Reel Long Shot 

A fish-chaser's epic quest to land a record-breaker—in two days' time

The storm clouds have built all morning along a ridge of pressure to the northwest, and they've finally begun to hunt us down. We're rocking a bit now, riding waves pushed by the steadily building wind, but the 26-foot aluminum lake cruiser rolls with the punches like a champ. I turn my attention to the skipper's chair, where Pat Campanella looks at the rain machine-gunning the surface of Flathead Lake, and then back at me.

"I'm not too worried about this stuff yet," he says. "You want to keep fishing? You never know. Sometimes a little commotion up top can get the bite going good."

The bite. It's a term shared by just about all fishermen, and it boils fishing conditions down to their naked essentials: whether the fish, in this place and at this time, are eating or not.

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS

I walk out on the rear deck and survey the half-dozen fishing rods twisting akimbo over the stern like busted fingers. I can see the photo now: Against a background bled of all color by the wrath of the storm, I hold the behemoth in both arms, straining to contain its massive girth. The look in my eyes, which lock the camera lens under a brim dripping rain and lake water, is one of triumph and redemption, powered by the dawning certainty that no one in Montana's history had ever subdued a leviathan such as this.

Hell yes, we're going to keep fishing. I need the bite.

The laughter coming from the other end of the phone is not quite ominous—it's mixed with too much pity and disbelief to hold a hard edge—but it sends a cold bolt through my guts nonetheless. This is a public servant, after all, a guy ostensibly committed to the common cause of society in general and, given his position as a fish biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to the cause of fish-chasers in particular.

And here I am, a natural-born fish-chaser drawing nigh on the most audacious piscine mission of my life, and Ladd Knotek's bone-chiller of a laugh is telling me all I need to know about my chances of success.

"Trying to catch a state record fish on any given day, well, it makes the guy looking for a needle in a haystack look pretty good by comparison," he says after finally, I can only presume, wiping the tears from his face.

The thing that makes Knotek's laugh truly annoying is that I know he's right. I've been fishing the western part of the state as hard as I can for the better part of 20 years and haven't come close to even hooking a state record, let alone bringing one to hand. That the self-imposed conditions of my task include a two-day window in which to subdue the ultimate trophy does precious little to improve my odds, but make no mistake: While the physical goal of my quest is a fish that will land me in the state annals, what I'm really trying to catch here is lightning in a bottle.

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