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What's on TV? Fish, and lots of 'em

Gary Rutherford uses a remote control to change the direction of an underwater camera in his fish house. Rutherford was using three different cameras and three big-screen television monitors to keep any eye on northern pike in Blue Lake. John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Gary Rutherford hauls three underwater video cameras into his Ice Castle ice house on Blue Lake on a recent morning. Rutherford enjoys watching fish behavior on the cameras. John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Gary Rutherford talks about catching northern pike on Blue Lake while he watches large-screen monitors attached to underwater cameras. His yellow lab Ranger is always close by. John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com3 / 5
A 24-inch northern pike slams a sucker minnow dangling on a treble hook. The image is shown on a large-screen monitor attached to one of Gary Rutherford's underwater cameras. John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com4 / 5
A northern pike zeros-in on a sucker minnow under Gary Rutherford's ice house on Blue Lake. The item in the lower right is a tree stump. John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com5 / 5

ON BLUE LAKE — Gary Rutherford loves to watch televisions in the dead of winter.

So just about every morning in January and February, Rutherford fires up his big pickup truck, calls his yellow lab Ranger to join him and leaves his lakeside home in Pengilly to drive 7 miles to Blue Lake near Nashwauk.

He plows his way to his Ice Castle fish house, fires up a Honda generator, hooks up some electronics and then settles in to watch TVs.

Only Rutherford isn't watching Netflix or HBO or even the Outdoor Channel. He's watching Gary Rutherford's Fish TV, brought to you by three underwater cameras attached to three big-screen TV monitors bolted to the walls of the shelter.

Don't bother asking about watching the big game or a movie or playing a game of Fortnite. The only thing showing is northern pike, bluegills, crappies and the occasional perch.

This northern pike may look huge on a monitor but in reality it's only about 28 inches long. Photos by John Myers / News Tribune"I probably watch more TV in these two months than I do all the rest of the year put together,'' Rutherford said on a recent January day from the 70-degree above zero comfort of his fishing shelter. Rutherford, 69, insists he's a techno-novice, but the strings of HDMI cables in the shelter say otherwise. On this day he's using three underwater cameras — both Aqua-View and Marcum — but he owns several others just in case one goes bad.

He's not just watching TV out here, of course, he also drops hefty sucker minnows impaled on treble hooks down the holes. The baits hovers just above the myriad stumps that haunt the bottom of the once small natural lake that has expanded in recent decades due to nearby mining operations.

And he catches a lot of fish.

Last year, Rutherford fished here more than 50 days, starting New Year's Day when the ice was safe for his big rig. He and his guests caught a combined 132 northern pike, his log book shows. His brother kept two — all the other fish were released.

This year he started Jan. 9. On the first day he and his guests caught 11 notherns. Blue Lake doesn't have many big pike; most of the ones Rutherford catches are between 24 and 28 inches.

"But they're fun to catch, for me,'' he said. "I'm one of the few people out here who fishes northerns. Most people out here are going after panfish."

He uses stout, short ice fishing rods with casting reels spooled with PowerPro line and with a 12-inch steel leader. Sometimes his treble hooks are paired with a spinner blade and beads, sometimes not.

Rutherford used to fish competitive walleye tournaments in summer. But in recent years the retired National Steel Pellet Co. mineworker has been mostly targeting musky and pike during summer months. He used to make winter walleye trips to Red Lake and Lake of the Wods, too, but these days, in winter, it's strictly pike.

Gary Rutherford of Pengilly works to remove the hooks from a 26-inch northern pike caught on Blue Lake recently.On a recent day Rutherford and a guest had five pike grab a bait, with two landed, over about three hours with lines in the water.

But over that same time there were fish within view on Rutherford's underwater cameras almost constantly — an occasional crappie or bluegill and maybe a perch or two, but mostly northern pike. The water is gin-clear in this lake but the cameras still struggle to see very far out due to the lack of sunlight penetrating through deep snow on the ice. Rutherford plows an extra wide space around the fish house to let more light shine through.

After a while Rutherford gets to know the fish. On this day a chubby, roughly 28-inch pike came around every few minutes to check out our baits. He never once bit. Rutherford pointed to one of the TV monitors and the curious pike's unusually big belly for its size.

"That fat boy has been coming around for four or five days now, every day. But he won't eat,'' Rutherford said, jigging one of his rods in a futile effort to tantalize the pike to bite. "They get you excited just watching... get your heart going."

Sometimes Rutherford would jig a hookless spearing decoy in an effort to attract a fish to bite, and it seemed to work. But it became very clear over the morning that not all fish that come in to check out a bait are interested in biting.

"Everybody thinks northerns hit anything you throw down there, that they will attack anything they see. But that's not true at all. A lot of them come in slow and just look, then swim over and look at another bait, then slowly swim off,'' Rutherford noted after another visit by "fat boy." "I mean, you gotta be kidding me! A fish with that reputation is that close to an easy meal but not hungry?"

But when they do bite, the pike can come in fast and hard, swooping up a sucker minnow in seconds. They also tend to come in pairs. Rutherford has become a bit of a pike behavior expert after watching hundreds of them over recent winters.

"They don't school up, but they do tend to come in hungry pairs a lot of the time,'' he noted.

Indeed, twice on our outing we had two pike on at the same time.

Gary Rutherford of Pengilly holds up the camera end of an underwater video system.Rutherford can spot a fish on the monitors even before it comes clearly into view, and he still gets excited every time a new fish swims in.

"That's why I come out here every day, to see things like that,'' he said after watching a small pike slam one of the baits.

"I never get skunked out here,'' Rutherford said while reeling up a bait before heading home. "It's not really getting skunked when you get to watch them all day. That's just as fun as catching them."