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Late-season ice run yields trophy pike

The afternoon sun warmed my face as I walked cautiously across the rapidly melting ice that covered a small bay just off the main channel of the Mississippi River.

Several days of 50-plus temperatures and absolutely brilliant sunlight had thinned the ice considerably and left a three-foot gap of open water between land and the ice pack.

In some areas, the pack was covered by a few inches of slush that slowly seeped into an overlooked pinhole in my knee-high rubber boots. To make matters worse, there were numerous holes in the ice that had been drilled by fishermen over several days--and the water lapped gently against the edges of the openings, in rhythm with my footsteps as I gingerly tiptoed by.

So it probably wasn’t the brightest idea to venture onto thin ice. But then, a good pike run can do strange things to a guy — and this year’s run has been exceptional.

Late March is the time of year when folks who live to fish the big river actually get excited about northern pike. As the ice begins to melt, the hard-fighting predators move into sheltered bays and coves, scavenging winter-killed baitfish such as small shad and perch. Eventually, the pike move into streams and marshes to spawn before they travel back out to the main channel.

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"We’ve got four fish, ranging from four pounds to about eight pounds," my buddy Scott Kobs said when I called to tell him that I was on my way. Scott and his dad, Ken, are long-time river rats who seem to have a knack for finding fish — big fish.

So when Scott invited me to join him and Ken, as well as friends Ryan and Butch Dresher, for a tip-up party, I jumped at the chance.

Nearly a dozen other fishermen were already tending jigging rods and tip-ups when I arrived. Several big northern pike lay on the ice, solid evidence that the run was indeed in full force.

I quickly hooked up a couple four-inch sucker minnows and chose two open holes in which to set my lines. As we lounged in the sun, watching for a tip-up flag to announce a strike, someone pointed out a woman who was minding her own tip-ups 50 yards away.

"That woman caught a 22-pound pike yesterday," he said with amazement. "She even brought a picture of it today."

For most of us, catching a fish that big is a once in a lifetime event, requiring an expensive Canadian fly-in trip to a remote location. Yet, every year immense pike are pulled out of the Mississippi River, right here in southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin.

Within minutes, one of the flags popped up and I hurried over to the hole as line screamed off the reel. I gently lifted the tip-up out of the water, and as the fish slowed its run I grabbed the line and set the hook hard. Soon, I added another nice pike to the four that my fishing partners had carefully placed on the ice.

The afternoon action wasn’t exactly hot, but it was steady. An hour later, another flag sprang into the air and Scott rushed over to check it. As I arrived, he was struggling with the line.

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"Must be a big one," he muttered as he slowly drew the fish toward the hole. Together, we peered down into the translucent water and watched as a brute of a pike flashed by once, then twice.

As Scott pulled the fish up into the hole, I grabbed for a gill cover, only to have it slip out of my hands. With a final yank of the fishing line, he hoisted it through the hole and onto the ice.

It was yet another trophy pike, caught from the waters of the Mississippi during the late ice run. Somehow the risk seemed worth it.

Chris Kolbert is a freelance writer from St. Charles.

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