Billy King is an Oklahoma catfish noodler, not an ice fisherman.
But he made good with his hands Saturday on his first-ever visit to a frozen lake.
Reaching into an ice hole on Lake of the Woods, he pulled up a 13-pound whitefish that could be a new state record. The broad-backed fish broke his line, but was wedged in the hole.
“We took it to the taxidermy shop in Warroad and their jaws dropped,’’ said Dave Erickson, King’s host for a weekend of fishing on Whiskey Flats, 14 miles from shore.
Phil Talmadge, a supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Baudette, said King and Erickson visited his office early Monday morning to receive verification from a state fisheries biologist that the lunker was, indeed, a “lake whitefish.’’ Now DNR officials in St. Paul will judge whether the fish meets all other criteria necessary to surpass a 12-pounder caught in 1999 on Leech Lake.
“The whole thing is just really overwhelming to me,’’ King said Tuesday. “I’m just an old fisherman who wanted to go fishing. I can’t even catch a state record fish in my own state.’’
King, 47, of Pryor, Okla., is a foundry superintendent who met Erickson years ago during business travel. Erickson, who lives in Motley, Minn., brought a group of Minnesota anglers to Oklahoma about four years ago for hand fishing thrills delivered by King.
He took them for a pontoon cruise on the Lake Hudson reservoir, teaching them how to grope with their arms underwater, feeling for monster flatheads. The Minnesotans took turns getting their fingers nipped. Erickson remembers a lot of squealing and laughing: “We all had a blast. He’s a huge noodler.’’
Erickson and his buddies wanted to return the hospitality, but life got in the way for several years. When the opportunity arose this winter to take King fishing, Erickson chose Lake of the Woods. The native Oklahoman had only caught a handful of walleyes in his entire life. In addition, he had never caught a yellow perch, tullibee or northern pike — all catchable species on the big border lake.
Like a frozen pasture
King won’t lie. He was flat out scared to drive onto the frozen, slushy abyss that is Lake of the Woods in early April. But he cracked a joke as he boarded Erickson’s side-by-side ATV.
“In Oklahoma, we back down our boat ramps,’’ he quipped. “We don’t drive down going forward.’’
The two were joined by Lyle Erickson of Warroad, a friend who knew where to fish.
King said his fears eased as they drove further from shore. “I didn’t expect it to be so stable,’’ he said. “I might as well have been driving over a snow-covered pasture until I started boring holes.’’
The trio parked above a reef, with Lyle on a snowmobile. At varying depths, they lowered small spoons tipped with live minnows, detached minnow heads or frozen shiners. As daylight began to fade, the walleyes got hungry. King landed a beautiful 19-incher on a pink-colored “buckshot’’ spoon.
He returned to fishing and instantly fooled the whitefish. It tugged like a walleye and felt similar on the retrieve.
“It was bigger and pulling a little drag and then I couldn’t get it through the hole,’’ he recalled.
Lyle and Dave Erickson largely ignored King as he tried to explain his predicament. They were too busy catching walleyes.
“Dave wouldn’t get off his bucket,’’ King said.
King guessed he landed some kind of carp. It had big scales and a familiar shape but was white instead of golden. Eventually they all figured out it was a big whitefish — worthy of a picture and perfect for the smoker.
On shore, they showed the fish to an “old codger,’’ Dave Erickson said. The senior angler told them he had never seen such a big whitefish, prompting them to quickly visit Rick Thompson at Thompson Taxidermy in Warroad.
The group weighed the fish using a bathroom scale and concluded it was potentially a pound heavier than the state record whitefish caught by Darryl Peterson of St. Paul.
They wrapped the fish in a towel and raced to Doug’s Supermarket. The store’s deli was about to close and it possessed the only certified scale available in Warroad on a Saturday night. The manager was locking up, but agreed to give the fish an official weigh-in: 13 pounds, 9.1 ounces. It was 29.5 inches in length with a 22-inch girth.
“The rest of the night was pretty much a party,’’ King said. “It was a marvelous trip. Everyone I ran into was extremely courteous.’’
King said he made a deal with the taxidermist before he left. Mount the fish, accent it with a fake piece of ice and deliver it to Oklahoma ... during noodling season.