Published February 20, 2012, 07:02 AM

Proctor anglers land tiger of a fish tale on St. Louis River

Marauding muskie crashes a walleye fishing party, and anglers are in for a long battle.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

Mike Meagher had been playing the fish for 15 minutes, and still he didn’t know what he had on the other end of his line. He knew only that it must be big.

Meagher, 23, and his friend Dallas Marnich, 24, both of Proctor, were fishing for walleyes on the lower St. Louis River last Wednesday when Meagher hooked something decidedly un-walleye-like.

After a 45-minute fight — and a minor medical emergency — he and Marnich pulled a 45-inch tiger muskie through Meagher’s fishing hole. After a few quick photos, they released the beautiful monster, stopped the bleeding from Marnich’s impaled thumb and tried to ponder what had just happened.

Meagher and Marnich were nearly alone on the ice that morning, and walleye fishing had been a little slow, Meagher said. They had drilled other holes outside their fishing shelter, and Marnich was outside the shelter, jigging in some of those holes. The men also had two tip-up lines in the water outside their shelter.

About 8:30 a.m., Meagher began seeing quick flashes indicating fish on his Vexilar flasher unit. Then, a huge red bar appeared and Meagher felt a subtle tap “like a walleye,” he said.

He was fishing in 8 feet of water, using a quarter-ounce gold jig and half a minnow on 8-pound test monofilament line.

“All of a sudden, my rod was bent all the way to my fingers,” Meagher said. “I set the hook, and it was like dead weight. Then the fish was running.”

Oh, did it run. And run. And run.

“I was back-reeling as fast as the fish was running,” Meagher said.

He figures the fish made a dozen or more long runs during the 45-minute battle. To keep the light line from wearing on the edge of his fishing hole, Meagher would poke his rod tip down into the water so the rod tip was below the 10-inch-thick ice.

After 15 minutes, he finally got a look at the fish. He saw the red hue on its fins, a sure sign of a muskie. Until then, he had suspected he was fighting a big sturgeon. It isn’t uncommon for walleye anglers on the river to hook sturgeon, which also make long, powerful runs.

Then Meagher saw the spots on this fish.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is a tiger,’” he said.

A tiger muskie is a hybrid between a muskellunge and a northern pike. It has bold, dark green stripes and spots on a creamy background. Many anglers might remember the 48½-inch tiger muskie caught and released last summer on the St. Louis River by Charlie Gallagher, who was fishing with Duluth muskie guide Dustin Carlson. That fish had a 28½-inch girth and was estimated to weigh about 49 pounds. It probably would have broken Minnesota’s current record for tiger muskies, 34 pounds and 12 ounces, but it was released.

Meagher’s muskie, during its fight, entangled the two other tip-up lines that he and Marnich had put out, and at one point a baseball-size nest of lines and hooks came up through Meagher’s hole. He and Marnich hastily untangled the mess, and Meagher continued the fight.

It should be noted that the prospect of landing a 45-inch muskie on 8-pound test line is extremely slim. The fish could easily break the line with its sheer power, and it could also slice through the line with its sharp teeth. Muskie anglers typically use stout rods and lines up to 80-pound test. Meagher didn’t have that luxury.

After another half-hour, the fish had tired enough that Meagher got it near the hole. He saw the size of the fish’s head in the water.

“I thought, ‘How’s this going to work?’” he said.

Not very well, as it turned out.

Marnich stuck one arm deep into the water and tried to grab the gill cover to lift the fish through the hole. But the muskie repeatedly broke free from his grip. After about nine tries, Meagher said, Marnich’s grip held, and he hauled the fish up through Meagher’s 9-inch-diameter hole.

Somewhere in that process, however, the muskie slammed its massive jaws shut on Marnich’s thumb and refused to let go.

“You wouldn’t believe the pressure I had on my thumb,” Marnich said.

The teeth on a muskie of that size are formidable things. Two of those teeth were firmly embedded in Marnich’s thumb. Working as quickly as he could, Meagher used a small pair of needle-nose pliers and his Leatherman multi-tool to pry the muskie’s jaws open just enough to release his friend’s thumb.

Meagher and Marnich measured the muskie on a tape affixed to his sled, took a couple of photos, and put the fish back down the hole. It powered back into the tannin-stained water, Meagher said. Muskie season on the St. Louis River remains open through March 1 with a 50-inch minimum size limit, but nearly all anglers who catch muskies release them regardless of regulations.

The anglers wrapped Marnich’s thumb in a towel and compressed the wound to stop the bleeding.

According to muskie length-weight formulas, the fish might have weighed 26 pounds. The anglers were unable to get a girth measurement on the fish.

Marnich still finds the whole episode amazing.

“It was a blast,” he said. “It was awesome. It took so long and was such a challenge to get hold of him.”

Meagher posted his tale on his Facebook page and has been fielding lots of calls about his catch.

“I’ve told the story 75 times,” he said.

But he isn’t complaining.

“It’s an adventure I’m never going to forget,” he said.