GRAND FORKS -- I once heard fishing described as an activity characterized by long periods of boredom followed by short bursts of excitement.

It’s during those short bursts of excitement that fishing also can be painful.

When it comes to losing a big fish, whether it’s on ice or open water, there’s no better word than pain to describe the feeling, at least in my vocabulary.

I know that pain.

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I was reminded of that again last weekend when a fishing buddy lost a huge pike at the hole while we were ice fishing near Oak Island on Lake of the Woods.

We’d made the trip to check out the new Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, which I’ve written about on a number of occasions since plans for the road first were announced back in November.

It's been all over the media in recent weeks.

The road, which opened in late January, is a novel and creative solution to a problem created by the closure of the U.S.-Canada border because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reaching the Angle by road, of course, requires driving through about 40 miles of Manitoba. That hasn’t been an option for tourists and other nonessential travelers since March.

Fishing was slow, and we had only two fish in the bucket when my fishing partner watched a huge, red blip race up on the screen of his electronics to slam the Chubby Darter lure he was using.

I saw the hit unfold from my side of the fish house, and the blip looked like a 3-foot line of red as the fish rocketed up from the bottom.

This pike definitely didn’t need to be coaxed.

The battle of man vs. fish went on for a few minutes, and it appeared man would win when he got the head of the pike steered up the hole.

Landing a big fish leaves little room for error, so when one of the treble hooks got caught on the ice a few inches down the hole, the thrashing pike was able to shake the lure and slide back to depths.

All we could do is watch in stunned silence – and pain.

The fish was massive; just how massive, we’ll never know.

One of the most painful lost-fish encounters in my experience occurred more than a decade ago on the Manitoba side of the Red River near Selkirk while ice fishing for the “greenback” walleyes that swim into the river from Lake Winnipeg.

Ah, the memories, eh?

Fishing was good, and I’d already landed a walleye large enough to meet the 28-inch minimum required for entry into Manitoba’s popular Master Angler program. That was a dandy walleye, to be sure, but it didn’t feel nearly as large as the one I lost later that afternoon.

Of course, fish that get away are always bigger; that’s an angler’s prerogative.

I had my second rod set in a holder outside the portable shelter in which I was fishing. Jigging from the heated comfort of the portable, I could easily keep an eye on the outside rod, which was baited with a “saltie,” as Manitobans call the salted shiner minnows that are sold in nearly every C-store and bait shop across the province, it seems.

I didn’t expect much from a dead shiner on a setline, but it was during one of those peeks out the window that I saw the rod buckle over in the holder and the tip start bouncing.

I ran outside, picked up the rod and started reeling, only to find the reel was either frozen or seized up.

The reel handle was locked up solid.

That left me no other choice but to set down the rod and play the fish using the hand-over-hand technique that was the order of the day before ice fishing equipment entered the modern era.

That was a big fish, and just like the pike last weekend, I’ll never know how big. Without the leverage my ice rod would have provided with a functioning reel, I didn’t have many options for controlling the walleye, and it got off at the bottom of the hole.

I’ve lost plenty of big fish over the years, but for some reason, that one stands out.

No one likes losing a fish, but every angler out there knows the pain that ensues when the “big one” gets away.

As the old saying goes, that’s fishing.

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken