Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fishing with Split-Personality Disorder


The aluminum hull, 7 a.m., races over cold, choppy water to the whir of an outboard motor. Seated in the front of the hull, the bouncing hurts my breasts. It never used to be like that. But that was thirty years ago, and this is now.

Smashing down against slate-colored waves at the rate of one every two seconds, I wonder for the first time in my life if a bra might not be just the thing.

When we reach "the spot" a small tupperware drum full of frozen specimens of Notropis cornutis is produced, each dead minnow, as they're called, about the length of an adult middle finger. A single Notropis cornutius is separated from its companions and impaled through the brain on an inch-long iron J, which is itself attached to the end of a transparent thread. When this transparent thread, with its brain-crucified minnow, is lowered into the cold water to a depth of 27 feet, a Sander vitreus is supposed to appear at the end within a matter of minutes. Which in fact is just what happens, to the delight of all present. Thus the wonder and pull of Gunisao Lake, the rapidity with which the Sander appears: "Sometimes the minnow isn't even to the bottom and Bang you have one on!"

Having appeared on schedule, that first Sander is brought to the surface of the water by means of a complex mechanical spool attached to a flexible stick along which the transparent thread has been ingeniously threaded. When the Sander reaches the surface, it is taken out of the water, its nature as a Sander vitreus, or walleye, is confirmed, and then it is allowed to go back into the water. After which the process begins again. Another expressly necrotized Notropis cornutis is impaled on the same small iron J, another Sander vitreus is brought to the surface of the water by means of the pulley and stick, is appraised by all present, is sometimes measured, and is again released back into the cold water. In fact this ritual is repeated for eight hours, with, however, an hour break for lunch.

It is important to note that in the course of this ritual several of the largest Sanders are held up prominently and photographed, presumably to prove to any not present that they were in fact Sander vitreus and were in fact brought to the surface by the smiling male pictured. Also: Several of the other walleyes, not the largest and not the smallest, are not allowed back into the water, but instead are attached to a wire chain and suspended from the side of the aluminum hull, later to be eaten in common by the group of smiling males during said one-hour lunch, which takes place on the lakeshore on huge moss-covered rock formations, and during which occasional mention is made of the bear that might possibly emerge from the trees at any moment to attack and consume the fattest or slowest of the males present.

I have forgotten to note that when a larger specimen of Sander is brought to the surface, the flexible stick used to bring it up will typically bend many times and the spool will buzz many times as one or two or three yards of the thread is taken out. This is what is called a "good fight". But really--is there any contest here? Going one-on-one against a bear, armed with only a baseball bat or butcher's knife, now that would be what I'd call a good fight. What's more, after listening to some of the men in the shuttle bus which at five a.m. took us to the small plane that flew us to this remote Manitoba lake, I would quite willingly, believe me, introduce them to this more noble kind of fight. One in particular, named Bjeske or Bjerke, a tall bony man with a near baritone voice who looked like a combination between a Norwegian and a Q-Tip, and who besides dressed the part of the consummate sporty Midwest yuppie--after listening to this male Homo sapiens talk of sport and sporting and sports and credit card perks and the lodge staff at the top of his voice as if he were the only Homo sapiens in that five a.m. shuttle, after listening for twenty minutes straight before I had even had sufficient coffee, believe me: I would willingly introduce him to the nobler kind of fight I have in mind; I'd allow him to choose baseball bat or butcher's knife; I'd maybe even video the event for YouTube, in honor of baritone yuppie eloquence and the Q-Tip brand.

So give me a ring, Bjerke. After all, to judge by your volume and self-importance, a mere Sander vitreus, or walleye, is not up to your dignity. Why not go after something more your size? The black bear native to central Manitoba is acceptable I think, but a grizzly would be even nobler yet. Give me a ring. I'll rent out the racquetball court, bring the bear and your weapons, and even supply the white loincloth you'll wear.

Toward evening we again must race across the choppy water to return to the lodge and meet with other small groups of male humans of different ages, who have like us spent the day extracting specimens of Sander vitreus from the water and then returning them to the water. And at the lodge there will be drinking of beer and boasting as to who brought up either the most of said species or the largest of said species (especially the latter: size matters in this particular sub-culture).

And after dinner and drinking of beer each small group returns to its cabin, builds a fire in a large iron stove, and begins to contend with Culicidae, which one kills to the best of one's ability.

And next day one returns to the lake to hunt the Sander vitreus by the laborious method outlined above. And likewise the following day. And then a third.

Thus are the happenings of a successful fishing trip to one of the best walleye lakes in North America. As one retired surgeon from Michigan put it to me one evening as we stepped from our aluminum hulls and onto the wood dock: "Is there any joy in life greater than this? I mean, really."

I smiled at him in reply, and a rapid series of images, like cards being shuffled, began to rush across my brain pan.


I must admit, though I looked forward to visiting my father this June in Bend, Oregon, where he'd moved with his wife Wendy, that the fishing trip he set up for us, at least while it was being planned, sounded like something of a chore. Yes, I was happy to do it as a way to hang out with my father--like old times, when we'd fish in Canada when I was a teen--but didn't think I'd be much interested in fishing any more. Part of the problem was the weather I imagined we'd get. I was told we needed to have rain gear, warm clothes, waterproof boots; which to me sounded like standing in an aluminum boat in cold rain for three days.

But the weather didn't turn out like this. In fact we had the best possible weather: cool, breezy, sunny. And the lake was beautiful, about twenty miles long, with small scattered islands and an unbroken border of pine and birch trees on all sides. I ended up having a good time all round: a lot of joking, fresh air--amazing fresh air--and that vague thrill of not knowing, each time I dropped the line, whether or not I'd land a trophy fish in the coming ten minutes. The angling bug had bitten me.

I didn't end up catching a trophy fish, but so what? I caught a lot of good fish, bigger walleyes than I'd ever caught before, and a few good northern pike too. And while doing so I got to chat with my father on all sorts of things: stocks and bonds of course, real estate, Mader's Restaurant, his friends' escapades, his fishing trips to other locales; Taipei life, cultural differences between East and West, etc. I learned some things about investing. And I also got to chat with our fishing guide, a Cree Indian named Langford York, about his life in the town of Norway House, his ideas on the spirit world and the relations between whites and his people, his girlfriend and their son, etc.

When I left Taipei I'd thought it would just be my father and I going fishing. But in Bend I learned that two of his friends would join us. What would these guys be like? I wondered. My father, after all, had spent most of his adult life masquerading as an asshole, and had become quite a maestro at it. I say masquerading because he means no harm, but provokes people just to get a rise out of them, to invite a counterattack, and is often a riot to be around. His assholism is a mode of comedy. But still, I thought, my father was also a businessman and investor and lifelong Republican, so wasn't it possible that his friends, or at least one of the two, would turn out to be the real deal--a garden variety asshole rather than a joker asshole?

In fact I needn't have worried. Dieter and Mark, I realized as soon we met in Winnipeg, were good guys all round, and what's always a plus, they were cigar smokers too. Dieter came to the States from West Berlin in the 1960s, and has kept both his German accent and gratefulness to America for its sacrifices in World War II and its policies toward Germany after the war--especially the Berlin Airlift, which he remembers. Mark, who now lives in Wisconsin in nearly the same neck of woods where I grew up, is a fervent Christian, like myself, but is well to the right of me in his political thinking. Still, he's laid back and not one to get hacked off in political discussions.

All in all it was a good time hanging out with these four characters--my father the professional smart ass, Langford, Mark and Dieter--fishing and drinking and smoking on that isolated and pristine Canadian lake. I'd do it again if I had the chance, and maybe even must do it again, as I'm the only one of the four who didn't get a trophy walleye. My father, sitting next to me and fishing in exactly the same way I was, got five trophies in the course of three days, which really is hard to figure. So I was one of the few who left the camp a virgin--not having caught a trophy fish, either walleye or northern pike. Do walleyes maybe have a thing for Republicans?

I'm grateful to my father for setting up this fishing trip. We had a good time all around.

* * * SOME VISUALS * * *

No roads reach Gunisao Lake. One has to fly in.

After landing on the dirt runway.

In the main lodge. Unshaven.

Out on the boat. My father and Langford, our guide.

Walleyes to be cleaned and cooked for shore lunch.

Before shore lunch.

Mark and Dieter.

Esox lucius: a northern pike.

Cleaning the fish.

Cooking shore lunch.

One of my father's five trophy walleyes.

Evening fishing.

The cabins we slept in were overrun with mosquitoes. But they didn't bother me much because they were so much slower and easier to kill than Taiwan's mosquitoes. Coming back from the lake on day two, I decided to give myself ten minutes on the clock to see how many I could kill with my bare hands. Nineteen.

Building a fire in the wood stove. The nights were a bit cold.

My best Bill Murray impersonation.

Birch trees near the lodge.

The main lodge.

My father and I fishing, late 1970s.

1 comment:

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