It was a trip like any other, until…
Rank amateurs, our broken-down boots, worn high-water pants, sagging plaid shirts, jackets with assorted buttons and old sun hats on our grey heads, completed our “old fogey fishermen” look. An old lumber camp, east of Espanola, was our summer fishing retreat. My husband, John, who had progressed from, “I’ll stay at camp,” to, “Just five more casts,” was an eccentric, silent fisherman. How could anyone drop a new rod into the lake, wait politely for a break in the conversation and then quietly announce, “I’ve dropped my fishing rod.” Freddy the Fisherman offered to loan John a whole list of expletives if he didn’t have any himself. John, who did not use expletives, merely increased his silence when excited.
Only two more days of vacation. In the past week we had enjoyed carefree days of canoeing, fishing, basket weaving, hiking and swimming. We explored lakes and lunched on the island (with a near forest fire, but that’s another story) — all at a leisurely pace in the cool, clear northern air and lakes. In the evenings, John spent hours by the fire, poking, stirring and staring, and later two seniors would go to bed, smelly and smoky. Some nights, we lay on the grass, under the vast, starlit sky, the constellations, and the really milky Milky Way. Our hearts and minds rose with thanks to the creator of all this beauty, this grandeur. Later, under a peaked roof, surrounded by logs smoothed by the hands of Finnish lumbermen a hundred years ago, we were soothed to sleep by the sighing trees and the haunting calls of loons.
Although our largest catch of 24 inches had not met our son Matthew’s challenge (to beat his 36-inch pike record), our pleasure was in the glorious settings: five remote lakes in which to paddle; the spicy fragrance of evergreens; the silence only broken by the splashing of paddles, an occasional beaver tail slap or the wail of a loon. There were narrow, silent channels; powerful, exposed bedrock; high rugged cliffs and towering pines against crisp skies. Some lakes had no cottages, no people; only loons, deer, moose, beavers, otters, and immense isolation.
Thursday came with sunny skies and cool breezes. Fishing in Deerhound Lake, in our friends’ new boat, we caught rock bass, sunfish, and a few nice pikes, but no big real big ones.
“Just one trolling pass through the channel, as we head back, okay?” asked Jerry.
Five lines trailed far behind the boat as we cruised. Silently we watched Jerry’s new fish finder tell us there were no fish below. Suddenly, in 25 feet of empty water, I felt my line give a yank.
“Stop the boat—I’ve got a big one!”
I reeled it to the boat, where, with a smooth swoop, Jerry netted it. Thirty-one inches of fighting, thrashing pike.
“Ho!” What a thrill! We didn’t beat Matthew, but we were satisfied.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t have to net that thing in your canoe,” Jerry said. Gently, we let the fish slide back into the water, where it lay still for a few seconds, and then with a quick twist, silently slipped into the deep.
Early the following chilly morning, we drove to “our” little lake, The Second Twin, to fish for bass. The lodge owner, Mike, told us only one other person ever went on the lake, a canoeist named Gunther. Our canoe lay concealed in the woods by the shore. The fresh smell of wet earth came with soft rain, the air was still, except for gentle dripping. Covered head to foot in yellow rain gear, we made our way to the canoe, singing to keep the bears away. After easing our canoe across fallen logs, through the weeds, and onto the waiting lake, we gently paddled toward our little island and a seaweed bed that might hide some bass or a trespassing pike. Mike said some pike had slipped into the lake through a flooded channel and were destroying the bass fishing.
First, we sat quietly for a few minutes, the breeze gentle, the waves rippling against the canoe, as the resident loon gave an occasional lonely cry. Almost hypnotizing, but we came to fish. Immediately a fish bit off my hook and worm. So! It was time for the big stuff!
On went strong leaders and our favourite red devils. Too eager, I lost the next fish. Then, proving Mike was right about the pike invasion, John caught a big pike which I netted. I grabbed the hook remover and mouth opener. What a mess. Slime and blood all over — my blood—from razor-sharp teeth.
The fish was an inch longer than our 30-inch thwart. Another 31 incher! We wanted to keep a few fish to take home but the fish was too heavy for me to lift in and out of the canoe so we put it under my seat, my foot firmly on the fish chain. I shivered at the thought of pike teeth piercing the backs of my ankles. We caught two more big ones, which made a crowd under my seat. The thrashing was scary and the slime horrific. Every time I looked at the thick, red, gooey water at my feet, I gagged. My shoulders were killing me. My hands were smelly and bloody. We were having a wonderful time!
I shivered at the thought of pike teeth piercing the backs of my ankles
Although we didn’t want to stop, we were due at camp by noon, so we paddled for shore.
“Just a few more casts,” said John as we approached a shallow bay by our landing place.
“Last cast,” he said, keeping our tradition. “Last cast,” he said again as I reeled in my empty lure.
“You can’t have two last casts,” I protested. John grinned.
“And absolutely the last cast,” the cheater yelled as he flung the lure into a shallow corner of the little bay.
Sudden silence. Oh, no.
“Did you get something?”
“I don’t know, Marjorie,” he whispered. “Maybe it’s just caught on a log. Oh no, it’s definitely not stuck. It’s a fish.”
John’s line screamed. Patiently, he played the fish until he finally eased it next to the canoe. I couldn’t see it.
“Is it big?” I asked.
“Hoo,” he breathed. “Hoo!” he breathed again. “It’s a monster,” he whispered.” “It’s a beast!”
It took off. John’s silence was scary. I screamed frantic instructions.
“Don’t let it snap your line. Wear it out. Take it in. Let it run. Don’t listen to me. I won’t be able to net it if it’s too big. Oh, don’t lose it.”
No silence for me when I was excited!
He reeled it in again. I looked over the edge into the murky water. Suddenly a tail fin broke the water.
“Hoo! It is a monster!” I yelled. “I can’t possibly net it! Not with this broken net. Not into this canoe. Not by my feet! Bring him in closer. Maybe I can reach him.”
The fish swam majestically beside us, where I could clearly see him just below the surface of the water. I panicked about netting him. With a great thrash of his tail, he again charged below with both our nerves and the reel shrieking.
“Listen to that reel! We’ll never get him. Wow! Listen to that. Oh, John, I’m sorry, but I just won’t be able to net him. No way! He’s humongous!” Three more times the water leopard tired, allowing John to reel him in. Each time I tried to net him. Patiently John continued to tire him. An eight-pound test line and an excitement-crazed wife didn’t help.
Finally, I got the net under the tired beast — sort of. The monster’s cruel, ugly jaw stuck through a hole in the net. His tail lashed out of the top. Water and slime flew. There was no time to think.
Screaming, “I’ve got him!” I heaved the beast into the canoe, the net coming down over him. My right hand grabbed the fish by the eye sockets; my left hand held down the net, and both my knees went on top of his body. I bit off the fishing line. The beast’s tail rose above the gunwale. “Paddle John. Just paddle hard for shore. If he thrashes, I’m done for.”
While my hero furiously paddled, I leaned forward to put more weight onto the fish. Slowly, slowly, I slipped forward, my face headed straight toward the slimy pool. “Faster, John. Faster. Faster!”
John bent double, digging his paddle into the water with massive thrusts. He paddled right onto shore. I didn’t dare to get the beast out of the net. One quick bite and a piece of me would slide down his throat. One frantic thrash, and he would vanish. John came to the back of the canoe, but he couldn’t chain the fish. As I slid off the fish, my adventurous husband did what our fabled stories said Grandpa did with his famous pike. John lowered his bottom onto the fish. He actually sat on it! Looking at me, he smirked and announced, “Well, if Grandpa could do it, so can I! Now you can chain it.”
We emptied the canoe and again hid it in the trees. Groaning, we dragged the slimy tangle of net, chain, fish and tackle up into the woods, through the snagging trees and bushes, over logs and muddy gullies, to the van. We heaved all the fish into a green garbage bag. The beast’s tail stuck out.
The adrenaline-charged trip back to camp was short.
“Wow! I can’t believe it! We did it!” I said to John.
“It must be bigger than Matt’s. It’s a monster!”
“How big do you think it is? Wait ’til they see it at camp,” said John.
Back at camp, out on the lawn, we called out—two grey-haired old fools, mouths stuck in idiotic grins, hair in wet spikes, hands bloody, rain gear smeared with slime, proudly slipping their catch out of the green bag onto the grass.
Used to excited fishermen, Mike just ambled, but after seeing the beast, he ran for his camera. “This picture will go into my show,” he said.
“It’s a trophy fish,” said Dave, making John’s day.
“You really mean John caught that big one?” asked Sarka in disbelief.
“What is it?” asked the leader of the Kalamazoo University survival students.
“Can you put it back in the lake?” asked soft-hearted Samantha.
“Measure it,” said Jerry, as he lay his yardstick beside the fish. The yardstick was too short. But a tape measure said 42-and-a-half inches. Forty-two-and-a-half inches of ugly pike to beat Matthew’s record. John held it, chest high for the picture. We cleaned it and took its head, with its hideous massive jaw, home to present to Matthew on a platter. John always said the head was bigger than grandfather’s, but grandfather’s pike head skeleton, nailed above brother Curt’s garage door, had a sparrow’s nest in its open mouth. John’s pike head couldn’t hold that much, but we didn’t tell him.
John, the hero, strutted. My brother Gordon once bragged that when he shot a bear with an arrow, he had become a man. No comment from his wife. Now Grandfather John, who had caught his monster beast, had become a man too! Ha!
Don’t expect to get record fish there yourself, because after we left, someone told our tale in Espanola. In the following weeks, convoys of cars and boats found an alternative way to the lake, where they probably fished it dry. But that evening, instead of a final fishing trip, we lazed about the cove.
“No way we can cap that experience on this trip,” John had pronounced. So I didn’t get that 45-inch pike that was waiting for me. ◆