The Fish Kings
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.