Published September 01, 2008, 12:00 AM

Could Lake Andrusia muskie have been a state record?

Dave Hendrickson was three cranks into his first cast of the afternoon when he hooked into a fish that’s going to leave him wondering “What if?” for the rest of his life.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald, Bemidji Pioneer

Dave Hendrickson was three cranks into his first cast of the afternoon when he hooked into a fish that’s going to leave him wondering “What if?” for the rest of his life.

And no, this isn’t a tale about The Big One That Got Away.

The fish is still out there, though, and that’s part of the mystery.

Hendrickson was casting a No. 7 perch-colored Shad Rap along a weedline on Lake Andrusia near Bemidji, when the behemoth hit about 3 p.m. Aug. 12.

The behemoth was a muskie, and Hendrickson’s reaction when it jumped 2 feet out of the water was the reaction anyone would have at the sight of such a fish.

“Holy cow!” he said.

Actually, Henderson admits, the specific words were “Holy (something else)!”

Hendrickson, 55, of East Grand Forks, was fishing walleyes on Andrusia with his wife, Julie, that afternoon, and they had about an hour to fish before heading back to shore for a get-together.

“It was one of those hot, humid days,” Hendrickson said. “I told my wife, ‘this is perfect weather for catching fish.’ ”

The couple recently bought a place on Andrusia, and Hendrickson says he’d never fished the lake before the previous day. He ended up catching five walleyes and two northerns on a jig and a leech, so he decided to head back to the same spot and try casting a crankbait toward the weedline and see what happened.

It didn’t take long to find out.

“I took three cranks and the lure stopped dead,” he said.

A partner in a glazing contracting company, Hendrickson fished professionally from 1979 to 1996. That experience served him well with a big muskie at the end of his line. Trying to go head to head with the fish on a 6-foot, 6-inch baitcast rod with 10-pound-test line and no leader wasn’t an option.

So, Hendrickson backed off the drag and let the muskie have its way.

“I basically used my thumb on the spool for tension,” he said. “I just let her swim around for half an hour or so. There was not much I could do.”

Still, Hendrickson had a few things working in his favor that afternoon. The lake was dead-calm so he didn’t have to worry about boat control. And for some reason, the muskie didn’t head for the reeds.

“She stayed out in deeper water, or I don’t think we could have landed her,” Hendrickson said. “She jumped a total of three times, and when I’d get her up to the boat, she’d shoot off. Those would be 20- to 30-foot power runs, and then she’d just stop and start swimming around again.”

No net

Hendrickson had only planned to catch a few eater walleyes, if anything, that afternoon, and so he didn’t have a net in the boat. He tried reaching down and grabbing the fish by a gill plate to land it, but that wasn’t working.

It was about this time that an angler in another boat stopped by with a walleye net. It took some doing, Hendrickson says, but by placing the hoop below the muskie and grabbing both sides of the net, they were able to scoop the fish into Hendrickson’s boat.

Needless to say, there was lots of fish hanging from each side of the net.

“My heart was pounding because I knew the fish was huge,” Hendrickson said. “It was kind of hectic.”

Hendrickson measured the muskie at 52 inches from the snout to the fork of the tail before reviving the fish and releasing it.

Only later, Hendrickson says, did he find out he should have measured to the tip of the tail; looking at the photo, that easily would have added 3 or 4 inches.

That’s where the “What if?” comes into play.

By length, at least, that means the muskie approached the Minnesota state record, a 54-pound, 56-inch fish with a 27.8-inch girth that came from nearby Lake Winnibigoshish in 1957.

Hendrickson says he can’t help wondering if he might have released a state record.

“I’ve fished heavily the majority of my life, and that’s a fish of a lifetime for anybody,” Hendrickson said. “The fish’s head was bigger than mine if you look at the picture.

“I’m second-guessing myself to death here. Who wouldn’t want the notoriety of having the Minnesota state record muskie? But then you have to kill it.”

Girth question

Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said the muskie Hendrickson caught likely was at least 20 years old.

But it’s impossible to say whether the muskie was a state record-class fish without a girth measurement, Barnard said. And that’s a measurement Hendrickson didn’t get.

“The girth can vary quite a bit this time of year,” Barnard said. “Some of the fish are feeding heavily, and some of the older fish are longer, thinner fish anyway.”

Barnard says the longest muskie he ever saw on Lake Bemidji measured about 57 inches, and that fish didn’t weigh much more than 40 pounds.

Still, he says, Minnesota’s muskie record could be broken any time; especially with big lakes such as Mille Lacs and Vermilion now kicking out massive muskies.

“Ten or 15 years ago, it was rare to hear about a 50-inch fish,” Barnard said. “Twenty years ago, we were calling a 40-inch muskie a trophy. Now, a 40-inch fish doesn’t get a second look. It’s high 40s and 50s.

“There’s so many more 50-inch fish around here now, it’s just unbelievable.”

Hendrickson says several people have told him they would have done the same thing and released the fish.

That’s helped to ease the second-guessing, even though the biggest muskie he caught while actually fishing for them measured only 38 inches.

“I’m sure I’ll never catch a bigger muskie the rest of my life,” he said. “The only thing I wish I knew was, ‘Was it a Minnesota state record or not?’ I probably still would have let it go.

“Now, I’ve got something to wonder about the rest of my life.”

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