by Tom Noyes
I’m stern-side, leaning over the gunwale, answering nature’s call when I see her break the surface. She gets a good five or six feet of air before crashing back into the water. As I tuck myself in and zip up, I’m thinking maybe steelhead, maybe lake trout, maybe sturgeon, but my sunglasses are in the cabin, and the sky’s cloudless, and the lake’s all shimmers and flashes, a carpet of diamonds, so I can’t quite make her out. On her second leap, though, I get a good look and then some. Like how Goliath got a good look at David. Like how Liston got a good look at Clay. Like how in the War of 1812 on this same lake, the Royal Navy got a good look at Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry. By the time I realize she’s barreling toward me, all I can do is brace myself and absorb the hit. A cannon ball to the chest.
Next thing I know the fish and I are splayed flat, side-by-side on the deck, the both of us wide-eyed and stunned-still. When the cobwebs clear and my wind returns, I get back on my feet, bend down and wrap my fingers around the fish’s thick middle. She gives a half-hearted shiver and flaps her tail once, but her heart’s not in it. After her initial protest she just lies there in my hands, slick and heavy like driftwood, her grey, frog-like mouth seemingly the only living part of her. It moves open and closed, open and closed, like she has something she wants to say in her own defense but keeps thinking better of it. Like there’s a lie she knows she needs to tell, but she doesn’t quite know how to start. There’s typically not much to read in a fish’s eyes, but there’s something in how this one’s looking at me that suggests she knows she’s not just a fish. As the first Asian carp in Lake Erie, she’s a dark harbinger, a tragic omen, a nightmare come alive, a worst fear realized. She’s a problem and then some.
When I carry the fish into the cabin, Ian doesn’t even look up. He’s culling the last of our perch nets—it’s the final time he’ll do this, although neither of us know this yet—and his mind is on finishing up and heading in so he can squeeze in a nap before rehearsal with his band. At dawn, leaving the dock for the day, still picking the remnants of breakfast from his teeth, Ian has his mind on finishing up and heading in so he can squeeze in a nap before rehearsal with his band. On his first day working for me more than 20 years ago—I hired him as a favor to his sister, my then girlfriend, a woman of God—he had his mind on finishing up and heading in so he could squeeze in a nap before rehearsal with his band.
Across the cabin from Ian and the perch, I flip an empty tub right-side-up with my foot and lay the fish in it. The moment she slides from my hands, I get that buzzing sensation up and down my neck and into my shoulder that my doctor tells me is likely nothing serious, but at the same time isn’t something I should altogether ignore. He’s a man who covers his bases. A quality I appreciate and, up until recently, would’ve numbered among the positive traits I thought I myself possessed.
In the process of filling the tub with water, I pass Ian six times with a bucket—three round trips from tub to sink—and it’s only on the final pass that he notices I’m up to something.
“What do you got?” Ian asks as I pour the last bucketful of water over the fish. He’s done picking perch and is slumped on his bench, scratching his belly under his apron. “Salmon?” When the occasional Coho gets hung up in one of our nets, I’ll take it home for myself. I used to offer them to Ian before he confessed to me that he doesn’t like fish.
When I don’t reply right away, Ian takes a second guess. “Catfish?” Then a third. “Bowfin?” I wish catfish. I wish bowfin.
“Asian carp,” I say to him. “Asian carp.” I say it twice. Enough for two fish.
There’s a long quiet moment then. As Ian waits for me to tell him I’m kidding, I retrace in my mind the carp’s route up the Mississippi River. I watch her steer herself north toward the Illinois River, then the Chicago River, and then Lake Michigan. From there I follow her down the Strait of Mackinac into Lake Huron, and then into the St. Clair River, and then into Lake St. Clair, and then into the Detroit River, and then into Lake Erie. Despite the ecologists’ warnings and the engineers’ best efforts. Locks and dams be damned.
When I look at Ian, I see that his face is tight and pale, and I wonder briefly if he’s going to grab a filet knife and stab the fish dead right then and there, and then I wonder if he moved to do so, if I’d move to stop him.
Ian doesn’t kill the fish. Of course, he doesn’t. Maybe he should’ve, though. Or maybe he should’ve stuck himself. Or maybe he should’ve stuck me. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’ve heard it said that hindsight’s 20-20, but experience tells me it’s anything but.
As I’ve just recently resigned myself to being done with fishing, as in retired, the truth of the work that’s defined my life seems suddenly less dangerous. It’s now over-and-done-with truth rather than current truth. Ian would say I’m in denial making this distinction, but he’d be wrong. I’m not denying anything; rather, I’m finished with everything.
For the last 25 years, I’ve run an illegal gillnetter and trawler out of Conneaut, Ohio, peddling all varieties of fish and fish-like creatures along both the north and south shores of Lake Erie. There’s more to the Lake than perch, whitefish, and walleye, and I’ve caught and sold it all. Sheepshead, suckers, alewife. Gizzard shad, drum, smelt. My nets yielded no trash, only treasure. The trick is you have to have to know your customers, and I did.
I have a guy in Erie, Pennsylvania, who has for years taken all the burbot I could bring him. He smokes the livers and eats them in hot dog rolls with tartar sauce. By him and others, I will be missed. Another customer of mine in Port Dover, Ontario, has for more than a decade bought all my lampreys. This woman collects and prepares recipes from old 18th and 19th century cookbooks—to each her own, right?—and one of her favorites is lamprey with blood sauce. She brought the recipe along with her to the dock one afternoon to show me, and I still remember a little of it even though I’ve tried to forget. “Set a vessel under the lamprey while he roasteth, so to preserve the liquor that droppeth out of him.” Since Everett Creech and his buddies at Ohio Wildlife Enforcement told me back in the late 80s that lampreys would soon be “for all intents and purposes” gone from Lake Erie, whenever I pulled one in, I liked to pop its suction cup mouth off its host and break this spooky news directly to its horrendous face. “For all intents and purposes, you’re not here right now,” I’d say. “For all intents and purposes, you don’t exist. Be that as it may, prepare to have the liquor roasted out of you, you fish-sucking sonofabitch.” Ian laughed the first couple times I did this, then the next few times he just smirked, then it got to the point where he’d pretend like he didn’t hear. I understand jokes get old. That said, when you share a boat with one other human being for six days a week over the course of two decades—nothing else around except sky and water, gulls and fish—I’d suggest you have a certain obligation to respond graciously and appreciatively to your companion’s stabs at humor. The least you can do. You do less than the least, I think it says something about your character.
If Ian wants to start accusing people of being in denial about their lives, I’d suggest to him he turn his focus inward. I wonder whose ears he uses when listening to his band. Ian’s spent his entire adult life as a man at war with himself. Avocation versus vocation. Rock-and-roll bar band member versus commercial fisherman. His pastime requires he be late to bed, while his career requires he be early to rise. Ian’s war is an absurd one—unjust, even—as he is at best a mediocre fisherman and a bad musician. Bad like sin is bad. Like he and his band should be punished. They have numerous deficiencies, not the least of which is their name, Orange Roughy. Why choose a foreign ocean fish as your moniker when you live on the shores of a Great Lake? Senselessness bordering on insolence. Even more problematic than their name, though, is the group’s inexplicable knack for getting worse the longer they play together. Two decades worth of terrible and counting. Now that Ian won’t have his day job to hold him back, now that he’ll have as much time and energy as he wants for rehearsal, it’s both fascinating and sobering to think just how awful he and his bandmates could become.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when I first hired Ian all those years ago, it was because I thought there was a good chance he’d eventually end up family. The brother I never had. I thought his sister, Marcia, was my future. She’d just graduated seminary when we met, was working at a small church in Cleveland and set to be ordained as a Lutheran minister. Nowadays, the Lutherans have all sorts of women clergy, but back then it was courageous, even genuinely revolutionary what she was doing, and I admired her for it. I even saw some parallels between what she was doing and what I was doing, starting up my fishing business when the commercial industry as a whole, at least on the American side of the Lake, seemed about ready to roll over and die. So it seemed on the surface of things that Marcia and I were a good match, not only in terms of what we did, but also in terms of how we thought. We both liked rooting for the underdogs when watching football together after church—if the Browns were on, this meant most of the time we rooted for them—and after Marcia turned me onto Martin Luther—another underdog, taking on Pope Leo X like he did—we shared an appreciation for him, too. Our favorite quote of his was, “Be a sinner, and sin boldly.”
Marcia said our admiration of the quote was rooted in its “paradoxical audacity,” and this sounded right to me, but eventually I came to understand that the two of us heard Luther’s words differently from one another. We saw them zeroing on the respective truths of our own individual lives in different ways. This is how I heard Luther: If grace is going to save you, it’s going to save you. In fact, don’t look now, but it already has. So it’s an act of faith, really, to sin, knowing all the while you’ve already been forgiven. Given my line of work, this seemed especially poignant. It seemed like a divine green light of sorts, signaling me to keep casting my illegal nets and culling my illegal fish. When I ran this by Marcia, she said she thought I was missing something significant about what Luther had in mind, and she said she’d pray for me.
I don’t now and didn’t then doubt that Marcia was right about me missing the whole truth of Luther’s words, but I think she was missing something, too, in explaining away what he said. She said he was being hyperbolic. Rhetorical. According to her, Luther was saying something outlandish for the sake of getting people’s attention, for the sake of planting the seed of a more subtle, nuanced spiritual notion about the infallibility of grace and completeness of God’s forgiveness and mercy. “You have to look at his words in context,” Marcia said. “After he tells you to sin boldly, he tells you to believe even more boldly.” She wanted to put all her eggs in that basket, the basket of belief—she wanted to de-emphasize the part about sin—and I thought her doing so was taking the easy way out.
So Marcia and I agreed to disagree about Luther, and as our relationship went on, we found ourselves doing this more and more. Agreeing to disagree can nip an argument in the bud—it can momentarily keep the peace, it can rescue an evening from unpleasantness—but agreeing to disagree too often can eventually lead to frustration and doubt. That’s a truth. Here’s another one: When God’s the other man in a love triangle, God’s not really the other man. When Marcia was assigned a church in Oregon, we were sad to part, but we were maybe a bit relieved, too.
So I kept Ian as a parting gift. His band was just getting together—I think they then called themselves Cataclysm, or maybe it was Calamity; at any rate, just like their music, their names have gotten steadily worse over time—and I never could quite pull the trigger on firing him. I kept telling myself next week, and then next month, and then next season, and then I told myself to wait him out, that he’d quit eventually. I admit now there might’ve been something else at work. Maybe on some level I liked having him around me everyday because he was a link to Marcia, because I wasn’t ready to be completely unlinked from her. At any rate, whatever the reason, it went on like this for two decades. No one to blame but myself.
Like most afternoons, there wasn’t much conversation between Ian and me as we headed into the dock house with the Asian carp, but we both knew what the other was doing, scanning the Lake for more of her kind, and we both knew what the other was thinking, that even if we didn’t spot anymore today, it would be only a matter of time. The way some scientists tell it, the Asian carp will spell the end of the Great Lakes as we know them. The renegade fish will team up with other members of the invasive species army—the zebra mussel, the rusty crayfish, the round goby—to eat and eat and eat everything else into oblivion, leaving nothing but skeleton lakes behind. Two ghost men on a ghost boat full of ghost fish. What it felt like that afternoon.
We’d typically stop to stow our gillnets before docking. About a mile out, just a few compass ticks west of our dock house, I’d anchored a couple crates so they bobbed just beneath the surface of the water, and I hid all my gillnets in them. I needed to play it safe just in case Everett or any of his underlings were waiting for us at the dock. Although still okay for Canadian fishermen, gillnets are illegal in the U.S. The reasons given are that gillnets are indiscriminate in terms of what kinds of fish they entangle—if the fish is the right size to get caught in the mesh, it gets caught, no matter its species—and because of how the fish get snagged in the nets, via their gills, throwing back fish you don’t want isn’t an option because most of them are already dead or too close to it to make a comeback. Those who defend the law talk about bycatch—all the fish gillnets kill in vain because the commercial fisherman don’t want them or use them—but for me there’s no such thing as bycatch. Whatever I catch I aim to turn into cash. There’s no rational reason for me to abide by this law. To do so, I’d have to abandon all good sense.
Of course, my use of gillnets is only one way in which I’m crooked. Most significantly, I harvest walleye. The quota for commercially caught walleye in Ohio is precisely zero. As in none. So on afternoons we’re bringing in walleye, in addition to hiding our gillnets, we also have to keep our fish tubs under canvas in the stern of the boat. Any signs of enforcement agents, we have to dump them. Seagull picnic. It’s a sad thing to have to do, but circumstances what they are, I have no choice. While I never a day in my career minded breaking unfair laws—not only didn’t I mind breaking these laws, I relished breaking them—I everyday minded the possibility of getting caught.
It all goes back to the 60s and 70s when the sports fishing lobbies and their money convinced politicians that commercial outfits were taking more than their fair share. So we got skunked and screwed. The kicker is that Canadian outfits are still making money hand over fist with gillnets and walleye both. The call walleye “pickerel,” but it’s the same fish, the same nets, the same lake. A bitter pill I could never see my way clear to swallow.
All this to say that Ian and I didn’t even bother stopping to stow our gillnets on the way in that afternoon, and neither of us called ahead to the dock house to ask Tony and Ginger if the coast was clear, and when we finally docked and unloaded our boat—I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to get off the water—we did so without even a trace of our usual care and vigilance. It’s as if we both knew it didn’t really matter anymore. Or it mattered less than it ever had before. Or it wouldn’t matter for long.
Ian appointed himself to tell Ginger and Tony about the carp—he blabbed before I even had a chance to decide whether I wanted to burden them with the issue or not; it was on the way out of his mouth as we stepped through the dock house door—so within a couple minutes the four of us were back on the tug, in the cabin, staring at the fish as if waiting for her to tell us how we should proceed.
Ginger and Tony have been with me since the beginning, and there’s not a team of quicker, more precise fish cutters out there. The three of us were just out of high school, just beginning to work for Lakeshore Fisheries when the onslaught of regulations put the hundred-year-old operation under, and a few years later when I bought my own tug and announced my intention of making a go of it on my own, Ginger and Tony told me they were game. Economic opportunities were scarce in northeastern Ohio in the 70s, and they were scarce in the 80s, and in the 90s, and they still are, so the three of us have always considered ourselves fortunate to have each other. I owe Tony and Ginger a lot—the decent run I’ve had on the Lake, I couldn’t have done it without them—and it occurs to me that I’ve lost sight of them and their perspective in all this. My recent actions have had a substantial impact on them, and I haven’t to this point thought enough about this aspect of the situation. What’s done is done, but that’s no excuse. I know this is something I’ll need to figure out how to set right. My hope is that the three of us will eventually be able to talk things out and come to some kind of understanding. Even if only to agree to disagree.
Tony and Ginger and I have gotten on well from the get-go, but we’ve never been what I would call close. They have each other, and that seems enough for them. This is fine, but it’s hard sometimes sharing a room with them. Marcia and I went on a double date with them once—this was years ago, of course—but it was really like two separate single dates. With Tony and Ginger, their world sometimes seems to have a capacity of two. I’d walk in the dock house some afternoons—my dock house, mind you—and feel like I was intruding. Like a movie set extra who, in the film’s pivotal scene, strays stupidly in front of the camera, ruining what had been shaping up to be a perfect take. Tony and Ginger have this energy that can be fun to be around, but it’s not in any way generated for you or by you.
All this said, I admire Tony and Ginger. I’ve never seen them be short with one another, never detected anything between them but tenderness, and while it might sound odd, I think what’s made them so good at slicing up fish has been their perfect love and comradery. They’re able to channel it into their work at the filet table. Precision and unity, like those synchronized swimmers at the Olympics. I was present on one occasion when they each nicked themselves at the exact same moment. They dropped their knives in sync, yelped in sync, ran to the sink in sync, and a few minutes later they were back at it, sawing just as quickly and effortlessly as before except now they sported matching butterfly Band-aids on their respective left ring fingers. I’ll say it. Romantic.
So given the nature of what I knew to be between them, it surprised me when Ginger and Tony disagreed about what should be done with the Asian carp. Tony and I were on the same wavelength, but Ginger sided with Ian, who was of the opinion that we needed to take the fish immediately over to Everett’s office at Wildlife Enforcement. He was adamant, and the more he talked, the more Ginger nodded. The two of them acted as if there were no other option. They were flabbergasted when Tony and I balked, telling us that our concerns about Everett using the situation to shut down our operation—a clearly stated goal of Everett’s, one which he’d loudly expressed in their presence on more than one occasion—were paranoid.
“This is bigger than you, bigger than Everett,” Ian said to me. “Besides, this has nothing to do with his being out to get you. All you have to do here is tell the truth. Tell how the fish literally jumped you. There’s no reason to get into what kind of nets we were using. You were taking a whiz.” He paused then before continuing. “I think you’ve been lying so long you’re scared of the truth even when it’s not a threat.”
Ginger sensed how this comment hit me, and when she added her voice to Ian’s, she did so in a way meant to help me get past my building anger. “This whole thing could end up working in our favor,” Ginger said. She looked at me intently before continuing, wanting to make sure I was with her. “It’ll shift Everett’s focus. He’ll have a new top priority, Asian carp, so it won’t be us in his sights 24-7 anymore. This could prove to be good cover for us for a while. Give us some breathing room.”
“Makes sense,” Ian said. He was looking only at Tony and Ginger now even though I was the one to whom he was directing his words. “Again, though, the real priority here isn’t us. It’s the lake. We need to get this fish into the right hands for the sake of the lake. Get her to the people who know what they’re doing, whose job it is to deal with her.”
To Ginger’s point about the carp taking heat off us, Tony and I didn’t think for a minute that Everett wouldn’t find a way to use the situation against us. To Ian’s point about getting the fish into the right hands, we weren’t even close to being convinced those hands were Everett’s. I remembered when I was just getting started, just a kid working for Lakeshore out of Sandusky, I couldn’t believe how many of the enforcement officials were unable to identify the species of the fish they were inspecting. And a lot of them weren’t only ignorant but also crooked. There was a nonsense regulation about how guys on the boats weren’t allowed to take home fish for themselves. It was a wink and smile thing, though. A lot of the guys had families and struggled to make ends meet. They take a few perch home in their lunch pail for a family fish fry that evening, who are they hurting? I remember once Everett got into it with one of the guys, and he ended up making the guy dump his lunch pail. He took the poor chump’s perch, and an hour later he was out on the dock eating fried perch sandwiches. Big smile on his face like he’d proved something other than what a horse’s ass he was.
Remembering this made me angrier than I’d been all those years ago when it had happened, and although I still had no idea what I was going to do with the carp, I knew what I wasn’t going to do with it.
Before I rushed the fish off the boat, I told Ian, Tony, and Ginger three things. First, they’d earned a week’s paid vacation starting tomorrow morning. Second, they’d be fired if they said anything about the fish to anyone before hearing from me. Third, I was going to do my best to not make a bad thing worse.
I took the Asian carp home with me that night. I dumped it from the tub headfirst into a pail, added some water, and for the ride home I wedged the pail in between my seat and the center console of my truck. The carp’s tail twitched now and then, each time sending some water lapping over the bucket’s edge onto my leg, but it seemed to be an arrangement that the both of us could live with temporarily, and I did my best to take the road slow and steady.
When we got to my house, I carried her directly to the bathroom. As the bathtub filled, I sat on the lid of the toilet and held the pail and carp in my lap, and when the tub was two-thirds full, I stood and gently slid her in. Stretched out in the clear water, her dark body resting on the acrylic, sky-blue bottom of the tub, she looked longer and thicker and brighter. I figured maybe 30 inches. Maybe 20 pounds. More of a gunmetal blue than a gray. The thought of a tape measure and scale passed through my mind, but she didn’t look up for poking and prodding, and I didn’t see the point.
After watching her for a few minutes—I was worried by her stillness for a while, but eventually her fins started waving, and her tail swayed a little—it hit me that I’d given up my shower. I should’ve sneaked in a quick one before putting her in the tub.
So I grabbed soap and a towel and headed down to the basement to clean up at the utility sink. I then put on clean clothes, grabbed a sandwich and beer from the kitchen along with a half-full bag of corn nibblets from the freezer for my guest, and returned to the bathroom to see how she was doing.
The carp’s and my story came close to ending at this point because I almost stepped on her. She’d jumped out of the tub and was lying in the doorway, flat on the linoleum like a welcome mat. When I picked her up she fought with more spirit than she’d shown before, and after I wrestled her back into the tub, I drew the shower curtain closed. Knowing the curtain wouldn’t do much to hold her when she regained her mojo enough to make another leap—I wondered if her jump had specific purpose, if notions like freedom or suicide were on her mind—I hustled back down to the basement to see what I could find. I went through the lumber scraps leaning against the wall behind my washer and dryer, thinking I might be able to rig up something with them, but when I spotted my old pup tent rolled up in the corner, I knew I had my answer. I gave the tent a few shakes to rid it of cobwebs and cellar dust, grabbed a couple bungee cords out of the junk drawer in my kitchen, and then headed back to the bathroom.
After some wrangling I came up with something akin to a pool cover. At any rate, it seemed to do the job. I left a little opening at the head of the tub through which I sprinkled a few corn nibblets when I was done. I watched the opening for a few minutes to see if she’d go for them, but she didn’t seem interested. When I came back 20 minutes later, though—I did some dishes and went outside to towel off my truck seat—the nibblets were gone. I went downstairs to get more, and on the way back up I grabbed my radio so I could listen to the Indians game. That’s how I spent my evening. The game went 11 innings, and I didn’t leave the bathroom until the last pitch was thrown. Longest I’ve ever sat on a toilet.
It was a little after midnight when the phone woke me. I didn’t hear it ring, but I heard the answering machine come on. I just lay there in bed, listening to this voice drone on without being able to make out any words or even figure out who was talking. I tried to go back to sleep, reminding myself that I had the day off tomorrow, that I could sleep in, and warning myself that once I was up, I was up, there’d be no going back to bed—I’ve always been like this, even as a kid—but my curiosity won out. “No worries,” I said to myself as my feet hit the floor. “You’ll sleep when you’re dead.”
As I passed the bathroom on the way downstairs to the phone, I thought about checking in on the carp, but I decided to put that off until after I’d had a cup of coffee or two. I feared I’d find her belly-up, and if that turned out to be the case, I’d then be forced to figure out if her demise made my situation harder or easier to deal with, and I thought it reasonable to put off such considerations until I was fully awake. As I thought all this, I found myself tip-toeing down the stairs, taking care to avoid squeaky boards, as if the fish were a sleeping baby, as if I were a burglar.
The answering machine message was from Ian. Of course it was. He said he was sorry to call so late, but this thing was eating him up and, job or no job, he needed to tell me that he’d decided he was going to Wildlife Enforcement. In fact, he and Everett had an appointment at noon, at which time Ian said he was planning to “come clean.” He was calling not only to tell me his plans, but to invite me along. He’d stop by my house at 11:30 to pick me up. He said he hoped I’d go with him to “get out in front of everything.” He thought it could help me in the “long run.”
As I waited for my coffee to drip, I replayed and listened to Ian’s message four or five times. “Everything.” That’s what Ian said he was looking to come clean about, to get out in front of. “Everything.” That’s the word that bothered me most. It sounded like he wasn’t talking only about Asian carp. It sounded like he intended his conversation with Everett to be more extensive. My gillnets, my walleye, my out-of-season catches, my second set of books, Tony and Ginger. At any rate, the fact that I needed to act was becoming obvious, but what to do, how to do it, and who to do it to, these things weren’t clear. When was clear, though. Now was when.
When I scooped the carp out of the tub and back into the pail, she didn’t fight me, but she seemed none the worse for wear, as if the few hours of rest she’d gotten had steeled her for whatever fate might throw her way. I admired her.
After getting situated in the truck—rather than wedging her against the console again, this time the fish sat with me, on my seat, so I drove kind of side-saddle with one arm draped overtop the pail—we headed to the boat. After putting the carp in the cabin, I proceeded to the dock house to collect what I needed.
I started big, wrestling my filing cabinets onto the boat, and worked my way down from there. Boots, bibs, smocks and aprons. Nets and weights, scales and tubs. At one point I paused to transfer the carp from the pail to the one of the tubs, let her stretch out a little, and during this breather I thought about grabbing Tony and Ginger’s knives. I’d bought them after all. I finally decided, though, that they didn’t belong to me anymore. Of course, they didn’t. Tony and Ginger had earned them and then some. I was about to leave the two of them in a tough spot, and it made no sense to leave them in a tougher spot. Knifeless. The two of them might want to try to go cut for somebody else. There were no fishermen left, but maybe they could get on at the fish counter at one of the local grocery stores.
I’d leave nothing for Ian, though. There was a radio in the dock house that he sometimes fiddled with. Tony and Ginger liked the AM oldies station, but Ian would always change it to the FM album rock station. He’d ask if it were OK, but he’d ask as he was already in the process of doing it. So I grabbed that radio—it was the last thing I grabbed—and once we got out in the middle of the lake, it was the first thing I pitched overboard.
On the way out to the dumping spot, I’d stopped to gather my net crates, and after the radio, they went over next. I weighed them down so they’d sink. They were followed by everything else. Took me a while. I had to stop and rest more than I care to admit. I’d spent more than two decades hauling fish from the lake and thought that was tough work, and it is, but after spending just under an hour doing the opposite, throwing things into the lake, I wondered if I’d ever labored so hard.
Everything not bolted down went in. Everything but the carp. I wasn’t yet sure what I was going to do with her, but my conviction was that dumping her back in the lake was the coward’s way out, the fool’s way out. I wouldn’t be solving a problem, I’d simply be washing my hands of one. Passing the buck. Besides, the fish was starting to grow on me. I was beginning to see that the two of us had some things in common, and I was newly reminded of something I’d known for a long time, that survival of the fittest was a rigged and unwinnable game no matter how good a cheater you were. Everett and a lot of other people, maybe even a lot of good people, wanted the same fate for me as they did for the carp. For better or worse, the fish and I shared enemies. This was a hard fact to ignore, so I decided not to ignore it. Partnerships have been based on less.
After my work was done and I had us headed back in, I could already tell I’d be sore the next day. The filing cabinet drawers had been heavy, and the net crates had been heavy, and I was getting that buzzing up and down my neck and shoulder again. Maybe just an almost old man’s aches and pains that would lessen with a few days of rest. Maybe a pinched nerve that would only get worse over time. Maybe I was warming up to have a stroke. At any rate, I wasn’t feeling my best. Truth be told, though, I couldn’t remember the last time I had. Fishing’s a hard line of work, and getting busted up is part of the deal. After a decade or so, you realize keeping track of exactly what hurts and when it started hurting doesn’t make sense. Same thing with the boats. Early on, when my tug was new to me, I knew the story behind every ding and scrape, but after a while, I stopped keeping score.
Thinking along these lines put a lump in my throat. As I steered my tug through the dark water, I knew my time behind her wheel was coming to an end, and I felt a wave of regret over never having given her a name. In those first couple years, Tony, Ginger, and I had volleyed a few ideas back and forth, but we’d never decided on anything except that we didn’t want to keep the name the former owner had given her—The Bottom Feeder—so on the licensing and registration paperwork, I’d just written “fishing tug,” and then enough time passed so that giving the boat a proper name would’ve felt odd. Like I’d be forcing something that didn’t need forcing. At any rate, my sudden sentimentality aside, it was probably good in the end—we were getting there, I realized—that she turned out to be just an unnamed boat. I didn’t know where or with whom she’d end up. Maybe I’d donate her to a museum—she was a relic for sure, one of the last American commercial fishing boats on Lake Erie—or maybe I’d sell her to some guy with significant disposable income, some accountant or supervisor of accountants, who would take his friends out for beery Saturday afternoons on his real live old-time fishing tug, and off her deck they’d catch walleye—get them while they last—which they’d have mounted on plaques to hang in their studies over their display cases full of golf scramble participation trophies. Or maybe she’d end up as scrap metal. Or maybe I’d take her out one night soon—not tonight, though—and sink her.
I thought through these scenarios for a while before realizing I wasn’t just thinking them through, I was talking them out. Since no one was around, I concluded I must be talking to the boat herself. Or maybe it was the carp I was addressing, and the boat was eavesdropping. This kind of nonsense in my head, you’d think I would’ve known enough to clam up, but I didn’t. I kept at it. Sorting out pros and cons. Distinguishing greater evils and lesser evils. Weighing causes and consequences. I blathered on and on. Neither boat nor carp could’ve gotten a word in edgewise even if they’d wanted to.
Still a couple hours shy of dawn, the carp and I found ourselves back in the truck, heading south. I kept her in the larger tub for this last leg of her journey—in my fervor, I must’ve thrown her pail overboard—so she was riding shotgun in the passenger seat, and between the seatbelt and my sore right arm, I was doing my best to keep her from having too rough a ride. We stopped at a 24-hour Gas ‘N Go on Route 7, where I filled up my tank and bought one of those breakfast sandwiches you heat up in the microwave. It wasn’t that bad. I ate as I drove, occasionally half on purpose, half by accident dropping biscuit crumbs into the tub, which the carp seemed to appreciate.
When we got to Andover, we headed to the Pymatuning reservoir. I steered us through the parking lot down onto the grass, as close to the water as I could get. In trying to hoist the carp and tub out of the truck, my shoulder went wet noodle on me, and I spilled the fish on the ground. She had a fit in the grass—it was still dark, so I heard and felt her flipping more than saw it—and I eventually had to hold her in place with my knee on her tail so I could grab her under the gills. In the process she bit me pretty good. Even now, looking closely at my wrist, I can see the bracelet of teeth marks. Carp typically have soft mouths and blunt teeth, so I can’t help but be impressed, and I can’t blame her for lashing out. I’d put her through a lot—not only her, but every fish I’d ever come in contact with, and I had at least one more fish after her whose day I aimed to ruin—but I’d like to think that, in hindsight, maybe a part of her regretted getting rough with me. Once she realized what my intentions were, after I’d waded into the reservoir up to my knees and laid her gently in the cool water, gradually loosening my grip on her and then, finally, giving her a little nudge away from shore, I’d like to think she wished she could’ve had that moment back, when she sunk her teeth into my skin. I’d like to think this. I’d like to think a lot of things.
Over the Pennsylvania border, at the Linesville spillway, people gather along the edge of the reservoir to throw bread at carp. These carp aren’t of the Asian variety, of course—they’re just your run of the mill trash fish—and the way they huddle en masse on top of each other by the spillway delights people for whatever reason. The blanket of them is thick enough that ducks get in on the act by running across the fishes’ backs in pursuit of the bread. The park service encourages the spectacle, even going as far as to sell stale loaves at a concession stand right on the water. I don’t get the attraction, but I suppose it’s harmless enough. At any rate, as I stretched out on top of a nearby picnic table for a breather, I hoped my carp would steer clear of the spillway. I hoped she’d stay in Ohio, find a nice mud-hole, and live out her years in peace. I knew she wouldn’t be a real threat to anything there in the reservoir—she couldn’t go anywhere, and one Asian carp wasn’t going to put a dent in the fish population of such a small, heavily-stocked body of water—and I didn’t think anyone or anything would be a threat to her either. If she ended up on the wrong end of a Boy Scout’s line, he’d probably get his picture taken and then throw her back. Or maybe he wouldn’t throw her back. Maybe she’d swallow the hook and despite the Boy Scout’s best efforts she wouldn’t make it. Or maybe the little sonofabitch would clean her and eat her. Earn his Asian-carp-on-a-stick-over-an-open-fire merit badge. At any rate, her fate was her own now, apart from mine, and this was a relief, although not as much of a relief as I thought it might be.
I lay still on top of the picnic table, not asleep, but not quite awake, until the sun showed up. As the sky brightened and I could see the water from where I lay, I sat up and looked and listened for jumping fish, but I didn’t see or hear anything except frogs and birds and the growling of my own stomach. That first biscuit sandwich had gone down easy. What I should’ve done was buy two.
So that’s the next thing I did. I returned to the Gas ‘N Go—it was a different cashier now, so I didn’t have to feel sheepish—and I bought two more biscuit sandwiches. When I finished the first, though, I knew I sure didn’t need the second. Evidently, given the sleep-deprived, churned-up state I was in, the number of biscuit sandwiches needed to satisfy my hunger was a hard thing to get right. I’d taken two cracks at it and was 0 for 2. At any rate, besides the biscuit sandwiches, I also bought a hot dog, one of those shiny, wrinkled numbers from the rollers over the heat lamp, but the dog wasn’t for me.
My next stop was Wal-Mart. I headed to sporting goods, told the kid behind the counter that I needed a rod and reel, that I’d trust him to do my shopping for me, and that I’d be waiting for him at the register. When he started asking me about open-faced vs. close-faced reels and medium action vs. fast action rods, I held up my finger and told him I didn’t care. When he asked if I’d be in need of a license—he said he could set me up right then and there—I pretended not to hear him, and he didn’t ask again.
The last time I’d been fishing with a rod and reel was with Marcia. Our first date. I asked her to go on a picnic with me, and she said she would under two conditions. First, she was going to make all the food. Second, I was going to have to work for my supper. I agreed, having no idea what was on her mind.
When I showed up at her house that Saturday afternoon, things quickly became clear. Along with a jug of iced tea and a basket of egg salad sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies, she brought along with her an old fly rod—she called it a pole—and a milk carton full of night crawlers. She said she’d heard through the grapevine that I was a fisherman, and she wanted me to take her out and show her the basics because she’d always thought it sounded like fun. I laughed at first because I thought she was kidding, pretending to not understand what kind of fisherman I was, but I eventually realized she meant what she said.
We cast around in an old farm pond she directed me to for about an hour before I finally got up the nerve to tell her how much I hated it. To spend the work week pulling in fish by the net load and then to spend a rare day off catching one at a time didn’t make much sense to me, especially when I’d rather be eating egg salad sandwiches and drinking iced tea. She got mad like I thought she might, but not for the reason I expected. She told me she felt stupid and wanted to know if that was what I intended, not speaking up and telling her the truth until half the afternoon was gone. I’ll never forget what she did then. She raised the fly rod over her head with both hands, parallel to the ground like it was a barbell, and threw it as far as she could into the pond. Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. We just stood on the bank watching the rod float on the surface. I took a step toward the water thinking that the chivalrous thing to do would be to swim out and retrieve it, but she grabbed my arm and asked me politely to please not make her feel even more foolish than she already did. She laughed then, which was a great relief to me, and I laughed, too, and she loosened her grip on my arm, but she didn’t let go.
From that point on, if there were ever a lull in conversation, or if one of us sensed that the other was cranky or melancholy or too much in his or her own head, we’d say, “You want to go fishing?” It was one of my favorite things that we said to each other because we’d turned a memory of misunderstanding into something funny, and I thought at the time that if the two of us could do that, we could maybe do anything.
Back at the reservoir, I baited my hook with a chunk of hot dog and, with my spent right arm hanging uselessly at my side, cast wrong-handed over and over again into a shady pool between a submerged log and a patch of lily pads about 30 feet offshore, where I imagined a heavy, hungry catfish or sturgeon or, who knows, maybe even a carp, lay waiting for breakfast. Almost an hour of this. Nothing. So I put a fresh hot dog chunk on the hook, forsook the shady hole, and cast as far as I could into the open, sun-kissed water, like some idiot who didn’t know anything about how fish thought and lived, and wouldn’t you know it, ten minutes later I was landing a catfish. Not a record-setter by any means, but a good five or six-pounder. I threw him in the back of the truck, and after another twenty minutes I had a second smaller one to join him, and then I was done. I hoisted the rod over my head with both hands, parallel to the ground like a barbell—my right shoulder burned like it had a bullet in it—and flung the rod as far as I could into the reservoir.
Ian arrived at my place a few minutes earlier than he said he would, but I was ready for him. I’d already fired up and cleaned the grill when I heard the doorbell ring. I shouted to him to come around to the back yard, and by the time he was on the scene, the catfish steaks were already lined up and sizzling.
There were no words at first. Ian just kept looking at the steaks on the grill, and then at me, and then at the steaks on the grill, and then at me. “What are you doing?” Ian said finally. “What have you done?”
“Lunch,” I said. “My retirement lunch. For I’m a jolly good fellow. Bon appetit. By the way, you’re fired.”
Ian surprised me with what he did next. Like he was channeling somebody else. Bad and bold. If he were ever able to summon up this kind of chutzpah on stage, maybe he and his band could get themselves moving in the right direction.
Ian rushed me, wrenched the spatula out of my hand—had he known how sore my shoulder was, I wonder if he would’ve been gentler or rougher—and flung it into the yard. He poked his finger in my chest, smack-dab on the spot where the carp had landed the afternoon before. “You’ve made a huge mistake,” he said.
“Plenty of them,” I said.
He said, “You’ll regret it.”
“Undoubtedly,” I said.
Then it was over. Ian disappeared around the corner of the house, and I heard his car door slam, and I heard him hit the road. His tires squealed, like he was making a getaway.
I turned my attention back to the fish, which was coming along nicely. I squeezed a wedge of lemon over them, sprinkled on some salt and pepper, and then wandered into the yard to fetch my spatula. It wouldn’t be long at all before the steaks needed flipping.
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