While little kids were reaching for the golden ring Saturday at the Looff Carrousel, a Spokane teenager hooked the fish of his dreams just outside the door in Riverfront Park.
Joe Buster rides the city bus regularly to fish the Howard Street section of the Spokane River and rarely gets much attention from passers-by as he casts for the occasional foot-long trout or bass.
But he rose to rock-star status after a 42-inch-long northern pike smacked his Mepps Agilia spinner and torpedoed across the pool.
“I was shocked, amazed, bewildered and the next thing I knew my reel was running out line and people were standing all around wondering what the heck it was,” he said.
“I recognized it was not a trout.”
Northern pike, a non-native species, are not common to the Spokane River west of Idaho, although they’re known to wash downstream occasionally from Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Washington’s state record pike, weighing 34 pounds, was caught in Long Lake by local angler Bryan McMannis in 2004.
But catching one in the Spokane River is rare, and the angler didn’t talk if a big one ever was caught in Riverfront Park.
Buster said he cast into the area after seeing baitfish scatter “like bats out of heck” as he scouted from the park footbridge.
“I thought I had located a bass,” he said.
He cast and retrieved the lure and was ready to cast again when the giant fish shot out of the shadows just 10 feet from the end of his rod.
Pike are voracious predators with a rack of teeth that can render an angler’s hand into Hamburger Helper.
“I knew I had to be very, very careful,” Buster said, noting that he was battling a fish of 15-20 pounds on line rated to 12 pounds of strength.
“Two guys came down and got in the water to help me land the fish when I finally reeled it into shore, but it bolted and made another sudden run – and then another after that.”
The contest lasted about 30 minutes.
“There were people gathered on the park grass and lined up on the bridge watching this go down,” Buster said.
By that time, another regular park angler – Buster knows him only as George – was in the water with the other men to help bring Buster’s behemoth ashore.
A bystander took the angler’s cell phone and snapped a photo, which Buster immediately emailed to Pete Roundy, the General Store clerk who helps him rig up his fishing tackle.
“I couldn’t believe it until I saw the picture,” Roundy said. “I was tickled for him.”
“It may not be a state record,” Buster said, “but it broke my own record by a long shoe – and just two days before my 18th birthday to boot.
“It took all my strength to lift it up high,” he recalled Monday, clearly relishing the chance to re-live the moment. “It’s twice as big as anything I’ve ever caught. I was already getting anxious to take it home and eat it.”
Somebody helped him with the unsavory and bloody task of dispatching the lunker and removing the hook in front of a large crowd of gawkers in shorts and flip-flops.
Then reality sunk in. The hand cooler Buster brings to the river is 14 inches wide.
“I started heading to the bus stop to take the fish home when I realized that probably wasn’t a good idea,” he said.
“I looked at George and said, ‘If you can take it and smoke it, I’ll give you half.’”
George was in a much better position to go three miles in the 85-degree heat with a 3 ½ foot-long fish oozing with slime and various body fluids.
“He had his bicycle,” Buster said.