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  • Patrick Durkin

Anglers Often Set the Hook into Everything but Fish

A self-righteous fisherman once wrote that fishing is more sporting than hunting because the line creates a fragile, spiritual link between the angler and fish while it’s hooked.


In fact, that link can last long after the hook is removed. Sometimes it endures a lifetime in the angler’s imagination, especially if it was a big fish that shook free or broke the line without being seen, sized up and identified.


Further, unlike with a bullet or arrow, fish hooks can usually be removed, allowing the prey to be released—presumably unharmed—into the water.


True enough. Catch and release isn’t an option when hunting.


Then again, hunters don’t have to deal with old boots, shoes, logs, hats, anchor lines, seaweed, “intimate apparel,” “discreet protection” and other strange things that anglers often hook by accident. Hunters, meanwhile, determine what they’re willing to handle before pulling the trigger on their gun, crossbow or release aid.


Fishing offers no such choice. A lure or bait might target a specific fish species or a fish with a particular mouth size. We can also drop our hook wherever we expect a particular fish to hang out, but we can’t dictate what the hook actually snares.


For instance, on a walleye trip on Lake Poygan one spring I pulled up an anchor after my jig hooked a submerged rope. I kept the rope and anchor, and still use them often.


Another time I fumbled a favored rod and reel with wet, numb hands, and watched helplessly as it plopped into the Mississippi River by Genoa. Two hours later, still fishing the same site with my backup rod, I accidentally snagged my lost rig. I couldn’t stop smiling after rebaiting its hook and casting back into the river.


Yet another time I added to my collection of old Mitchell 300 reels by snagging one that spent much of its life on Poygan’s muddy bottom. My hook had snagged a battered half-ounce jig near the mouth of the Wolf River on Poygan’s northern shoreline. After eyeballing the old jig, I started pulling in the attached line. After all, old monofilament can be deadly litter for diving birds and other life forms, and we should dispose of it somewhere safe.


As I retrieved the spent line, I eventually pulled an old Shakespeare fiberglass rod and Mitchell 300 reel into my boat. After replacing the reel’s bail and spring, and flushing and brushing gray silt from its gears, I returned the reel to active duty. All these years later, I’m still using it. All I salvaged from the deteriorating rod was 2 feet of its tip, but it’s still serving as a favored ice-fishing rod for pike and walleyes.


When I share stories like these, my friends suggest I’m more skilled at hooking junk than fish. I don’t disagree. I’ve fished with many men and women more skilled with rods and reels than I am, and I humbly show them due respect. Then again, because most of them fish more than I do, they usually have a larger library of better fish stories to share. Besides, they typically aren’t as fascinated by odd, unintended catches as I am.


In fact, I recall a fishing forum years ago on the lake-link.com website that asked readers to share stories of odd things they’ve hooked. It was so interesting that I saved the entire conversation as a pdf file, and printed it on my desktop printer.


One guy described how his dad lost an unattended rod and reel while fishing for salmon atop a Milwaukee breakwall. His dad forgot to leave the reel’s bail open, so when a big fish hit, the rod got jerked into the hereafter. Or so they thought. About 30 minutes later the son landed a 25-pound Chinook and noticed another hook and line in its mouth. Upon dragging in the line, he retrieved his father’s rod and reel.


Another guy told of a long fight while walleye fishing on Lake Erie. The battle was so intense that charter boats were circling his boat, eager to see what kind of brute he would pull up. His prize catch ended up being a magnum-size landing net loaded with zebra mussels. He said the net was in good shape and he was still using it.


Yet another guy told of muskie fishing with his father on Pelican Lake in Oneida County. Five minutes after his first cast, the father hooked into a huge fish. Ol’ Dad had never hooked a muskies before, and he battled the behemoth for 10 minutes before coaxing it to the surface. Only then did they realize it wasn’t a muskie. He had hooked the underwater power lines that run to Antigo Island.


An angler fishing below the Prairie du Sac dam told this story: “I set the hook into what I believed was the biggest flathead catfish on the planet. Man, what a fighter! Probably 100 pairs of eyes on me as I’m battling my fish for 10 minutes while my buddy is ready with the giant landing net. I get the fish up to the surface. Turns out to be a bent iron thing that must have weighed 50 pounds, twirling this way and that in the current. Ever had a hundred guys all laughing at you at the same time?”


Prize fish and inanimate objects aren’t the only things anglers pull up. Another fisherman wrote: “I’m icefishing on Crooked Lake when I get a flag. I run over and set the hook and holy cow, I’ve got the biggest pike of my life! I’m fighting the thing when all of a sudden all these air bubbles start coming up in the hole. Then a muskrat climbs out, all tangled in the line. Thank god he wasn’t hooked!”


Ya know, philosophers say we go fishing and hunting in hopes of fulfilling our spiritual needs. Maybe so, but these stories prove the only thing we learn for certain is that we’ll catch lots of junk along the way.

Anglers often reel in unusual junk, long-lost valuables, and unexpected treasures while fishing the state's lakes, rivers and backwaters.Patrick Durkin photo

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