He looked the typical North-woods pike hunter as he stepped aboard the boat. Sun-bleached hair peeked from under his baseball cap; a 'coon-eye tan rimmed intense blue eyes; three-day stubble bristled from his cheeks; weathered fingers gripped a cigarette that folded smoke into the morning mist. Throw in the cool autumn air and the sight of yellow birches in the background, and I half-expected his first bits of small talk to be of football and deer hunting, spoken in a tag-alder-thick Upper Midwestern brogue.
They weren't. Instead, the quiet but kind man's words centered only on pike and carried a Dutch accent. He was thousands of miles from his Holland home; I was in angling heaven. It was September on Lake of the Woods, near Kenora, Ontario, and I was sharing a boat with pike legend Bertus Rozemeijer.
Don't know the name? Chalk it up to ignorance or culture clash, but most pike hunters here probably don't. It's our loss.
Before he stepped on board, I got a sneak preview of the man I was about to meet. “He's a fishing god,” touted Tom Zenanko, media representative for trip host, Salmo Performance Fishing Lures. “For perspective, imagine every North American fishing expert and celebrity rolled into one.”
The accolades weren't exaggeration. I'd later learn that the soft-spoken 55-year-old cut his teeth as an angling authority after years of building up a reputation catching 40-pound-plus pike on fly tackle (European pike are heavier-bodied and grow much larger than their North American counterparts).
When his accomplishments began to garner the attention of the media in the late 1970s, Rozemeijer was asked to write for Dutch-published Beet magazine, sister publication of Blinker, one of Europe's largest fishing titles.
Since then, he has written many books and articles on fishing pike and zander (similar to walleye), and served as a consultant for several international tackle companies, all the while breaking European pike records and guiding countless others to world-class pike across the continent.
Getting him to fess up to these accomplishments, however, is tougher than hooking a 50-inch fish. Despite his fame, he was as familiar and genuine as an old friend as we cast jerkbaits to Lake of the Woods' shoreline, hoping for a strike from the big lake's brutes. He's humble and grateful for any opportunity to catch fish, and it shows with every cast—something he credits to the state of Holland's pike fisheries in his childhood.
In the years after World War II citizens of the war-ravaged nation used pike as a food source after the German defeat, virtually eliminating the species. Rough fish exploded as a result, and water quality suffered. Those lean times taught him to treasure big pike and instilled a strong catch-and-release ethic that still shapes his angling style.
The sumo-caliber rods and baits synonymous with pike fishing can make even the most experienced anglers look a bit unwieldy, but Rozemeijer maintains an uncommon grace on the water. He casts and retrieves beefy lures with seemingly no effort. He's not “chucking” baits or recklessly ripping them back to boatside—there's no spark of wasted energy or mistimed rodtip twitch. And when he hooks a pike, he fights calmly and methodically, though his eyes flash with the excitement of a novice.
His style pays dividends—by the end of the third day of our Lake of the Woods trip, my 27-year-old arms and joints ached—but Rozemeijer was still a machine. When he wasn't casting, he was changing baits, formulating game plans, analyzing the conditions.
“To be successful, we must be like golfers—constantly changing rods and lures to match the conditions and what the fish want,” he said while releasing a 10-pound pike. Despite the fact the fish was a small fraction of the size he's used to catching in Europe, he showed it no less respect or excitement than he would a sagging 30 pounder.
A slimy handshake later, and the pike man was back at it. Driven. I expected no less.
Most pike anglers have caught a big fish or two—but where, when and how often? I'll tightrope walk on some 4-pound test and say that most of us have caught very few true brutes, and even less of those were caught outside a guide's watchful gaze or the unpressured waters of the Far North.
Could you do it thousands of miles from your home waters—on another continent, no less? Could you hack it on waters so pressured that catch-and-release anglers easily identify individual fish by their scale patterns, because those fish had been caught so many times?
Bertus Rozemeijer can, and he proves it time and again, whether he's fishing in Europe or Canada. Here's how.
• Downsize—Whether pike or muskie chasers, many North American anglers automatically and faithfully (sometimes blindly) link big lures to big fish. Stick this in your gill rakers: Rozemeijer routinely catches 40-plus-pound Euro pike on lures we might use for crappies. Over there, 5 inches is “big.”
• Go soft—Rozemeijer scoffs at the typical heavy-power, fast action rods preferred by North American esox addicts. Instead, he goes to battle with rods we might mistake for bass sticks. These feature slow, almost parabolic actions. He credits the slow-pokes for longer, more accurate casts, better lure control and for quickly taking the wind out of the biggest pike's sails. Although extra care must be taken to ensure solid hooksets.
• Play with plastic—Rozemeijer believes soft plastics are the untapped resource in North Amer-ican pike and muskie fishing—a concept savvy European anglers have already licked. They've had to; animal-rights groups have successfully banned the use of live bait in Holland and other European countries, says Rozemeijer—laughably, out of concern for the baitfish!