RED CLIFF, Wis. — Already, this February day in the Apostle Islands had provided a lot of lake trout action. Four- and five-pounders, plus a few smaller fish for the frying pan.
This was a day off for Iron River, Wisconsin, fishing guide Josh Teigen. He guides winter anglers four or five days a week, and often goes prospecting new areas when he's not guiding. A couple of buddies he has known since childhood — John Darwin and Acorn Armagost, both of Iron River — had joined him on this outing.
We had made the snowmobile run several miles into the islands out of Red Cliff, near Bayfield. Teigen knew the spot, over 120 to 130 feet of clear Lake Superior water. He had fished it before and had returned for a reason.
"You have a chance at bigger fish here," he said.
Three years ago, at this same spot, he and friends had caught just three lake trout one day.
"But all were between 35 and 39 inches long," he said.
We were jigging PK spoons in fire-tiger and white patterns, and Teigen used a chartreuse "banana" jig. We tipped them with two or three shiner minnows and fished them just off the bottom.
It wasn't long before our group had caught a half-dozen lake trout. Teigen was looking for more.
"Now we're a big one away from a very good day," he said.
We took four more lakers before we heard Darwin shouting across the ice.
"Got one," he hooted.
What he meant was that he had hooked one. He didn't have it yet.
"A big one!" he yelled.
So the rest of us hustled over the wind-crusted snow to monitor the fight.
What happened over the next 15 minutes was something to behold, a classic battle between an angler and a leviathan of a laker. The fish was in charge for a long time. Darwin had the butt of his stiff, 3-foot Clam lake trout rod planted in his midsection, and he cranked up a few feet of 30-pound Power Pro line any time he had the chance. During most of the fight, the rod tip was pointed straight toward the bottom of the lake 120 feet down. Darwin had been jigging a fire-tiger PK spoon tipped with a couple of shiner minnows.
"Oh, boy," Darwin muttered a couple of times.
It was the kind of "Oh, boy" that seemed to be part thrill and part apprehension.
Teigen scooped the 8-inch fishing hole clear of ice. Twice, he dropped the sonar's transducer in the hole to see if Darwin was making progress with the fish.
"Eighty feet," Teigen said the first time.
"Thirty-five," he said the second time. "You're gaining."
Darwin kept cranking, but the powerful trout would occasionally take line again.
Finally, Teigen put his face close to the hole and shielded his eyes, hoping to see the fish swimming below. He came up gasping in disbelief.
"I think it's over 40," he said. "I'm dead serious."
Among all of us present, only Armagost had caught a fish of that size, a 41-incher. Teigen's personal best is a 39-incher.
We finally saw the knot that separated the Power Pro line from four feet of 20-pound-test monofilament leader. Darwin began to back away from the hole, raising his rod tip high. Teigen, with his sleeves pushed to his biceps, reached far down the hole. At just the right moment, he hoisted the magnificent creature's head through the cylinder of ice. The rest of the fish — thick and wide — just kept coming and coming and coming. Finally, Teigen lifted it free of the water and carefully passed it over to Darwin.
"I've never seen one that big," Teigen said.
It's difficult to describe the spell that a fish of such improbable proportions casts over a bunch of anglers. We stood there gaping, ecstatic and amazed and in awe. Darwin was almost giggling. Some large, old fish are almost ugly — oddly proportioned or scarred. This fish, catching the afternoon light, appeared to be perfect. Not a scratch on it. Not a single lamprey scar. Just the tiny white spots against a pale bronze background. Its pelvic and anal fins were tinged a soft tangerine.
In a quick but careful measurement, with the fish lying on the snow, Teigen taped it twice at 42 inches.
"It could be a little over, but we'll call it 42," he said.
Then Darwin grasped the fish just ahead of its tail and guided its head down the hole. When only Darwin's hand and the tail remained above water, he held the fish until it understood it was once again in a liquid medium. With a powerful flick of its tail, it left only air between Darwin's fingers and thumb.
We all stood around the hole for a couple more minutes. It was like none of us wanted the moment to pass, as if by standing there, replaying what had just transpired, it would somehow be seared more clearly in our memories.
We all knew, if not at that moment then later, that we might never witness something like that again. It isn't that fish of such proportions aren't sometimes caught. They are. But the odds of any one of us witnessing such a catch are slim.
We kept fishing, basking in the glow of Darwin's catch and the warmth of the 45-degree afternoon. We hadn't seen another angler all day. Teigen caught the next fish, a 33-incher that must have weighed 9 or 10 pounds.
"It's turning out to be the best lake trout day ever," Teigen said.
We finished with 13 fish for the day. We brought a few back to Red Cliff with us. But the one we would not forget was presumably still cruising for ciscoes somewhere 120 feet below the ice.
How heavy, how old was that fish?
The girth of John Darwin's 42-inch lake trout measured 22 inches. Estimates vary on the weight of lake trout using length or length-girth formulas. A length-girth-weight formula at laketrout.org puts the weight at 25.4 pounds. An In-Fisherman length-weight (but not girth) formula puts the weight of a 42-inch lake trout at nearly 31 pounds.
It's even more difficult to determine the age of such a fish, said Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Through its assessment netting, the DNR has measured and aged many big lake trout over the years.
"Bigger does not always mean the oldest when it comes to lake trout," Goldsworthy said. "That size fish could be anywhere from 13 to 30 years old."
Or perhaps even older. A lake trout caught Nov. 2 last year in a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources assessment net in the Apostle Islands was 35½ inches long and estimated to be 46 years old, based on previous captures and releases of the same fish from assessment nets, DNR officials said.
Josh Teigen's Fishing Guide Service
Josh Teigen, 25, of Iron River has been guiding for eight years, full-time for three of those. In the winter, he guides anglers for all species that can be found in Chequamegon Bay and the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior. In summer, he guides for Chequamegon Bay's trophy smallmouth bass and on inland waters for muskies. For more information, go to joshteigen.com or call (715) 813-0575.