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All preteen knees and elbows, I leaned on the newspaper-covered picnic table and popped fish scales like tiddlywinks. I was impatient through the cleaning process, until Dad indulged my curiosity and sliced open the stomach of the predatory northern pike. The prospect of finding undigested crayfish, juvenile perch, or a frog’s leg was worth the wait. There was usually a disappointing emptiness. Driven by ravenous hunger, the fish were hooked by artificial meals.
Dad enticed the water wolves with the Canadian Wiggler, a durable hunk of silver-coated brass with better shimmy action than an Elvis impersonator. The lure attached to a steel leader connected to heavy test line, every ten feet distinguished by contrasting colours signifying twenty…forty… fifty feet needed to be rewound onto the 6” diameter reel mounted on a 1/4” shaft. The trolling rod was a stubby one-piece howitzer compared to casting rod whip sticks. It was a rare occasion when the stringer wasn’t crammed with northern pike keepers swinging to the beat of Dad’s dockside swagger.
Trolling for pike during the summer weekends’ early mornings and evenings was Dad’s escape from work, family, life. Sometimes Mom and I infiltrated Dad’s private retreat. Mom stymied her chatterbox monologue and lounged astern. Lost in a beach book bestseller, she used our slumbering, paw-twitching dog as a footrest while he chased rabbits in doggy dreams. I was ant-sized ballast consigned to the forward passenger seat, partially counterbalancing Dad’s heaviness. Bored.
Fishing shotgun sucked. The big guys with mouthfuls of flesh ripping teeth lurked in deep water forests and Dad piloted a course placing his lure precisely on a submerged thicket’s fringe. That meant my decoy was too far off for an ambush or dragging through vegetation.
“Weeds,” I grumbled and started winding. Dad disengaged the engine and reeled in his line, otherwise, his beloved lure would sink to an irretrievable snag on a log, a wedge between rocks. Tangled in the dread weeds.
“OK, all clear,” I said. Three quick dunks doused Neptune salad remains from the hooks. The boat crawled forward, pulling our Canadian Wigglers further and deeper to the feeding grounds. I felt a bump. I eyed the tip for tell-tale signs of a leafy second helping. Another bump. The rod bent like a palm tree in a hurricane.
“I gottalotta weeds.”
“Those aren’t weeds! That’s a FISH!!” Dad yanked the throttle to neutral. His hand blurred, whirling quadruple time to my laboured one-crank-forward-two-back cadence.
“I…can’t…do…this.” The ornery varmint dove. I clutched the pole with both hands. The reel whizzed in reverse.
“Don’t let go! Keep winding!”
“I can’t! It’s too hard!” The fish made a U-turn. I swapped sides, ducked under Dad’s line, hoisted high.
“Get the net!” Dad hollered at Mom. “You can do it!” he hollered at me. The dog barked, panicky, excitedly, possessively. His frenzied declarations intensified the commotion. My arms were running on empty. I gritted my teeth, tightened my grip, and cranked.
Mom stowed her paperback in dry storage, folded her beach towel, and manoeuvred through the melee to retrieve the wide-mouth landing net. She reclined against the gunwale, calmly waiting to hand off the tackle.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources dictates a pike measuring less than twenty inches must be released. Dad aimed to beat the thirty-eight-inch, twelve-pound behemoth he caught when I was two; a colossal beast taller than a toddler. I was positive I had hooked the record breaker.
“Gimme the net,” Dad commanded. Moving as smooth as a technician trading instruments with a surgeon, Mom handed Dad the net and careful not to spear herself on the treble hooks, took his fishing gear and stashed it out of harm’s way.
“Now, reel ‘im in. Nice an’ easy. You’ve almost got it.” Dad scooped up the wilting brawler. In a last-ditch survival effort, it fish-flopped on the deck. The dog, spattered with slime, barked at a pitch suggesting he won the fight, not me.
There was an eruption of honking horns amid delighted whoops and shrill whistles. Weekend speed-boaters, pontoon raft drifters and bluegill fishermen in rowboats circled our boat. Our ruckus amplified across the water and an audience gathered to watch the thriller playing out on the lake. Dad lifted the 1/2-pound, twenty-one-inch, regulation-by-a-whisker trophy for all to see. Applause erupted. I crumpled to the sticky pleather seat.
I’ve never fished again.
It wasn’t because I was mortified. It wasn’t because I was humbled by a legless cold-blooded creature’s prize fight or feared failure. It was because that proud moment of success could never be recaptured.
When photography converted from film to digital, Karen Bowers retired as a commercial photographer, moved to the Florida Keys and reinvented herself as a destination marketer. She originated, promoted, and directed a successful beach launch dragon boat race until relocating to Arizona. Bowers currently writes from her 1914 hermitage and works as an attendant on a heritage railroad running through Sycamore Canyon in Yavapai County. To add validity and garner bragging rights, Bowers has been submitting long form and flash essays to literary magazines and journals for publication. Two nonfiction flash essays were accepted: "Shedding" (Lunch Ticket Issue 17) and "Last Stop, Bedrock" (Still Point Arts Quarterly). Excerpts from her completed manuscript, "Pushed off the High Dive" have also been published: "Seek and Ye Shall Find" (Tilde Vol.3/Issue 1, an imprint of Thirty West Publishing House), "How to Be a Mistress" (The Bookends Review; 9/23/20), "Island Papergirl" (Burnt Pine Magazine; Issue 7), ”Cinderella Sex" (For Women Who Roar; 10/5/20) and “Pride after the Fall” (The Bookends Review; 6/11/22).