Old Man's Fish

A lifelong fishing dream dies in a very sudden death. Sometimes during the life of a fisherman, the big one really did get away.

When the fish took, it wasn’t really a “strike;” more like the hint of a strike. Certainly nothing as violent as the sudden, line-jarring hit that had startled the old man out of his trance a halfhour before. That one had been a lean pike, going maybe two pounds, which looked about as hungry as it had acted when it took the bait. “It’ll fry,” the old man had thought as he punched the metal spike of his rope stringer through its jaws and cinched it down. No, this strike felt more like the breath of a butterfly had disturbed the lip-hooked minnow. But it was enough. The old man jammed the thumb-button down on his ancient Zebco 33, then quickly released it so line could feed freely from the spool as the boat continued its slow drift in the light June breeze.

He recalled how his boys, grown now, always teased him about fishing the old spincaster. They’d even presented him with a high-dollar spinning outfit a number of birthdays back. “The old one works just fine,” he’d grumbled, as he placed the new graphite rod and machined-aluminum reel on pegs in the garage.

It wasn’t just that the old Zebco still worked. He had fished the gift rig a couple of times on lone trips, but never got the hang of flipping the bail, fingering the line, and worst of all, reeling left-handed. “But they don’t have to know that.” After 20 seconds, which seemed like 20 minutes, he slowly turned the handle until the button popped, clunking more than clicking into place. Three seconds later, the line tightened under the fish’s weight and he set the hook. The boat rocked, starboard to port and back, from the force of the set.

The old man was surprised when the scarred, pistolgrip rod stopped solidly halfway through its arc, its tip bent crazily toward the lake’s gently rolling surface. “Yes!” he whispered, as his mind did a wind-sprint through 60 years of angling memories, none of which included a truly large fish. His heart cramped when the first electrifying headshake wrenched the rodtip nearly to the surface. A second shake, more muscular than the first, bowed the rod even more, actually pulling the tip into the water. The line hummed like the high E-string on an acoustic guitar.

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For a split second the old man’s face registered a mixture of purified panic and absolute dread as he imagined the light leader parting. Then, the drag, like a neglected hex nut that just needed some rust knocked loose, broke free and began to give up line. Nimble fingers reached for the small outboard, tugged the starter cord and flicked the shift lever. The little boat idled toward open water. The old man had been close to big fish before. Once his oldest boy, about 9 at the time, had done everything possible to lose an 8-pound walleye on a party boat plying one of the big, rolling lakes up north. For five bucks a head you could fish half a day with nine other anglers and the captain.

Through tangled lines, a dropped rod and a lot of shouting, the suicidal fish stayed hooked. And when the captain brought his long-handled net up over the side, all chatter and laughter ceased for a moment, then was replaced by rousing cheers and bellowed guffaws. But the rest of the day, all the kid could do was complain about the kiss an excited woman angler had planted on his cheek. Not a word about the fish. “He just didn’t understand the significance of what he’d done,” the old man thought.

Then, there was the muskie. He, his wife and all four children were fishing perch from a rented pontoon boat. His oldest daughter, 15 years worth of spunk and sass, was hauling in a yellow belly, when her light rod buckled. She shrieked in a way only teenage girls can, and the man jumped, thinking she’d been hooked herself.

When he reached her side and glanced over the rail, he saw the reason for her excited state finning lazily in the shallow water. “Oh, God!” was all he could choke out of his mouth. He could see the muskie was at least four feet long and that the ridiculously small hook was pinned in the side of its upper lip. Incredibly, the girl brought the big fish close to the boat three times. On the fourth go, its head broke the surface, and it finally realized its peril. The tail, nearly the width of a kitchen broom, side-swiped once, twice—and the fragile line popped at the knot.

She turned, and with a big gum-snapping grin, chirped lightly, “Oh...it got away. Can you tie on another hook?” He did, but his trembling hands made the chore much more difficult than it should have been. There had been other fish, too. Once, on this very lake when he was a young man and still full of wild oats. Fresh from a European tour that had ended when Germany surrendered, he and his pals had driven five hours to fish the opener, starting at midnight. For 16 straight hours they’d sat in two rowboats at the mouth of the inlet and caught walleyes nearly nonstop on single salmon eggs impaled on long-shank hooks. Each of his three buddies had caught fish close to, if not breaking, the magic double-digit figure. He had to be content with numbers.

Actually, it was the best fishing the then young man had ever seen; he’d lost count of the 3 and 4 pounders he’d caught, but somehow a tinge of disappointment lingered. Today, things were different. He was sitting in his own boat—a boat that a dealer had taken in trade and left for dead at the back of the lot. He’d brought it home, stripped it clean, painted and rigged it. It was high at the bow, and heavier than hell. And the little 15 tiller clamped on the transom could never get the tub on full plane.

But it was his, and the heavy fish lumbering directly below the hull was battling against his rod! Today was his day. The fish was still green, but when it had made the mistake of allowing itself to be led away from the breakline, the old man knew that he’d eventually win the contest—barring tackle failure or angler error, of course. There was little chance of a breakdown. The line was new, the knots good, the hook sharp and the little Zebco had showed up to play. Angler error was another matter. His legs felt loose and jangley, like early Elvis Presley. His breaths came in short hitches. His heart beat rapid-fire, and the back of his head began to hurt. But his hands—his hands were eerily steady. Lift—drop/reel, lift— drop/reel. Stop and hold on a run! Somehow, they worked on their own, which was a good thing since his mind was fogged with excitement.

After the fourth run, or maybe the fifth, the old man brought the fish close enough to see a flash of color before it surged away again. Not color, really, just a white spot—a big white spot on the lower lobe of the caudal. But that was enough to tell him it was a walleye and not a pike, muskie or, heaven forbid, a carp or sheephead. After that run, it was over. The fish was still 20 feet down, but the booming headshakes had died to tremors, and it came up on the rod lifts like a gunnysack. Finally, it broke the surface, and the old man quickly scooped it up in the oversize net he’d bought years before, specifically for this day.

As usually happens in such situations, the real shakes didn’t start until the critical moment had passed—as if the body continues to pump out adrenaline, but the crisis is over and the only way to burn it off is through uncontrolled twitches and jitters. The walleye lay nearly motionless on the floor, only its mouth and gills slowly fanning. Yet, the old man couldn’t steady his needle-nosed pliers enough to pluck the hook from its upper jaw. Holding the tool with both hands just made things worse. A spasmodic jerk caused the tip of the pliers to knock the hook free. The realization of how close to escape his prize had been brought on more shudders.

On his aching knees, and hovering over his prize, the old man stretched his tape measure—31 inches! Maybe more. Even lying on its side, the fish’s belly drooped like it had been eating wet cement. A 10, for sure, and probably heavier. It would go on his wall, of course, as an everlasting reminder of this fantastic scene. Every detail of the day, even what he’d eaten for breakfast, would instantly come to mind whenever he looked at the trophy. All his buddies, and especially his boys, and someday his grandchildren, would want to hear the story. This is what he’d been waiting for for so long. The old man unfastened the stringer from the unused oarlock, and after a couple of tries, threaded the metal spike through the walleye’s gill and out its mouth. With both arms, he scooped the fish up, leaned over the side and gently laid it in the water. He straightened up, passed the metal piece back through the oarlock and double-, then triple-knotted it.

He sat staring at nothing for he didn’t know how long, enjoying the moment and knowing what it feels like to finally live a dream. Then, like a kid who knows there’s a big stack of birthday presents hidden in the hall closet, he had to take another look just to make sure it was real. “No!” he said as he peered overboard, the word coming so softly, he wasn’t sure he’d actually spoken it out loud. The trophy walleye, with gillplates the size of tea saucers, had slid to the end of the stringer where the jaw-looped pike was pinned. When it happened, it was quick, but the old man saw it in slow motion. The big walleye flared its expansive gills, and the pike’s streamlined head slipped inside. One more flare, and its head protruded from the walleye’s mouth.

That snapped the old man back to reality. Grabbing the net in one hand and the stringer in the other, he began to gently lift the two fish closer to the surface. He looked like an East Coast crabber using a chicken neck to coax his quarry within reach of the dip net.

But after the pike’s head popped through, the rest of its body slid out as if it had been dipped in Crisco. The walleye was free, and the old man just stared as the fish of his dreams turned and swam away from the boat. It was only a foot or so down, and still within the big net’s range. Slowly, the old man reached out the full extent of his arm and net. But the fish saw it coming and launched itself toward bottom, disappearing like warm breath on a cool morning. Stunned, the old man kneeled there for a long time, hands gripping the wellworn gunnel, trying to comprehend what had just happened. And when he finally did, his gray head and round shoulders sank and rolled forward in unison. They began to quiver, then shake, and finally lurch, but this time it had nothing to do with an adrenaline overdose.

The subdued reaction, which the old man considered a blatant outburst of emotion, was over in less than a minute. Without word or thought, he stowed fishing gear, tugged the starter cord and pointed the bow toward the lodge’s main dock. Sitting now in the shade of his cabin, hours had passed since the dream fish had vanished. He’d told his wife the tale, and her years of experience in reading his moods told her that this wasn’t a time for consoling. Better for everyone if she just took a walk—a long one.

Morning melted into afternoon as the old man sat brooding. All his life his daydreams had been filled with images of trophy fish—walleyes, muskies, pike, bass—striking, surging, leaping. And each daydream ended with a mental picture of the fish hanging on his wall, or as a glass-encased table-top mount. Each year, opening day had brought a promise of fulfilling those dreams, and season’s end had broken every one of them. “What happened wasn’t fair,” he thought, “even if it was because of my own stupid carelessness. Undeserving, wet-behind-the-ears anglers luck into wall-hangers all the time—always some kid, or a guy whose buddy talked him into trying it once. I’m no hotshot fisherman, but I’ve worked hard and deserve to catch...”

The word cut short his mental rant and hung, as if visible, in front of the old man’s face. And in that moment the burden weighing down his shoulders and neck became a little lighter. And his eyes widened slightly as he recalled a truth that he’d repeatedly tried to hammer into his kid’s heads during their formative years—that the real reward of doing a job well is having done a job well. “At least I caught the fish,” he said out loud, “even if I’m the only one who knows it.”

At five o’clock, the sun leaning to the West, the old man rose from his chair. Not because he really wanted to, but because somewhere deep within his biological software a tiny switch flicked, signaling the evening bite was due. It was time to go fishing again. He half-heartedly strolled onto the dock where his boat was tied, and to where a woman, another lodge guest, stood looking out at the lake. Eyes still on the water, she began rambling about the weather, the lodge owners, the cabins, as he undid the lines and shoved off. He was happy to be escaping the conversation without having to contribute more than a couple of muffled acknowledgements.

But as the starter cord recoiled and the outboard began to purr, she turned full-face to him and asked, “Did you hear about the guy who lost the big walleye this morning?” “Yeah, I did,” was all he said. Then, my dad slapped the shift lever, twisted the throttle grip and the boat began plowing its way back to his favorite breakline.

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