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When Jake Skarloken finally caught a glimpse of the big fish on the end of his line, his jaw dropped.

He knew it was a lunker of some kind when it chomped into the plastic minnow on his jig in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The way it stubbornly hugged the bottom of Crooked Lake for 10 minutes, he envisioned a monster 30-inch walleye. When he finally lifted it up into the water column on a six-pound test line, the fish began to pull his solo canoe in the same direction as the lake's current. His father and brother-in-law paddled next to him to grab the back of his canoe to hold him in place.

"It wasn't spinning me around, but I couldn't pull the fish in," Skarloken said of the encounter in late May. "My rod was keeled over for 20 minutes."

The fish ran three times before tiring out. When the incredible northern pike surfaced and laid on its side, they netted it beside one of the canoes and paddled it to shore. Weighing around 30 pounds, the pike was too big to lift over the gunwales. The catch was so shocking and unexpected, the fishing party forgot to take pictures of the pike against a measuring tape. Adding to the emotional blur was Skarloken's urgency to return the exhausted fish to the lake.

"From the moment that beast hit, it was an epic battle," said Skarloken, who runs a tile and stone installation company in the Brainerd area. "We were all in such shock and I just wanted to make sure it had a healthy release.''

Mandy Erickson of the Department of Natural Resources said the blunder probably robbed Skarloken of a place in the state's catch-and-release record book. DNR staff members were so impressed by the pictures he submitted — sans ruler — that they highlighted the catch in a recent social media post.

"If you're sending in an application for a record fish, please don't forget to take photos of measurements!'' the DNR wrote on Facebook under a photo of Skarloken holding the fish in shallow water next to his father's canoe.

For catch-and-release fish to be considered as record-breakers, DNR officials need to see a photo plainly showing the whole fish lying flat on a measuring device with its tail pinched and its snout at zero on the ruler. It's pretty common, Erickson said, for submitted photos to be problematic.

Skarloken said he and another member of his fishing group dangled a measuring tape next to the fish as they held it in the air. They agreed between themselves that the fish covered at least 47 ¼ inches of tape, if not 47 ½ inches. Had the pike and the measuring tape been lying flat, the northern's true length would have been closer to 48 inches, Skarloken estimated.

Skarloken was sensitive to the fish's health while trying to document it.
Skarloken was sensitive to the fish's health while trying to document it.

Photo: Courtesy of Jake Skarloken

As it stands, Minnesota's state record catch-and-release northern pike is 46 ¼ inches. (Girth measurements aren't required.) The title is shared by two people. Brad Lila of Hudson, Wis., caught his in Mille Lacs Lake and Brecken Kobylecky of Geneva., Ill., caught his in Basswood Lake.

Basswood also was the basin that allegedly produced a mammoth 45-pound, 12-ounce northern pike May 16, 1929. Back then, certified scales were not required to submit a record-breaking entry to the DNR, and the agency doesn't have records to indicate whether the catch was real. Neither the length nor girth of that fish was recorded.

Skarloken was fishing for walleyes in a deep "honey hole" on Crooked Lake when he crossed paths with the biggest fish he's ever caught. It was day three of a 10-day outing on Skarloken's 21st annual fishing trip to the BWCAW. He had fished the big lake many times before, and previous big catches are what beckoned him to return.

"I like big fish," he said. "That's what I target."

This year's five-member fishing party included Skarloken's father, Steve; brother-in-law Dennis Robinson; and friend Jacob Bourgeois, all from the Brainerd area; and his father, John. They were stuck in camp for two days because of high winds. On Thursday morning, May 23, it was time to catch walleyes for dinner and the three canoes stayed within 30 yards of each other. The big northern hit around noon.

When it came time to take pictures of it, Skarloken remembers Bourgeois lining up a shot in disbelief.

"He said, 'My god, that looks fake,' " Skarloken recalled.

The group took a video of the release. Skarloken said he was fixated on the northern's survival, especially since the fish was fatigued from such a long tug-of-war. He waited about a week after his return from the wilderness before contacting the DNR. He knew he didn't have the required photo, but he wanted someone in the fisheries department to appreciate the fish's magnitude.

"It was impressively thick, that's one thing we all remember about it," said Skarloken, who is paying a taxidermist to make a replica based on the group's photos.

"In hindsight I wish we would have laid it down and taken a picture of the measurement," he said. "There's five of us who saw it and know what it was — the biggest northern pike caught and released in Minnesota.''