Until recently, Eric Emerich of Garland had never been ice fishing. That is, unless you count the time years ago when he went to a lake where a friend was fishing — to pick him up — and stayed only a few minutes.
“I’m new to ice fishing,” said Emerich, who along with his wife Krista had hired Jack Sullivan of Maine Fishing Guides to help introduce them to the sport.
But you likely will find the Emerichs on the ice more often in the future.
On Feb. 12, Eric Emerich celebrated his ice fishing debut with an incredible experience. He landed a trophy northern pike, weighing 25.9 pounds and measuring 43 inches long and 22 inches in circumference, during an excursion to a pond in the Belgrade Lakes region.
“I’ve been fishing all my life. I’ve always dreamed of something like that,” Emerich said. “These are things I read about in Field and Stream when I was in elementary school.”
It was a slow buildup to when the monster hit. They had been fishing for hours and had landed several fish and lost a few. As they enjoyed fresh pike cooked on the ice by Sullivan, he noticed what appeared to be a flag at one of his more remote traps.
It had been placed in an area where the fishing was generally slow, but had produced large fish in the past. He didn’t react immediately.
Sullivan knew that if it was a flag, and there was a pike swimming with the bait, it would be to Emerich’s benefit to give it time to secure the bait in its mouth.
“You want to give that pike a chance to run with the bait or turn the bait so you get a better hook set,” Sullivan said.
Moments later, they jumped on their snowmobiles to go check the trap. The flag was up and soon the fight was on.
The tug of war lasted 40 minutes, with Sullivan coaching Emerich on how to handle what he knew, from its behavior, was a large fish.
Emerich was cautious as his ice fishing inexperience likely contributed to losing a few fish earlier in the day.
“He had to go through that learning curve of how to fight a big fish,” Sullivan said.
Emerich didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize bringing in a nice one.
“He was heavy, and I was feeling vulnerable that he could break it at any time and, at the size he was, he certainly could have,” Emerich said.
He allowed the fish to make repeated runs, then tried to regain control by slowly working it back toward the surface.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of margin for error at a few points,” Emerich said, as the spool was visible after most of the line had been taken off.
“Every time he would gain some line on it, it took it all back,” Sullivan said of the pike. “It was Eric’s first time fighting a big fish on the ice and he absolutely nailed it.”
Some 25 minutes into the battle, the Emerichs and Sullivan got their first glimpse of the fish swimming past the hole. The sight was unforgettable.
“It was like a dang spade shovel,” Emerich said of the pike’s enormous head.
Emerich, 53, admits the process was tiring and that he was sore from kneeling on the ice and was experiencing fatigue in his shoulders and core. Krista Emerich, a yoga instructor, provided breathing relaxation tips.
At one point, Sullivan offered to spell Emerich and give him a chance to rest.
“I said, ‘nah, sometimes you get in something too deep to back down from; this is one of them,’” Emerich said.
Finally, Emerich prevailed and Sullivan reached down and plucked the pike out of the water.
“I’ve been pike fishing for 13 years, but that was the biggest one that I’ve seen come to the surface,” said Sullivan, who has been guiding for six years. “He couldn’t have done a better job.”
“It was an exhausting fight. I was ready for it to be over,” Emerich said.
Even though he knew it was a huge fish, Emerich wasn’t able to grasp the magnitude of the catch in the moment.
“I’m only gathering full context after the fact,” he admitted, after hearing Sullivan suggest initially that it might have state-record potential.
Maine’s record northern pike was a 31.2-pounder caught in 1998 by Lance Bolduc of Skowhegan at North Pond in Smithfield.
Emerich said catching the pike was a much different experience than his brook trout and lake trout fishing outings taken with Sullivan. He has been fascinated with pike and their “cousin” muskellunge.
“Something that big and that voracious, it stirs the fancy,” he said, echoing the sentiments of anglers who have targeted pike since they were illegally introduced many years ago in central Maine.
Sullivan confirmed that the excitement of catching pike through the ice is hard to match for anglers.
“When I see the flag up and I’m pike fishing, I know that there’s a potential for a 20-plus-pound fish on that line every time,” he said.
The Emerichs’ memories of the special day of ice fishing will be lasting ones, but they’ll also have a tangible and lasting reminder. The pike will be mounted by a taxidermist.
“Some of the old-timers were saying, you will not see a fish like that again,” Emerich said.
“I really can’t blame him,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to be on the wall, so it’s going to be a forever memory.”
Emerich is grateful to Sullivan for his knowledge and guidance in facilitating a fun and rewarding experience.
“Jack Sullivan of Maine Fishing Guides is a wonderful and capable young man, wise beyond his years … gives me faith in the younger generation,” Emerich said.