PLYMOUTH, Minn. -- The 64-year reign of one of Minnesota’s most storied fishing records appears to have come to an end on a chilly night this week.
Nolan Sprengeler of Plymouth landed a muskellunge weighing 55 pounds and 14.8 ounces on Lake Mille Lacs on Monday, Nov. 22, and weighed on a certified scale at a UPS Store, providing the capstone to a evening of drama following years of pursuit leading up to a few minutes of rod-jerking mayhem. Actually, there was more drama after the brute was landed, but we’ll get to that.
The official state record for the heaviest muskie — a 54-pound fish caught on Lake Winnibigoshish — has stood since 1957.
While it’s unlikely anything official will be decided before next week, interviews with several officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggest that all the paperwork — witnesses, notarized signatures, weight via a certified scale and an official determination of species (Esox masquinongy) — all appear to be in order.
According to Sprengeler’s account and the official record-fish application he filed with the DNR the next morning, here are the particulars:
Time: 9 p.m.
Location: “Rock reefs,” according to Sprengeler — and you can bet those aboard will take any more details to their graves.
Lure: “Casting big plastics.” (Again, don’t ask for more.)
Weight: 55 pounds, 14.8 ounces
Length: 57.75 inches
Girth: 29 inches
Team: Sprengeler, along with netter Kevin Kray of Otsego and Zack Skoglund of Zimmerman.
Scale operator: A guy named Randy at the UPS Store on Olson Memorial Highway in Golden Valley. (More on that later.)
The age of the fish is unknown but there are clues. The fish had a fin that had been clipped before stocking during certain years, meaning she — it was a female — is either 13 (unlikely), 22 (probably) or 29 (possibly). Sprengeler has provided the DNR with a cleithrum — a bone from the fish that might confirm its actual age.
Sooner or later …
Few doubted the 1957 record would fall, but nonetheless, Sprengeler’s muskie will likely serve as indisputable evidence to cement Minnesota’s place among the modern monster muskie fishing destinations in America. (The official world record recognized by most organizations — Louis Spray’s 69-pound, 11-ounce muskie — was caught on the Chippewa Flowage in northwestern Wisconsin, but that was 1949, a different era — and one steeped in muskie-record controversy.)
The idea that Minnesota-record-breaking fish have been lurking in Mille Lacs — and other large Minnesota lakes such as Lake Vermilion — is no surprise to those who have flogged the waters in search of giant muskies for decades. Numerous fish that surely would have given the record a run for its money have been caught, measured, photographed and video recorded, but ultimately released alive before being weighed on a certified scale — meaning the biggun from “Big Winnie” held firm in the record books.
The state began sporadically stocking Mille Lacs — a massive central Minnesota lake of some 132,500 acres — in 1969, providing a beastly alternative to its famed walleye. In the 2000s, specialized muskie fishing, with lines up to 100-pound test and rods with strong backbones that flung lures the size of a large man’s boot, exploded in popularity among a hardy subset of anglers. That coincided with the coming into adulthood of a particularly brutish breed of muskies — the Leech Lake strain — that have been steadily stocked in Mille Lacs since 1989.
“I guess it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen reports of all these huge fish that have been caught,” said Tom Heinrich, the DNR’s fisheries area supervisor for Mille Lacs. “These are special fish.”
The DNR has an entire family of “catch-and-release” records for fish that are photographed, measured and let go, in line with the muskie mantra of “let ’em go, let ’em grow.” It was the muskie catch-and-release record that Sprengeler first figured he’d put in for, since that record is currently a held by two 57.25-inch fish from Lake Vermilion. But after an hour of attempted revival, it was clear the fish would die, he said.
‘All-in or nothing'
Sprengeler, 27, works for Plymouth’s public works department by day, but is a chaser of big muskies during most other waking moments, he said.
“I’m out most every weekend,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. While muskies can be caught all summer, big-fish anglers know that the last of the fall season, right before ice-up, is when the biggest fish are feasting on fatty baitfish such as ciscoes, getting bigger as they pack away the pounds for the long winter ahead.
Kray texted Sprengeler Monday alerting him to dropping temperatures.
“He said it was probably gonna be our last day of the year, before everything freezes,” Sprengeler said.
There was a certain urge to make the trip for Sprengeler, who was in mourning from a neighbor and good friend who recently died. He took off work early.
Launching Sprengeler’s boat turned out to be an affair for him, Kray and Skoglund, as harbors and bays had begun to freeze. The team chiseled through the ice to launch, and they weren’t cruising open water until after 4:30 p.m.
“That wasn’t really our original plan, but we figured we were already up there, so we might as well fish,” Sprengeler said, adding that the moon phase and upcoming moonrise — two factors researchers suspect might influence muskie behavior — were favorable Monday evening.
They were casting lures in the dark in sub-20-degree temperatures.
“It was horrible,” he chuckled. “You’re dealing with icy lines and icy line guides. But we always say when you fishing late fall and you’re fishing for fish this size, you’re either all-in or you’re nothing.”
‘Last hour of the last day’
“About an hour after moonrise, I got that tap on my line I’ve been looking for all year, and I could tell right away it was something special,” Sprengeler said.
The battle itself was fairly brief, featuring “a few ridiculous headshakes” by the fish before he guided it into the steady net held by Kray. In the shadowy glare of headlamps, he said he didn’t realize how monumentally huge the fish was until he held it on his lap for a photo and tried to lift it — and failed. Kray joined him for a pic that was well-headed toward virality Wednesday in fishing social media circles.
The bad news was the fish sucked the lure deep into its toothy maw, and hooks were tangled in gills.
“It sucked,” said Sprengeler, who said they spent an hour trying to revive it after quickly getting it back into the water. “We made the decision we should respect it and get it weighed.”
So they stuffed it into his boat’s live well and motored back to shore. When they got there, new ice had formed. It took about a half hour of driving the boat and trailer back and forth in order to break enough ice to trailer the boat. Nothing was open with an scale that would be up to snuff, so Sprengeler put the fish to bed under a few bags of ice and tried to get a few hours of shuteye.
The next morning, with the aid of a number of friends, they found a scale large enough to handle the fish’s likely weight, but also precise enough to measure ounces.
So it was that around 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sprengeler walked into the lobby of a Golden Valley UPS Store lugging a cold and dead fish of nearly 56 pounds. “Randy was cool with it — he was the man,” Sprengeler said, referring to a store worker, known only by his first name, who oversaw the affair. Randy could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Next, Sprengeler stuffed the fish back in the live well — “I’ve been hauling my boat everywhere because I have nowhere else to put this fish” — and drove to the DNR’s West Metro Fisheries Office, where Area Supervisor Darryl Ellison verified the fish as a pure-strain muskellunge.
And then, he drove to Conover, Wis., a small crossroads in northeast Wisconsin, home to the famed Lax Taxidermy, where owner Rick Lax agreed to make a traditional skin mount for the fish, and also create a mold from it, so replicas can be reproduced in a method that Lax’s father helped pioneer.
Throughout the whirlwind, Sprengeler’s phone blew up as he has told the story repeatedly.
“It’s a very close-knit group of guys I fish with, and its a been a journey that we’ve all been on. It’s still unbelievable that it went down the way it did: Last outing of the season at basically the last hour, to have it happen like that. It’s a storybook ending.
“But right now, I’ll probably take a nap.”