Fishing Buddies

To dad, the term tackle was never associated with football. He used it describe his magic box, the place where he stored secret gadgets that helped him catch bass, muskie, and behemoth river cats. It was only much later in life when I had children and grandchildren of my own that I came to realize how fishing defined dad’s identity, his relationships, his happiness.

Why dad chose me to be his fishing buddy from a brood of five kids remains a mystery. Perhaps it was because I was the oldest son or that we shared the same first name. No matter. My fondest memories of childhood were sitting next to dad with a fishing rod in my hand. To this day I carry a faded photo in my wallet of my first day fishing. There I was grasping a bamboo pole and dangling a tiny blue gill on a stringer. My dad reveled in telling the story over and over. I was three years old. I caught my first fish, and pooped my pants in the excitement. Dad rinsed them in the river. While hanging them on a branch to dry, I discovered a litter of puppies in the hollow of a tree. One by one I pulled them from their den, as the mother dog put them back one by one on the other side.

Dad measured time by the intervals between fishing trips: weekends to the river, summer trips to the north woods, family vacations. I can close my eyes and picture dad motoring away in a rented fishing boat with a Lucky Strike dangling from his smiling lips, and our cocker spaniel, Rocky in the bow beating time with his tail. I remember the hot sun beating down on us as we stalked the big ones, waiting silently in dad’s leaking aluminum boat, and hydrating with icy Hamms ‘from the land of sky blue waters.’ When it came to fishing, dad was never skunked. Even when he caught nothing, dad always had his share of what his fishing buddies referred to as bottle bass.

I think I was about eight when dad and I stopped in a local tavern in Three Lakes. While I sipped root beer from a frosty mug, dad was on a reconnaissance mission on the barstool next to me. As my sneakers traced tiny arcs beneath me, my elbows rested on the shiny bar and helped me keep balance on my perch. Becoming tired of dad’s fishing questions, the bartender coyly gestured to a mounted fish hanging above the entrance. The taxidermist had added a bizarre feature to the huge muskie, human false teeth. The bartender asked us if we knew what kind of fish it was. I sat speechless. I had never seen a fish like that in my entire life. The locals at the end of the bar had a good laugh at our expense, probably not the first time that the owner teased tourists with that question.

Waiting for a pause in the laughter dad spoke, “Mister, I know you were just funning my boy, but I want you to know that there are some big fish in your little lake out there.” Dad slowly pointed over his half full beer (dad was letting out some line).

“Why just yesterday I was fishing across the lake from Evanson’s Resort and I hooked into something really big.”

“Really?” said the bartender. A guy in a John Deere hat leaned closer (the locals were taking the bait.)

Dad continued, “Yeah, I was fighting him for over half an hour and I couldn’t raise him off the bottom. When out of nowhere a man dressed in a scuba suit popped his head above water. I yelled out to him to dive down to see if the fish was snagged on something.” Dad sipped his beer, and slowly exhaled a gray cloud (he was getting ready to set the hook).

“When the diver returned to the surface, he said, ‘Buddy, you’ll never get that fish. There’s an old car body down there and the fish is inside it (the bartender’s mouth gaped, dad waited). Every time I try to chase him out, he rolls the windows up!’”

The locals guffawed until they coughed. Dad chugged down his beer, never breaking eye contact with the bartender whose face was the color of a giant red horse who had just taken hook, line, and sinker. Grabbing my hand, we headed for the door, my eyes fixated on the bizarre looking fish on the pine wood overhead. Outside in the parking lot I asked, “Daddy, was that true?” Without a word, dad only grinned and winked at me.

In our neck of the woods, in a shack on the banks of the muddy Iroquois, lived Annie Wiggit. Annie was the other woman in dad’s life. Theirs was an ideal relationship. Dad had something she needed (liquor), and Annie had something dad needed (a place to dock his fishing boat). Dad would have ritual drinks with Annie before and after fishing. While I met Annie only a few times, I could see how dad and she enjoyed each other’s company. Dad would tell stories, and Annie would cackle in delight. I worried how the frail, snagged-toothed widow could survive the cruel winters in that old shack. The walls were insulated with old newspaper and the outhouse was a good fifty feet up a steep hill.

When Annie passed, dad was first in line to rent Annie’s cottage. For years, our family enjoyed our summer haven on the river. I can still see dad propped in a rusted folding chair on the dock – night fishing – the glow of his cigarette marking his exact location, his personal GPS of the sixties. When it got so humid that dad would skinny dip off the dock, I’d yell out, “watch out for snapping turtles!” Naturally buoyant at 220 pounds, dad would wash-up downstream after he cooled off. I’d listen for his return, heavy footsteps on the dirt trail and whistling some happy tune. Only after the screen door slammed behind him could I fall asleep.

I saw dad cry twice in my entire life: once, after our dog Rocky was put to sleep, and second, when Annie’s shack burned to the ground, taking with it all dad’s fishing gear. A bolt of lightning had ignited the old oak tree. For years that tree had kept the shack from sliding into the river. Now it was the instrument of its destruction. Tears streamed down dad’s face when the firemen unearthed the tackle box – his entire collection of lures were charred black and melted in the heat of the fire. They had been handed down to him by my grandpa.

Dad’s stories of working in the stock yards as a young man would rival any of Upton Sinclair’s. After he married mom, they moved from the big city to our little town and opened his own butcher shop. I worked with dad cutting meat during my teenage years and on weekends we fished. But after I left for college, the distance between us increased in more ways than geography. My crewcut had grown into a pony tail, and dad could not understand my involvement with the Vietnam war protest. A WWII vet, dad had no patience for what he saw on the nightly news. Our weekly phone conversations were becoming one-sided. Despite my many attempts to explain, he’d dismiss me with “don’t tell your father how to make babies, sonny.” My fishing gear had grown cobwebs in the garage. Dad was sinking into a bottle.

A few years later cancer began to consume his body. On good days, I would gently wrestle him into the boat for a morning of fishing. The awkward silence between us persisted even on the water. When the boat was no longer an option, I would push his wheelchair down by the dam and cast his pole for him.

At dad’s wake, Kenny Shenk pumped my hand while he choked back tears. “Your dad was a great teacher. He taught me how to cut meat. I feel his presence in my hands when I work.” As others filed by to pay their respects, they told similar stories of how dad had touched their lives with his humor and kindness. I could feel old memories of dad welling-up, thoughts that had been bottled-up for years by my teenage angst and our generational differences. Yet, I could not bring myself to speak at dad’s funeral service…

The waves slapped against Anderson dock. I flipped the bale on dad’s old reel, and cast over the side. I handed the rod to the little girl sitting cross-legged next to me. The man wearing the DNR hat smiled. As I reached for my fishing license, my wallet flipped from my hand and fell open on the deck. “Who’s the little boy in the picture, Grampie?”

“Let me tell you a story,” I said.

Chuck Gress has been enjoying the waters and backwoods of Wisconsin his whole life. When he’s not teaching and coaching, Chuck hikes, bikes, kayaks, and sails with his family in Door County. He loves to spin yarns around the campfire and play blues harmonica for his new granddaughter.