The tale of Minnesota’s northern pike record — supposedly caught in 1929 in Basswood Lake, at a length of 49 inches and weight of 45 pounds, 12 ounces — gained yet another chapter last week when John V. Schanken’s granddaughter contacted me.
Duffy Schanken Armstrong Farrell only recently stumbled across the photo of her father that I first published in 1996 with a column that questioned whether Schanken actually caught the northern pike he said he did.
And if he did, whether the photo in question depicted a fish weighing in excess of 45 pounds.
Most people who look at the photo say the fish is too short and too skinny to weigh that much. The way the fish is being held, by one hand, also suggests the fish isn’t that heavy.
Now Farrell says she doubts even that the person in the photo is her grandfather.
“I don’t think it’s him,” she said. She also doubts the pictured northern pike tops 40 pounds. “When we fished as kids at Grandpa’s cabin on Island Lake near Northome [Minn.], we caught fish that big,” she said, laughing.
The veracity of the northern pike record is important because the Department of Natural Resources has attempted in recent decades to clean up, and verify, the official list of Minnesota’s biggest fish.
In 1976, for example, the state’s “record” muskie was dethroned after it was determined to be caught on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods, not on the Minnesota side. Similarly, multiple state “record” largemouth bass have been anointed and delegitimized. Ditto the lake sturgeon record, among others.
But no Minnesota record fish dates back as far as the 45-12 northern pike. And none carries the advertising and tourism-building cache that such a monster does. Some observers suspect, in fact, that’s why the DNR has been reluctant to examine whether the fish is deserving of record status.
Based on my previous reporting, here’s what we know about Schanken, who was born in 1888 and died in 1975:
• He was an avid outdoorsman who, beginning in about 1920, regularly traveled to northern Minnesota and Canada to fish. He also guided moose hunters in Canada. Later, he and his wife, Louise, bought a cabin on Island Lake.
• In May 1929, Schanken and five friends — Clyde Young, Paul Stroud, Fred Kistner, Fred Cassy and Henry Montgomery — traveled to Ely.
• The six men rented tents and canoes in Ely and scouted lakes in the region, according to a written account of the trip made by Schanken in 1930. Then they traveled to Basswood, where they camped and fished from canoes.
• According to Schanken’s account, the men fished on Wind Bay. Schanken said they caught several large walleyes and northern pike before Schanken tied into his big fish.
• Schanken fought the northern for 45 minutes, he said, using a 18-pound test line that was two years old. He did not detail how the fish was weighed or where. It was 49 inches long, he said.
• Schanken sent word of the catch to Field & Stream magazine, which recorded the northern not only as a Minnesota record, but as a world record “besting the previous record by 9 pounds, 4 ounces.”
• • •
There’s no doubt, said Farrell, that her grandfather believed he owned the Minnesota northern pike record, and the world record.
“We heard that story many times when we were kids,” she said.
What’s also known is that a Chicago newspaper carried a story of Schanken’s big fish in 1930 that included the photo published here. The clipping remained in the Island Lake cabin when Schanken sold it in 1973 for $9,000.
Minnesota fisheries officials didn’t keep lists of record fish until 1950, when they began doing so informally. Later, in 1980, the DNR formalized its fish records and recognized Schanken’s northern pike as the state’s largest, even though the agency had no documentation to support the recognition — not even the photo published here.
Considering the lengths and weights of various record northern pike caught worldwide over the years — 47-pounder, 46.8 inches; 43-pounder, 53.9 inches; 39-pounder, 51.2 inches; 34-pounder, 47.25 inches — it’s possible Schanken’s 49-inch northern (assuming he caught such a fish), weighed 45 pounds, 12 ounces, especially considering he would have caught it in May, during spawning.
That said, there’s little likelihood that in 1929, Schanken et al. carried a camera with them while paddling up Moose, Newfound and Sucker lakes to portage into Basswood Lake. There’s also little chance they toted such a fish, if it were caught, back to Ely or nearby Winton — a daylong trip — to have it photographed.
Now Farrell, who happened across my 1996 column about her grandfather while doing family genealogy work, even doubts that the man pictured is him.
“I have a good idea what my grandpa looked like,” she said. “I have photos of him holding fish and also with an elk. If you look at those pictures, and then at the one of the man holding the fish, it doesn’t look like him.”
So, a fish record … or a fish story?