When Wade Kelly of Allagash found himself with the chance to catch the fish of a lifetime — in this case, a muskellunge worth a $1,000 prize in a local ice fishing derby — he wasn’t about to let that opportunity pass.
That’s why Kelly ended up with his arm shoulder-deep in Glazier Lake, grappling with a fish to make it fit up through an 8-inch hole in the ice.
Kelly explained that because the fish was hooked in the corner of its mouth, he couldn’t get the muskie’s head into the hole. So he had to get creative, and used a more hands-on method.
“The hole was small enough and his head was long enough, and his head was crossways to the hole [and it wouldn’t fit up through],” Kelly said. “That’s why my hand went down in the hole.”
More than 3,000 people have viewed the video of Kelly landing the fish on Facebook, and he said some people have commented on his unorthodox method of tangling with a predatory fish known for its sharp teeth and voracious appetite.
“There are a lot of comments about ‘He’s lucky he got his hand back,’” Kelly said. “But as I wrote back, ‘Experience and Band-Aids will do it for you every time.’”
Kelly reached down deep, got his hand on the edge of the fish’s gill plate, near its jaw, and hauled it out of the water. He said the fish had spent all of its energy and wasn’t fighting at the time, and he was able to avoid the sharp teeth.
Kelly’s muskie measured 46¾ inches long, and weighed 29 pounds, 9 ounces. It earned the registered Maine guide the top muskie prize in the 15th annual Long Lake Ice Fishing Derby. Kelly’s fish was nearly 3 pounds bigger than the second-place muskie.
The muskie was Kelly’s largest ever, but he remained low-key while battling it.
“Usually muskies will make about three big runs, then they get a little bit tired out. So I just let him make his runs. I knew it was a good, heavy fish, but I didn’t really let on to my wife and my friend who was there,” Kelly said. “I said, ‘You know, if we lose it, and we don’t get to see it, then it was a small fish.’”
Kelly said some were surprised that he reached into the icy water with his bare hand. He joked that his Allagash upbringing has toughened him up.
“I said, ‘I’ve got Moosetown hands. You can’t hurt them with a sledgehammer,” he said.
Though the fish was a derby-winner, it wasn’t a record-breaker. The Maine Sportsman, which maintains the list of state record fish, lists a 33-pounder taken out of the St. John River in 2010 as the all-time biggest here in Maine.
Kelly, who owns Tylor Kelly’s Camps in Allagash, said muskies, which were introduced into a Quebec lake in the early 1970s and migrated into the St. John River watershed, have become a popular fish among his clients. Many choose to release the fish they catch, as Kelly himself usually does. This one, however, was kept so that it could be weighed and entered in the derby.
“It’s a real fishery now. It’s a draw, and it has economic value to the valley,” he said.