[For My Dad.]
There wasn’t much light left in the day but we both cast out one more time.
“We don’t want to row back when it’s too dark out, but now is when the fish usually bite the most, when the bugs are out low over the water.”
I replied (despite knowing my father was right–he had told me before), because this was my favorite conversation.
“Do you think there are even any fish in this lake?”
“They’re out here – we just have to find what works. I think that lure you got on now is a good one.”’
“I think so too. I have a good feeling about it – it’s one from Pappy’s tackle box.”
We sat for another ten minutes. Still no action. Across the water, our campsite was disappearing with the sun. The mosquitos started to find us. My dad slapped a mosquito on his neck and started reeling in his line.
“I think it’s time we call it a day.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” I began reeling in my own line; “Maybe we can go out early, first thing tomorrow morning?”
I pulled the bug-eyed lure from the water to spin in my fingers, careful to dodge the dangling tri-hooks. My dad turned completely, checking his own lure.
“Sure” he said, “And you know what? Why don’t we throw our lines out the back just for the hell of it while we paddle back?”
We cast out on opposite sides, paddled a few strokes, and set the lines. Then we kept paddling, now in synchronized alternating rotations, following the light of a young moon back to camp. For a while the only sound was the slow dip of oars piercing smooth water, followed by echoed dripping as they rose again to gasp night air. The spring peepers sang. Less than halfway back, there was the sound of something big moving along the shore. We both looked at the same time, but didn’t see anything.
I started to get a little spooked. I stopped rowing and whispered: “Do you hear that?”
“Yeah… whatever it is, it sounds like it’s right there, watching us, but I can’t watch it.”
“It sounds like an animal…Something big though… I can hear branches breaking as it moves.”
He looked over both of his shoulders and responded, barely loud enough to hear, “let’s paddle closer and try to see what it is.”
As we paddled towards shore, the breaking continued, and all at once there was the sound of a much larger break, as if a full sized tree was snapping in half. The crack rang like a gunshot and echoed across the lake and against the surrounding mountains, cutting through the dense Adirondack pines.
The explosions didn’t stop. Along the shore, following the sound of ground movement, trees popped and silence fell, mimicking the pace of a sleepy metronome.
My dad’s eyes were wide now, almost completely black, as the moon eclipsed all but the outside ring of his dime-sized pupils. He spoke with the slightest shake in voice: “That’s really strange…. I’ve never heard anything like that. I really don’t know what it could be.”
I worked to steady my breathing, taking slow doses of summer-dusk breath, sure to notice the goosebumps on my neck. I moved to pull up my hood just as my rod dipped hard to the water, submerging the end. A real good hit. I grabbed the pole with the speed of practice and instinct, my dad still sitting in silence with his back turned, scanning the shore, following the crunches and popping trees.
I tried to get his attention but at first no words came out. I made sure the hook was set. I had him good and I could feel it. I swallowed and fixed my shoulders; “I think I got something”. I started reeling.
This old boy was going to put up a strong fight. He pulled hard for the first few cranks, then a brief nothing, before breaking the water’s surface and throwing his scaled body parallel to the boat, snapping his tail before returning to water. On the shore, another tree popped.
Soon his pull became steady but unthreatening. I took the fight slow and ten minutes later he was tired. My dad was waiting with a net. I heard another movement deeper in the woods. I looked to see if my dad had heard it too but he was too focused on the fish, reminding me I should focus too. When I got the fish close to the boat he kept trying to swim under; you could hear his fins scraping against the metal bottom. Every now and then he would let out a thrash. During one of these fits my dad was able to scoop him in the big green net—tangling the line—but it didn’t matter. We cut the line and removed the black bug-eyed lure from the big guy’s lip. My dad picked up the fish and handed him to me.
The fish was tired. Between the fight, being under the boat, and the tangled line, he didn’t have much left. I looked over his body reflecting the moon and watched his breathing slow. Every now and then he would blink.
My dad finally spoke: “Wow! That is a nice catch!”
“I think this is the biggest one I’ve ever caught” I replied, “I guess the trolling idea worked!”
My dad pulled a ruler from the tackle box. “Looks like he’s about 24 inches.”
Distracted, I remembered the noise from earlier and asked, “What do you think is making that sound in the forest?”
“I don’t know—“ he was interrupted by another loud crack from the opposite shore. Our heads whipped around and the fish sighed. “—but something is very strange.”
We took one last look at the fish, washed him off in the cool black water, then lowered him until he was completely submerged. My father steadied the fish’s scaly back, making sure he could regain his bearings. The monster fish sat and waited. Finally he darted straight down and out of sight, with one slow, deliberate push.
I reached over the side of the boat to rinse off my hands and sat back. “Still want to try tomorrow morning?” I asked.
My dad nodded; “We should get up at 4AM.”
The paddle back was silent and water mirrored the tree line from moonlight. When we arrived to the shore at our camp, the canoe slid against the sand with a ‘shhh’ decrescendo. We dragged the boat all the way onto the shore and unloaded, but we didn’t disassemble the poles as usual. We rekindled the fire we had expertly built earlier, which lit right up and crackled, burning strong, even though the wood had become damp with evening dew.