A peachy piscatorial start to 2020

 Writer Dave Mull poses with the biggest pike he ever caught. The fish came from Lake of the Woods near Decatur on Monday.  

The fickle winter weather has made ice fishing impossible on area lakes, but that hasn’t kept some of us from fishing. In the first six days of 2020, I got on the water in my kayak three times. If I fish 180 more days this year, I’ll have been on the water in half of this leap year’s 366 days.

It’s good to have goals.

First trip was Friday, Jan. 3, to Lower Crooked Lake near Plainwell, a body of water known for big muskies. My buddy Zach Heiden and I spent about four hours getting progressively colder in our kayaks without a bite. Finally, sunset gave us enough sense to head to Ned’s on Gull Lake for pizza, burgers and beer.

But by noon the next day we launched our kayaks again, this time into Pine Lake, also near Plainwell. That day was gray, windy and so cold that ice formed in our rod guides. We bet a dollar on first, biggest and most fish, and I swept. I caught a tiny pike on a small black and blue jig and soon added a second on the same lure. This hammer handle was 19 inches long. Zach made things interesting by catching a baby pike on a shad-style crankbait, but we both got so cold we quit before Zach caught any more.

Monday morning I met my friend Mike Snay at Decatur’s Lake of the Woods, which is about halfway between my home in Paw Paw and Mike’s in Dowagiac.

We met at the public ramp just before 11. The day was cold and windy, but gorgeous — but the fish still had lockjaw. We tried the main lake first, where Mike had one bite and I caught a tiny perch on a Silver Buddy blade bait. We eventually entered a long, deep channel that is known for great ice fishing and good open water fishing in the late fall.

Both of our sonar units displayed lots of fish, which we guessed must have been mostly bluegills. Whatever they were, they wouldn’t bite our bass lures.

I mostly stuck with the same little gold Silver Buddy blade that had caught the perch. It’s a favorite cold water lure, and I tossed it with my baitcast combo spooled with 10-pound test fluorocarbon. This lure is best cast, allowed to settle on or close to the bottom, and then pulled with the rod tip just enough to feel it vibrate back and forth a few times. Let the lure settle close to the bottom and repeat.

Over about 14 feet of water, I was pulling the little metal bait up when it abruptly stopped. I yelled that I had one to Mike, who was about 40 yards away, and he paddled his orange Bonafide towards me to watch.

It was a big one. From the way the fish took line at will and even towed my kayak around, I conjectured I’d snagged one of the giant carp in Lake of the Woods. After about five minutes of the fish having its way, it surfaced about 20 feet away and I could see its dorsal fin and tail.

“Oh man, it’s a big pike!” I exclaimed.

The fight continued for another five minutes or so with the fish almost tangling with my anchor line, spurring me to crank in my anchor with one hand, holding the rod with the other. There was no need to worry about getting slack in the line as the fish continued to pull down and away, actually towing my kayak around the channel.

Finally it came up to where I could reach it with the landing net and I just marveled at its size. In six decades of fishing, I’d never hooked a pike as big as this one was. I slid the net under the surprisingly docile fish and hoisted it into my plastic boat. A good third of it wouldn’t fit in the net. I was happy to see the Silver Buddy had already come free of the fish and was tangled in the net — I didn’t have to reach into its toothy maw to unhook it.

I held it up for Mike to take pictures, then he held my paddle and its ruler against the fish while I continued to hold it, belly sagging. From nose to tail it was 38 inches long. We figured it probably was over 40 inches long had it been laying flat on its side. However long it was, I’m sure it was the biggest pike I’d ever caught.

I slid the beautiful beast into the water and it quickly swam away.

It was a wonderful way to start a year of fishing.

Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at dave.sportfish.mull@gmail.com.