The Northwoods has a rich fishing tradition. Many fish for fun or food, but some have a penchant for pursuit of the biggest.
There’s Esox masquinongy, the mighty muskie, of course, and Sander vitreus, the much-pursued walleye.
But don’t forget Cottus bairdii, the mottled sculpin.
Gene Somers might very well find his name in the record books after catching one on Presque Isle Lake Jan. 9.
“I’m still waiting to hear from the Madison office. I did do all the paperwork on it though,” Somers said.
The mottled sculpin is a bottom-dwelling fish that inhabits streams and cool water lakes. It rarely exceeds 5 inches in length.
The 0.03-pound sculpin Somers caught measured in at 4.4 inches. The reason it will likely be certified as a new state record is because no one holds the record at this point.
It was around 10 degrees with a bit of wind and mostly clear skies the day Somers landed his potential record. It was near 3 p.m., and Somers was in about 20 feet of water.
He was actually fishing for walleyes at the time and the sculpin was duped by a Jigging Rap.
“I had a little piece of shiner meat on the hook of the Jigging Rap and it nibbled on that,” Somers said.
He recalled the fight.
“Oh, boy. When I set the hook into it, I thought I had a snag,” Somers said with a laugh.
“It was a little tiny nibble; I could barely tell anything was on there,” he added.
Somers actually got interested in the mottled sculpin a few years ago when he first caught one.
“At that time I didn’t know what it was, but I had seen it on camera and I spent all day laying on my stomach on the ice, trying to get this thing to bite and I finally caught one – I used an eyeball of a fathead minnow and a tiny, tiny little jig,” Somers said.
“I didn’t really know what it was and I let it go, and I found out later ... nobody’s ever registered one (for a state record), so I said, ‘You know, next time I catch one I’m gonna register it.’”
Somers tried to catch another sculpin over the course of the next few years, but with no luck.
“I pretty much had given up because I could never find them again on my camera, and then I accidentally caught one while I was walleye fishing,” he said.
The fun really started after the fish was secured.
“Everyone really kind of got a riot out of the whole thing,” Somers said. “Of course ... I had to take it to the grocery store there in Manitowish Waters, and they had to measure it.”
The store manager met with Somers and weighed the diminutive trophy on a meat scale.
“I ... walked in the door and was like, ‘I might have a possible state record fish,’ and everyone’s ears perked up,” Somers recalled. “They let me in the back and then I open the cooler and there’s a 4-inch sculpin in there. Everyone was like, ‘What is that? I’ve never seen one of those before.’”
It was much the same when Somers went to the DNR office to have a biologist positively identify his prize catch,
“It was like, ‘Hey, everyone’s got to come see this guy who’s trying to register a sculpin for a state record.’ Everybody thought I was nuts, I guess, but everyone got a laugh out of it.”
And has he heard from Rapala, makers of the Jigging Rap, about a potential product endorsement deal?
“Not yet, but I’m sure that’s coming,” Somers said with a laugh.
North Country Taxidermy in Hazelhurst is mounting the sculpin for free.
“I called them up and said, ‘Can you do taxidermy on a 4-inch sculpin?’ and they’re going to do it.”
Somers has plans for the finished mount.
“I think I’ll put it on a great big huge plaque, and then have this little 4-inch fish in the middle of the plaque,” he said.
DNR staff told Somers that the only other state in the nation that lists a state record mottled sculpin is Montana – where a 0.05-pound behemoth was certified.
“Now I’ll have to go get a bigger one,” Somers said.
For now, he’s waiting for the Madison DNR office to respond and make the record official.
Somers is from Janesville, but has a cabin on the Turtle Chain.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.