Reeling in the Big Ones on Elephant Lake

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Fishing, like baseball, involves long periods of abstracted inactivity broken from time to time by bursts of action.

It was in the abstracted mode that I trailed a Tony Rizzo "Trophy Tail" — consisting of "pulsating spinner, breathing marabou, and life-like squid tail," altogether a hideously succulent mouthful of black rubber glinting here and there with sequins and harboring a cluster of deadly and barely noticeable hooks — across central Ontario's Elephant Lake yesterday, running the boat at that rapid trolling speed that gives muskies an appetite and the impulse to lunge.

The lake lay under low gray clouds, emunctory thunder rolling in the distance and the water agitated to a nice "muskie chop," as the judge calls it — good fishing weather. The judge — Judge David H. Brind of Geneva, New York, my father-in-law — pointed the boat S-SW toward the point of Sheer Rock Island. This is the fortieth year that the judge has come to fish for muskies in Elephant Lake; he knows every weedbed and rock, and almost every muskie by name.

Through the fishing line my fingers savored the quivering trill of the lure's spinner — which meant its hooks had not yet picked up any of the weeds that grow almost everywhere in the shallow lake.

The muskie is the Boo Radley of American game fish, an elusive hulk in the shadows — a beautiful, green, striped but spooky fellow, big, fun to catch, and hard to find. Elephant Lake muskie, according to one fishing writer, are "aggressive and fearless." Trolling there is a Catch-22: 1) The muskie keeps mostly to the weeds; therefore 2) you must fish in the weeds to catch him, but 3) as soon as you enter the weeds, your hooks gather a harvest of vegetables; your lure stops dancing, stops appealing to a muskie as an item to gobble, and resembles, instead, something like a mysteriously skindiving head of romaine lettuce. Thereupon, you reel in, clear the weeds from the hooks, and then let the lure slip out again to take its chances in the tangle.

The news this year at Elephant Lake Lodge, according to Bill Smith, who owns the place with his wife Sandy, is that tiger muskies have reappeared in Elephant Lake. Tiger muskies, a cross of muskies and northern pike, cannot reproduce; they were stocked in the lake forty years ago, but not since then. Now Bill Smith believes — though the Ontario fish and game people express doubt — that the Elephant Lake muskies have been miscegenating with the northern pike next door on Baptiste Lake. Smith shows a picture to prove it — a tiger muskie caught recently in Baptiste.

I had caught (and released) two undersized muskies this trip — 30 inches and 34 inches, the legal minimum being 36. As we trolled toward Sheer Rock Island, we saw that in addition to the flock of white and gray gulls that always congregate on the archipelago of rocks dribbling out from the point, there now stood four blackish, scrawny cormorants — freshwater coyotes much given to a diet of sport fish. Win some (tiger muskies), lose some (via cormorants).

We trolled across rocky shallows at the point. Suddenly, a monster hit. My rod gesticulated crazily. I jerked back to set the hook. The indignant invisible thing fought back and I watched line peeling out even as I tried to reel in. The judge threw the motor into neutral. I found then that I could make some grudging progress against the brute. He did not, however, jump.

"I think he's pretty big," I told the judge.

He watched the battle and readied the net. I was complimented to hear him say, "You're playing him beautifully."

What obdurate force the creature possessed. He actually seemed to be dragging the boat. Moby-Dick! I hauled and reeled, under the sardonic eye of the cormorants — hauled and reeled...and mentally I had this 55-inch (at least) phenomenon iced down and on the way to the taxidermist down the road... when, after a moment or two of struggle, it began to dawn on me that my titan underwater was oddly immobile, conducting his side of the war from a fixed location. This disconcerted me. I was moving. The boat was moving. The brute, however, remained (as I could see now) motionless.

And so — my humiliation developing like a Polaroid — I reeled in a good-sized rock. Or rather, the great mossy rock, resting calmly in the shallow, greenish water off the point, had reeled me in. The rock had me mounted on its wall. I was the rock's trophy, for a moment.

"Who-whom?" as Lenin said.

The cormorants jeered. The muskies laughed. The judge, however, was very polite. He averted his gaze, and talked about getting a big fish tomorrow.