Published February 22, 2010, 11:17 AM

Our Outdoors: The Mystery Fish

The wiggly brown blob in Billy’s hand was a fish I had never seen before. It had feathery pectoral fins that were akin to those exotic Japanese fighting fish that Leslie Nielson’s clumsy detective character Frank Dreben killed in the first Naked Gun movie.

By: Nick Simonson, Duluth Budgeteer News

For the Presidents’ Day weekend, I had planned out a solid day of fishing on a lake near my mother-in-law’s house where I knew the fish would bite all day. A couple hours at sunrise put me on some good-sized, fast-biting bluegills with the occasional crappie mixed in. The agenda was to meet up with members of my wife’s extended family and get them hooked on ice fishing that was quick, easy and entertaining from the moment they arrived until the crappies faded out over the deep water after dark. And for the most part, we hit a solid bite from mid-morning on.

But by mid-afternoon, the bite had slowed and the occasional perch was all that we could muster. I wished for the bright sun to begin its evening descent at a quicker pace, setting the bluegills back into biting mode. And while I passed the time preparing half a dozen holes out deep over 28 feet of water for the night run of crappies I heard, “what’s that?!”

Against the midday sun, my wife’s cousin’s son, Billy, held up a dark fish, which wriggled on the end of the line. I looked up and saw the fish’s profile, and from fifty feet away I was certain it wasn’t that of a panfish. His twin brother, Cullen, seated next to him, leaned in for a better look as I started on my way over.

“Is it a bullhead,” I questioned, thinking that I had yet to ever see any rough fish in this particular gin-clear lake, tucked between the mines and pines of the Iron Range.

“I don’t think so, Billy replied.

The wiggly brown blob in Billy’s hand was a fish I had never seen before. It had feathery pectoral fins that were akin to those exotic Japanese fighting fish that Leslie Nielson’s clumsy detective character Frank Dreben killed in the first Naked Gun movie. When held by the back, the fins flared up, forming a collar like that of a frilled-neck lizard, making the fish appear far more menacing than its five-inch length let on. Behind the gill plates the body quickly thinned and sported a continuous dorsal fin. The top-mounted eyes on the wide head of the fish bore a resemblance to a ling, another fish I had never seen. I positioned the idea that maybe it was a young eelpout, and snapped pictures for further review.

As the sun sank into the treetops, the bluegills returned to our offerings and then a solid run of evening crappies occurred under our area of the ice. The boys found consistent action and were excited to watch the red lines phase in on the Vexilar, approach their jigs, and come flying up the holes in the form of some dinner-sized specks. Despite a good run of fish, and a number of nice pannies in the pail, the topic of our conversation always came back to the mystery fish from the afternoon.

I became more and more certain that the fish was an eelpout, as I had never witnessed one in the flesh. Only through the magic of Joseph Tomelleri’s artwork and the press releases from the Eelpout Festival had I learned of the ling’s legendary ugliness. Assuming that the little brown fish Billy dropped back into the water was just that, as it had the face only a mother could love, I set about on the web to confirm its identity by comparing the pictures on my camera to those on the Internet.

It was then I realized that the little bug-eyed creature was no eelpout. The head didn’t match, the tail was too thin, and the large feathery fins were a dead giveaway. In the end it was a sculpin that provided the intrigue in our ice outing. And as sculpins go, the five-incher was a whopper.

Sculpins are a clear-water species found in the major drainages of Minnesota including Lake Superior, Rainy River, the Red River and Otter Tail River. They rarely live longer than four years and usually run from two to four inches in length. They reside amidst rocks and vegetation where they ambush crustaceans, insects and occasionally smaller fish for food. Among minnows and other fish that make up the base of the food chain, the sculpin has a unique appearance, with well-developed dorsal spines and pointy gill covers. Nevertheless, they are consumed by predators like large trout, bass and pike.

They are rarely caught by anglers targeting sportfish, but like this occasion, when they do show up on the end of the line, it can provide for a moment’s worth of bewilderment and a few hours of research shedding more light on an under-appreciated species and another great story … from our outdoors.

Nick Simonson of Eveleth, Minn., is an avid multi-species angler and a hunter. He has been writing a weekly column for more than eight years, but he made his debut in the Budgeteer News this summer. Find out more about Nick at www.nicksimonson.com.

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