November 29, 2021
In the movie The Natural, Robert Redford’s legendary character Roy Hobbs, came weakly to home plate in the iconic movie’s conclusion with one final at-bat and a chance to make fictionalized baseball history.
And with one crack of the bat, he did just that.
In similar fashion just prior to Thanksgiving last week, avid Minnesota muskie angler Nolan Sprengeler went fishing at 132,516-acre Lake Mille Lacs, having to break ice at the boat launch to access the rapidly freezing-up lake.
But barely an hour after the Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 fishing trip began on the famous Land of 10,000 Lakes water body, Sprengeler and his fishing buddies Kevin Kray and Zack Skoglund would find themselves at the forefront of Minnesota fishing history, landing a giant last-second-of-the-last-day muskellunge that will apparently break a 64-year old state record.
Breaking the Ice for a Record Catch
While official acceptance and certification of the record-sized muskie is still pending from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it appears that all I's are dotted and all T's are crossed for Sprengeler’s 55-pound, 14.8-ounce muskie to become the new record.
"In the fall at Lake Milles Lac, the ciscos are still spawning on rock reefs and the muskies are still after them," said Sprengeler. "The water temp was in the mid-30s (last week), but there must have been at least one more big muskie hanging around."
That seems certain when you look at photos of Sprengeler's giant muskie, which measured 57 ¾ inches in length and had a girth of 29 inches. But to even get out to the rock reef that the trio of anglers was targeting at night, dealing with Old Man Winter's quick approach was a sizable challenge.
"I caught the fish around 9 o’clock," said Sprengeler. "There was a moon rise at 7:30 or 8 p.m. that night and muskies like to feed at such times. But most of the boat accesses were frozen up and it took a couple of hours to get a boat access that we could use to get in."
When they finally did find a place to launch the fishing rig—at a balmy 18 degrees, by the way—it took some careful boat and trailer work to get in the water, break the surface ice with the boat motor’s prop, and do all of that without icing up the boat ramp.
"It was crazy that we had to check out four accesses to even get in," said Sprengeler. "Once we found a usable boat ramp, we had to break ice for about 100 yards to even get out there. But it was worth it, I guess, because I ended up catching it on the last spot on the last day in those icy conditions. It was so wintry, in fact, that the ice had refrozen when we came back and we had to break it again to get back to the boat ramp."
One Last Swing Before Ice-Up
When the trio finally got out to the rock reef—all three anglers made a last-second decision to go out one last time, knowing that the lake would be frozen up within a few days—they started chunking and winding, hoping for one final bite to get them through the long winter months that lie ahead.
"It’s not really the fight that gets you hooked on this in the fall," said Sprengeler. "You’re dealing with all of this ice buildup (on the lake and with your fishing gear), you’re throwing lures up to one-pound all day, and you’re fishing with a 9 ½ foot big rod, a crank-handle baitcasting reel, and 100-pound braid."
Around 9 p.m., Sprengeler threw his big plastic bait near the rock reef again. This time, there was huge resistance. Because of the frigid water conditions, though, the angler admits the fight wasn’t all that fierce as he quickly wrestled the giant muskie to the side of the boat.
"When the fish hit, I knew it was big," said Sprengeler, a 27-year old from Plymouth, Minn. "But I didn’t realize it was that big because we couldn’t tell how long it was in the dark. I grabbed it from the net for a picture, but I couldn’t really hold it because it was so long. So, my buddy Kevin grabbed the back half of the fish, we took a couple of quick photos, and then it all began to sink in."
Hoping to land the catch-and-release record, Sprengeler and his friends began working to revive the huge muskie and let it swim away.
"Unfortunately, it really ate the lure and we had to cut the hooks out," he said, noting that they worked for upwards of an hour to try and revive the huge muskie. "When we realized that wasn’t going to happen, we all agreed that the best way to respect this fish was to get it weighed and beat the state record."
After fighting their way back to the boat ramp, Sprengeler went to a UPS Store the next morning to find a certified scale and get the muskie officially weighed.
A day later, he confirmed to the angling world that he had indeed caught a potential Minnesota state record muskie.
"The rumors are true! On November 22nd I set out on the last trip of my season with Kevin Kray and Zack Skoglund to chase the queen," Sprengeler posted on his Facebook account. The post continued:
"At about 9 pm I felt that tap on my Thorne Bros 9’6” XXH I’ve been searching for all fall. After a quick battle and a few ridiculous head shakes we had it in the bag. I didn’t realize how giant this fish was until I pulled it out of the net and immediately called Kevin over to assist with the buddy pictures. It measured an incredible 57.75” in length with a 29” girth.
"The next hour or so was spent trying to get her to release. Eventually, we realized this was not going to happen and made the decision to bring it to a certified scale and crush the Minnesota State Record. She weighed 55 lbs and 14.8 oz.
"Huge shout out to Austin Tausk and Kyle Dorr for helping me find a place to get her weighed and helping with that process. Also Randy at the UPS Store was the man for being so cool about weighing it for us. I’m so incredibly blessed to be apart of this journey with my best friends."
Previous Muskie Record Set in '57
In the aftermath of the catch—which has been featured by a number of local, state, and national news outlets including Outdoor Sportsman Group’s In-Fisherman magazine—Sprengeler has become immortalized in the muskie community.
His giant catch will be immortalized, too, since Sprengeler is having the potential state record fish skin-mounted, while having a mold made to produce replicas of the fish. Reportedly, Rix Lax of Conover, Wis., is the taxidermist of choice who will preserve the fish and its memory forever.
Obviously, the potential state-record catch is a big one as it apparently overtakes the Minnesota benchmark that has stood for a couple of generations. That 1957 record, dating back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, measured 56 inches and weighed 54 pounds when it was pulled from Lake Winnibigoshish by an unidentified angler.
Quick Lesson in Muskie History
But how does the Sprengeler muskie last week measure up against world-record marks? Well, that’s a story that has many layers and is a bit complicated and controversial, to be honest.
Case in point is a former world record for the species, a 64 ½-inch long muskie caught in the 1940s by Art Lawton and originally certified at 69 pounds, 15 ounces. But that fish was disqualified jointly by the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and the International Game Fish Association in August 1992 when it was discovered that Lawton had submitted false evidence to support his catch.
After that, in the eyes of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame—which has a half-city block long and 4 1/2 stories tall concrete, steel, and fiberglass muskie on its grounds—the world record then went to Louis Spray and his 69-pound, 11-ounce muskie pulled from the Chippewa Flowage in 1949.
But Spray’s record was challenged by a group of anglers—called the World Record Muskie Alliance at the time—which spent months examining photographs and gathering sworn affidavits according to published reports. However, the NFFHF would eventually uphold the fish despite the controversy.
For the IGFA, the Spray record isn’t authentic and it currently lists its world record as a 67-pound, 8-ounce muskie caught by Cal Johnson at Wisconsin’s Lake Court Oreilles in July 1949. But even that muskie has its own cloud of controversy, as the WR Muskie Alliance also analyzed data on that fish and challenged its authenticity.
In the end, Spray’s fish is the NFFHF world record and the Johnson fish is the IGFA world record, and the controversy continues to swirl to this very day in the muskie-fishing world.
World Record in Mille Lacs?
While Sprengeler’s state-record muskie catch won’t challenge for any official world record, it appears likely it will become certified by the Minnesota DNR, perhaps as early as this week when the natural resource agency takes a closer look after the Thanksgiving Day holiday break.
When all of that Minnesota DNR examination is complete, it’s likely Sprengeler will stand at the top of Minnesota’s angling Mount Everest, claiming a long-held state record with one final swing at his favorite fishing hole.
But don’t be surprised if the angler—who began fishing for muskies 10 years ago and regularly fishes for the species with his friends—eventually pulls something even bigger from Mille Lacs.
"For sure, I think it’s out there, a world-record muskie in Mille Lacs," he said, noting that he and his friends hold to a modern-day world record muskie mark of 58 pounds. "Now, I want to try and get the catch-and-release record (Editor's Note: Minnesota's catch-and-release record is owned by two 57 1/4-inch muskies pulled from Lake Vermilion) and the world record. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there."
While he’ll now have to wait until next year to hunt that fish, Sprengeler’s certainly going to spend the winter celebrating his state record. In fact, after he hung up the phone with yours truly, he joined friends on Black Friday, and instead of shopping, he went to a local pub and grabbed a celebratory drink.
"I got interested in muskie fishing when I was a little kid, seeing all of the pictures in the bait shops," he said. "When I went fishing with a friend of mine from high school, who had all of the rods, the reels, and the lures, I caught a 42-inch tiger muskie on my first trip and it was all over for me.
"And really, it’s not even the fishing itself, that has me interested," he also said. "It’s more of a hunt to chase fish of this caliber. And to be able to do all of that with my best friends, that’s what really attracts me to this sport."
Even when his favorite fishing hole is icing up fast and there’s one final chance to land the fish of any angler’s dreams.