I just returned from my annual fishing trip in Hayward, Wisconsin. I started going as a boy with family and friends to this scenic area of the Northwoods. Over the years I've learned some incredible life changing skills such as fishing, snorkeling, a respect for nature and our natural resources, all of which while connecting with family and friends.
This year was no different as I continue to learn whenever an opportunity arises. The fishing this year was unusually slow, they had a very long winter with plentiful spring rains. The lakes were at maximum capacity and the water was stained from tannic acids leaching into the lakes and rivers from the surrounding marshes and bogs. Aquatic plants were starting to emerge and the water was finally starting to warm. This is traditionally a great time to go fishing! But, when dealing with nature you can never truly understand how she functions. It didn't bother us as we all know that catching fish is just part of the experience, the purpose of the trip is to connect.
We made our usual route around the lake surveying the pristine aquatic ecosystem. We visited the marsh edges looking for turtles, the eagle’s nest with the young birds waiting for fresh fish from their mother, and the reed bed along the north shore where my older brother’s ashes were spread years ago. It's a hauntingly beautiful place which will always be etched in my memories.
I was out fishing with my 84 year old father and oldest son Austin. We or should I say, I was struggling to catch anything! Austin was killing it as he is a gifted fisherman, I can’t explain it and I don't think he can either but he has a way to find fish.
We were fishing off of a rocky peninsula with steep drop offs on either side, Austin was fly fishing from the bow of the boat, I was in the back and my dad in between. Austin was catching some beautiful largemouth bass and a few northern pike but our quarry was the elusive Musky, the king of the lake! They're known as the fish of 10,000 casts because that's how many you need to make, to not catch one but to just see one!
My dad has been fishing these waters for 75 years and it was fitting that he had the first follow; for those of you that know Musky, the bigger the fish, the smarter the fish. They toy with their prey and can be seen nipping at the tails of lures and nosing them to see if it's edible, following it right up to the boat making themselves known, then disappearing back into the depths. Austin sees it first and yells Grandpa! Big Fish!
My dad laughs and says he's lost his touch as the fish was gone as quickly as it appeared. Austin proceeds to catch a couple northern pike, a great sport fish similar to a musky but it doesn't have the size or allure of a trophy musky. Northern pike are an aggressive species and will strike and eat anything. On this particular lake they're considered an invasive species because they were accidentally introduced to this aquatic ecosystem in recent years. The Department of Natural Resources has said to remove them if you catch them because they will compete with the Musky as the apex predator in the lake.
To some people, a big toothy fish is the same as any big toothy fish and they don't care as long as they catch one. But for the purists out there that want to protect the delicate balance of the ecosystem, it makes sense to remove them because there's a limited amount of food for an apex predator. If a more aggressive species like northern pike are allowed to live in the same waters, they will put serious pressure on the ecosystem eating everything in sight causing a shift in the tropic structure of the lake.
So we have a dilemma, release the fish back into the lake, kill them, or eat them? I'm not a big fan of northern pike, maybe it's the way we've prepared it but I just don't like the taste. We discussed it on the boat and let the first one go. He gets a second fish, another northern pike, this isn't good! We've never even caught one in past years and Austin just caught two in about 20 minutes!
We debated it again and we all said the same thing we can't just kill something for no reason; they wanted to release it. I made the call and said “hand me the knife.” I put it into the base of the skull severing its brain and spinal column, the fish didn't even twitch. Austin says, "I don't want a dead fish in our boat" and I respond saying the northern grew off of fish from the lake, we'll put him back in the lake to complete the food chain. I said, "If we're lucky the eagle we've been watching will have a free meal." I drop the 20" fish into the water with his creamy white belly facing the sky and within seconds Austin yells, "Eagle!"
I had just put the knife down and looked up to see a majestic Bald Eagle rear up and spread her wings 5' in front of our boat! I honestly thought she was gonna take Austin's hat off! In an instant her talons came out and she grabbed the northern, we were speechless as she flew away with the fish. We looked at each other and said in unison, "That was Awesome!!!!" It's one of those experiences that I'll take to my grave.
We continued to discuss what had just happened; I joked and said that the lake is happy with our decision. We decided to try and find a Musky so we went to the farthest reaches of the lake and everywhere in between. Nothing.
My dad was getting tired and we started to head back to our cabin, I said let's make a quick stop by the island with Eagles nest. A gentle west wind put us in the perfect position to drift parallel to the island. We watched the baby eagle as we drifted by the island from the western tip to the eastern corner. There was a second smaller island right next to it and we decided to try that before wrapping up for the day. Nothing.
I made my last cast at the eastern tip of the island, Musky!!!! I had all but given up for the day and was still lucky enough to land a 34" fish. It's by no means a record fish but we got what we came for. We got a Musky in the boat in the shadow of the eagle’s nest, we had time together on the water for a father, son, and grandson, and an experience with nature that few will ever see.
I like to think that the lake was happy with our decision to remove an invasive species, we are protecting this ecosystem for future generations and the lake continues to give us experiences and memories that shape who we are.