There isn’t a day that passes where Merwyn “Doc” Cunningham doesn’t go fishing, contemplate fishing or tell one of the best fishing tales around.
The 69-year-old man, who lives a stone’s throw from the Mighty Mississippi River in the tiny burb of Victory, Wis., has fished all over the world, including places like Thailand and Vietnam. It was on an early-summer trip to Minaki, Ontario, Canada, however, where he caught one of the biggest —and a near-record — northern pike ever pulled from the deep, cold waters of Ontario, a province loaded with some of the world’s best freshwater fishing lakes.
It was, for most anglers, the fish of a lifetime.
The estimated weight of this monster northern – and this is no fish tale — was 43¾ pounds. It’s length was 53½ inches, making it the second-largest northern pike ever taken from Ontario trophy waters, according to the Trophy Waters Certificate Cunningham received after supplying the necessary data.
The sun-splashed day of the near-record catch, which was May 27, was just another beautiful day of fishing for Doc and his brother, Joe, along with several other friends. Doc’s first fishing venture to Canada was in 1976, and he has gone every other year ever since.
“We call them great adventures,” Doc said. “The great thing about smaller lakes in this chain, these narrow lakes the fish flow through and are more congested. Your odds of catching a big fish are a lot better. There are just a lot of fish with the rapids, the pools, the structure.”
Doc and his brother, who you might say are a tad competitive when it comes to who catches the first fish of the day, the biggest fish, the most fish, etc., were fishing Salvesen Lake, a seven-mile-long lake in the Sturgeon River System.
If you do a little research, you’ll find that the Sturgeon River System connects to the English River, a famous Ontario fishery.
OK, enough history about the place. What about the fish. The fish that kept Doc’s ticker beating faster than it probably should have all that day and well into the night. He was likely in overdrive the entire night.
“I was using an old Zebco reel, a Zebco Rhino pole and 30-pound, braided line,” Doc recalled. “I usually run the boat. I take my friends up there and like to see them catch fish.
“This day, we switched around and my brother was running the boat. He was running close to shore, so I was fishing on the other side of the boat. I let more line out and we came around a point. When it first hit, it stood me right up.
“He didn’t want to stop the boat, thinking I had a snag. When he saw it swimming (taking the line) out to deeper water, it was ‘Holy (expletive)!”
Doc estimated he had about 70 yards of line out, and was fishing in about 6 to 8 feet of water that had a ledge, dropping it to about 14 or 15 feet off the rocky shoreline. His buddy, Curt, had caught a 40-inch northern pike earlier in the same general area, but this was different.
It hit quickly, it hit hard. BAM!
It made the line on the reel “sing” as it pulled more and more out of the old Zebco. There was no use in trying to reel it in right away, Doc knew.
“I have caught a lot of fish,” said Doc, a Vietnam War vet and retired Air Force pilot, “so I knew I had something big and right up there with anything I had caught.
“I had the drag set and he was pulling out the line like crazy. The first thing I did was get my feet set (in the boat) and all I did was keep the tip of the pull up. He just kept bending the rod over and over. Then when he would stop running, I would wait a few seconds – sometimes I would even count out loud – and I would pull in (as much line) as I could.”
Doc is not wet behind the ears when it comes to horsing a big fish. After all, this man has caught two flathead catfish weighing in the 50-plus pound range this summer (58 and 52 pounds) as well as a 35-pounder – all on the Mississippi River, but that’s another story.
After 20 minutes of fish vs. man tug-o-war, Doc had the northern about 15 yards from the boat. That’s when the monster northern had other plans.
“We were in about 15 feet of water and he made a dive right under the boat. It was a newer boat, so there was no rubbing the line (on anything sharp, like a rivet),” Doc said. “I kept pulling him and he came out the front of the boat.
“All I saw was a flash and a turn of his tail. I swung my pole around to the other side of the boat and he came to the side. I took my fish rag and laid it over his eyes. That tends to calm them down.”
The fish, with little fight left after the intense 20-minute battle, laid on its side as Doc and his brother took a number of measurements.
“I had him laying alongside the boat for five or six minutes, max. He was tired. I didn’t want to kill him. We never did get him in the boat; there is no way we could have netted that fish, not that big.”
There was never a doubt that Doc and his brother would release the fish. They were fishing in what is known as a Conservation Area of Ontario waters, where catch-and-release fishing is strongly encouraged.
“More and more, there are what they call ‘Conservation’ or catch-and-release records,” Doc said. “It is based on catch-and-release fishing; we need to do more of that.”
Before releasing the fish, Doc had intentions of retrieving his Rapala lure the northern had chomped, even with each of the treble hooks lodged in its toothy mouth.
“I was going to try to save my lure, not sticking my hand in its mouth, but wiggling it loose. My adrenaline was pounding as I was thinking it would be nice to save this lure, he decided to make one last-ditch effort. He went down 15 to 20 feet… I didn’t want to leave that much line on him, so I cranked him up and cut the line above the leader.”
The northern dove to deeper, no longer visible, depths, and Doc knew that in a short time the fish would be able to shake free of the lure by dissolving the treble hook.
It was a fishing trip he would never forget, but there is more. There’s always more to a great fishing tale, right? Doc, it seems, was ready for an encore in the same spot, one day later.
“Less than 400 yards from where we caught that fish, we came around the point again. I was taking in the scenery, going around the point, then ‘BANG,’ my pole went down again,” Doc said.
“I said, ‘My God, Joe, I got another one as big as yesterday. And (like the big one) it is moving into deeper water.”
The fish boiled about 35 to 40 yards behind the boat, and Doc repeated the same scenario as the day before – rod tip up, hold, hold some more, crank when the fish hesitates. Don’t get too aggressive, or battle will end quickly, with the fish winning.
“We got it to within 15 yards in the back of the boat and it came out (of the water). It was a beaver. I snagged a beaver. I cut the line.”
Not everything, it seems, is fishy for Doc and his brother.