The fish line cut wildly to the right and then thrashed, twisting to the left. The motion seemed electrifying to a boy of 13. Anything seemed possible to a young lake fisherman because river fishing was a once-a-year occurrence for my Dad and me when we floated down the Mississippi River in central Minnesota from Clearwater to Monticello, with my Dad's first cousin "Doc." The wide expanse of slow-moving river in those years was not overshadowed by the presence of today's nuclear power plant.
"Doc Fish" had been the small-town dentist in Monticello for many years and he relished the yearly summer float with perhaps even more anticipation than we did. After listening to patients mumble, grumble, and spit through these seasons, Doc gladly agreed to trailer his boat 12 miles north and float lazily down to his home, nestled on the southern riverbank.
The traditional July river trip had gone on for years and did so for years after that glorious 1965 afternoon. Because my Dad had always made this yearly fishing trip with Doc, I, as a tyke, had always assumed "Fish" was Doc's nickname. In one of life's great ironies, his name was Charles Fish ... Dentist, as the weathered sign attested on his office door in town.
• • •
"Stevie, you've got the granddaddy fish of the Ol' Mississip!" Doc laughed.
"Ease him up to the boat, son," Dad encouraged.
Years of fishing the river had given both men the knowledge of river lore. They knew how to free snagged lines. They knew how to spot deadheads and dodge rocks that ate propellers. They also knew how to be practical jokers. They took as much delightin playing jokes as in catching a big one.
"It's almost to the boat!" I screamed. "I'll net it!" Doc said.
I instinctively shuddered at this suggestion but was helpless to protest.
Bursting to the surface was the biggest, shiniest, slimiest ... river clam.. Doc and Dad laughed hard for they had seen the familiar run of a twisting line.
"Well, Stevie, we can't mount it on the wall, but it will make great hors d'oeuvres!" Both men settled back to their seats with stifled giggles. Later, all was peaceful as time and river floated and mixed throughout the warm afternoon.
After savoring one of Doc's famed turkey-and-cheese sandwiches over one of my peanut butter-and-jelly disasters, I got sleepy, my line adrift upstream.
A brutal tug jostled my sleep.
"Dad ... wow... this is a BIG one!" I reeled hastily to discover no drag, no weight, no fish. Doc and Dad winked. "What did you two do now?" I demanded.
"Oh, just a tug on your line to keep you alert," Doc said. "You are the bowman. We need you to spot the deadheads in this part of the river."
Looking for submerged logs was not my idea of an ideal assignment. After two violations of my pride, it was time to assert my youthful manhood and plot my revenge.
• • •
I found my opportunity during a late-afternoon stop. The 12-foot aluminum boat was partially pulled ashore on a sand bar. Lazy swirls of eddies drifted past. Doc and my Dad strolled downstream to cast. Feigning a need for bait, I approached the boat. From the stringer in the bow swam my day's prized possession, a river bullhead — which of course had brought laughter. From the stern floated Doc's 4-pound walleye, tethered to a stringer.
Just a little switch of fish, and all will be settled, bullhead for walleye, I thought. I couldn't wait to see Doc's expression when he pulled up the stringer.
As I slipped the metal clip from the walleye's gill, a sudden jolt of life shot through the fish and off it slithered toward freedom. My heart raced like a pinwheel in a storm. My plan had not only backfired, it had exploded.
Doc and Dad slowly worked their way back. My emotions ebbed like the water in the river swirls. How would I tell Doc what happened to his prize?
"Doc," I started, spilling the story. "I did something really stupid." I imagined only the worst ... ridicule, teasing. But something extraordinary happened.
"Stevie, it's only a fish. It's a summer day, we're having fun, and the big ones are still downstream."
I looked at Doc in awe. No teasing in his voice, no ridicule, just a conversation man to man. All was well. I learned there were things more important than catching the big one — there was respect, friendship and camaraderie.
Doc passed away a few years before my father. When I had talked to Dad about him, his voice softened and I intuitively knew why. I still see Doc standing on that sand bar, treating me with dignity. The water and the memories mingle, but clearly, the picture is timeless. Though I don't get a chance to fish with my own children more than once or twice a year, I do know they must hear a story — the story of the one, the great one, who got away.