As I exited Interstate 694 at Rice Street, on the north side of Saint Paul, Minnesota, I was more excited than I had been in many years. I suppose that was childish but it was the first time I had taken a prize for anything. I had never won an award at school for either scholastic or sporting achievement, in the first case because of laziness and in the second because I was, and still am, uncoordinated. Furthermore, the hundreds of dollars spent on raffle tickets and lotteries over the years had never yielded a return. Completing, with diligence, competition entry coupons on the backs of cereal packages had proved a complete waste of time because the manufacturers had ignored me. Now, however, I had hit the jackpot and could not wait to see Carol’s face when I broke the news. I could imagine what she would say.
“Heavens Russ, don’t tell me you’re getting rid of that crappy old boat at last and replacing it with something that isn’t a total embarrassment. I may let you talk me into sitting in the new one for a cruise around the lake.”
I hoped she had arrived home from Duluth where she had been staying with her mother for a few days. She was not expecting me home until late, but for sure I would receive a warm reception when I told her of my good fortune.
My name is Russ Swenson. I have been dedicated to fishing for most of my life and have never regretted a moment spent on that fine sport. Many folk, who think it barbarous to kill animals for food, want to bend your ear on the subject while settling into a nice walleye fillet or a rare cut of venison. The deer hunters can defend their own dirty work but I soon mention to opponents of my pastime that Christ was a part-time fisherman as well as a carpenter. If I take off into the wilderness with a couple of pals for an occasional week of good fishing, Carol is about as hostile as the more outspoken of those antifishing and antihunting activists. When we were newlyweds, she joined me on one of my fishing expeditions and it was a disaster. She talked most of the time and kept standing in the boat to get a better view, just as I or my fishing partner was casting out.
“Russ, why must we fish just here? It’s about the ugliest part of the lake. If we were to move the boat to the other side, I’m sure we would have a much nicer view of the countryside.”
“We’re fishing right here because there’s a shelf and a steep drop-off where the fish like to gather and feed.”
“How do you know the fish are gathering down there? The water is murky and I can’t see any fish.”
“Believe me there are fish down there,” I assured her, “All the guys who know this lake will tell you that we are over the best spot. Anyway, I’ve been here many times before and have caught a ton of fish to take home.”
“Well, this whole experience is boring. I just don’t know how you can sit on this lake all day with nothing happening and not a soul to speak to. You guys don’t say a word, or if you do, it’s just about the darned fish. I thought it would be much more exciting with big fish jumping out of the water and you going after them and all.”
Now Carol is a most attractive woman and I find being firm with her is hard. Sometimes, however, she’s a bit unreasonable. On this occasion, I tried to persuade her to see my point of view.
“Look dearest, we’ve been here for less than an hour and I already pulled in two beauties.”
“Well, you can take me back to the dock and I’ll go for a walk ‘n see if I can find anything interesting in this boring old place.”
It looked like I needed to get her back to the dock before the situation boiled over. Behind Carol’s shoulder I could see my partner’s lips compressing and I sensed that if she didn’t get off the boat soon he would say something we might all regret. Throwing his leeches overboard as we moved to shore because she thought them disgusting was the end of our married fishing partnership. On the way home she proclaimed that, apart from the brutality of the sport, she couldn’t stand the smell of dead fish or tolerate the boredom of sitting still for hours at a time. On subsequent occasions, whenever I mentioned fishing, Carol wrongly anticipated and preempted any attempt on my part to block her from coming with us by telling me “to forget it” if I thought she was joining us. So, every July, when I go off to my fishing contest, she visits her mother in Duluth. I know they have a wonderful time dissecting me and rebuilding me into a much superior man. It is such good therapy for Carol and she always comes home in an upbeat mood.
As in other years, I had entered the Salmon-A-Rama contest at Racine, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan, just south of Milwaukee. The contest is held in mid-July. The grand prize in the year of my story was a high performance fishing boat worth more than eighteen thousand dollars. In the Salmon-A-Rama contest, the game is always salmon: big ones. Several varieties can be found in those abundant waters, each needing a different fishing technique, and it takes a lot of skill to lure and catch Chinook or Coho salmon. In addition, there are trout varieties such as Steelhead, Brown Trout and Lake Trout. For me, the king of fish is the Chinook salmon. In fact, they’re called Kings or Screamers. It’s not uncommon to land fine specimens of thirty pounds or more. When a Chinook takes the lure, and feels the hook, it lets rip with a turn of speed that covers a hundred feet in a few seconds and your reel lets out a scream. Man, what an exciting sound that is!
For the last ten years, my partner in these contests has been Bugs. His red hair is cut short, maybe the last true crew cut in the State. He has buck teeth reminiscent of Bugs Bunny. At six foot six inches, he’s nine inches taller than I am. He is lanky, has freckles, and wears wire-rimmed spectacles, size sixteen construction-style boots and faded denim overalls. Because of his height, he moves with a slight stoop as though he just walked through a low doorway. When Bugs is speaking to you, his eyelids flutter up and down like the shutter on an old movie projector. He might look a little stupid to some folk, but believe me, there is nobody smarter than him at pulling world-class game fish out of a stretch of water. I will warrant that if we stopped the truck on the freeway in a rainstorm Bugs could catch our supper in one of the puddles. He brings me good luck, he’s an exceptional nice person with a generous nature and he’s darned good company. He once revealed he took me on as his partner because I was intelligent enough to take his advice and short enough so he could beat the hell out of me if I refused it.
“Russ,” he said, “if you play your cards right and do as I tell you, I’ll teach you to catch lots of nice fish; and don’t you go telling me that you bin fishing longer ‘n me.”
“Did I ever tell you that you are the most handsome fishing partner I ever had?”
“Far as I know you never had another fishing partner.”
The Salmon-A-Rama competition runs for eight days. Even fishing crazies like me and Bugs find it too long, so as a rule we arrive at Racine by Wednesday, to take stock of the competition and winners to date. We stay in the Lakeview Motel when we’re at Racine because we don’t want to waste time with all the chores that go with camping. The fellow who runs Lakeview is a fishing nut himself and caters to folk like us who keep uncivilized hours. We reserve the same room from year to year. Most city folk might not be happy to stay there because the room has a unique, hard to define smell, perhaps from generations of sweaty clothing and feet. Twin beds, a coffee pot, and a thirteen inch television set are provided; otherwise, anything else you might want you need to bring with you.
Each morning, we rose in the dark, showered down the hall and arrived at the lake between four and five a.m., ready for sunrise, which is the best time for fishing. On one occasion, I tried to tell Bugs in poetic terms how I felt about the superb scenery we enjoyed while fishing on the big lake.
“When the sun bursts like molten gold from the distant, eastern rim of the lake, its dazzling rays dispel the night like God’s brilliant eye admiring his handiwork. Maybe it’s the remains of primitive instinct or something, but that sight is awe inspiring and makes me feel privileged to exist and be a tiny part of God’s creation. No wonder ancient peoples worshipped the sun. How do you feel about it?”
“Are you entering that oration for the Nobel Prize in literature or for Field and Stream magazine?” Bugs inquired.
“You are an ignorant New York peasant with no taste for poetry.”
“I don’t know about poetry but if I can catch a ‘thirty pounder’ I’ll worship anything that seems to have had a hand in the matter…”
“… a New York heathen as well as a peasant!”
On arrival at the lake, we noted that quite a crowd had formed already, including that whole spectrum of activity one finds with any water sport and with fishing in particular.
“This place gets busier by the year. Russ, have you ever seen so many boat dealers? I want to get a good look at the competition grand prize.”
“I think it’s over there under that huge ‘Ultracraft’ banner. The flier claimed it’s the top of the line and has a ninety horsepower motor but don’t worry about taking a close look now. You can check it out all you want when it’s tied up at my dock.”
“Dream on feller.”
Bugs was trying to see over the heads of the crowd.
“Do you think we can get our boat launched with all these guys, their wives and kids wandering around? The ramps are clogged with people loading their boats. I’ve never seen so much tackle and bait being stocked for this competition.”
“Shut up grousing and get an eyeful of the food being taken on board some of these boats. Looks like many guys plan to spend the rest of the year on the lake.”
“Yeah. kinda makes you hungry don’t it?”
There were kids eating ice-cream, drinking pop, checking out everything on display as kids do, and making quite a din. The whole scene had that air of chaos that makes you think some kid is going to be drowned or crushed under something, in which case the father would not know anything about it and the mother would be screaming bloody murder. With respect to the guys fishing, you meet all sorts there, from the professional to the complete novice. The latter can be real pests and the locals give them the nickname Minnesota Clydes. I object to that slur on my home state because I’ve not found any other group of people who, all things considered, are smarter or nicer than your average Minnesotan. Bugs, who originates from Watertown, New York State, doesn’t agree and says that Minnesotans are Norwegians who couldn’t make it further west because they didn’t know how to get off the interstate that circles the Twin Cities.
“Bugs, how did we ever get to be good friends? Despite living within a few miles of me for the past twenty years, you don’t view yourself as Minnesotan.”
“That’s because I come from a superior state and don’t want my fine heritage contaminated.”
“Well, for a start I don’t think you ever came from New York City. You’re just a plain ole country boy.”
We got our boat off the trailer and launched it much faster than most others around us. Our objective was to get out on the water and away from the noisy crowd so we could get organized for the serious work ahead. On this occasion we both used a downrigger. It consists of a twenty-pound steel ball, which anchors a cable from one’s boat to an appropriate depth of water. The cable is fastened to the boat winch by a pulley wheel mounted at the end of a steel arm that juts over the stern. Sometimes, the winch is powered but ours was wound by hand. The line from one’s rod is attached to the cable by a rubber band, or loose fitting clip, and trails out from there about a hundred feet to the lure. When a fish takes the lure and makes off with it, the rubber band or clip breaks open and releases the line so you can play him. The depth at which you fasten your line to the cable depends on the fish variety you want to catch. Each variety of salmon prefers to stay in a certain depth range. Water temperature, amount of light, and type of food available, are controlled by the depth of the water.
That first morning, we were both excited and had a good feeling about the contest. Bugs was euphoric.
“Do you know something? This is my favorite day of the year. Betty would doubtless think there were more important days like birthdays and our anniversary but just between you ‘n me this is tops.”
“Hey man, I can’t help but agree with you. Despite so many other people being around for the competition, this lake is so darned huge one could sometimes be forgiven for thinking it’s just us out here. Also, surprising as it may seem, I enjoy your company and in my bones feel after all these years that one of us is going to win that fantastic grand prize.”
“Listen old buddy, there’s no question who is going to win the grand prize. You are looking at him!”
“If that turns out to be true I won’t be able to face Carol.”
Bugs got off to a good start on our first day by landing a fifteen-pound Coho and two small Lake Trout. During the heat of the day, the fish sort of doze and don’t bite. That was a good time for us to sort our lures and set up our boat and tackle so everything would be handy if we wanted to change from fishing for one variety to another in a hurry; also to be ready for fishing that evening and next morning. Later we set out to see what was happening on other sections of the lake.
In general, the fishing community is pretty conservative with everyone keeping themselves to themselves but we came across a few old buddies with whom we were close and exchanged waves, nods, and lighthearted insults. Perhaps one wouldn’t call us a fraternity but most of us abide by an unwritten code of ethics and rules.
When evening came, we fished in one of our favorite spots near a large clump of reeds and drunk a couple of cans of beer. Bugs pulled in two Rainbow Trout, but again there was nothing for me. For me, our first day was a bummer. Bugs stared into the setting sun and muttered in a confidential manner.
“You know I’m not goin’ to be offended if you in fact extend yourself and catch somethin’. I can stand competition.”
He was becoming too arrogant so I emptied the last of his beer into the lake. I was skunked and envious when we headed into town to find something to eat.
The second day was as bad as the first for me. I paid special attention to detail: checked in the handbook for the water temperature preferred by Chinook salmon and measured the actual temperature around the downrigger ball with my thermocouple, a temperature probe that I use in my line of work in the lab. At first, I tried a couple of spoon lures and later switched to a Lucky Louie plug, all without success. Bugs carried on pulling in fish in his steady way with a smug look on his face while I sat nursing my mug of coffee and trying by telepathy to persuade any old fish to go for my bait.
Bugs started his nagging routine again.
“I wasn’t expectin’ you to be no observer on this trip. If things don’t start movin’ pretty soon, we’ll have to ask Carol along next time I need a companion. I suppose that’s what I get by asking a Minnesota Norwegian to be my fishin’ partner.”
“Now listen to me. You know you just stepped over the line. Just hush and get on with your fishing. Try to catch something of a decent size will you?”
Bugs sat there chuckling at my expense so I found a very shriveled leech, which had been at the bottom of my tackle box for weeks, and dropped it in his coffee, to humble him a little.
On Saturday I caught three very small Brown Trout-nicknamed Footballs because of their shape and color-over a ridge on the lake bottom and felt worse than if I’d caught nothing. Bugs enjoyed my embarrassment and kept calling me Minnesota King Clyde.
By evening, I would have driven home without hesitation had Bugs not called me a selfish something-or-other and pointed out how well he was doing.
“You know Russ, you might as well enter those Footballs in the competition,” he said, pointing to my Brown Trout with his toe. “You might win the booby prize for the smallest catch of the week.”
He was right and it was hard to devise the response he deserved. Was I uptight? You bet I was.
“I have a strong feeling that tomorrow I’m going to catch the biggest fish you’ve seen or ever will and you’ll have to drop whatever you’re doing and come and help me pull it in.”
“Well old buddy, let’s wait and see. My feelin’ is that the way things are with you this week it’ll be a very long wait. Do you have a motel reservation beyond the coming weekend?”
Other than drown my partner, what could I do but ignore him?
The final day of the competition dawned at last. We set out before dawn as usual. I climbed into the boat quite downcast and grim. Bugs had the good sense to keep quiet. The various boats on the lake spread out to keep well away from their competitors except if they were the first to reach a favored spot such as an underwater shelf. Then they warned off anyone who approached too close for comfort.
About fifteen minutes after letting out my Salmon Slammer spoon on a medium line, I felt something substantial hit the lure. I waited for thirty seconds before setting the hook and at once the reel began to unwind at a heck of a speed, giving my knuckles quite a rap until the clutch on the reel began to slip and allowed me to regain control. It was obvious I had something heavier than the twenty-pound line would hold as deadweight and suspected that I would have a good fight on my hands. That fish took almost every inch of line off the reel before he slowed and allowed me to begin reeling him in. I got him within twenty feet of the boat and could see his outline when he leaped clear out the water, made a splash big enough to drench me, and set off again at twenty-five knots across the lake. I increased the clutch pressure and could see the line thinning as it stretched. Small water droplets were flung off as it vibrated like a violin string. Again the fish took all my line before he slowed. In fact, on that second run, I thought he was going to keep right on going until the line snapped and whipped back at me.
I played that fish for more than an hour or, rather, he played me. At last, when I drew him close to the boat he turned on his side,exhausted. I knew how he felt. Getting that fish on board took both of us working with the landing net. Bugs didn’t say a word but gently punched me in the shoulder. When I turned toward him for the first time since the fish bit, I could see a small teardrop in the corner of his eye.
“Been holdin’ my breath for an hour,” he said with a lopsided grin, “and didn’t think I’d ever breathe again. That’s one heck of a fish, old buddy.”
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to bring him in. I’ve never wanted to do anything so much in my entire life as land that fish. If you hadn’t been right next to me and holding your breath, I don’t think I could have done it.”
We hugged each other and wiped the tears from our eyes. Then we wrapped the fish in a wet sack to keep him healthy and took him to the weighing station. My Chinook weighed in at thirty-six pounds, three and a half ounces. It was the heaviest fish of the week by more than three pounds and it was a beauty. It was also the largest freshwater fish I had ever caught. His scales glistened in the sun and I swear that I had never seen a better looking fish. What a magnificent creature! He lay there opening and closing his mouth, begging me to let him go or put him out of his misery.
After getting him weighed, recorded and tagged by an official, we said our goodbyes to the fish and released him into the lake. There was no way I could allow such a champion and fighter die out of water. He deserved more of me than that.
I was exhausted and didn’t want to waste time in Racine, waiting for the official announcement of the winner. The chance of anyone beating my catch in the remaining few hours of the competition was slight. Because he is a gentleman, Bugs agreed and we headed for home. Bugs drove much of the way because I was in a state of euphoria and a danger to everyone on the highway. I could skip the fancy speech and clap on the shoulder–that’s not my scene. The sponsors would either send my prize to me or I would drive over and pick it up. I was going to get a superb fishing boat worth more than $18,000. I could sell my old one and buy Carol a new microwave oven with the proceeds. That would appease her. I would fit the new boat with the latest sonar and depth finding instrument that I had seen in Field and Stream. The prospect was divine.
Bugs stopped at his house and handed over the driving to me. He reached across the cab of the Bronco and offered his hand.
“Put it there, Minnesota King.”
He had a huge and sincere grin.
“Love to Carol. And next time don’t be so damned greedy with the fish.”
I slid the shift into first and pulled away as Bugs hefted his tackle on his shoulder and ambled up the driveway of his home.
What a great guy, I thought. I darned near quit last night if it hadn’t been for Bugs. I owed him. However, all’s well that ends well.
So here I was, exiting from Interstate 694 at Rice Street, the best angler this side of Lake Michigan and more excited than I had been in years. When I turned the Bronco into our street, it was well past supper time and I was famished with all that excitement. I pressed the garage door opener and parked the Bronco. Carol’s car was there. I couldn’t wait to see her face when I told her the news. I had not called ahead because I wanted to surprise her and watch her face. I flung open the door into the hall and shouted, “Hi Honey, I’m home.” As I did so, I caught sight of a white envelope propped against the phone on the round, hall table. The envelope looked familiar and, as I took a closer look, fear gripped my chest like a gigantic clamp and I collapsed into the hall chair and held my head in my hands. I wanted to throw up.
I should have mailed the envelope no later than the day before we left for Lake Michigan. It contained the Salmon-A-Rama competition entry form and my check for the entry fee. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to leave the lake, I’m certain one of the contest officials would have drawn my attention to the need for me to register. Without registration, one could not be recognized as an official participant in the contest, or win a prize. The contest had now closed. What a disaster! What an embarrassment! What would Bugs say? Indeed, what would Carol say? Oh man, someone else was going to be the Grand Prize Winner–at least for this year!