The Fish That Took 45 Years to Catch
Fourteen years is a long time to wait, but 45 years is a bit ridiculous. Granted, the musky is called the fish of 10,000 casts for a reason, but the “fish of every near-half century?” That’s absurd. That’ll even push the limits of a Megaware KeelGuard; well, maybe not. Let’s not get carried away.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: The beginning
The quest began in 1963 when Leo and Marjorie Scheibelhut of Mishawaka, Indiana began taking their family on vacation to Hackensack, Minnesota. One of their sons was about to marry into a family that ran a resort on nearby Kid Lake, and it seemed like a healthy adventure. But what they had no way of imagining was the impact that choice would have on generations to follow, or how it molded perseverance, passion, and family camaraderie all into one story that reminds us all why we do what we do, and why so many of us fish.
For the next 45 years, the Scheibelhut family vacationed in Hackensack. Soon one family became two, then three. Eventually the family would fill up an entire resort. However, it wasn’t love at first sight.
Daughter, Kathy, recalls her mother declaring on that first trip, “I am not coming back to this hole!” Their resort was rustic – no running water and a detached outhouse.
But they did return. The very next year actually, and each subsequent year. The polarity of the North Woods may have played a role or it could be that technology also found its way up north, as running water and bathrooms became the norm.
The biggest attraction to the family, though, was the fishing. The area has 127 lakes in a 10-mile radius ranging from 112,835 acre Leech Lake to tiny unnamed lakes that require a portage to reach.
When Leo took his family fishing on Kid Lake and other surrounding lakes, he used the 14-foot rowboat from the resort. Fishing was a pastime and a way to connect with his children and, later, grandchildren. But as time went on, it became more serious. He eventually developed a taste, and then passion, for the fish of 10,000 casts.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: 1969
That desire peaked in 1969 when two distant relatives caught a musky that created hysteria. “It was too big for either of the boys to carry alone,” Kathy remembers, “One had the tail and another the head.” The sight of the beast was awe-inspiring and as time passed, that fish would grow in size, as did Leo’s desire to catch his own. A flame was kindled.
From that point, Kathy remembers her dad fishing for musky daily. “He did a lot of trolling, and people often teased him for the fast pace he kept, and he just replied, ‘I don’t want any sick ones!’ Dad always wanted the biggest fish.” His family revered the musky as the premier trophy fish but, frankly, had little faith he would catch one.
In spite of failure, he returned each summer with a new plan of attack loaded with optimism.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: 1975
Kathy married Dave Ernst in 1975 and introduced him to the Minnesota experience. Dave followed the same path as others – he was hooked. In 1978, they had their first born – a son, Mat. They proudly took their son to Minnesota when he was just five months old. While Dave chased the fish on the lakes with the men, Kathy echoed the same cry her mother did years ago by vowing to never return.
Again, it was not to be. The strength of the polarity is no joke. Even the non-anglers got sucked back. Her family returned every year, and she admits, “There is a lure of the place: the lakes, the wildlife, the people, and ultimately, the countless memories with family.” They also had two daughters.
The highlight of every summer was their trip up North, but no one looked forward to it more than Mat.
Dave first took Mat fishing when he was just two years old, and he loved it. He went on to spend countless hours in the boat with his dad and grandpa, but just like grandpa, a witness account influenced him to target a single species.
Dave recalls, “When Mat was four years old, I caught a big Northern Pike. It was a tremendous battle that ended with us drifting into the weeds – it was a total mess!” However, the bigger catch was Mat. He was instantly hooked on catching his own pike.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: Another decade
For the next 10 years, Mat spent his time, energy, and money pursuing pike. Summer equated to pike fishing in Minnesota. He readily admits it became an obsession. He would read countless articles and purchased videos to get a better understanding of his foe. When fishing, it did not matter if Dad and Grandpa were targeting bass or crappie, he was targeting pike. Pike are numerous and he would catch many. But like grandpa, he was not content with average fish, he wanted the biggest – one that was worthy of his bedroom wall.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: 1990
His moment came in 1990 at 12 years of age. While fishing with his dad on Gut Lake, Mat was casting for pike while Dave was casting for bass. Mat remembers vividly, “I was throwing a chartreuse Husky Jerk on fresh 14-pound line with a metal leader when my rod buckled from a vicious strike.” He knew immediately this was it. The fish charged toward the boat and he had a hard time reeling in the slack this created, but Mat did catch up.
After what seemed like an eternity, the enormous fish came to the surface, but as his dad swooped at the fish with the net, he realize it was too small! The touch of the net gave the fish new life and jumped frantically with a desperate attempt for freedom. Nevertheless, Mat held on and once again brought the fish up to the boat. Amidst the chaos, Dave repeated his attempt to net his son’s trophy fish, but, again, the fish escaped and made another run. However, the 12-year old was not done either. Mat forced the fish up to the net a third time, but redundancy reigned. This time the 40-plus inch fish broke free of the net and snapped his line.
Mat remembers, “I blamed my dad. I was angry. In fact, later that day I took a nap and my mom woke me because I was cursing him out in my sleep.” He no longer holds a grudge, “I realize the blame is on me. I tried to muscle that fish in when I should have played it more carefully.”
Meanwhile, Grandpa Leo continued to target his musky and before anyone realized, 31 years passed. In 1992, he passed away. His passing naturally changed the dynamics of the family, but also changed the experience to Hackensack. Marjorie made it up just a handful of times more, and the pursuit of the musky was nonexistent. That was Grandpa’s fish and if he could not catch it, no one could. Yet, stories are not all that get passed down through families. Genetics are a funny thing, and impossible to escape.
Two years after Leo’s passing and four year’s after Mat’s disappointing defeat, the family was still coming. And Mat still sought his trophy pike. But like other times in his family’s history, an eye witness account rekindled a flame the family had not seen for two years.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: 1994
In the summer of 1994, Mat was fishing with his dad tossing a Pulsator spinnerbait when a giant musky followed his bait to the boat. That was the spark: “I had never seen a pike that size, and when I saw it, I knew I had to have it.” The genes and mission resurfaced after two generations.
Dave told him the bleak reality, “Mat, we don’t have any tackle that can catch that fish.” Nevertheless, like most teenagers, he did not care what dad thought. They remained there for the next two hours, and Mat returned each day that week.
Mat had the odds stacked against him. Not only did he have the defeat of the pike lingering, but grandpa pursued a musky for 31 years and never succeeded. Despite being close to some of the best musky waters in the world, the limits he faced were greater than the advantages. He did not own a boat and was stuck with whatever rowboat he had access. The only motor he had was a 3-horsepower and 36-pound thrust trolling motor his parents owned. He had no depth finders and his tackle was not made for musky. However, he did have genetics on his side.
Dave describes his son simply, “He is the type that never gives up – nothing would stop him.” Therefore, at the age of 16, he his quest began.
Just as it was for Grandpa, it was not easy. Each year brought new optimism, and just as he did for pike, Mat would educated himself. He tried new techniques and baits and spent countless hours on the boat. Mat admits, “I had constant doubts,” but his will was stronger. “I was obsessed. It was the only thing I wanted. Going to Minnesota was all about the musky. Just seeing one would make my whole trip.”
The fish that took 45 years to catch: 2003 – 2007
He had some close encounters. In 2003, while fishing on Baby Lake, Mat had seven follows in a single morning. “I specifically remember one. I cast my bait at some lily pads and landed nearly on one’s head. He followed my bait up to the boat. I did the figure-eight thing, but the fish just swam off.”
Two years later in 2005, Mat found was fishing at 1 am on Man Lake. “It was a clear night and I was throwing a Topkick bait, when all of a sudden there was an explosion on my bait. I set the hook and fought a huge fish. It jumped several times, came up to the boat and took a hard dive down just as the pike 15 years ago. It got off!” He never had a good look at it, but he knew. He knew it was a musky, one worthy of his wall, the same one Grandpa had chased.
Again, two years later in 2007, Mat was fishing at night with the Topkick on Man Lake. A musky exploded on his bait. He set the hook and fought the fish for a single second before it came unbuttoned.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: 2008
The 2008 trip was his 14th year of pursuit. Mat was now 30 years old and had children of his own, and there was no real reason for optimism. Despite a quest beginning 18 years ago, a pike still did not grace his home, and he had never caught a musky of any size. Musky Hunter magazine, he believed, foreshadowed his fate, “I saw a picture of a man who was over 70 years old holding his first musky, and I thought ‘That’s going to be me!’”
Frustration and had set. There was nothing he could do about the limitations he faced either. He was still restricted to the same motors and small lakes in his immediate area. To add salt to injury, he was also crippled during the best fishing opportunities, “I learned that some of the best fishing is during windy days, but with my boat, those days just blew me to shore.” When the wind blew, he was sidelined.
A new limitation crept in as well: guilt. Mat was now a father and family vacations mean just that to him. But chasing this fish often meant leaving his children and wife on shore. Yet, his wife encouraged him, “She, along with my parents, always encouraged me to keep going for it,” but the guilt remained. An internal conflict persisted: resign the energy of his lifelong goal and spend it on his children? His heart was torn, and perhaps, just maybe, the North polarity recognized it, and shed its own tear.
The fish that took 45 years to catch: Finally!
Because on July 7, 2008, 45 years after Leo and Marjorie first brought their family to Minnesota, magic happened, and everyone who mattered was involved. It was 5 pm on Baby Lake. He was trolling a 10-inch pike-colored swimbait. The weather was overcast, and there was a healthy chop on the water. After circling the entire lake, Mat quipped to his dad, “Let’s troll one more spot, I’m sure we won’t catch anything, and then head in.”
Less than five minutes after that remark, Mat’s rod buckled like nothing ever before! Dave shut down the motor and watched the musky strip drag while Mat maintained a death grip on his rod. He played the fish perfectly for several minutes and slowly brought the fish up to the boat, but it was not over. It dove straight to the depths with a savage fury.
Immediately, memories of the 1990 Gut Lake pike crept into both of their minds. That fish escaped them with this very tactic. Mat managed to bring the fish up a second time, but when Dave swooped the net down, just as the infamous pike, it made another furious run to deep water. Pressure began to intensify for Dave, “I always felt guilty for not netting that  pike.” He now found himself with the task of netting another trophy fish for his son. An opportunity, apparently, that only comes once a decade. He admits, “I felt a ton of pressure.”
Deja vu? No. Not this time. This fish slipped the net twice, but after 45 years of pursuit, grit, and determination, the moment came, and the Scheibelhut family claimed their prize. Mat patiently worked the fish back up to the side of the boat where Dave aptly netted and swung it aboard. It was done! The Scheibelhut family had a musky to their name.
“We did it!” Mat screamed across the lake. True to his humble nature, he used the pronoun we to include his dad, “I got it to the boat, but he got it in the boat,” he explained.
That pronoun included more than just the two of them. It also included his wife, children, mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa – 3 generations. This defining moment had begun in 1963 from a family vacation, which never really ended; it was just placed on hold until next summer.
The fish measured 42 inches and went on his wall back home. Mat admits, “I know, for most, this is not a trophy-sized fish, but it is for me. After so many years, and catching it with my dad, it is my trophy.”
Who can argue? Family traditions and vacations are not about size, they are about memories. As Dave looked at his son with pride, Mat’s two boys looked up at him with admiration. Kathy was reminded of her own father who began it all, “I knew my Dad was looking from above. I sensed his presence, and he was happy.”