my cousin’s reach to 20 yards up river in just a matter of seconds, gliding over the small ledges in front of it as if they weren’t even there. I spent most of my early season chasing trout, and fell short of my goal of catching a brookie, a challenge I have reserved for the coming season.

My smallmouth fishing was also limited this year, as my home water, the Sheyenne River, spent much of the spring outside of its banks and flood control efforts limited access to it during the prime season. Sadly, I did not make it home for an outing. However, in March, I landed my first brown bass through the ice on a small Minnesota lake while fishing crappies. I added the accidental catch to my database for hard water catches and scanned the numbers overall.

My personal record for smallies still stands at 19.8 inches, but my most memorable fish was a 19.75-inch specimen that I caught six times during the summers of 2004 and 2005. “Ol’ 1975” is a fish near and dear to me and I often write about her and her home between the concrete slab and the pumphouse at the Fish Hatchery. A shining example of catch-and-release if there ever was one, this beast of a bronzeback lives on in my fishing journals, photos and memories.
I’ve touted the benefits of life listing fish for a few years now as timing, conditions, locations and other elements of my biggest fish remain constant and a pattern becomes evident as new fish succeed previous records. What’s more, life listing helps set new goals and keeps fish stories straight from season to season. But perhaps the greatest benefit in keeping a life list is that annual wade through the waters of my mind which allows me to relive recent experiences and those from seasons past… in our outdoors.


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