Battling and ultimately landing a monster fish is a physical experience that can morph, over time, to the mythological. "The Old Man and the Sea," as its title implies, is about an old man and the sea, but equally about resolve and conquest, pride and honor. Consider also the malevolence of Ahab in pursuit of his whale. The point is a fish is a fish. But a fish in hand, particularly a big fish in hand, can be more than itself. And often is.
Whether Rob Scott was thinking in these terms when he straddled his 1100cc snowmobile a few days back and angled north from his home in Crane Lake, Minn., is unknown. He had his hot lunch in a thermos. Also on board were tip-ups, jigging rods and his favorite trout jigs, as well as a power auger and frozen shiners for bait. A retired Navy captain, he was prepared for whatever might transpire on this day, and he was comfortable racing up Crane Lake onto Sand Point Lake and toward the big and deep border lake, Lac la Croix.
Exactly how cold the morning was, he was unsure. Already this winter he had caught 16 lake trout, many pulled through the ice in subzero temperatures. So he didn't worry about the weather. Besides, he had grown up in these parts. This was before he left for college and graduate school and 32 years in the Navy. Now, since 2003, he was back.
"My sea anchor always was going to drop right here, in Crane Lake," he would say. "I knew that."
When Scott steered his snowmobile onto Lac la Croix, the giant lake's 34,000 acres -- half of which lie in Ontario, the rest in Minnesota -- unfolded before him like an endless sea of white.
Navigation was important here, because Minnesota's side of Lac la Croix lies in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where snowmobiles and power augers are prohibited. But both are allowed on the Canadian side, so Scott stayed on the north side of the lake.
When he reached a spot below which he thought a trout might lurk, he killed the sled's engine and bored two holes through the lake's thick ice.
Few people fish Lac la Croix in winter. But sometimes Scott encounters an angler or two scattered thereabouts, most hunkered within portable shelters, warmed by gas heaters.
Not so Scott.
"I never use a shelter," he said. "I like being outside, on the ice."
Allowed two lines, Scott arranged a tip-up over one hole. Through a second icy cylinder, he would jig.
Lac la Croix can be as much as 168 feet deep, and his hope was that somewhere in the lake's water column his baits would encounter a trout -- if only by happenstance.
If that occurred, a struggle would ensue, pitting a strong fish and its desire to stay deep against Scott with his light line delicately played.
"I use 20-pound monofilament on my tip-up," he said. "And I jig with even lighter line: 6-pound-test."
Unlike many winter trout anglers, Scott doesn't use ciscoes for bait. His preference is to deploy shiners, each frozen and individually wrapped for the snowmobile ride north.
"The key is to thaw the shiners before you use them, and to do that I carry a second thermos full of hot water," he said. "After I unwrap a minnow, I pour hot water over it to soften it."
Through long cold days on the ice, Scott sustains himself as other anglers do, by reliving past fish he's caught. And he constantly strategizes, moving his fishing location as necessary from here to there, and from here to there again -- all the while imagining trout yet to be hooked.
He wasn't imagining when the flag on his tip-up snapped upright.
"I was only 20 feet away, but by the time I reached it and picked it up, the only thing I saw was a knot (tying the line onto the rig's spool). The fish had run the line out that fast, taking all of it."
When Scott set the hook, nothing moved.
"I thought, 'OK, Mr. Trout, I have all day. How much time do you have?'
"Well, after 15 minutes, it was apparent he had all day, also."
An hour would pass before Scott positioned the fish just beneath the ice. Yet he was uncertain, being alone, whether he could tip the trout's nose into the hole and quickly gaff it.
Failing twice, on a third try he impaled the trout's mouth with his gaff and lifted.
"The fish's nose was chest-high on me, and its tail wasn't out of the hole," he said.
The trout would tip the scales at 52 pounds, 3 ounces; it was 45 inches long, with a 32-inch girth.
Had it been caught on the Minnesota side of Lac la Croix, just 100 feet from where Scott fished, it would have handily beaten the state record of 43-8, a fish that was caught in Lake Superior in 1955.
Instead, it's simply a really big trout.
And soon part of the mythology of fishing.
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