The search for a world-record lake trout
TAZIN LAKE, Sask.—4th quarter. The two minute drill. The final countdown.
Whatever the fishing equivalent is, we were facing it on Tazin Lake. We came to the big body of water in extreme northwestern Saskatchewan to catch a world-record lake trout and we were down to the last night to get it done.
Don't get me wrong, I'd already broken my personal best on lakers numerous times throughout my week-long stay at Tazin Lake Lodge, including a rotund 42.5-inch fish that would be considered a trophy anywhere else, but this lake produced a mammoth 72-pound giant just 10 years earlier and has hardly seen any fishing pressure since, giving us hope that we'd hook into a once-in-a-lifetime fish.
And we did.
"We're looking for Moby," Tazin Lake Lodge guide and owner Trevor Montgomery each time we'd hook into a fish that didn't resemble the fictional whale. I'd giggle uncontrollably as a healthy 7- or 8-pound lake trout would pull and yank with its stout muscles. Each time I caught a bigger laker, I'd consider a picture and he'd laugh and say, "Don't worry, we'll get a bigger one."
Pound for pound, a lake trout will test your tackle as tough as any fish. Normally, I would be content with those that seemed willing to cooperate, but he was right — we came to Tazin Lake to find the type of fish that only a few places are capable of growing.
Tazin Lake sits in the corner of Saskatchewan near the borders of Alberta and the Northwest Territories and carries a rich history that lends itself to growing trophy fish — the famous lake trout, and also northern pike.
The lake was really put on the map 10 years ago when the 72-pound behemoth — just short of the world record — was caught there. The fish measured 50.5 inches long with a 35.5-inch girth.
"Yeah, it was amazing," Montgomery said.
The lake's structure lends itself to growing big fish. Its large fish share the same genetics of lake trout that are found in the other big lakes around the area. But through human intervention, the lake grew in size and shape. In the 1930s, one of the three rivers that flow through the lake was dammed and the valleys that cut through the area's ancient mountain range were flooded. This significantly increased the size of the lake, bringing it to about 25 miles long by 6 to 9 miles wide. With cold water and depths in the hundreds, conditions for large lake trout were created.
Combine that ideal habitat with even more human intervention — or lack thereof — and world records were created.
"We're very unique here," Montgomery said. "Tazin Lake is in a special management zone. It's never been commercially netted and that's really helpful for the size of the fish and the number of fish."
They also release almost all the fish they catch, aside from a few eaters that become shore lunch. All the trophies go back to be caught again.
So when Lance Tangen and I lifted off the ground at Minneapolis International Airport bound for Saskatchewan, we were armed more with camera gear than clothes. We were filming for Northland Outdoors TV and our goal was a world-record fish.
So my protests were non-existent when Montgomery would move us to a new spot after hooking into a few decent-sized lake trout that would raise the heart rate of the most diehard of anglers.
We were looking for Moby. That's why you go to Tazin Lake. World-record lake trout.
There's always a little added pressure when you're filming. Not catching a trophy on a big trip like this can be disappointing for me, but not catching one while you're filming can be disappointing for my bosses.
So when we hadn't hooked into one of those famous lakers that Tazin is known for after the first couple days, I started to feel just a slight amount of pressure.
Montgomery just laughed; it was all part of his plan.
"The first couple of days on a trip like this are spent in the nursery," he said. Catching the smaller trout gives you a chance to get accustomed to the gear, learn the lake and practice setting the hook and fighting the fish.
You can't just go straight to "Big Fish Country," because there'd be nothing worse than hooking into a world record and then losing it before it got to the boat.
And that might be what happened to me.
After a few days of catching mere "piddlers," as Montgomery called them — anything under 20 pounds to him is a piddler — and numerous trophy northern pike, we headed out to big water to do battle with the giants.
When Montgomery set the hook on a 34-inch lake trout that spilled around his hands as he held it up, a weight lifted off my shoulders. We found a big one and we got it on camera.
Montgomery just laughed. "We'll get a bigger one." I admired his optimism. Of course, his experience on this lake meant it was more confidence than optimism.
When he set the hook on a 44-inch lake trout that looked like it could eat a canoe for lunch, I really got excited about having great footage for the TV show. He laughed again and said, "We'll get more."
The next day we headed straight for the big fish. I was hoping we could get one or two more big, gluttonous trout for the show. We already had some unbelievable footage, but every time you add another big fish, you up the awesome quotient considerably.
That's when I felt a tap on the end of my line. I gave it a tug and there was no resistance. Again, the fish bumped the lure and again I missed him. Finally, a third chance was offered and I set the hook. Bam! I was connected with a giant.
When you hook up with a massive lake trout like this, they begin with head bobs. The smaller ones will shake side-to-side, while the studs seem to nod up and down like they're saying, "Okay, you really want to do this? Let's go!" Sometimes they'll peel drag and run right away, and sometimes they'll toy with you, coming close to the boat with relative ease. Once they feel like you're celebrating too much, they'll run like mad, causing the reel to whine. They'll be 150 feet away before you can say, "Get the net."
That's exactly what happened with this fish. I had it close enough to see how big it was. My eyes got wide and my hands began to shake. I was tiptoeing the line between excitement and nervousness. I was happy to be battling a pig, but at the same time worried about catching the fish for the TV show.
There was no way I was going to lose this fish. And then, I did.
It ran to the bottom and I worked hard to break it's will. Once they've run a few times, you can usually convince them that it's just easier to come up and get unhooked.
As I slowly brought him from the bottom, he'd fight back every 10 feet or so. I was winning the war and started thinking about how great this episode of Northland Outdoors was going to be.
The end of the rod felt like it was wearing a hole in my stomach. My forearms ached. My hands were cramping. The battle was epic.
Suddenly, as I worked to bring the strong fish near, my rod tip straightened, and just like that, the Tazin Lake trophy was gone.
I sat down, stared off into the distance and wondered what went wrong.
"That's just fishing," Montgomery said, trying to offer some comfort and solace. Anyone who's spent time chasing monster fish knows the disappointment I went through. I reeled in the empty hook while replaying the scene over and over in my head.
The next few hours were a lot quieter in the boat.
The final countdown
The last couple of days saw us catch fewer fish, but they were all hefty hogs that broke the 40-inch mark. Quality over quantity. After catching my first 40-inch-plus trout, I laughed with Montgomery and said, "You were right about catching bigger ones." As we released the giant back into the lake, my hands shook and my knees were wobbly. That's what these fish do to a person.
So we had lots of big fish, but no world record.
As we hit 5 p.m. on the last day, we packed up on the lake and headed in for supper at the lodge. Throughout the week that would mark the end of the fishing for the day. We'd fill up on a five-star meal and doze off dreaming about another chance to catch a giant in the morning.
Except there would be no more fishing tomorrow.
There was an abandoned gold mine on the lake — remnants of the gold and uranium exploration of days gone by. All week we discussed exploring it with cameras to show some of the history of the area. Since we spent all week trying for the record, we'd put off the mining expedition. After our meal, we jumped back in the boat and headed for the mine.
We brought the rods just in case.
Can you blame us for not wanting to give up? After scanning the entrance to the old mine shaft, we went back to prospecting in big fish country.
Within minutes from when Montgomery dropped his white flatfish behind the boat, he was setting the hook on a fish that would look great over anyone's fireplace. He'd had the hot hand that day as the flatfish was easily outproducing the Ruby Red Eye Wiggler that had been so good to me all week.
"I've got one more white flatfish if you want to put it on," he asked.
It was hard to argue against it. I made the switch and dropped it next to the boat.
Within seconds — or minutes, to be honest I don't remember, I just know it was quick — I felt that lure go sideways and I yanked the rod up. The fish fought back and I gave it an extra hook set just to be sure. The head began bobbing, giving me an indication of it's size. Then the tease: He let me bring him in closer. Only this time, he never got close to the boat before peeling line.
The next 14 minutes are a complete blur. The sound of drag echoed across the lake and Montgomery and I would crisscross each other in the boat as the fish moved back and forth underneath us. It was cooperating mostly until I was given the "dead log" treatment. Sometimes you'll get an experience bringing in a big walleye where the fish will just stop moving. You try and pull, and it just says, "Nope," giving you the false sense of being snagged on the bottom. It only moves when it wants to. It was during this moment that I knew.
This could be Moby.
"This is a big fish," I said. Could I be connected with a world-record lake trout here on Tazin Lake?
I fought the urge to horse the fish in and played it out. We watched it rise and fall on the locater and could tell when it was getting close.
Forty feet, 30 feet, 40 feet ... 20 feet, 10 feet.
The fish appeared and the net dropped.
"LOOK AT THAT FISH!"
I couldn't help but explode with words — some were actually words in the English language, others were just sounds spilling out of my mouth.
With one quick scoop, Montgomery corralled the giant fish and high-fives started to break out in the boat. He struggled to lift it from the net and we carefully measured the length and girth. It would be a whopping 48 inches long by 30.5 inches around.
By their calculations, this was a staggering 56-pound lake trout. Not the world record, but wow.
The world record is swimming in Tazin Lake. And since we released this one, maybe it too, will become a world record someday.