The moment the picture of Tom Ward and the northern pike popped up on my computer screen, I knew I was hooked. I had to write a column on it.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Well, if it’s a good picture of a big fish, I think it’s worth a lot more than that. But I’ll have to settle for about 750 words with this one. Newspapers have space limits, you know.
So I’ll do what I can within the loose boundaries of this column to tell you an end-of-summer fishing story that actually happened one spring. It happens, actually, just about every spring, although it doesn’t always produce a fish picture worth 750 words.
It starts with Tom Ward, a 62-year-old Rapid City resident and flooring salesman who loves wading prairie lakes and casting for walleyes, pike and other gamefish. But to get to the northern-pike picture, we have to back up a bit to Ward’s growing-up years over in the Glacial Lakes country of northeastern South Dakota.
There the De Smet native fell in love with hunting and fishing, which is easy to do in a land of lakes and creeks and sloughs and shelter belts, and all the game they support. He took that love to college and, after graduating, brought it west to Rapid City, where he went to work in sales. He also fell in love with northern plains coyote hunting — especially the calling part — and eventually started to make his own calls, marketing them as Dakota Yote Varmint calls since 2002.
Sometimes he takes a call along when he heads out to fish a West River lake. Curlew, north of New Underwood, is one of his favorites. It’s fairly isolated, and rarely crowded. And he’ll cast until about sunset and then take a break to call for coyotes, just to hear them talk back.
“The sun’s going down and you give a little howl,” Ward says. “And the coyotes like to tell each other where they’re at, because they’re moving into their individual hunting zones.”
Apparently that mournful conversation helps coyotes avoid conflicts over hunting territory. And when Ward blows his call, they end up talking to a phony coyote with a fake-but-realistic-sounding voice. The back-and-forth howling delights Ward, although maybe not quite as much as the heavy hit of a walleye or northern pike as he retrieves a jointed Rapala or a swim jig.
What’s he like best about wade fishing? Just about everything, he says.
“I like the serenity for one thing,” Ward says. “And I like to feel the bottom under your feet. You can get a sense of transition areas on the bottom, you know, from sandy to rock areas. You can feel that as you move. There’s a couple places on Curlew where you can wade out quite a ways. You’ve got to take your time and move slowly, like you do when you’re fishing a stream in the hills.”
Along with local wading trips to Curlew and the much bigger Belle Fourche Reservoir, Ward makes longer sojourns back to the De Smet area, where wet cycles in the 1990s expanded existing lakes and turned some large sloughs into reliable fishing waters.
“I have left here after work and hit De Smet maybe at one in the morning, put the waders on and started fishing,” he says. “I still go back pretty much every year in the spring.”
He was at Lake Henry when he caught that northern and held it for a photo, which was captured by his sister, Patti Ward. I love everything about the picture: the warm lighting, the impressionistic swirls and reflections in the water, Ward’s firm grip on the big-headed, fully colored pike, the water droplets falling from the fish.
And if you’ve been in that position near sundown in a lake yourself, you know the best part of the evening could be yet to come.
“I’ve been on Thompson and Henry both, with the full moon coming up and light hitting the water, with enough wind for a little chop — and sometimes more than a little chop. And you look across the lake and see the lights from cabins, and you start to fan cast an area,” Ward says. “And you get into all that and you could do it all night long. Your mind sort of settles into the place, and you could be there until four in the morning.”
Or even until sunrise, when the opportunity for a picture worth 750 words might present itself again.