Blog : Fishing

Lilacs

Lilacs

There was an old Lilac outside my childhood bedroom window. It wasn’t a great bush, or tree. Whichever it was, it wasn’t the finest specimen. It was just a bush around the corner from an old garage, wedged in between that old garage and older house, down around the cracked concrete driveway that later would be paved. When the pavers came they found an old brick cistern under the driveway that no one knew was there. Well, I suppose someone knew, but that someone was dead. He might have been the one who planted the lilac.

Down the road, around the corner, up a ways and over just a bit, there was another man. An older man, a shorter man. Just a man, really.  I met him on the pier, his fishing rods stuck into PVC holders that he affixed to the outside horses on that long association pier.  The lilacs were in bloom. His bucket was full of bloody water. Rock bass twitched their fins, bluegills rested, belly up, their eyes blank and wondering. Lower still a crappie, maybe two. Large and white with black dashes. Papermouths, the men called them. A smallmouth bass, wedged in the bottom of that bucket of death and dying, not longer than 12 inches.

It’s a rock bass, the old man told me, his tone proving his lie.  I knew better. I knew it was a smallmouth and I knew it wasn’t legal. I knew it was too small. It bothered me something terrible. Later, as the years wore on and both of us grew older, I’d sneak down in the morning and release the fish that the old man had caught and tethered to the pier with an old sailing rope. Other times there would be no fish to release, so I’d open his minnow bucket and let the minnows swim free. If he didn’t have any minnows then he couldn’t skewer them with a hook. If he couldn’t thread that hook through their eyes then he couldn’t cast that old frail monofilament out and set the worn rods into those homemade holders. If I could stop the first part of this cycle, the death could be spared.  My desired end more than justified those particular means.

He’d give me advice, once in a while. Sometimes, the water was too cold. It’s early yet, he’d say. The water needed to be 50 degrees, or maybe 55. His old thermometer would dangle from the swim ladder, close enough to where he’d store those fish that I’d later release. I wondered if he knew what I was doing. I assumed he didn’t, but now as I think about it he must have known. There was no one else but me.  Without the thermometer, he told me, it wasn’t hard to know when the bass would be biting. When the lilacs bloom, that’s when they’ll be biting.

There was another large lilac on my way to and from school, and in April and then May I’d walk by that bush with anxious anticipation.  That lilac, and the one by my window, took forever to bloom. Cold, late spring would cling for so long. Every day, nothing. Then, something. Tiny sprouts at first, but then within days, maybe just hours,  I’d witness the unfurling and pushing of all those leaves. Bright green, young green, then, when the blossoms were near, deep and lovely green. Every day, a little more. And then, like magic, the flowers. Those flowers with their purple petals and overwhelming perfume, they told me it was time. Time to grab by rod and reel and cast those chartreuse jigs as far as I could, sometimes towards shore and sometimes towards the depths. Smallmouth bass would eat, greedily, angrily, their red eyes filled with malice towards that little collection of feathers.

These days, I don’t fish in the lake very often. I want to, but I don’t. There are times when the pull is greater than others, like late into a summer evening when the southwest wind falls flat and I see the bass chasing minnows to the surface.  Or in the fall when the boating traffic has left and the lake is clear and the water cools. I know the big fish are in shallow. I know the lake trout and the brown trout are spawning, and I know the musky and the pike are binging before a long dark winter. But the strongest of pulls is right now. In the spring, when the grass is green and the lilacs are purple. I haven’t fished in the lake for a few years, but I know the bass are biting. The lilacs told me so.

Photograph courtesy Kristen Westlake

The Summer Of Our Lives

When it rains now it only rains for some of the day. When the clouds come, they never stay. When the sun warms in the morning it stays warm in the afternoon, into the evening, the moon rises without much mystery. It’s just up there, and we can see it. We needn’t wonder where it is because we can see where it is, hung up there around those stars in that dark sky. The lake blows blue most days. The light pours through my morning windows bright, and it’s early, and when I wake up and I think about the day I don’t really wonder what it’s going to be like, I just know it’s sunny and if it isn’t then it will be soon. This is the summer of 2016, and it just might be the summer of our lives.

But then again it might not be. If you’re not here and you don’t see this and feel this then what is it about this summer that can make it any different from the summers that came before? What will make it different from the summers yet to come? When my son fly fishes for bass from the piers once the sun has dipped enough to leave the Western piers shaded, how could this matter to you? Do your kids know about this sort of thing? Do they know that later in the day the sun settles somewhere to the west and once it does the bass decide that they might like something to eat? Do your kids know that when you throw the fly line with your five weight it’s best to double haul with your left hand to speed the line up and soften the delivery? Do they know that a mouse fly is effective even though mice rarely, if ever, fall from piers and into the water? Do they care? Do you care? Does anyone care?

My son cares, and so he fishes and he double hauls and when he doesn’t think I’m around he grabs a spinning rod because he blames the fly rod when the fish won’t bite. He’s officially the worst fisherman in the world, or so he told me last Friday night. He fishes all day and then some of the night, and when I join him I try so very hard to catch a bass or a northern pike for him, so that he can see how it all works. He missed a fish off the municipal pier on that last Friday night, the fish rose to his fly and then missed his fly and he was both angered and invigorated at once, but recharged in his purpose nonetheless. He hurried his line back in and up into the air, false forward and false back, enough to feed the line into the cast, enough to let the momentum push that line and carry that fly away from the pier to the spot where the fish had tried, and failed, to eat. That cast sent his fly into the air, his line unattached. He scoured in disgust, he was the most unlucky fisherman in the world. Tears filled his eyes.

There are certain days when I must leave this town, travel to another town where another pursuit is slowly plodding forward. On those rare days my son rejoices, because without parents near he can fish all day. Last Friday was to be one of those days, but really just the afternoon, and he knew that with his mother and me out of this town that he could fish, uninterrupted, for the entirety of the afternoon. When we turned around a mere 45 minutes into our trip because of a traffic jam straight out of the most fiery hell, he wasn’t happy to see us. In fact, he walked from one pier to the next, putting distance between his pursuit and us, his pursuers.  That’s why I took him to the municipal pier later that evening, to make up for the inconvenience of returning home before I was scheduled to.

My son, today, will fish. He’ll go to the piers and he’ll fish. He’ll look for bass and pike, and when they won’t bite he’ll look for bluegills that will gladly and greedily sip a dry fly presented to the shallows. Later today, I’ll fish with him, if only for a bit, trying to catch something to show him that there’s more life under this surface than he could ever imagine. But imagine he does, and he dreams and he fishes and he spends his days under that sun and on those piers. He wouldn’t have it any other way, because he doesn’t know it any other way. It’s the summer of his life, and he wonders how someone could ever spend it doing anything else.

Oh Henry

Oh Henry

I can’t quite read the name of the boat. ENRY is all I can see, the rest blocked by the odd inboard/outboard engine protruding from the stern. Maybe it’s HENRY, but I’ve never heard of a boat named HENRY. Perhaps it’s, no, that must be it. Henry. That’s an odd name for a boat, unless I can’t see the Oh. Then it would make sense, like when he bought the boat and he drove it home to his driveway his wife said, Oh Henry. That would have been all he needed to make the name the same. Oh Henry, it’s a reasonable little name for that reasonable little boat.

It’s blue, but in this light I can’t tell what shade. It has a Tiffany coloration to it, but it’s probably not that blue. There’s cover over it, so I can’t see the inside from here, but I can see the outside and the engine and the down riggers. Henry fishes. He has a smaller engine next to the bigger engine, a “kicker” it’s called in fishing terms. The boat is’t more than 19 feet long, but it’s enough. He fishes lakes and rivers, mostly rivers but also lakes, and he’s pointed north at the gas station. Whether he’s heading north to fish or he’s just gassing up in that north facing lane, I cannot know.

The truck is a Ford. I’m nearly sure of it. It might be blue, but dark, not like the boat. The bumper hangs low, in part because of the boat on that trailer but also because of the large camper that he long ago bolted to the open bed of that pick up. The camper hasn’t been nice for decades, or more. It has a back door, and a back window, but you’d have to duck to get inside the back door, and if you were large around the middle you’d need to both suck in and turn sideways to enter. There are some side windows, a front area that protrudes over the cab of the truck, that’s where he sleeps. There’s a two tone stripe of paint wrapping around the entire thing holding it together.

I can’t make out his license plate, but he’s been in the gas station for a long time now, so he must not be from around here. He’s in there drinking coffee, eating donuts, washing his face in the washroom. Or maybe he’s still in the truck, frantically digging through the seat cushions looking for his wallet. To be this far from home without ones wallet would be a horrible imposition, whether you had a small boat named after you or not. He’s in that gas station and his truck, camper, boat, and trailer are resting under the covered roof of the Mobile station.

There are at least two stickers on the back window, bu there’s no time for that now. He’s walking back to the car. He’s a bit older, maybe 65, maybe 70, maybe 73. He walks quickly, like he spent too much time in the station and he’s ready to hit the road. He’s probably from Illinois, but downstate somewhere. Some place where campers are more in style, where light blue is the preferred boat color, where his buddies see him drive through town with that camper and that boat and they wish they were him. He fired up the truck and with a diesel rumble it came to life. The truck isn’t a Ford at all, but a Dodge. The trailer lights work, which means he’s driving somewhere far from here, and he’s already far from home.

When he gets to where he’s going he’s going to pull into the campground and pick the best spot. It won’t be difficult to do that, because it’s rainy today and it’s dark, and it looks like fall and no one camps when it’s like this. Not on Wednesday’s, anyway. He’ll get to where he’s doing and he’ll uncover the boat. It’s filled with rods and reels, life jackets mostly of orange. There’s an old Coleman cooler, old enough to be old but not old enough to be cool. He has beer in it, venison sausage, cheese and eggs. If I were driving that truck across this state and I reached my destination, I’d be sad to think that I had to then sleep in that horrible little camper. But he is not me, and so when he gets there he’ll unpack and he’ll eat and he’ll sleep. And in the morning, he’ll fish.

He’ll spend the week that way, maybe more. He’ll fish and he’ll camp and he’ll sit in that little musty camper and he’ll read a book. When the nights get cold he’ll turn on the propane heater, but he’ll turn it off when he gets a headache from the exhaust. When he wakes he’ll go fish, and when he catches something he’ll cook it over a dark black skillet that he’s had since, well, since forever. He’ll endure some rain, some cold, some fumes and plenty of solitude.

When he rides back into whatever town he’s from, his friends will see him and they’ll wish they, too, had been on a trip to somewhere far away. They’ll see his boat and trailer and they won’t think that it’s a shame that the boat is so small and such an odd color blue. They won’t think that the engine is old and the down riggers rusty. They won’t see his camper and think of how oddly musty it surely smells, or how his truck must be full of wrappers from the venison sticks and the gas station pastries. They’ll just think that he was lucky to have spent those days someplace else, living in a way that he can’t live in Sometown, Illinois.

This October

This October

How I love the summer. The distinct scenery that is uniquely this place, the bright blues and deep greens, the white topped waves falling into our white, wooden piers. The sailors hike their sails, the fishermen fish the warm waters for those summer fish, and when the day has had its say and the sun has set, there is little to do but sit in the porch and listen to the midsummer night. What a soundtrack that is, at once alive and loud yet somehow quiet and still, both easily and effortlessly lulling us to that tired summer sleep.

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That summer that everyone so loves always fades, whether if, for a few weeks in August, it seems as though it might never leave. In this place, it always does leave. It leaves with sadness, with children wishing for one more swim and men wishing for one more sunset cruise after one more Saturday dinner. It leaves with everyone wishing for it to stay, and anyone who doesn’t feel a tinge of sorrow for a summer recently passed isn’t someone I’ve ever met. The summer slips away and fall replaces it, with merely a September tug that shows some days to be summer and others to be fall. But every time, each year, without fail, fall wins.

The deep green shoreline is now ablaze with reds and oranges and yellows. The dull brown of the changing Oaks lending some baseline to this new, varied scheme. The water is still blue, still constant, and it’s both bright and deep just like it is in mid-July, just like it is in early January. The piers are still there, sturdy and white, but chipped now, faded, slowly succumbing to the pier company’s hoist, each day more of them on lawns and fewer in the water. The boats are leaving, too, and by now, most are gone. Only the steadfast remain, those who know that fall means fewer boats, fewer rentals. The pontoons of summer have all been stashed in those darkened, shameful places where pontoons are stored, and the lake is left now to the owners and their Cobalts, their Lymans, their Chris Crafts and their Streblows. The lake is now as we always wish it would be. Calm and pure.

The nights now are calmer, but they are not yet quiet. The frogs and the crickets and remnant hoppers still make those night sounds, but the rustling of the fallen and falling leaves renders the chorus more faint now, subdued by the coming winter, when the night sounds come only from the rumble or a passing plow or the whine of a snowmobile as it whips through a dark neighboring field.

This is our fall, and this is the season that I now wish to live in, forever. Summer used to suit me better, with the boats and the splashing and so much sun, but now these warm days of fall are more to my liking. The cool evenings and cold nights, the brisk mornings and warm days. The sun and the clouds, the quiet lake and that splattered deciduous shoreline. These are the things I wish for now, the things that are happening around me, the days like this and the nights, too. The colors, yes, but the fade as well. The dull browns and the harvested fields. The quiet of the afternoons the the still of the evenings. The summer rush replaced by the peace of fall.

Some would say that I could find this place, the place where it’s always fall, because it’s in the mountains here or the mountains there. It’s coastal near a great ocean that keeps the temperatures steady. But that supposes that it’s the temperature and the sky that I’m after, that it’s just the feeling of any fall that I want, but that’s not it at all. I don’t want just any fall, I want a Lake Geneva fall. I want the fall that I’m familiar with, the fall that will last only until it doesn’t. This is the place I want to be because this fall isn’t like your fall. It’s better.

October Boating

Yesterday while you were working, the lake did what it does in October. It went quiet. Sure, the lake goes quiet during the days that came from the last ice out until the coming one, but it generally only goes quiet in the morning, for those first up to fish or ski. Or it goes quiet in the evening, when the last cruise boats push through the night, and the water falls flat. In January, the lake is flat rather often. Those freezing nights and those bright sky days, but those days are of no use to the boating faithful. Yesterday, that was a day we could use, but you were at work.

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I have had a complicated boating relationship over the past several years. When I first bought my fishing boat in the winter of 2010, I found time to use it often. On stormy evenings when my kids didn’t want to, we fished anyway. And on sunny afternoons when there were emails to send and calls to field, I would do both from the bow of that new toy. But as with most toys, the pleasure faded. It faded because of a smokey two-stroke that would be complimented if called temperamental. The instruments only worked once in a while, and if I trolled with large lures the carburetors would bog down and the boat would cause a smokey scene when I coerced it back to life. Even that wasn’t a guarantee.

But it wasn’t just the boats fault. It was mine. I switch hobbies like some change tires, and every few years or 30,000 miles I feel the need to indulge in another pursuit. This was the boating pursuit, and that the boat was and is actually a Pursuit is, I assure you, pure coincidence. The boating fueled my fishing, and my fishing fueled the transition to fly fishing. While I fly fish in Geneva as often as it seems reasonable, I prefer the small trickle of a valley stream, and so much of my free time has been spent in that pursuit. While I fished the buoyed Pursuit just collected dust, and spiders. And their webs. And yesterday, in the seaweedy fungus that filled the back of the boat where water is allowed to flow in and out through two small drain portholes, a small maple tree.

Yesterday the inland trout season was closed, and the sun was bright and the water still, and so I fired up the old boat and took it for a ride. It didn’t really want to do that, but after some time of trying, the engine teased to life and choked out the smoke from a summer of neglect. I took the boat out and around, cruised some shorelines and sat in the middle of the lake with nothing to do but consider what a shame it was that I left that boat to the spiders and the maple trees.

There was little time to sulk and reminisce, because the water was just too flat and the sun too warm. The forecast called for cool, but the day was anything but. Late into the afternoon I sat there, wondering what could be better, answering the pensive question with an obvious answer: the boat. There were some other boaters out with me, the select few that found their way to their piers and onto their boats on that October afternoon. Fishermen quietly cast their lures and slung their baits. Some remnant Mastercrafts slowly pushed through the calm, throwing their massive breaking waves so the surfer could surf. Sailboats clung to their buoys, wishing for a breeze but finding none. A couple paddled by on their paddle boards, cutting right through the middle of the lake in a way that would signal sure death on a busy August Saturday. The lake was back to the way I prefer it.

While afloat, a text from a friend. He, too, was on his boat. He, too, should have been working. He, too, had some flexibility and he, too, found his way to this lake on that day. But after finding my way to his boat he had more sorrow than joy. His boat would need to be pulled from the lake this week, no later than the tenth of October, so sayeth his association. Then this morning, a call from my dad. He needed help. Had he fallen? No. He needed help pulling his boat from the water, on the most beautiful day of the year, on the stillest moment of the day, at the beginning of the best boat month on the calendar. Now at this computer, I’m distracted by trucks. Trucks towing trailers. Trailers with boats. Boats not heading to the lake but from it. From the lake and to dusty storage barns where they will be tucked in for the winter, on the most beautiful day of the year.

This is the fall rush. It happens because the old people are in charge of the boating world. They run the associations that tell us we must remove our boats. They live in fear of the first frost, of strong northerly winds, of changing seasons. I, on the other hand, live in fear of missing the opportunity to sit on a boat on a day like this one. Which is why I play chicken with winter each and every year, choosing only to remove my neglected boat from the water once I need to break some ice to clear a path to the launch.

Today, two words of advice. Call in sick. Get to the lake. Sure, Sunday is going to be warm, but Sunday is many days from now. Today is warm, you have a boat, your association or your pier guy is old and wishes you to remove your boat immediately so that he doesn’t have to break ice to remove the pier. The second word of advice is even more simple. If you own an association home and you wish to no longer be forced into this sin of early boat removal, you have one very easy way to fix this. Buy a private lakefront house with a private pier. Then you can be like me, and we can remove our boats only when the snow flies. This way, we won’t miss the days in October and surely some in November that will more than justify our irrational decision.