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Young angler's triumph: 10-year-old girl lands massive surprise muskie on Lake of the Woods

Jan. 9—LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. — The Zippel Bay area of Lake of the Woods has a well-deserved reputation for big northern pike, but 10-year-old Leah Saffert and her dad, Jamie, weren't prepared for the fish they encountered at the end of her line on New Year's Eve morning.

To say it was a monster wouldn't be exaggerating.

Jamie, Leah and her brother, Scott, of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, were staying in the family's ice shack at Zippel Bay for a couple of days over New Year's when they decided to start the morning of Dec. 31 by setting some tip-ups for northern pike.

In basic terms, a tip-up is a device positioned atop a hole in the ice that holds a spool of line, usually below water level, with a flag that springs, or "tips up," to signal a strike. The angler then removes the tip-up from the hole, grabs the line and sets the hook, pulling in the fish by hand.

Tip-ups are a mainstay for wintertime pike anglers.

"We were kind of fishing in shallow water (where) the walleye fishing isn't very good during the day, so we decided to set some tip-ups out, in hopes of catching a big pike," Jamie Saffert said. "That way, I could hopefully get Leah a 40-(plus)-inch pike to put on the wall."

Regulations on Lake of the Woods require anglers to release all pike from 30 inches to 40 inches in length.

Set up with sucker minnows in about 13 feet of water, they got their first flag about 9:30 a.m.

"Leah set the hook and was pulling it in, and it felt really heavy," said Jamie, a building contractor by trade. "It was like she was dragging in a log almost. And it swam past the hole, and I'm like, 'Holy smokes, that's a big fish!' "

Unlike most northern pike, though, which tend to be a dark color with light markings, this fish looked "really pale," Jamie said.

Leah definitely had her hands full playing the fish.

"At first it was really easy, and then it would start to, like, pull a little bit," said Leah, a fifth-grader at Rice Lake Middle School. "My hands were so cold I'd have to try and use my sweatshirt to grab it. But it just felt like my sweatshirt was just gliding across the string and not pulling it in or whatever.

"It took quite awhile to get it in, too."

Her reaction when she saw the fish at the bottom of the hole: "Like holy buckets, that fish is huge!"

The south shore of Lake of the Woods isn't known for muskies, which mostly inhabit the Northwest Angle area and islands in Ontario waters, so Jamie Saffert said he wasn't thinking muskie when he saw the pale-colored fish at the bottom of the hole.

But muskie it was.

"Nobody catches muskies on the south shore ever — or very seldom," he said. "And it came back in the hole, the head popped in, and Leah put up a heck of a fight. It came in the hole, and we pulled it out."

Jamie's brother, who works for Zippel Bay Resort, deserves credit for putting them on the spot, he said.

"We went in the shack — we didn't have a tape measure so we just kind of set it back in the hole so it didn't die on us," Jamie said. "And I'm like, 'Well, a sheet of plywood is 48 inches.' So we laid it down, and it was 2 inches past the sheet of plywood."

Jamie did have a scale, though, and the behemoth muskie weighed 34 pounds.

Fortunately, they were fishing in 10-inch holes; landing a fish that size through an 8-inch hole might not have been possible.

"We were all very jacked," he said. "Just kind of luckily for us, it swam past, of course, fast, and it peeled line through her hands and then it came back, and its head just kind of naturally popped up in the hole for us so I didn't have to stick my hand in the hole to grab it.

"It kind of came together nicely for us."

There were, however, some tense moments before Leah set the hook and started playing the fish, Jamie recalls. When the flag popped and they walked out to see the post on the tip-up spinning — an indication the fish was taking line — it suddenly stopped.

That's often a sign the fish has spit the bait.

"That's what we've seen in the past — that's what usually happens," he said. "We let it sit for a minute or so, and it started spinning again. And then it started spinning fast, and it's like, 'alright, it's got the bait now — set the hook.' "

Jamie says he lifted the tip-up out of the hole, and Leah took over the battle from there.

"She grabbed the line and set (the hook) herself," he said. "At one point she says, 'Dad, I need your help,' and I'm like, 'No, this is all you, honey.' "

As tales of big fish often do, news of the catch has propelled the Safferts into fishing celebrity status — at least temporarily. A photo of the big muskie had been shared more than 680 times on the Zippel Bay Resort Facebook page as of noon Tuesday. And a Twin Cities TV station was scheduled to interview Leah on Tuesday at her school.

There likely will be more interviews, as well.

"We didn't realize it would get this much ... I'm going to go with publicity," Jamie said. "It's exciting, and I know that it's a fish of a lifetime, that's for sure. I've seen one other fish caught this big — besides this one — I mean, this is a heck of a fish."

Even some of the Lake of the Woods muskie experts they talked to were shocked upon hearing news of a muskie that size being caught on the south shore, Jamie said.

"They were like, 'There's no way you caught a muskie that big (on the south shore of Lake of the Woods),' " he said. " 'Where are you fishing? You must be in Wisconsin.'

"It's like, 'No, we're on the south shore of Lake of the Woods.' "

The big muskie was released after a few quick photos, leaving memories of the fish of a lifetime and — for Jamie — a taxidermy bill for a graphite replica mount of his daughter's big fish.

"Hopefully, someone else can catch her another day," Jamie said of the big muskie.

Not to be outdone too badly, Leah's older brother Scott, who's 12, caught a "36- or 37-inch" northern pike later that flopped back down the hole before they could get a photo, Jamie said.

For the Safferts, the big muskie put the exclamation point on a year that began with Jamie catching a wall-mounter perch — also at Zippel Bay — on New Year's Day 2023.

"We started the year off with a big fish, and we ended the year with an even bigger fish," he said.