The Fish Kings

Prairie Fire - - SHELLEY BINDON -

MY FA­THER GAVE ME A TACKLE BOX when I was a child. Beige, brown and ochre, small as a shoe­box. He ran a large out­fit­ter store, and I “worked” there on week­ends, mov­ing tents, dust­ing in­ven­tory, re­or­ga­niz­ing the tall dis­plays of fish­ing tackle. I had been beg­ging for a tackle box of my own for months.

I sup­pose Mom con­vinced him to throw a few lures into that lit­tle box—huge, gouged spoons with gold bel­lies and a few gooey worms on the verge of dis­in­te­grat­ing. They were far from the shin­ing beaded ones I had wanted, but I was elated.

At seven and a bit, I hadn’t hauled in much of any­thing de­spite hav­ing a fish­er­man for a fa­ther. In fact, un­less you count net fish­ing for min­nows, I hadn’t hauled in any­thing by my­self. My dad couldn’t bear to see the sport done wrong, so if any of us girls got even the slight­est tug on our lines, he would jump up and take over. That’s why I was so ex­cited to get up be­fore the sun one morn­ing to go out with Grandpa.

Slightly wob­bly, I shook off deep sleep and dressed quickly in the cramped bath­room of my grand­par­ents’ mo­tor home. The morn­ing was cool, far cooler than I had ex­pected. I took my green and gold rod and my new tackle box and stepped into Grandpa’s old red boat. It was al­most dawn, and Grandma had packed us ham and cheese on rye, or “sam­midges,” as Grandpa called them. We were off to catch white­fish or pike for the smoker. Se­cretly, I was hop­ing for a wall­eye. Dad al­ways said they were the only fish worth catch­ing in the lake—king of the fish world, he’d say ev­ery time he caught one. I wanted to catch a king, too.

Off we set, the en­gine low and quiet, the wa­ter thick and black in the pre-dawn, a sliver of light just breach­ing the horizon. It was down­right cold, and steam curled and flicked above the brim of Grandpa’s Ther­mos as we putt-putted along. It felt glo­ri­ous to be on an adult fish­ing trip, but I was un­easy about the black wa­ter. The lake had never looked so cold

and me­nac­ing. I could imag­ine my­self fall­ing in, my over­sized life­jacket pop­ping over my head as it made a mad dash for the sur­face.

When we got close to an is­land, Grandpa slowed and then cut the en­gine. We glided into the reeds, their dry tops scratch­ing at the hull.

“Why did you do that?” I asked, my voice boom­ing across the lake, shock­ing me with its great­ness.

He smiled, “We want to ar­rive un­no­ticed. We drift in and fish the weeds. You need to whis­per now.”

He opened his tackle box: clean and neat, with pli­ers and a whet­stone in the top tray. When he pushed the whole thing back, it opened like stairs, re­veal­ing a won­drous as­sort­ment of small spoons and some trout flies. I poked at one or two, but I was afraid to lift them. I rec­og­nized many from the store. My dad’s tackle boxes were just as big, but packed with huge lures for bass and sal­mon—fish that we don’t have in our lakes.

“Grandpa, can I fish your frog hook?”

“You can,” he said, “but the fish you catch will likely pull you in. Would you pre­fer a small spoon? Maybe catch a fish your own size?”

“OK, I guess, but I have my own spoons,” I said, show­ing him the three or four that I had lov­ingly ar­ranged in the top tray. He picked up the small­est of them. It had a barb miss­ing from one of the hooks.

“These are pretty well used,” he said frown­ing. “How about some­thing a lit­tle newer for your first out­ing?”

He se­lected a spoon with three beads on it. Small, sil­ver on one side, yel­low with black di­a­monds on the other. It was beau­ti­ful and bright.

He wiped it with a cloth, ex­am­ined it in the grow­ing light and schuck, schuck, schucked one of its barbs across the whet­stone.

“Why are …”

“Shh, we must be quiet. A sharp hook is bet­ter for ev­ery­one.” He tied the knots quickly and mo­tioned how I was to cast. I had done it many times be­fore, but my first at­tempt plunked loudly into the wa­ter just ahead of us. I gri­maced and looked back in apol­ogy. My sec­ond sailed on the breeze, land­ing far from the boat.

“Good,” he whis­pered. “Now think like a small fish try­ing to get from weed bed to weed bed. You’d go in quick bursts, and then once you got there, you’d slow, be­cause you have cover.”

I nod­ded without re­ally un­der­stand­ing. My de­fault method was to turn the reel slowly and steadily just as I had been taught by my dad. I thought about what Grandpa had said. Did fish cover them­selves with weeds when they slept? I was deep in the im­age when my line went zing­ing. I grabbed the reel han­dle, try­ing to stop it from turn­ing, shocked at the vi­o­lence of it.

“No, let it run a bit, hands off the reel.” Grandpa held me in place by the back of my life jacket. “Pull in now and reel, you’ve got him. Pull the rod to­ward the boat and then point it back out and reel in fast.”

I tried some com­bi­na­tion of that as the rod twisted and turned, hit­ting my wrists. I was pulling and reeling with all my might when sud­denly the pull was gone. The line went slack.

“What hap­pened, Grandpa?”

“He got away. You can’t just pull, you have to play them.”

Play? Amidst my grief and dis­ap­point­ment, I con­tem­plated the word. How do you play a fish?

I felt bad for los­ing Grandpa’s shiny spoon and won­dered if the fish would just spit it out, or if it would be lodged in him for­ever. Dad once caught one with some­body else’s lure stuck in its jaw. Old Spoon Mouth, he called it. A leg­end of the lake, caught. I’d felt sorry for it, and now I’d made another one. I felt tears hot in my eyes, threat­en­ing to break free.

Grandpa pat­ted my cheek. “Don’t dwell on it. You can’t haul them all in—you have to win them fair and square, and some­times they win. He gave a good bat­tle. That’s a story you can tell when we get back.”

I smiled. He was a fighter, and Dad was go­ing to love hear­ing about him just as much as I loved hear­ing about his fish. Dad had been to BC and the US dozens of times to catch fish big­ger than my en­tire body. He liked the real chal­lenges. When he had to fish our small lakes, he al­ways chose this one be­cause he had a neme­sis he wanted to catch—Old Slash. He was the ac­tual king of the walleyes. Dad knew he was the king by the size of his prickly fins. No other wall­eye had fins that big. Once, a long time ago, a wall­eye who was king dis­cov­ered where the lake nymphs lived. Their queen was an­gry and sent a wave that knocked the wall­eye’s crown down his back. That’s why to this day wall­eye have prickly top fins, and you have to be very care­ful han­dling them. Dad had caught Old Slash at least six times, but al­ways when it came time to get him in the boat, some­thing saved him. Once, he even jumped clear out of the boat. Maybe I just hooked Old Slash?

“Grandpa, was that a wall­eye?”

“S’pose it could’ve been. He was a fighter. Could’ve been a pike, too.”

“So you think it was a wall­eye?”

“Sure, honey. Or a pike pa­trolling the weeds. Let’s set­tle and be quiet for a bit.”


He tied a lure onto his rod and cast it across the weeds. “We’re go­ing to get us a per­fect fish,” he whis­pered.

I was un­cer­tain what to do. My line was hang­ing loosely from the rod. Even the metal leader was gone. Was I sup­posed to tie my own lure to the line? Was I sup­posed to wait? I didn’t want to use my big spoon given what Grandpa’s lit­tle spoon had turned up.

I thought of all the fish just be­low us, some with scars or lures hang­ing, some pa­trolling like po­lice, the lit­tle ones sleep­ing in their weed beds. What does Old Slash do all day?

We drifted from the is­land, the morn­ing light turn­ing the wa­ter from black to vi­o­let-blue. Grandpa’s line whis­tled again. A lit­tle white splash showed where it landed.

I sat and watched as the sky sud­denly blazed with colour. It was beau­ti­ful. I cov­ered my goose­bump legs with the grimy rag that we used to mop down the seats af­ter wa­ter­ski­ing. The air smelled of fish and sea­weed, and gnats be­gan to bob in the rusty light. I leaned back in the prow. Old Slash just watched the sky and napped and feasted on bugs all day. I un­der­stood why he and Old Spoon Mouth didn’t want to get caught.

The boat lurched as Grandpa stood, his rod bent at the tip. I watched his way of fish­ing—he’d pull to­ward the boat, let go and reel, pull to­ward the boat, let go and reel. He kept it up un­til the fish was near us, splash­ing as it flipped this way and that.

“Get the net and scoop him when I bring him close.”

I grabbed the net. My heart raced. I’d never done this part be­fore. The wa­ter was murky, and I didn’t want to lose this one. I leaned over un­til I was inches from the wa­ter, net at the ready.

I saw flash­ing sil­ver and a shin­ing eye that turned dull as coal when the fish turned on its side. I aimed for that eye, scooped and stood, arms strain­ing to hold the weight. He was heavy and flap­ping this way and that, soak­ing my face and shirt.

Grandpa took the net, gently un­wrap­ping him. He held him up, ex­am­in­ing the cave that was his mouth, reach­ing in as far as the pli­ers would go, and then sigh­ing.

“What’s wrong, Grandpa, isn’t he per­fect?”

“He’s a wall­eye, and he’s pretty much in­haled this thing, so we’re go­ing to have to keep him.”

“But the wall­eye is the king of fish,” I said.

I watched Grandpa put him out with the fish bonker and break his jaws through with tin snips from the tackle box. Then he reached deep in­side, the blue cov­ers of his pli­ers gone, a lit­tle tug pro­duced his hook.

“Walleyes are fine, but white­fish are the best for eat­ing. They’re the real prize.”

He scooped wa­ter into the cooler and laid the fish in­side, gently re­plac­ing the lid. I had looked—there was no slash across its head. It wasn’t Dad’s fish.

Grandpa poured a coffee, held it up and told me I did good work. The light was glint­ing off the wa­ter now, and it went from dark blue to an un­du­lat­ing green vel­vet. My goose­bumps were start­ing to dis­ap­pear as the first rays of warmth cov­ered me. I breathed in and out. A dam­sel­fly landed on and then flit­ted from my arm.

Grandpa took the oar and pad­dled us out past the weeds. Lurch, pause, lurch, pause, closer to shore, closer to shore. Then the en­gine started with a thunk, scar­ing me.

“Are we go­ing in, Grandpa?” I yelled back, think­ing about the sam­midges we hadn’t yet eaten.

“Yup, we got our big fish. We’ll do a fast loop or two for you and then it’s back home.”

I was sur­prised. Usu­ally fish­ing took all day un­til you were bored to death. Dad would catch fish af­ter fish and hook them by the mouth to a chain that dragged in the wa­ter—the Chain Gang, he called them. He wouldn’t stop un­til one of us three girls swore we were go­ing to pee our pants. Near the shore, he’d take stock of his catch, have us look for the big red RCMP boat, and if we spot­ted it, he’d un­clasp a few. Some­times I would un­clip them. One might dart off, but mostly they just fell away, turn­ing this way and that like au­tumn leaves. Some­times one would look me right in the eye. Dark and sor­row­ful.

Grandpa opened the throt­tle, and the speed was in­tox­i­cat­ing. I hooted and held my arms out as I stood at the prow, push­ing into the wind. We rose and fell against the ris­ing waves. The air was sud­denly frigid again. I didn’t care. We got our fish, and it was only a wall­eye, but that’s what we got fair and square dur­ing our time on the wa­ter. I started re­hears­ing my tale.

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