Al Lindner told me a great fish story, but surprisingly, it wasn’t his big fish story. It appears (with more detail) in my newest book, Reflections Under the Big Pine, that I co-authored with professional hunter Bill Miller. I hope you enjoy this little excerpt from the book. It is a fun winter fishing story with a great connection to Christmas.
Al and two friends were fishing below the dam on the Mississippi River near Brainerd, Minnesota on a cold November day. “I found a nice little spot up by the dam with a warm-water discharge,” said Al. “That kind of warm water can attract a lot of fish.”
“I only had light tackle and line on a few rods in the car,” said Mort Bank of Bismarck, North Dakota. “Al said it would work just fine for jigging for walleyes.”
Sure enough, pitching 1/4-ounce jigs and twister-tails, the guys started catching fish: smallmouth bass and walleyes. “Then he set the hook,” recalled Lindner. “But I thought it was a snag. It didn’t move. My hands were cold, truthfully,” Al chuckled as he told the story. “I didn’t want to get up to move the anchor to unhook the snag.”
“No, it’s a fish on,” Mort replied a minute later, looking at his watch. It was five o’clock. The line moved slowly, and Al saw the movement, too.
“That’s probably a carp or buffalo,” Al chimed in. “Break it off, it’s just a big carp.”
Another minute or two went by. “I want to see it at least,” Mort sheepishly replied.
How does one have a difference of opinion in Al Lindner’s boat with Al Lindner? The line shifted more, the fish came up and moved away from the boat. “It porpoised and we all saw the tail,” said Al. “I couldn’t tell then if it was a pike or a muskie, but I knew it was big. Very, very big,” he laughed.
There was no more talk about cutting line. Mort kept working the fish. Eventually he brought it about 20 feet from the boat, and they got a good look at it sideways, real high in the water column.
“Look at that!” Al called out.
The third friend in the boat, Bill echoed, “What a muskie, Mort!”
“Get the net,” Mort called out, excited to catch his first muskie—and a good one at that.
That’s when Al realized he forgot the net.
“I don’t have a net; I can’t believe it,” Al apologized as panic ensued. How would they get this huge muskie in the boat without a net?
“I wasn’t using a steel leader,” said Mort. “Just six-pound test line and a quarter-ounce jig, and this was a big muskie.”
They devised a plan. “I’ll go get a net,” Bill offered. They were on the far side bank, and the boat landing on the other side of the river was pretty close to downtown Brainerd. Could Mort hold that fish with a 1/4-ounce jig and six-pound test line if they started maneuvering the boat?
Al started the boat’s motor. Mort back-spooled the fish, leaving him where he was, but kept tension on the line as Al slowly maneuvered the boat to the landing-side of the river. It was slow and tedious work. As they pulled up to the bank, Bill hopped out.
“Get the biggest net you can find, Bill,” Al called out, as Bill headed for the car to drive to the sporting goods store downtown. “If you can’t find one in town, drive out to my garage and grab one.”
“Mort worked that muskie like a champ,” said Al. “He was a good fisherman that day, still is a good fisherman.”
“When I looked down at the spinning reel, clear across the river from this fish, there were only 10 or 15 feet of line left on the reel, that’s all,” Mort said. “So I started taking the line in to get back to that fish. I knew I didn’t have any room to work it otherwise; I needed to get back to the other side of the river.”
Time ticked on by. Late in the afternoon in November, it started to get dark. “The carpet in that boat got wet from all the fish we caught during the day,” remembered Mort. “It turned to an ice-skating rink in there when the sun went down. We were slipping and sliding around like crazy, and I knew we weren’t going to be able to get back to the other side of the river. Bill was going to have to come to us on this side.”
The “other” side of the river was where the paper mill was at, though, strictly controlled for access. “No admittance” signs were everywhere. Bill drove over anyway, with the new, big net in the back seat of the car. He talked to the security guard at the gate.
“You won’t believe the size of the muskie we’ve got on in that boat,” he told the security guard. “I had to jump out to go get a net.” He gestured to the biggest net you’ve ever seen in the back seat. “I have to get to this side of the river.”
The guard shook his head and smiled. “No one could make that story up,” he said. “I’ll look the other way for a minute. If you happen to drive in, I guess I won’t know.” Bill drove into the paper mill property and navigated as close to the river as he could get. It was now dark and he had to scurry down an incline to meet up with Al and Mort on the water. With a net, a big net. It was now 6:30 p.m.
“Bill brought the net to the side of the river we were on,” Al continued. “Mort had to work that fish in and out of the trees. He did an expert job keeping it on while we moved over to get Bill and get that net in the boat.”
For an hour and a half, Mort had kept that fish on with the light tackle. Now it was time to get it in the boat. “It took another 30 minutes,” said Mort. “I kept the pressure on him and lifted him up the best I could, but when he would get close to the boat, he would move. He went in those trees and then back out again as I worked him.”
“Finally, after two full hours, the muskie popped up enough to the surface that Al could scoop him up with a swift move,” Mort said. “It was 7:00 p.m., cold, windy and dark. We had a monster muskie in the boat, though. He was exhausted, and frankly, so were we, but we high-fived and shared congratulations. It was an amazing fish.”
“It was incredible, just incredible!” Al exclaimed. “I knew immediately it must be a world record with that light tackle.”
“We assumed it was about 40 pounds,” Mort said. “We wrapped it in a sheet and took it to a friend of Al’s, a guy with a gas station and a huge, walk-in cooler. It was like a morgue for this fish, but we knew we needed it officially weighed and measured the next morning.”
Mort hardly slept that night at the motel. He tossed and turned, working that fish all night long in his head. On the few occasions he did sleep, he dreamt wild, vivid dreams. “I woke up worried that I had dreamt it all, that it hadn’t really happened.”
The next morning, though, Mort left the hotel to meet the guys down at the gas station. When he got there, more than one surprise awaited him. “First of all there were at least 100 people there, wanting to see this fish,” shared Mort. “And there were television cameras and newspapers photographers and reporters. It was a big deal and word had gotten out.” They got the fish weighed and measured by the book. All the official paperwork completed, it weighed a whopping 44 pounds, one ounce. It was 53 inches long with a 28-inch girth. What a monster. It was a world record. There were plenty of stories published about it.
“It didn’t hurt that I had Al Lindner in the boat with me when I caught it either,” Mort laughed. “That probably added a little bit to the story and a lot of outlets ran it. It stood in the record books for a long, long time.”
What an experience. It could have been, though, a completely ordinary day. It could have been a snag that they broke off—or a carp that they didn’t want to waste time with. Boom. End of story.
They would have had a fun day catching walleyes and smallmouth, and it wouldn’t have been remembered 40 years later by any of them. But that’s not where the story ends.
There is more because they persevered. There was a record in the books for many years because of patience. Waiting. Hoping.
So, too, in our faith journey.
It might be during a beautiful sunrise while launching the boat or it might be while sitting in a tree stand with snow all around. The Lord whispers our name. It might be during a hike to the top of a beautiful vista overlooking a lake, or it might be while sitting by a campfire and looking up at the star-filled night sky.
We can wait upon the Lord, and then sit back for the ride of a lifetime. A good ride. An exciting ride.
Our faith journey can take us from one side of the river to another, close to the end of our line, in and out of trees, slipping and sliding on water-turned-to-ice. A prize awaits at the end, blessings in so many ways.
Or we can push it all down and ignore it. Cut it off and move on.
Another. Ordinary. Day.
Not today. Merry Christmas.
You can find the book Reflections Under the Big Pine just under $15 at Amazon. K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.