In early January I started taking long, cold walks beside the icy streams of Duluth. Call it a reflex — my wife and I recently moved here, and any creature is bound to sniff out the hollows and retreats of new territory. But I had another motive as well, a cold, slippery one. I was looking for spring, and spring is a story told by fish. I learned this on a late April morning when I was 12 years old. It must’ve been a Saturday, since I was neither in school nor in church but footloose on the shore of
Lake Osakis, in west-central Minnesota, casting a red-and-white spoon toward a stand of bulrushes. The fishing opener was at least a week off, but that didn’t worry me because I had no expectation of catching anything; I was casting because it was a cool bright morning and the ice had just left the lake. Nothing beckons like the strange unwrapped world of open water, its creeping wavelets and faintly sinister smell. Fish were beside the point — until the rod leapt and arched toward the water. I scrambled along the shore, slipping on rocks, connected to something muscular and urgent. The reel made a frying sound as line tore away into the rushes.
Eventually I did land the fish, a northern pike that Dad estimated at 5 pounds when he heard my reel buzzing and strolled down to observe the action.
“Don’t hurt him,” Dad advised, as the pike eased wearily into the shallows. “Season isn’t open yet. You have to let him go.”
Full of adrenaline as I was, this good sense rankled bitterly. Wasn’t a 5-pound northern pike, a monumental catch, the biggest of my life, worth bending the rules? It was 1973 — “catch and release” seemed to me a suspicious concept designed by opponents of joy. Besides, hadn’t Dad told me his own thrilling exploits of thwarting game wardens back in North Dakota?
“Nope, put him back,” Dad said, with annoying good humor. He was always good-humored by the lake. He knelt down for a closer look at the pike, resting on the bottom in a few inches of water. Four parallel slashes angled down its right flank like claw marks. They looked painful but clean. They’d begun to heal over.
“This guy has stories to tell,” Dad said. He ventured that the scars almost certainly came from a thrown spear during the winter just past. The fish’s fierce eyes, the slight movement of its tail fin, made me uneasy. It seemed to have intentions. Later I learned that “pike” were aptly named for the long pointed weapon of medieval combat.
Dad said, “Bet he’s glad it’s spring. Do you want to be what kills him?”
On my January walks in Duluth, it took many attempts before I spotted fish. There were open pools on most of the streams, but it was hard to see below the surface. Finally, by snaking over the snow on my belly and putting my face in the water, I caught sight of a few tiny fry — 3 to 5 inches long, tentative, their topsides snow-lit and ethereal. A local fish biologist told me they were probably brook trout, or else rainbows, which at 1 or 2 years of age migrate down to Lake Superior. I asked the biologist what it’s like for these innocents to leave their protected home streams for the nearly fathomless depths and dangers of the inland sea. The biologist said, “You ever play a game called Pac-Man?”
Yet some rainbows do survive. They are strong swimmers and canny travelers. There is no reach of Superior they don’t explore. Over time they grow into the lovely iridescent adults known as steelheads, and as you read this, here’s what those steelheads are doing: all over the lake, from the Lester River to Michipicoten Island, they are listening to the imprint of their home streams, which call to them like a distant song or sub-frequency when spring approaches and it’s time to spawn. By this time these are experienced creatures. They’ve been pursued by larger fish, and pursued smaller ones in turn. They’ve crossed through the shadows of thousand-foot freighters, dodged nets and hooks and spinning propellers. When they arrive at their North Shore streams in April, I plan to be there. I’ll have a fly rod in hand, and some lures, but all I really want from a steelhead is to see it. To imagine its odyssey. Here they come, from every corner. Every one of them has a story to tell.
Leif Enger is a lifelong Minnesotan. His latest novel, “Virgil Wander,” is set on the North Shore.