'Romance Isn't Dead...It Just Smells Fishy...'
Preparation usually started in the fall, with a trip to Herters. Pre-cursor to Cabelas, Herters was a store full of fishing and hunting equipment that dad could spend hours in. I can remember the smell of the place exactly...but I can't tell you what the smell was, exactly....a smell of rubber baits and lead weights and musty old clothes and dust? But after a big haul from Herters, dad would hunker down in the basement and start making spinners. And lead weights. And leaders. And setlines. And anything else he could make himself, as opposed to buying.
Dad's workspace was tucked away in the basement, with an open wooden stairway right next to it. The steps were old and worn with grooves in them. You'd have to watch your step going down. You also needed to duck your head as you went down the stairs to avoid slamming your head into the top of the floor above you. I used to climb down those stairs after my bath; my long hair wet down my back, usually in flannel pajamas, (sewn by mom), carefully maneuvering my way down the steps until I could sit down on a step and watch him work. He always had a crackly AM radio on; listening to the Twins game if it was in season; otherwise, whatever he could tune in. He had a tall metal stool he sat on while he worked; a countertop in front of him for a workspace, and a long countertop to the left of him covered with reloading presses and reloading supplies. Behind him was an old, curved-top, one-handle refrigerator...that was a bugger to open...but I'll get to that in a bit. The furnace was down there, too, as well as shelves with mom's canning supplies, a couple little windows, and all kinds of jokes dad had cut out of magazines and stapled up on the posts and shelves. It always smelled faintly of gunpowder and sawdust, or lead weights when he was smelting.
Dad was always up for visiting when he was working. It wasn't until I was in high school that he had a phone installed down in the basement, and even then it was rare that he was ever on it. I loved to watch him load shells, talking about the amounts of gunpowder and whether he was making a 'hot' batch or not, and who they were for and what they wanted. I loved watching him load the powder on the scales until he leveled it out, and then carefully packing up the boxes. Sometimes he would let me load the boxes, which really felt like a big job. But making spinners was a different kind of job. Still precision work, yes, but not quite as measured and as careful as reloading. He was more laid back and relaxed during the spinner-making process. That's when he would let me help him pick out the colors of the beads, the blades, talk about how to place the clevises, talk about the length of line to use, and what type of hook to put on it. And he would teach me about knots. (Information I should've paid closer attention to.). After making his spinners, he would take each one and carefully curl it up into a nice circle, wrap it in upon itself, and place it into a little bag and zip it shut. Each of these bags was organized by color in his boxes from...where? Yep. Herters. Making lures was a labor of love for him. And pride. He loved it when people asked what he caught a fish on, and he could say, a spinner that he made.
That kept him busy through the winter. When spring came, and the ground thawed, it was time for the nightcrawler hunt. I can remember nightcrawler hunting from a very early age. There were Rules. And Guidelines. And you'd better not screw it up. Because this was our bait-our only bait-for the entire summer. First off, wait until dark. After a rain. Even better, during a rain. Bring a flashlight. You want to shine your light to find the crawlers, then immediately move the light away. After you move the light away, grab them, and hold on to them, gently!, and keep holding on until they give up and release their hold on the earth. Then, you put them in your bucket. And you each kept your own bucket. Because dad wanted to see who found what. And if I had friends over, that wanted to go nightcrawler hunting? That was fine, but...we had better not mess up a good night of crawler hunting by messing around out there. This was Serious Business. When we had coaxed all the crawlers out of the yard that we could, it was down to the basement...to dad's fridge. Where the nightcrawlers lived. In what could only be described as a Condominium for Crawlers. Bedding changed every few weeks, regular waterings, you name it. And when it was time to go fishing, we would go down to the fridge, argue with the fridge handle, and grab a whole mess of our carefully caught nightcrawlers.
Our boat was an 18 foot, aluminum Crestliner. The floor was pointed so you always had to think before you stepped. We had dad's area where he sat by the boat motor; a C-shaped area. He would sit on one bench, set his tackle boxes on the bench opposite him, and the other bench was used to deal with the Family's Issues....snags, lost lures, etc. The bench next to him was for mom and one of us kids, the bench further up was for another one of us kids, and then the little seat way up at the front of the boat was for the last kid.
We fished the Missouri River. At least 90% of the time we did, anyway. A day of fishing meant loading up all of our gear, lunch, rods, lures, sunscreen, etc., and dropping the boat in at the boat launch, (and then hoping the old Elgin motor would turn over)....and hitting the water. We would either troll or jig. Trolling was a stressful experience. I can only imagine how it felt for my mom and dad. Five lines out; three of them kids....I'm sure we reeled in every time we felt any bump. And getting the weights and trolling speed right must've been a trick with all of the differing angles of our rods. There was a reason dad always said we looked like a 'Russian fishing trawler' when we were trolling! When we weren't trolling, we were jigging....dropping down to the bottom, reeling up a little bit, and waiting....and when we weren't jigging, we were checking our setlines. Our setlines were always set in the coolest places...eerie little areas with treetops sticking out of the water and other people's setlines and markers and it was always a game getting in and out of the area to set. Checking setlines was one of the most exciting things we got to do. Dad and Jon would pull up on the lines and I would look over the side of the boat, waiting to see what would appear from the water below.
Lunch meant lunch on the boat....but a lot of the time, it meant shore lunch. Dad would pull the boat up onto a shore somewhere and we would get to explore while dad built a fire. We would roast hotdogs and eat whatever great food mom brought along that day, and then we would go rock hunting....mica, 'chocolate chip rocks,' quartz, agates, petrified wood, fossils galore, cool pieces of driftwood formed by the waves would be washed up all along the shore. Mom would walk with us and be just as excited as we were about each rock. She would carefully pick out pieces of driftwood to take home for her gardens. We would gather as many rocks as we could and take them home to put them in shoeboxes under our beds. Dad would be pretend to be irritated by the rocks and driftwood, but then he would be interested in looking it all over, too.
There were no phones; no iPads. No TVs. I played with my brother and sister because there was no one else to play with. We sat around our table in the camper and talked and played cards when it rained. Our table had a map of the United States on it. I used to look at that and marvel at how huge the country was. We had a small oven, but it was rarely ever used. Breakfast was bacon in a cast iron pan and eggs fried in bacon grease. And a few days a week, a treat...we would get the 'little' boxes of cereal. You know the ones. The little boxes that came in a multipack. We only got those for camping, and not every time. It was a huge deal. Dinner was always on the boat or on shore somewhere. Supper was always in the camper. A lot of times, fish-coated in flour and fried in butter...I can smell it as I type this-and fried potatoes.
A day in our boat could be...dad asking one of us to take the front seat and point out debris in the water (a coveted position)...dad making sweet comments about mom's legs....dad telling us to rub the nightcrawler bedding on our hands before we baited our hooks (so the fish wouldn't smell our sunscreen...)...the various smells of: coconut sunscreen, noxzema, nightcrawler bedding, the gas stove in the camper, campfires on the beach, the smell of fish under your fingernails from cleaning fish....the different tastes of: bologna sandwiches, hotdogs, Rice Krispie bars, macaroni salad...pulling in gars and sturgeons and wondering what other odd-looking fish were swimming below our boat...wicked storms that would send us to the floor of the boat while dad took us into shore...feelings from euphoria to terror and anything in between.
Now, as an adult, I still fish. Not as often as I'd like, but I still get out there. Our boat now has a flat bottom. With carpet. And a big motor. And we cast now, for muskies. So a lot of the time, we don't boat much of anything. We don't go up to shore; I don't get to pick up rocks or driftwood. I don't get to rub my hands in nightcrawler bedding and I usually don't get to filet fish. I hardly ever get to bait a hook, as we throw artificial lures. But. I still peer over the side of the boat. And wonder....what's below us? I still look up to shore and wonder about the people that live up there. We listen to music. We tell jokes and laugh. I still look ahead of us and look out for hazards...a job I take seriously. I still appreciate all the wonders that being on the water has to offer.
People often ask me, how can you stand to go to Canada and fish from dusk to dawn like that? For a week? And I say, how can you even ask that? I can't think of a single better way to spend time than on the water. Water Is Romance....even more so than a dozen roses and violins. You're outside. Surrounded by nature. Loons, bald eagles, deer, pine trees, cool rock formations, the sound of gentle waves lapping the shore...(OR, the sound of huge waves crashing on shore!). Sweet little cabins tucked away on lone islands in the middle of nowhere, an elderly couple cruising by in a wooden boat (very On Golden Pond), strangers waving as they go by, fellow fishermen giving you the knowing 'yeah we ain't seen squat either today' nod as they cruise past, enormous inukshuks looming way up high on the bluffs and little ones sitting right in front of you at the end of your cast, the echo on the rock wall as your lure hits the water, the place your mind goes when you settle into your casting rhythm and everything is flowing smoothly...the plaintive wail of the loons as thunder rumbles in the distance...the yip yip of a pair of bald eagles working on opposite sides of the narrows as they try to find a supper of ciscoes on the surface...the way you feel your breath go away when you see the fish finder stacked four feet thick with fish in the narrows in the evening...or when you see trout 70 feet down on the finder...that sensation when you notice a glow of pink on the trees and you turn around to a sunset that will drop you to your knees....the rush like no other when a huge head appears out of nowhere a few inches behind your lure...and the even greater rush when you manage to do everything right and sink hooks into one of those leviathans of the deep and pull them out of the water, glistening and mysterious, smooth and quiet, beautifully marked in a way which you swear you'll commit to memory forever-but you start to forget shortly after you feel it forcefully tug it's way out of your grip and thrust it's way back into the dark, cool, Canadian water.
You get home. You look at your pictures. You try to remember those sounds; those smells; those feelings. But you won't. Because some things can't be captured. The smell of coconut sunscreen, nightcrawler bedding, the yips of a pair of working Eagles, huge heads following your lure...the words of your dad as he worked in the basement. Even if you could take a snapshot of all of those events, it wouldn't capture the essence of that moment in its entirety. Some things need to be experienced completely and wholly to be experienced. Being Present is truly a Present, indeed.
So we will go fishing. And we may not 'catch anything.' But I won't care. It's not always what you have to physically show for something that counts. Because my mind will be filling up with mind snapshots of memories and experiences galore. The lake and I have this thing. It's understood. And it's more than a big fish or huge eagle or a fantastic sunset. This lake is where I live. Even when I'm not there. I run her twists and turns and rock walls and islands through my mind all the time. And it's where I will rest, when I'm no longer in my body. My ashes and my soul. I'm in love with this lake. She's my home. And I can't wait to go visit her again for a few days...say hello...fish upon her waters...gaze upon her shores...and fill up my mind until the next time.
So keep your roses. Indulge in your jewelry. Take your violins and stuff it. Romance is where it finds you. Where it rips into your soul and digs itself a den. It chooses you.