Fifteen to 20 people converged around Mark Kottke as he knelt over a 10-inch hole on Mille Lacs. A lunker of some kind was thrashing below, and Kottke grimaced as he tugged upward on his tip-up line, hand over hand.
As the fish's head reached the bottom of the opening, a flood of water gushed onto the snowy surface, breaking the crowd's silence. "Oh my god!" "Oh my god!'' "Oh my god!''
Kottke reached in with one hand to secure the giant catch, only to hear another onlooker shout: "Don't put your hand in there!"
The muskie's head filled the hole, but Kottke managed to grab a gill plate with his right hand. He lifted, grabbed the other gill plate and then stood up. The fish's head was at his knees and its tail was still in the water. He slid it onto the ice, released his hands and did a Rocky dance to hoots and hollers.
"Everyone was just kind of in shock,'' said Kottke's daughter, Trista, who videotaped the catch and the muskie's healthy return to the water. "None of us had ever seen a fish that big.''
Kottke, 49, of Cologne, said the 4-foot, 6-inch muskie with a 27-inch girth capped an unforgettable month of fishing with his wife, Tammy, and their two daughters — Trista, 21, and Kaija, 24.
Preceding the Feb. 22 muskie catch, Mark and Tammy were fishing on Valentine's Day inside their roomy skid house on Mille Lacs. One of their lines was baited with a sucker minnow, rigged to a rattle wheel. Before noon on that day, the wheel sounded. Mark reached to retrieve the line and sensed that the hook was caught on a rock.
When the perceived snag started moving, Tammy pulled out her smartphone to FaceTime the catch with their daughters viewing from afar.
They all cheered when Mark muscled a fat, 43-inch northern pike up and out of the hole. For the next seven days, friends would tell him that the northern — about 2 inches shy of the state catch-and-release record — was the catch of a lifetime.
The muskie, estimated to weigh upwards of 50 pounds, wasn't close to a state record and wouldn't have counted anyway because it was caught out of season. The couple was targeting big northerns outside their skid house, located about 9 miles north of Isle. Kottke said their quick-strike rig was baited with an 18-inch sucker minnow in about 22 feet of water.
"When I first saw its head swimming by, it looked like a dinosaur down there,'' said Kottke, a Realtor and appraiser who grew up in Lester Prairie. "I knew it was a giant, giant fish.''
He said the two personal-best catches are important to him only as milestones in a lifetime of fishing. Since Trista and Kaija were little girls, the family has fished together in winter and summer. They sold their wheel house last year, opting instead for a Mille Lacs skid house that they visit throughout the season.
"Fishing has kept us close with our girls,'' Kottke said. "We're not out there just to catch big fish.''