Thursday, May 19, 2011

Up the Lake: Fishing

Tipped Scales
Why I Don’t Explanation
The launching point of many a disaster.

Whenever I relate exploits of Up the Lake to anyone, they tend to ask the same question, “Are you all out of you minds?”  After that, many of them also ask, “So, you do a lot of fishing up there, right?”  This aversion to fishing is in no way connected to standard fishing problems.  The endless boredom of sitting on a hard aluminum seat for hours while even microscopic fish ignore the bait is no big deal.  Getting snagged on weeds, logs, shoreline trees, and people’s deck furniture, are minor inconveniences.  Even the acrobatic measures required to avoid barbed hooks causing third degree lacerations when there are three people crammed into a boat the size of a bathtub (all trying to fish the same fallen tree) were not a deterrent.  Honestly, if my only fishing memories were all the mornings I went fishing with my grandfather, caught nothing, and eventually gave up completely and ate the bread crusts we brought for catching sunnies, I would still fish regularly.  It was the events surrounding the few “successful” fishing trips that led me to pack away my gear.

 My tackle box still sits, mostly unused, under the bed filled with the same items from when I was a kid.  Even then, the only useful thing for actually catching fish was the mass of purple worms (in various stages of decay and damage).  Several spinners and spoons, guaranteed to snag on something, normally before even being attached to the pole are still combined in an unrecoverable mass.  I have no idea what demented, drugged out form of sea life the three “real lures” in there are meant to look like, but I’m sure any fish with half a clue who saw those huge, garishly painted, hook laded beasts careening through the depths, actually leapt out of the water and evolved into something that can run like heck away from the shore.  The two coat hanger sized hooks and a lead sinker formerly used as an anchor on the Q.E. II were for catching the seven to fifteen footers.  I am talking, of course, about the many times we’d pull up onto the small rocks that jut out of the water to fish off of those “islands”. As soon as we’d stop paying attention (somewhere between instantly and almost immediately), our little rowboat would turn into the Flying Dutchman and be well past leaping distance (verified by soggy footed trials) before we noticed, causing everyone to switch to “Grandpa hooks” to try and retrieve our transportation.

Armed with this mess it would seem obvious that I should have never experienced the difficulties of successful fishing.  That is, if you ignore the summer of my fourteenth year.  Something bizarre occurred Up the Lake, and the fishing was phenomenal. Average fishermen did well, and a good fisherman, like Nick’s older brother Joe, was reported to be seen “sticking his head in the water like a bear and coming out with a fish.” Nick was convinced that the reason the summer was so good was that we had spent five hours fishing that Memorial Day in the rain, catching nothing. Therefore it was sort of a sacrifice to some Mighty Fish God. On the same weekend that he made me sit in the aforementioned boat in the rain for hours on end, I made him listen to Spike Jones…making us come out about even.

Even my sister caught her first fish that year. To realize what a momentous event that was, it must be known that Kim has continued catching fish like clockwork after that: once every thirteen years.  She has been sighted having problems pulling a dead floating fish out of the water. Schools of bass swim by her boat to laugh at her, and our cousins actually made her an Alpha-bits bracelet that said, “I can’t fish.”  If even she caught one, Nick and Skip obviously had a great season.  Almost every evening during the summer they would ask, “Coming fishing with us tomorrow?” and I would reply “Certainly.”  Then the next morning as the sun peeked over the horizon they’d knock on my window and I’d go, “uh!” and they’d go without me.  We’re big on keeping traditions up there. 

Those two reeled in so many fish that year, they decided it would be a great opportunity to learn how to fillet. They watched Joe, not Nick’s brother - another of the excellent fishing Joe’s. (Pay attention.) He could fillet with his eyes closed, hands tied behind his back, and an invisible fish. They observed him perform his art a couple of times to get the idea.  For weeks after this crash course, every day they’d take a stringer full of fish, (individually capable of providing breakfast for a family of four), and whittle each down to a pile of scales, bones, guts, and two edible pieces of meat roughly the size of a quarter.  By the time they acquired the skill, the quantities of scraps thrown into the water was so great that the snapping turtles had opened an apartment complex under the dock, and were sub-letting to the crows and raccoons.  Although most folks remember that year as the creatively titled, “Year the Fishing was Real Good,” to me it will always be, “The Great Fish Massacre of ’84."

That was most likely the year Little Richie (when he was still Little) decided he wanted to fish one afternoon.  It was shortly after lunch, and the sun burned down on the lake with an intensity that made the water feel like you were stepping into a bowl of soup. It was also humid enough that the air was sticking to itself.  At that tender age, Richie was not allowed to take a boat past where his mother could see him.  However, as with his cousins (Nick, Skip and several Joes) the fishing genes ran strong in him.  He rowed out directly past the swimming area and started to cast.  His father, (Big Richie,  for those of you with no attention span) was talking to my Dad about how the poor kid was fishing in the wrong location in the wrong weather at the wrong time of day…when suddenly Rich pulled a bass out of the lake that had to have weighed as much as his own torso.  My Dad eloquently pointed out that while it may have been all those wrong conditions, someone forgot to tell the fish. 

That amount of success managed to occasionally entice even me to head out onto the lake with Nick and Skip (when they ventured forth at a less ungodly hour).  The three of us would sit in Nick’s aforementioned blue-green bathtub sized and shaped boat, Nick and I on the seats at both ends, and Skip in the middle sitting in extreme comfort, on a tackle box.  As with many of our water borne adventures, this one started with my reel getting tangled.  Those two could do all these side arm, under the leg, behind the back casts and hit a spot between two branches, millimeters apart, with no problem.  I, on the other hand, merely had to think about my reel from three states away, and it would snarl up like a California freeway interchange designed by two lunatics and a monkey.  To continue: as we were trying to fix the snarl, my hook was hanging innocently over the edge of the boat, and started to get bites.  We all quickly switched to drop lines, and eventually Nick pulled in a shoe sized catfish.  Suddenly, it became apparent that (A) Catfish are the only fish that Nick in his vast experience and knowledge of piscatorial creatures is “skeeved” by and (B) Due to our positions and the size of our craft, none of us could reach the end of our own poles anyway.  He then politely requested that we remove the offending fish from the boat, using a vernacular that would fill the detention halls of seven Catholic schools.  Skip grabbed the fish and tried to pull the hook out of its interior.  In a surprise maneuver, the fish bit Skip’s finger as he inserted it into the beast’s mouth.  Skip decided to gently anesthetize the fish first by repeatedly bashing its head into the side of the boat.  His second attempt at hook removal looked identical to the first, with still more colorful references to the fish’s ancestry.  Finally, he attempted to remove the hook surgically, using a survival knife slightly longer and thicker than the fish itself.  After carefully placing the entire blade into the fish’s mouth, he moved it around a bit, making a sound reminiscent of the rhythm blocks from grammar school music class, and the hook came free.  Skip stood up in triumph in our highly unstable floating tub, and gingerly stabbed the fish in the head three times.  Then he picked it up on the end of the knife with the third stroke, and attempted to carefully return it to its home.  Unfortunately, his celebration caused the boat to lurch out of control and he tossed the fish straight up.  Skip then performed the most perfect “neck catch” I have ever seen by a non-juggler in a small boat.  While he was wiping the slimy bits off his head and back, I picked up the ventilated creature and returned it to the lake, where it bubbled through its newly received blowholes, and sank beneath the surface.

In fact, fishing was so good that year; I even experienced my only true fisherman’s moment.  Nick was fishing, and I was rowing (a mutually beneficial agreement, much like the clown fish and sea enema).  As we passed a point where the weeds dented in, I suddenly channeled a bass-master and said, “Nick let me get a try, there’s a fish over there.”  Sure enough after only two casts, I pulled in a good size Pickerel the most evil, demonic fish in the lake (but I get ahead of myself).  The problem with this was: since I wasn’t fishing, Nick was determined that he had to catch one as well.  Once again success proved a burden, as we sat on the lake hour after hour while the normally successful fisherman I was with tried everything short of his own eyeball as bait.  By the time that summer ended I had sworn completely off fishing.

The problem with giving up fishing is: when you bring up a guest, that’s what they want to do.  Several years after the Great Fish Massacre of ‘84, my friend Lee came up for the first time one weekend, armed with pole and tackle.  After several comments about the drive up on the narrow dark dirt roads (“Jeff, where’s the road?”, “Jeff you’re driving into a bush!”) and of nighttime in the forest in general, (“Jeff, its dark! It has no right to be this dark! My hand is in front of my face and I can’t see my hand!”) He finally settled into the Up the Lake lifestyle.  We went fishing the next day, and caught a largemouth bass each (the most generic “fish” of the Up the Lake fish world).  Then one of us caught a pickerel.  I don’t remember whom because of the ensuing chaos.

Pickerel are wholly evil fish, looking like a mottled green barracuda.  They are long and thin, covered with a slimy coating, and have rows upon rows of needle like teeth, both at the edges of the mouth (where teeth normally belong), and along its roof (where they do not).  They don’t fight like a bass when you reel them in either; they just pull hard until you get them in the boat. Then they totally freak out where you’d believe they’re going to breathe fire and levitate at any moment.  This one popped off the hook and out of the net. Suddenly Lee and I were sharing a small aluminum rowboat with the equivalent of a foot long, living, sausage shaped, snot covered, weed eater, strung out on crack.  Being two rational, college bound, teenagers, we panicked and tried to beat the thing to death with everything in the boat that wasn’t nailed down, including poles, tackle boxes, oars and each other.  Eventually, we cornered it under the seat, got a stringer hook through some orifice or another, and rowed in.  The fun did not stop there, however.

An intelligent fisherman cleans his fish at the dock, for easy disposal of the icky bits.  We carried the fish up to the cabin as the sun set, for pictures, and then started to clean them on the outside table.  Lee held the light as I got the two molecules of meat off of the pickerel (about average for the lovely species).  As I started to cut the first bass the Mighty Fish God decided to wield unholy vengeance.  Saying, “Then it started to rain” would be like General Custer saying, “Then the Indians got mildly peeved.”  Water literally flowed out of the sky, as if the Mighty Fish God suddenly moved Niagara Falls into the woods near Bear Mountain.  The bass not under the knife was rejuvenated, like Aquaman in a shower stall, and began to do gymnastics around the table.  Lee started to beat the fish into submission with the flashlight like a demented blacksmith. (Yes, we are full of similes today.) He also yelled helpful advice like, “hurry up,” “faster” and “AAAAAAAAAA!!!”  Turning into “Ginsu Man” I set the land speed record for cleaning two fish, spraying scales, bones and God knows what else all over both of us.  Then we turned the meat over to someone who would actually cook and eat it. (Embarrassingly, I will now mention that neither of us had any intention of eating the stupid things.)  Afterwards, we required a liberal bath in lemon juice to remove the smell, and I was treated to a nice fireworks display in my head as the citric acid found the cuts from my hibachi chef episode. Having experienced more than enough fun for one day, we passed out for the night.

I managed to avoid fishing after that wet and messy evening for some time, until I became a parent.  It is normally the father’s job to pass fishing information to his descendant.  Since I completely lack any valuable skills this would have been a problem, except for the fact that the only two people in the known universe with less patience for this sport than I have are my immediate family. Every summer my daughter insists on going fishing…once…and only once. The merest suggestion of anything fishing related after our trip generates a stock reply, “We can try that next year.”  Our annual trips go pretty quickly. Usually somewhere between the first and second cast my wife asks how much longer we’ll be out there, and my daughter asks why we haven’t caught anything yet.  (Usually the answer to the latter is, “I haven’t baited the hook yet, I’m still cleaning all the dust off the pole from it sitting in the corner for a year.”) Still, it’s nice to have traditions.

With the length of our excursions not allowing time for boredom to develop (or injuries to happen, or the boat to be unlocked if other kids happen to be on the beach) my perspective has changed a little.  Sometimes, when I’m down the lake just at sunset and the water is totally still, I get the old, “I know exactly where the fish are right now,” feeling.  Then I walk up to the cabin and tell my sister.  After all she needs all the help she can get, her family actually enjoys battered fish (both the cooked kind, and with a baseball bat…apparently the fish are MUCH bigger in the ocean off Alaska then in our lake), and I DON’T FISH.

Up the Lake Index


Brian said...

Ok Jeff, now I'm off to look up "sea enema", it should be a fascinating first page on Google.

Jeff McGinley said...

I should really think about what kind of people are going to find my posts by searching for other things before I put gags like that in. Thanx for coming!

longbow said...

I remember a certain future game designer standing in the shallows, bent over, rhythmically spitting into the water to attract fish, while his hands were spread at the ready to grab anything that swam to the drops.
This was without ANY WEED OR ALCOHOL.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for the memories. Although you reveal yourself as a non-regular Up the Lake person by being surprised at both someone trying to catch fish for a long period bare handed, AND someone using spit for sunny bait. Neither of these are unusual.