I crawled out of bed, slipped on some warm clothes, and grumbled down the stairs to start some coffee. 5:25 a.m. I don't even get up this early for work, I thought to myself, but today I was excited to get out on the ice to try to catch some walleye for dinner.
The thermometer read 11 below zero, and the wind chill was nearing 20 below. I put on an extra layer and headed out the door to meet my good friend and longtime fishing partner, Benji Sam, at the landing.
He slipped out of his pickup and muttered, "Well, it's not warm."
I nodded in agreement. It was not warm at all.
A few other anglers had already headed out. We could see blue lights from their headlamps dancing left to right out on the ice, searching for their favorite spot.
The view from the shoreline was spectacular. All the lights from Duluth up on the hill disguised the fact that most of the city was still sleeping. They glowed like thousands of fireflies, mimicking the stars above. Far off down the shore, the aerial lift bridge was lit up in all its glory.
After taking in the moment, we too headed out on the ice, trudging through snow to our honey hole on the harbor. The city glow aided in our search, and we quickly found our spot. Benji set to work with his hand auger and swiftly burrowed through 8 inches of ice. In no time the portable fish hub was popped up and we were inside, our fishing lines tipped with minnows. We ceremonially offered our thanks to the gitchi-gami with dried tobacco, an Ojibwe tradition sacred to both of us.
It was slow out of the gate, but it felt good to be fishing once more. At first light the fish became a bit more active, following our jigs but not biting—yet. It wasn't long before we brought two walleye to the surface, keeping the bigger one and returning the other back to the depths.
Not a moment later we felt the ice start to vibrate as the water in the holes rippled from edge to edge.
"Is someone driving out on the ice?" Benji exclaimed.
"Nope, that's the Coast Guard heading out to the lake," I replied, peering out of the fish house window after scraping off a layer of frost. A few hundred yards away a large Coast Guard ship was busting through the harbor ice. Most people would probably have become unglued with a ship coming so close and knowing they were only inches above the icy depths of the unknown. But we didn't shy. We kept fishing.
A while later, after catching one more fish, we noticed two tugboats coming off the lake and heading through the channel the Coast Guard had cleared.
Ben spoke up. "What are ya thinkin', 20 more minutes?"
"Sounds good to me." The cold was starting to dwindle the dexterity of my hands, and they craved the warmth of a mug of hot cocoa.
He quickly switched lures, hooking up a rattling crankbait in an effort to draw fish in with the noise of the lure. Not a moment later I saw a flash go through on my fish finder screen, and Ben set the hook hard. The fish had screamed over to his lure and smacked his line. I quickly reeled up and looked into his hole. What I saw left me in awe: the head of a walleye that almost completely spanned the hole.
The fish made one last fighting effort to get off, pulling down in an attempt to get back below the ice and into the deep blue. Water gushed behind it, suctioned down by the fish. But it was unable to escape. I reached my hand into the bone-chilling water, grabbed the great sow behind the gill, and started pulling her out of the hole for what seemed an eternity. When she fully emerged we let out a raucous round of cheer and laughter that echoed beyond our ice house. We were stoked.
The fish was much larger than we anticipated. She measured in at 28½ inches—the biggest walleye that I've ever seen pulled topside. We quickly took pictures, gazed at the beautiful greenish silver of the fish, and released her back to her dominion, hopefully to be caught and released again by another appreciative angler. A true trophy, not for the wall, but for our memories.
It's times like these—a morning on the ice, a frigid forage—that remind me why I love the outdoors. It's not about catching the elusive giants, but about the possibility of truly amazing moments. That is what gets me outside.