Dateline: May 3, 2014 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
It was the most exciting world record I had seen to date, and it wasn’t even mine.
I can relate to obsessive, all-consuming, lifelong quests. I spent 11 years, 10 months, and 18 days chasing the 1000 species mark – the time from when I got my hundredth and really identified my quest, to that quiet day in Vangshylla, Norway. (Details HERE.) It was what I did, and nothing was going to get in the way. Martini Arostegui’s quest is much more around world records. As of April of 2014, he was #3 in the world – astonishing for someone who was 21 at the time.
One would think this would be enough, but Martini, ever since I have known him, wanted more. Strangely enough, he wasn’t chasing #1 – his own dad, who has a somewhat unattainable total well over 400. He was chasing #2, a fishing legend named Herbert Ratner Jr. – the first man to hit 100 records as an individual angler. (A feat thought nearly impossible until he did it.)
Herbert Ratner Jr. – everyone who has tried to chase numbers of IGFA records followed in his footsteps.
This would mean Martini and his father would be one and two in the world. Theirs is a relationship I have always admired – I am not particularly close to my own father, and the idea of sharing this kind of a passion at this kind of level has always inspired me. I would have settled for just playing catch.
This adventure involved an untapped potential gold mine of freshwater species – Wisconsin. In his endless deep research on fishing opportunities, Martini had stumbled onto a species-hunting enthusiast in Eau Claire named Mike, and Mike had told him that white suckers were biting at the beginning of May. There were also supposed to be other fish available, but most importantly, there were line class records open a couple of the sucker species in the area. Wisconsin was also one of the 10 states where I had not caught a fish.
I came in to Minneapolis directly from Miami – with a quick stopover in Chicago to renew the restraining order against Cousin Chuck.
Cousin Chuck – actual photo. Nicest halfway house I’ve ever seen.
I spent two days hanging out with a very dear old friend – Bob Reine, a former co-worker at Macromedia in the early 90s. A passionate outdoorsman and hockey fan (even if he follows the wrong team,) Bob and I fished constantly when he lived in California. When he moved back to Minnesota, likely still in culture shock from five years in San Francisco, we caught up now and then, notably for trips to lake Vermilion, where I caught – with Bob as my witness – three, count ’em, THREE muskies in one day.
Bob earns $12 the hard way.
Bob and his wife Shari have two children, who were still both in the incontinent phase the last time I saw them during a Lake-of-the-Woods trip. Both kids have grown into responsible teenagers, although I still have trouble forgiving Benjamin for disrupting a walleye fishing trip by removing his own diaper and using it as a weapon.
Benjamin, circa 2003. Sure, he was cute, but throwing diapers isn’t normal.
Despite miserable weather, Bob and I snuck out for a day on the water. While we didn’t get anything noteworthy, we got dozens of nice bluegill and chuckled our way through some old stories, all of which were nixed by the editor. (With comments like “Normal people don’t do that.”)
Bob and Steve, present day.
Martini, busy as ever with schoolwork, took a redeye to arrive Friday morning, when I picked him up and headed to Wisconsin. It was a short drive, around an hour, and we discussed two topics of note.
First, it was plain to see that the weather had been horrible and it was not only freezing cold, it was also flooded in many places. This was going to be a challenge. Martini also mentioned “Oh, in case I hadn’t told you, Mike is a minister.” I coughed a bit of Red Bull up my nose. How was I going to spend three days with a minister and not burn in hell?
There was certainly some trepidation around whether I could maintain a G-rated conversation and stay on appropriate topics, especially if the fishing was bad. I considered buying a pair of shin guards, anticipating a barrage of kicks under the table.
We met Mike at the Minnesota/Wisconsin border on the St. Croix river. A big guy with a kind face and a ready smile, Mike was thrilled to meet two fellow species hunters, and it was clear he had followed some of our exploits online, which I was not entirely sure was a good thing. Still, Mike put me at ease and we set to fishing.
Mike Channing, local pastor and species-hunter extraordinaire.
The river was flooded into the parking lot, but Mike was sure we could still get suckers in the relatively quiet margins. He seemed to know these rivers as if he had designed them. We had to use plenty of weight and cast carefully, but after an hour or so, we got bites. Mike was the first to hook up, but then both Martini and I both got silver redhorses, a sucker relative that frequents these parts. It was the first fish I had ever gotten in a parking lot.
My silver redhorse.
Martini adds the silver.
We then drove in to Eau Claire, and Mike took us to one of his secret spots on the Eau Claire River. Normally a lovely small waterfall, it had blown into a raging torrent of cold, muddy water, but Mike knew a few side seams where he was confident we would catch fish.
This area is normally a nice, calm little waterfall.
And we did. Martini knocked off a white sucker and a shorthead redhorse. The redhorse was an eight pound line-class record, which put Martini in a tie for second place overall with 181 overall records.
Martini’s record #181.
He was amazingly calm, but he also knew his next record would be a very big one. He was very guarded even discussing it, as if he would hex himself.
I added a white sucker to my list but the shortheads avoided me completely.
My white sucker.
I also caught some nice silver redhorse while everyone else was catching shortheads.
Mike and Martini both caught several shortheads, and I was beginning to question if I had done something wrong in a spiritual sense. Mike assured me I had not. Then I had an awkward moment where I hooked a shorthead and got it close to shore before the hook pulled out. Reflexively, I started to yell something bad, then corrected myself mid-word, so it came out something like “Fffffffuuuu … udge.” Mike smiled quietly. He was a pretty regular guy and has become a good friend, even if I have given him material for a few sermons.
We called it a day and headed to a local barbecue place – absolute UMF*. Back at the room, I sacked out while Martini studied some sort of complicated biology. Not my idea of a fun topic – the book didn’t have a lot of pictures. As I drifted off to sleep, covers pulled up over my head to avoid any unfortunate pranks, it was clear Martini wasn’t going to sleep well. The record – and history – weighed heavily on his mind.
Day two was a tour of the places we could have fished if everything hadn’t flooded. Mike’s local knowledge was absolutely encyclopedic, but he was also heartbroken that we couldn’t get to most of his favorite spots.
The Eau Claire running about 10 feet high. It was a miracle we found any fish at all. That may not have been the best choice of words.
The conversation was nonstop species hunting – Mike was the real deal and spoke of things like the blue sucker in the same hushed, reverent tones as Martini and I do. Interestingly, Mike had done a mission in Asia, and was well-acquainted with our old friend Jean-Francois Helias. Small world, although I doubt they met in church.
With only one record to go for Martini, we were impatient to just get settled someplace, and that someplace turned out to be the middle of town. Eau Claire – ironically named to be sure – has a lovely park at the confluence of the eponymous river and a tributary, and it was there we set up in the later morning.
Steve and Martini on the point. I spent all morning wishing I had brought my Tigger pajamas to wear under my clothing.
It was cold; right around freezing, augmented by a bracing wind. Martini, the Miami native, was half-frozen, and I was about 40% frozen, but I weigh more, so in total terms, I was actually more frozen. And I complained more.
The Fish Gods don’t put up with this, and they favored my companions. (Ironic because this sort of polytheism doesn’t play well in conservative circles.) By complete accident, Mike caught a lake sturgeon. Not a big one, but a nice one – and a species I would love to catch. They were out of season so we quickly and safely released it. Then Martini caught one. And I didn’t. I was not constructive about this. (Again the fish was quickly and safely released.)
Mike gets a lake sturgeon, and I am thrilled.
Martini gets a lake sturgeon, and I am thrilled.
As the morning warmed to a balmy 36, the redhorse began to bite. I got a silver, and then, after a less-than-dramatic fight, a stonecat – a new species that had given no indication it had taken my bait.
The stonecat, one of the least exuberant species I have ever caught.
Martini was awfully calm for someone about to make history. He moved to the point and kept changing his baits, jogging in place in a futile effort to stay warm.
In the later morning, just shy of 11, Martini got a bite and hooked into a nice fish. It could have been anything – a sturgeon, a catfish, a gar … but it turned out to be a big silver redhorse. This fish needed to be four pounds; it looked big enough as Martini landed it. Without a word, he gently lifted the fish up and steadied it on the Boga grip. Martini looked up at me, his eyes absolutely noncommittal. He then broke into the biggest smile I have ever seen. The fish was four pounds even, and there was a new #2 in the IGFA standings.
Mike and Martini celebrate the catch. And remember, Mike isn’t a pro guide – he was just doing this because he loves to fish.
There was the requisite high-fiving and man-hugs, but this was an intensely personal moment for Martini as well. This had been years of very hard work, late night planning sessions, endless research, thousands of hours on the water, telling swimsuit models “Not tonight, I’m fishing early tomorrow,” – and it had all paid off here, on a patch of frozen shoreline in Western Wisconsin. Martini, now oblivious to the cold, took a long moment to himself.
Martini composes himself, right before he called his family with the news. (Interestingly, the lawn was soaking wet and his rear was stained all day, to my great amusement.)
The rest of the day was a bonus. We got more fish, and I finally got my lake sturgeon, although it was the smallest one Mike had ever seen.
I had prayed for this species. (Bad choice of words.) This again shows there is no room for shame in my species hunt.
Skipping around to a few more locations, we could tell the area had massive potential in good weather, and between fish, we planned a summertime return trip.
We held a celebratory dinner that night in a local steakhouse, and drank a toast to Mike, the newly-minted guide for two world records, to Martini and his Father, 1 and 2 in the IGFA world, to the Fish Gods, and to Herb Ratner Jr., who had made history all those years ago and showed us that this was all possible. On my next angling adventure, I would be trying to make a little history of my own.
* Unsupervised Man Food – the crap we eat when our partners aren’t looking.