A Boyhood Induction Into the Wonders of Fishing
'You should have seen this guy!'' To me, those words of Dad's were like Fourth of July fireworks that cover the sky with their wondrous starry bursts. They were spoken more than 50 years ago, back when cars were scarce, buses full, and there was a war going on.
The day started early for Dad and me. When we pulled up to the Greyhound station, the sun was still below the horizon. In spite of its foreboding dull green walls and hard benches, that station was a gateway to adventure for me. I remembered from the first two trips I had taken from there how the bus would suddenly appear, air brakes hissing and engine growling, to take us through a sunlit world of farms, little towns, rivers, lakes, and woods.
As we boarded, the driver's initial smile turned to a worried frown when he saw Dad's casting rod.
''Going to have to cover that,'' he said. ''Someone might get poked in the eye.''
''There's nobody on the bus,'' said my dad, a look of consternation spreading over his craggy Norwegian face.
''Yeah, but we'll be full by the time we hit Okonomowac,'' returned the driver, his frown growing deeper.
Without another word, Dad took off his jacket, knotted one of the sleeves, and slipped it over the rod. In a flash, the frown on the driver's face turned into a broad smile.
''You guys going to Pewaukee?'' he asked pleasantly. ''I know a guy who rents boats there....'' And there it was, the beginning of another fisherman's bond.
While Dad and the bus driver talked, I settled into a seat by a window and watched with fascination as the city gave way to the country. After about an hour, we reached the town of Grafton with its large white hotel where Grandpa had taken us all in his big Nash to have Thanksgiving dinner.
My heart leaped as the bus approached the airport and the planes appeared, the first dazzling rays of the sun reflecting from their shining wings. I was still half asleep when I found we had gotten off the bus at a path leading into the woods, and not the Pewaukee Station as I expected.
''The driver dropped us off close to the guy who rents boats,'' Dad explained.
The birds seemed to sing us a welcome as we walked down the path through the trees. Soon the delicious scent of water was in the air, and Pewaukee Lake glistened like a mirror beyond the trees. The little beach at the end of the path was covered with boats, one of which caught my eye. It was painted bright green and equipped with a brand new Johnson outboard motor. The other boats were white and had aging Evinrude motors attached to their sterns. A big man with a red face, checkered shirt, and booming voice came to greet us from a beachside cottage.
''You're the first of the day,'' he yelled. ''Take any one you like.''
We took the green boat.
On the way out, I watched with envy as my dad maneuvered the steering bar of the beautiful, purring Johnson. We dropped anchor in a little bay where the boatman assured my dad there were lots of fish.
Every fisherman I knew had his own distinctive methods, and Dad and I were no exceptions. He fished with a rod and a bobber, with the bait about two feet off the bottom when he wasn't casting or troweling. I used a line draped over my right index finger and stared into the water through a little glass-bottomed box Dad had made for me to see the fish hitting the bait.
After about three hours, we had seven average-size perch on our stringer and ate our lunch of sandwiches and lemonade. Another two hours and five fish later, a big dark shadow appeared below the five little perch that were surrounding my bait. They scattered in a flash, and a mouth with many teeth engulfed the bait. The line cut into my finger as it was pulled away hard and fast. Dad grabbed the line as I yelped.
Suddenly, a great splash off the port bow rained down on us. Without thinking, I grabbed the landing net, swung it wildly into the water, and netted the giant northern pike. The handle of the net jerked and grated against my finger, but I hung on like a pit bull. Dad almost capsized the boat while coming to my aid, but managed to bring the monster on board. And what a monster! It was almost three feet long and reminded me of an alligator I had seen at the zoo.
When the big pike was safely on the stringer and my finger properly bandaged, Dad had a look on his face I had never seen before. I began to learn what it meant after he started that beautiful Johnson motor, smiled, and motioned for me to change places with him. I felt like a king taking that boat in.
The big, red-faced boatman met us on the beach. When he saw the big northern pike, his eyes bulged in surprise.
Before he could say anything, Dad yelled, ''You should have seen this guy! Caught this monster all by himself.''
I was the subject of an animated conversation that followed and all the remaining conversation of the day when five more fishermen, two of them bus drivers, saw that big pike.
My dad, my wonderful dad, had made it possible for me to trade my first real fishing story. The fisherman's bond, from that perfect day forward, was mine to weave like a golden thread through the fabric of my life.