Billy King noodles for catfish down in Oklahoma, so he's used to pulling creatures from the murky depths, but the first-time ice fisherman didn't know what to think about the silvery behemoth with big scales he pulled from a hole in the ice Saturday night, April 6, on Lake of the Woods near Springsteel north of Warroad, Minn.
It didn't look anything like the walleyes, perch, pike and tullibees King and his fishing partners had been catching throughout the day, he recalls.
"I had no idea what it was," King, of Pryor, Okla., said Monday in a phone interview. "Being from Oklahoma, it looked like a white carp to me."
King had landed a pending new Minnesota state record lake whitefish, a species that while native, is not exactly common along the south shore of Lake of the Woods. The big whitefish weighed 13.57 pounds on a certified scale and measured 29½ inches long.
The existing state record lake whitefish, caught March 21, 1999, on Leech Lake near Walker, Minn., weighed 12 pounds, 4 ounces and measured 28½ inches, records from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources show.
From noodling to ice
A moulding superintendent at American Castings in Pryor, King says he made the trip to northern Minnesota at the invitation of Dave Erickson of Motley, Minn., whom he met several years ago on a business trip.
They've fished together on the Gulf of Mexico and attended other business outings since that initial meeting.
A couple of years ago, King invited Erickson to come down and try "noodling" for catfish. A popular technique in the South, noodling involves sticking bare hands into underwater holes and waiting for a catfish-and hopefully nothing toothier or poisonous-to bite down.
Erickson accepted the offer and reciprocated by inviting King to go ice fishing.
"I said sure," King said. "I love fishing, so that's how I ended up (going) up there ice fishing."
Fishing with Lyle Erickson, a Springsteel resident-and no relation to Dave Erickson-King says they had good luck Saturday, catching several walleyes, perch, tullibees and even a 39½-inch northern pike.
They were fishing a popular spot known as "the sandbar" in about 18 feet of water.
Saturday night at sunset, King says he'd just caught an 18½-inch walleye on a Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon when he hooked the whitefish.
"I rebaited, dropped straight back down and-boom!-that monster hit it," King said.
The whitefish was too big to fit through the hole, King says, so he got down on his knees to reach down and grab the fish behind the gill plates to land it.
"It put up a pretty good fight," he said. "I would not have guessed that it was that size. I just thought it was another good walleye. It pulled a little drag, and I just had 6-pound test line."
Fishing nearby, Lyle Erickson walked over for a closer look and said he thought the fish was a whitefish but had never seen one that big, King recalls.
"Dave was catching walleyes, and he didn't even get off his bucket," King said. "He said, 'meh, if it's a whitefish, we'll smoke it later; don't worry about it.'"
Fishing for info
Still, the size of the fish made an impression, King says, and they started thinking they perhaps should have someone in the know take a closer look. They packed up and headed back to the landing at Springsteel, where they showed the fish to another angler.
"He come over and looked at it, and he said 'Wow, I caught one that was almost a state record a couple years ago, and this one is a whole lot bigger than that. I think you boys need to go get this checked out,'" King said.
Following that advice, they brought the fish to Thompson Taxidermy in Warroad.
"When I brought it over there and set it in the sink, their jaws just fell right open," King said. "One of the guys there started making phone calls and got us hooked up at Doug's Supermarket in town.
"They close at 10, and we pulled into the parking lot at 9:59 and got it on their scales."
Besides being weighed on a certified scale, fish need to be witnessed by at least two people and verified as the correct species by two DNR fisheries biologists as part of the confirmation process. A notary public also must sign the entry form.
King brought the fish to the DNR's area fisheries office in Baudette, Minn., on Monday morning, and fisheries staff confirmed the catch as a lake whitefish, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette. Next up, King needs to complete an application and have it reviewed by staff from the DNR's state record fish program before the catch becomes an official new state record, Talmage said.
Catching a potential state record fish wasn't among his expectations for his first-ever ice fishing trip, said King, who's having the fish mounted at Thompson Taxidermy. The big whitefish capped a memorable weekend, and King says he hopes to go ice fishing again sometime.
"I think I will come back for sure," he said. "Everybody has been so nice, so friendly, and not just because of catching the fish. I mean even before that. It's just been amazing, really. It's been an amazing trip."