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Brad Dokken: Whether muskie or lake trout, the unexpected is one of the best parts of fishing

Jan. 12—A story elsewhere in this section — or website, if you're reading online — reminded me of one of the things I love most about fishing. And, indeed, pretty much all things outdoors.

It's that sense of "you just never know" what might happen. Besides anticipation, every hookset, every trip afield, offers a sense of mystery, a sense of wonder at what might happen.

You just never know.

Jamie Saffert and his 10-year-old daughter, Leah, of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, found that out firsthand on New Year's Eve while

tip-up fishing for northern pike in the Zippel Bay area

on the south shore of Lake of the Woods.

It's an area known for big northern pike, so naturally enough, that's what they were expecting to catch when the flag popped on one of the tip-ups, a signal that a fish had taken the bait.

Instead of a pike, though, Leah landed a 50.5-inch muskie that weighed 34 pounds. Catching a muskie through the ice is a rare occurrence anywhere on Lake of the Woods, but muskies are even more uncommon along the south shore.

The big muskie, a fish of a lifetime by any measurement, was released after some quick photos.

I can only speculate why muskies aren't more common along the south shore of Lake of the Woods, but I'm assuming it has something to do with lack of spawning habitat and places for young fish to thrive.

The Northwest Angle and the Ontario side of the lake, by comparison, with their abundance of islands, weedbeds and rocky shoals, are the go-to spots for muskie anglers. Muskies are occasionally encountered in Big Traverse Bay, the massive expanse of open water that forms the bulk of the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods, but targeting them would be difficult, I'm told by people in the know.

It's likely, then, that the big muskie the Safferts encountered at Zippel Bay swam over from the Angle or the Canadian side of the lake.

Another angler had a surprise catch earlier this week — also in the Zippel Bay area — when he reeled up a lake trout while fishing walleyes and saugers.

Zippel Bay Resort

posted a photo of the unusual catch

on its Facebook page.

Denizens of deep, cold water — at least in the summer months — lake trout in Lake of the Woods are most commonly encountered in

Whitefish Bay, Clearwater Bay and Echo Bay, all on the Ontario side of the lake,

which have the deepwater habitat they favor. I've always heard that lake trout prefer water temperatures cooler than 50 degrees, and this time of year, the whole lake is a fair bit colder than that. Lake trout are comfortable just about anywhere, in other words, and occasionally stray into the shallower U.S. side of the lake in the winter.

It's not something an angler should expect to catch on the U.S. side of the lake, but I've heard of lake trout being caught up at the Northwest Angle, off Long Point — also on the south shore — and even the Rainy River.

You just never know.

Everyone who fishes, I suspect, has gone through the agony of losing a fish that left them wondering what was down there, what might have been.

I know I have.

Several years ago now — an encounter I remember like it was yesterday — I was ice fishing near Oak Island in the Northwest Angle when I tied into a big fish that peeled line off my reel at will. I had watched the fish race up from the depths on my electronics and thought I'd gotten a good hookset.

I played the fish for several minutes and was almost at the point of being able to see it at the bottom of the hole when it happened. ...

The line went slack, and that was it.

Fish off.

Oh, how I howled.

The jigging spoon I was using was still firmly attached, so the fish — whatever it was — didn't snap my line.

To this day, I wonder what was down there. If it was a walleye, it was a darn big one. But it also could have been a big pike, a muskie or perhaps even a lake trout.

Big eelpout is another possibility, of course, but in my experience, these freshwater cod rarely get off because they generally inhale the bait.

I'll never know.

The oddball winter we've had has put the kibosh on my ice fishing to this point, but I'll get out eventually.

And when I do, I'll have that same sense of wonder every time a fish hits my bait, the bobber goes down or a tip-up flag pops.

You just never know.