Fish Tale


As I exited Interstate 694 at Rice Street, on the north side of Saint Paul, Minnesota, I was more excited than I had been in many years. I suppose that was childish but it was the first time I had taken a prize for anything. I had never won an award at school for either scholastic or sporting achievement, in the first case because of   laziness and in the second because I was, and still am, uncoordinated. Furthermore, the hundreds of dollars spent on raffle tickets and lotteries over the years had never yielded a return. Completing, with diligence, competition entry coupons on the backs of cereal packages had proved a complete waste of time because the manufacturers had ignored me. Now, however, I had hit the jackpot and could not wait to see Carol’s face when I broke the news. I could imagine what she would say.

“Heavens Russ, don’t tell me you’re getting rid of that crappy old boat at last and replacing it with something that isn’t a total embarrassment. I may let you talk me into sitting in the new one for a cruise around the lake.”

I hoped she had arrived home from Duluth where she had been staying with her mother for a few days. She was not expecting me home until late, but for sure I would receive a warm reception when I told her of my good fortune.

My name is Russ Swenson. I have been dedicated to fishing for most of my life and have never regretted a moment spent on that fine sport. Many folk, who think it barbarous to kill animals for food, want to bend your ear on the subject while settling into a nice walleye fillet or a rare cut of venison. The deer hunters can defend their own dirty work but I soon mention to opponents of my pastime that Christ was a part-time fisherman as well as a carpenter. If I take off into the wilderness with a couple of pals for an occasional week of good fishing, Carol is about as hostile as the more outspoken of those antifishing and antihunting activists. When we were newlyweds, she joined me on one of my fishing expeditions and it was a disaster. She talked most of the time and kept standing in the boat to get a better view, just as I or my fishing partner was casting out.

“Russ, why must we fish just here? It’s about the ugliest part of the lake. If we were to move the boat to the other side, I’m sure we would have a much nicer view of the countryside.”

“We’re fishing right here because there’s a shelf and a steep drop-off where the fish like to gather and feed.”

“How do you know the fish are gathering down there? The water is murky and I can’t see any fish.”

“Believe me there are fish down there,” I assured her, “All the guys who know this lake will tell you that we are over the best spot. Anyway, I’ve been here many times before and have caught a ton of fish to take home.”

“Well, this whole experience is boring. I just don’t know how you can sit on this lake all day with nothing happening and not a soul to speak to. You guys don’t say a word, or if you do, it’s just about the darned fish. I thought it would be much more exciting with big fish jumping out of the water and you going after them and all.”

Now Carol is a most attractive woman and I find being firm with her is hard. Sometimes, however, she’s a bit unreasonable. On this occasion, I tried to persuade her to see my point of view.

“Look dearest, we’ve been here for less than an hour and I already pulled in two beauties.”

“Well, you can take me back to the dock and I’ll go for a walk ‘n see if I can find anything interesting in this boring old place.”

It looked like I needed to get her back to the dock before the situation boiled over. Behind Carol’s shoulder I could see my partner’s lips compressing and I sensed that if she didn’t get off the boat soon he would say something we might all regret. Throwing his leeches overboard as we moved to shore because she thought them disgusting was the end of our married fishing partnership. On the way home she proclaimed that, apart from the brutality of the sport, she couldn’t stand the smell of dead fish or tolerate the boredom of sitting still for hours at a time. On subsequent occasions, whenever I mentioned fishing, Carol wrongly anticipated and preempted any attempt on my part to block her from coming with us by telling me “to forget it” if I thought she was joining us. So, every July, when I go off to my fishing contest, she visits her mother in Duluth. I know they have a wonderful time dissecting me and rebuilding me into a much superior man. It is such good therapy for Carol and she always comes home in an upbeat mood.

As in other years, I had entered the Salmon-A-Rama contest at Racine, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan, just south of Milwaukee. The contest is held in mid-July. The grand prize in the year of my story was a high performance fishing boat worth more than eighteen thousand dollars. In the Salmon-A-Rama contest, the game is always salmon: big ones. Several varieties can be found in those abundant waters, each needing a different fishing technique, and it takes a lot of skill to lure and catch Chinook or Coho salmon. In addition, there are trout varieties such as Steelhead, Brown Trout and Lake Trout. For me, the king of fish is the Chinook salmon. In fact, they’re called Kings or Screamers. It’s not uncommon to land fine specimens of thirty pounds or more. When a Chinook takes the lure, and feels the hook, it lets rip with a turn of speed that covers a hundred feet in a few seconds and your reel lets out a scream. Man, what an exciting sound that is!

For the last ten years, my partner in these contests has been Bugs. His red hair is cut short, maybe the last true crew cut in the State. He has buck teeth reminiscent of Bugs Bunny. At six foot six inches, he’s nine inches taller than I am. He is lanky, has freckles, and wears wire-rimmed spectacles, size sixteen construction-style boots and faded denim overalls. Because of his height, he moves with a slight stoop as though he just walked through a low doorway. When Bugs is speaking to you, his eyelids flutter up and down like the shutter on an old movie projector. He might look a little stupid to some folk, but believe me, there is nobody smarter than him at pulling world-class game fish out of a stretch of water. I will warrant that if we stopped the truck on the freeway in a rainstorm Bugs could catch our supper in one of the puddles. He brings me good luck, he’s an exceptional nice person with a generous nature and he’s darned good company. He once revealed he took me on as his partner because I was intelligent enough to take his advice and short enough so he could beat the hell out of me if I refused it.

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