By Kurt Buss
The fish’s head slowly emerged, it’s steely, amber eye ruptured the river’s surface and looked right into me before it plunged, rolling back down into the dark, flashing a big yellow belly and boiling the water with its tail, waving buh-bye! I knew, at that moment, I had the biggest creature of my life on the end of this 6# monofilament line, spooled onto my dad’s old Shakespeare spin-cast reel the previous week. I’m glad I had grabbed his rig and not mine, which was a Zebco 202 – my first and one of the few reels sold at the Caroline Hardware.
I was nine years old, standing on a rickety, wooden dock sticking ten feet out into the Embarrass River with my sister. The water was dark and cold. I was afraid this creature was going to pull me in.
When the fish ran, I held the rod tip up and braced for whatever was going to happen when the line came taught. I didn’t want to click the thumb button and release line, because I figured that would be the end of it - the fish would pull out all the line my dad had just bought and loaded. I hadn’t even asked if I could borrow his pole.
The rod tip dipped like something was pulling it by its hair and line zipped out of the water, racing toward the fish, but finding only another boil, this time deeper in the channel and heading downstream. I was expecting a loud snap and quick release of tension on the rod, like breaking off a snag. What I heard was something I’ll never forget, the solid, mechanical whirl of tiny steel gears as the tension drag began to operate on the line. It was a beautiful sound, the sound of solid engineering - not a noise my Zebco could make. The vibration sent through the rod handle was electric and the tip began to bounce as the sound of the drag diminished and the line stopped playing out.
The fish stopped it’s run. I kept tension on the line and tried to move it a little, but it didn’t oblige. I wondered what it was. When I saw the big yellow belly my first thought was that it must be a carp, since one of the neighbors had been baiting the area with shucked field corn. But I was using a bass popper, a surface bait. Everyone knows carp are bottom feeders. They don’t care what’s on the surface, until it sinks.
I picked the popper out of my dad’s tacklebox after having no luck soaking nightcrawlers under bobbers, looking for crappie and black bass (smallmouth). His rod was set up for northerns – the fishus maximus of Central Wisconsin river ponds – with a long, wire leader and a snap swivel; so changing lures didn’t mean I had to tie a new knot. Which was good. My knots never looked as perfect as Pop’s.
Dad’s tackle box, like his dad’s and most others I’d seen, was all metal and smelled of machine oil. The top tray held the traditional bait: Daredevil spoons striped like candy canes, streamer flies the size of small birds, barbed objects resembling mice, crayfish, leeches; and big wooden lures called plugs, handcrafted with glass eyes and dripping with treble hooks. Some were two pieces and swiveled in the middle; others were designed to dive or splash along the surface when cranked. Most were painted to look like fish or frogs, but there seemed to always be at least one lure sporting a thick white body and a red head – like a big toe with a bloody end - as though red and white was a color combination that provoked northerns, the way a red cape provokes a bull.
But I hadn’t chosen any of the big lures because I was fishing for bass and crappie. I’d caught them before and I knew what to expect. The little lure I selected was just enough wood to float a hook and some hackle feathers. It was called a popper because you “popped” the lure along the surface, imitating a bug or other bait. This one was designed for bass, so it was much smaller than the top shelf lures designed for northerns. If this was a bass I had hooked into, it would be legend.
My sister and I thought we should get off the dock, so we went to shore where she helped me get my arms around a tree while holding the pole in the direction of the fish.
“I’ll get help,” she said, looking at me, then the tree. “Just hold on!” and she was gone. I looked at the rod tip as it began to bounce again. I started reeling in very gently to the quite whirl of the drag. The fish began to move slowly toward me. I thought, for the first time, that I might, somehow, not lose this fish. Footsteps sounded behind me.
“Whatcha got, sonny?” It was Tony Netzel, our next-door neighbor who was out working in his yard. It was his dock. I was glad the fish hadn’t destroyed it.
“Big fish!” I said. “Bass!” He shuffled out to the end of the dock just as the fish boiled ten feet away. He stopped and stared at the water, then looked at me hugging the tree.
“No,” he said. “It’s a nordern. A biggun!” I’d never seen Tony this excited before. He was a World War II vet and kept to himself mostly. “I’ll git a net,” he said, looking at me, then the pole. “Jus hold on!” and he was gone.
At first I didn’t believe it. I wasn’t old enough to go northern fishing, not even with my sister who was a year older than me. Northerns were for grown-ups. I’d spent plenty of time watching the old timers catch them off docks or bring them back in rowboats. They were frightening to look at, with that long, gator head and those rows of spike teeth. Fresh water barracuda. They were the biggest fish in this river and were known to eat anything they could grab in their considerable jaws, including dead fish and each other.
Their full name is northern pike, of course and most people in the world simply refer to them as pike; but in central Wisconsin they’re “norderns”, second in celebrity only to their larger cousins up north - the musky. On this river, anything over 30 inches or five pounds was considered a “lunker” - fish 20-24 inches were called “jacks” or “hammer handles” and everything in between was “not bad.” The preferred method of fishing was to set anchor from a rowboat on the pond, snag a river chub or shiner onto the biggest treble hook you have, slap a tennis ball sized bobber about three feet up from your leader, gently swing that gear out into the channel and wait for Jaws to slowly drag that bobber under.
Footsteps sounded behind me again. Tony was back with a landing net, almost taller than he was. “Jus hangonda im, Sonny. Bring im inda shore.” He scooted onto the dock holding the net like an infantry rifle and stabbed it into the water just as the surface boiled beside him. He struggled and the water churned, but with a twist of his wrists he yelled, “Got im!” - and the fish was in the net. I would never feel the same swimming in that river. Those big teeth. My little toes.
“What are we going to do with it?” my sister asked, anxiously.
“I dunno,” I said. I wanted to get a picture with the fish, but I didn’t want to kill it. We decided we’d keep it in our mom’s big metal wash tub until we got the photo. My sister ran ahead and got the tub ready. Tony hustled the fish up to our garage carrying it in the net. I followed with my dad’s pole, hoping I wouldn’t get into trouble for borrowing it.
My parents didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for this fish. They made it clear they weren’t interested in eating a fish with “all those y-bones” and darn sure weren’t going to clean it. So, after my grandfather came over with his Nikon Nikkormat camera and got the picture and the neighbors had all left, my sister and I just stared at this monster in our mom’s washtub, suspended in the water, moving its head back and forth to get air. We each grabbed a handle of the tub and slushed our way back down to the river. We walked out onto the dock and gently poured the contents of the tub into the water.
I’d like to say the fish turned to look at me for some silly reason (too many Disney movies when my kids were little) but it didn’t, of course. He just whipped his body and bullet-snaked away. His tail waving buh-bye!