Bruce Sederberg had caught enough big lake trout that he knew he had something special on his line that January afternoon. He had caught 15- to 20-pounders on Ontario's White Otter Lake before. But after playing this one for about 20 minutes, he thought it might be different.
"The longer and longer it went, I kept saying, 'My word, what do I have?'" said the Duluth angler.
What he had was the catch-and-release ice-fishing world-record lake trout, a 46-incher that likely weighed more than 40 pounds.
Sederberg received word Feb. 8 that the fish had been certified by the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., as the record. Sederberg's big lake trout topped the previous catch-and-release ice-fishing record of 44 inches, according to the Hall of Fame.
Sederberg and three friends were fishing Jan. 18 on White Otter Lake northwest of Atikokan, Ont. They were staying at Brown's Clearwater West Lodge on Clearwater West Lake, which adjoins White Otter. They have been making at least one trip each year, sometimes more, to the lodge since 1983. Barry Brown has owned the lodge for 35 years.
"I've never had the opportunity to measure a 46-inch lake trout," Brown said. "I've never heard of a 46-inch lake trout in our region. It's the fish of a lifetime."
Earl Palmquist of International Falls, Minn., caught the ice-fishing world record for a kept lake trout, 40 pounds even, on Clearwater West Lake in 1987. That fish was 44 inches long, Brown said. The record still stands.
Sederberg had drilled two 7-inch holes side by side in the ice and chipped out the excess ice between them in case he hooked a big lake trout.
"I've drilled holes in preparation for a fish like this for 30 years," he said.
Fishing alone, he was jigging a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon weighing one-half ounce in a Super-Glo Perch pattern. The lure was tipped with just a minnow head. His line was 20-pound-test PowerPro with a 10-pound-test leader. He jigged near the bottom in 58 feet of water.
Sederberg hooked the lake trout about 1:30 p.m.
"I felt the bite and set the hook," he said. "It was just solid. It didn't give at all."
The fish fought deliberately over the next 45 minutes or more, Sederberg said.
"It never went on a fast run," he said. "It would just go for minutes on end, just go and go and go."
When it would stop, Sederberg would put pressure on the fish and gain back some line.
"I'd reel down, pump it up. Reel down, pump it up," Sederberg said. "It never seemed like I was getting as much line in as I was giving out."
His nephew, Bryan Sederberg of Duluth, snowmobiled over and watched Sederberg playing the fish. Finally, after an improbably long fight, the fish stopped on the bottom directly below the hole. It was apparently spent, and Sederberg was able to raise it to the hole.
Carefully using a gaff hook just inside the fish's upper jaw near the nose, Bryan Sederberg lifted the fish out of the hole. Even with the enlarged fishing hole Sederberg had cut, the fish was a tight fit.
"It made a real suction noise coming through as it popped out," Bruce Sederberg said.
The anglers gazed down at the monster.
"We could not believe it," Sederberg said. "We were astounded. It was just amazing to have a fish like that in the tent with us."
Privilege to land
He had planned all along to release the fish, as he does with all of the big lake trout he catches. It was not damaged by the gaff hook, he said. The fish didn't bleed, Sederberg said.
The men had no tape measure, so they laid it in the soft snow and made marks by its nose and tail. They took a few quick photos. They put the fish back in the hole, then took turns holding it by the tail and moving it gently back and forth to move water through its gills. When it gave a powerful flick of its tail, they let it go and it swam away.
Before leaving the ice, they used one of their partners' tape measures to determine the distance between the marks in the snow.
"It was an honest 46 inches," Sederberg said.
He estimated the fish weighed more than 40 pounds, but he'll never know.
"It's a high probability I released the world record through the ice," he said. "But I released it, and I'm glad I did. People will say it might have died anyway. But if we kept it, it would have been dead for sure."
Sederberg later submitted his world-record application to the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.
But he didn't fish any more that afternoon.
"I feel privileged to catch a fish like that and to have handled it for a minute or two and released it," he said. "I just wandered off by myself and let it sink in. I was awed by it, actually."