It was the middle of December and while the possibility of the lake being frozen over occupied our thoughts, the subject was not openly discussed during the long drive , fearful lest its spoken acknowledgment became a prophesized reality. It was late in the season, winter had already laid a firm grip on the landscape and the days were getting shorter and colder and we both instinctively knew that it would be the last day of the year to catch a musky. As the truck neared the boat ramp it became evident that that we were already a day or so too late, as a thin layer of ice had already formed and stretched out for miles in all directions.
Our hearts sank in unison and we both muttered a few imprecatory words before resigning ourselves to the vagaries of winter fishing. The timing was always a risky proposition at this time of year and one was never certain of the success or failure of these winter musky expeditions. This is always hard fishing, the weather is cold and unforgivable, equipment seizes up and becomes prone to failure, the body stiffens and becomes brittle, muscles refuse to move the way they were intended, and the mind plays games on itself. It is not for the faint of heart, only for those whose desire to catch a fish is matched only by their willingness and ability to suffer. These are not days for normal fisherman.
We cruised down the lakeshore road, searching for any open water that we could find, but to no avail. Just as we were prepared to turn around and head back homeward, we found a small bay that still had open water, not much, but enough to put the Zodiac in and satisfy our desire to get some lines in the water. We had caught fish in this section before, in summer, but it had now been reduced to but a few square acres of open water that extended out near a deep weed line. Slowly, we donned our floater suits, hats, gloves, boots, and pumped up the boat. The thermometer in the car read minus ten degrees. As my companion prepared his camera he noticed that the aperture shutter was unresponsive in the cold, the focus ring was frozen, nor would the flash keep a charge. It had frozen in the back of the truck.
All the gear was loaded in the inflatable and was slid like a toboggan down the snow covered hill to the water’s edge. Ice had already formed against the rocks on the shoreline and glittered like diamonds under the glare of the morning sun. The water was flat and calm, gunmetal blue, the color of cold steel, dense and heavy. Within seconds we rigged up our quick-strike rigs with the largest minnows in the bucket and let the lines trail off behind us on both sides of the boat. We ran one line about fifteen feet back, drifting the minnow directly behind the boat while another ran sixty or so feet off the port side, where the weed line ended and the drop-off began. Once settled in, we poured hot coffee into ourselves to stay warm and ate peanut butter sandwiches, checking our free-spools every so often to assure that they had not frozen up as well.
An hour later, after we had carefully covered all the open water available and were making our final pass, my clicker suddenly began to sound like a race car engine revving up at the starting line. Fish on! The hook was set and the fish began moving off under the security of the ice. The frigid water had slowed down its metabolism and the fight was sluggish and despite the rod being bent to the cork, the fish was a thumper and not a runner, strong but easily manageable. The battle was fought at close quarters, under and around the boat, for several minutes. Our first glimpse of the fish indicated it was a large female, mint in colour with ivory stripes, and corpulent with weeks of heavy feeding on protein-rich mooneyes. It surfaced to the boat twice before we hand landed it without any resistance on her behalf.
For a brief time, we admired her awesome beauty and marvelled at its hybrid markings. It was a tiger musky, with beautifully patterned stripes of green and ivory that so perfectly mimicked the undulating weed beds where they ambushed their prey. As we slipped the circle hook out of the corner of her mouth and held her upright in the water, we glanced around and noticed that ice had starting forming in the bay and that our route towards shoreline was now covered by a transluscent sheet of thin blue ice.
When ready, she slid effortlessly through a frozen hand and we watched intently as she slowly glided back down into the dark and frigid depths below the ice from where she had come. It had been a good day and we knew that the time had come to leave this place and as the boat cut a path through the thin veneer of ice, we both silently acknowledged that she was to be our last musky of the year.