While others streaked to the back of stores on Black Friday for deals on HD TVs, new computers and the latest wireless headphones, Marshall Hopp of Valley City, N. D. took his time getting to Reed’s Sporting Goods in Onamia, Minn. to pick out the perfect lure for a late season muskie fishing trip on nearby lake Mille Lacs; it turned out that the Grandma crankbait would connect him with a muskellunge that would unofficially challenge the Minnesota state record.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Hopp and his fishing buddy Kodi Johnson, of Milaca, Minn. were greeted by Reed’s staff as they made their way back to the muskie tackle section, “they told us we were their first Black Friday shoppers,” Hopp remarked.
Both anglers picked out 13-inch Grandma crankbaits, with Hopp selecting a fluorescent perch pattern that caught his eye for the late season trip. Normally getting back home to Milaca and nearby Mille Lacs once or twice and much earlier in the open water season, the November 25 trip would be Hopp’s first of the year. With calm and cloudy conditions, the anglers set forth from a launch near Isle, Minn. along the south shore of the lake. After chiseling through a thin layer of shoreline ice, the duo set out, trolling in about 25 feet of water. The pair moved along with no action but the rhythmic thumping of their baits in the open water along the breakline, watching the depth finder and GPS, when something went strangely awry.
“All of a sudden, my line went completely dead,” said Hopp as he relayed watching a wisp of braid whipping halfway down the eyes in his rod, “a slight nick in the top eye of my rod had cut the line, and we turned around to see if we could find my lure,” he continued.
After two passes which retraced the travel lines on the GPS, Hopp caught a glint of green in the gray surface of the lake and happily retrieved his new crankbait. Not willing to give up so easily, Hopp restrung his rod, avoiding the last eye, and tied on his leader before tossing out his bright green offering again. The pair headed to a nearby reef and banged their diving lures against the rocks in hope of stirring up success despite the inauspicious start to the journey. They cleared the structure and drifted into open water, when Hopp’s rod jumped again, but instead of going slack, it doubled under the pressure of a powerful strike from a surging fish.
“At first I thought I was snagged on the reef, but Kodi assured me we were out over 25 feet of water,” Hopp related of the moment he hooked the fish, “and then all of a sudden there was this tremendous thrashing on the surface, and I knew the fight was on,” Hopp continued.
The fish dove hard after the initial surfacing, but charged toward the boat, coming in fairly easily by Hopp’s recounting of the early stages of the battle. It neared the surface again and charged to the right, before making a spirited sprint to the left and diving once more. Hopp could see clearly that his Black Friday purchase was T-boned squarely in the muskie’s mammoth maw as it made its way back to the boat and toward the net.
“It was well hooked,” said Hopp, but with the moment to land the leviathan nearing, the sheer size of the muskie sent shocks of adrenaline through his system, “honestly, it looked like a shark as it went back to the right along the boat,” he admitted.
Johnson deployed the oversized net, but both anglers knew the size of the fish would test all of its circumference. Hopp stepped to the back of the boat and steered the muskie toward the net, “miraculously, it flopped right in,” Hopp said, as the majority of the fish’s length cleared the metal frame, leaving only the tail hanging out.
Johnson attempted to land the fish but was unable to hoist it over the gunwale by himself. After catching his breath and shaking the cold from his hands, Hopp grabbed one side of the net and Johnson the other and they lifted the beast into the boat. Setting to work, Hopp struggled with the rush of adrenaline as he attempted to unhook the massive muskie that lay along the edge of the boat in front of him.
“I was just about to cut the last barb, when the hook popped loose,” Hopp recounted; it was then he realized just what an epic fish he had in his hands – it was the biggest fish of his life and he could barely lift it.
“My buddy is a die hard walleye angler, and the tape in his boat only goes to 40 inches,” Hopp said, “and the crankbait was 13 inches, and the tail still went beyond that point. Ultimately, we just put a scratch into the boat’s paint at the tip of the nose and the tail to measure later,” he continued. Unofficially, from-scratch-to-scratch, the fish measured an even 56 inches when the pair got back to shore.
Not prepared for a girth measurement, Hopp looked around the boat for a makeshift tape and spied the USB charging cord for his cell phone. Wrapping it around the fish’s bulging stomach, he marked the point where the white wire met the flat plug-in portion of the cable with a scrape from the inside of a treble hook. The beast’s belly would unofficially register a girth of 28.5 inches. By those unofficial measurements, the muskie’s weight was conservatively estimated to be nearly 57 pounds.
Currently, the Minnesota state record for certified and weighed muskellunge sits at 54 pounds, and was a 56-inch fish with a 27.75-inch girth caught on Lake Winnibigoshish in Itasca County in 1957. This summer, the record catch-and-release by length muskie was caught on Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County, taping out at 56.875 inches in length with a girth of 25.5 inches. In order to qualify for a C&R record with the Minnesota DNR, an angler must provide a photo of the muskie on a measuring tool that clearly shows the length of the fish at time of the catch.
“My buddy told me to put it in the net at boatside until we could figure out what to do with it,” Hopp said, “but I told him ‘No, I’m going to let it go, I’m not killing a muskie, especially one this big,’” he concluded, despite thinking by that point in the event that the fish could challenge the state record. Taking multiple photos and video of the fish to document its significant size would be enough to capture the massive memory of the muskie in Hopp’s mind.
“The pictures and the video do [those measurements] and this fish justice,” Hopp stated regarding the unorthodox measuring system and his decision to release the fish without submitting it for registry with the Minnesota DNR.
With some effort, Hopp raised the muskie over the edge of the boat and set it in the water. With a slap of its powerful tail, the muskie dove into the dark depths it came from, and Hopp pumped his hands and shouted out the last of his adrenaline after the successful release of his twelfth muskie of the year and fifteenth overall. It was the first in his three years of pursuing the fish of 10,000 casts to eclipse the 50-inch mark and it did so in a big way, making this Black Friday Hopp’s brightest day ever on the water…in our outdoors.