In Wisconsin, and I suppose other northern localities, fishing for the monstrous, and intimidating, heavily toothed, rather prehistoric musky has always held a certain fascination. I’m not sure there is a Moby Dick symbolic message about it, but maybe. They are the ultimate conquest here in the North Country. Can I compare this adventure to Hemingway’s struggles in The Old Man and The Sea, or to Herman Melville’s epic?
In order to get myself in the literary position to make such judgement, like both Ernie and Hermie, it was necessary to seek adventure and to go ‘down to the sea in ships’. This I did in great fanfare and in the company of three other river travelers that I shall call shipmates, not the match of Jackie Tar, nor Ishmael, but indeed, weathered souls of some age possibly referable to as old men, for not a hair among us was of a color other than white.
The day was little different than many others where clouds hung low over the river and cast a certain confinement on the moving water and enclosing forest. The moisture took away the details of the landscape and only allowed a few colors of the changing fall to creep through. There was an impressive foreboding in the darkness of the water as we slipped the drift boat into the Chippewa.
If ever there was a moment to confront the masters of this water, today was that day. The muted light, the mist of morning and the unlit, clear river made pursuit of the monsters more a reality, it seemed. My shipmates and I could, in our determined way, be stealthier, more secretive knowing we could hide under the softened light. In quiet tones, we mumbled little thoughts on how the muskies might also view this day in a similar manner for they too could hide crocodile-like among the fallen branches and foamed-covered eddies waiting for the lazy bullfrog or juvenile muskrat to blunder into sight and instant death.
It would be a game like always, where we, with our giant flies glistening like leftover Christmas tree ornaments, hoped to overcome the mysteries of these monsters, some four feet in length, and feed our self-impressions of worth as providers. With all the clarities of a sun-filled day absent, we set forth to capture one of the last remaining obstacles in a freshwater fisherman’s life.
While my shipmates had their own struggles with the day, I will relate but my own, for that is what I will have to live with from day to day. As we floated down the river, sometimes through the raging rapids and other times through softened waters, our huge flies flopped on edges of forest litter, against abandoned beaver dams and under overhanging trees. Occasionally, there would be a tug or a giant swirl letting us know the denizens of the deep were there and willing to test our aging medal. We struck, we cursed the failures but stayed the course as if it was a test of life itself. We had failed before only catching water-logged branches, hidden rocks, and an occasional fish of lesser fight.
“There has to be one there. My God, look at that structure.” I would mumble in frustration as I cast my six inch fly, my tinseled, bug-eyed, pinky-dink, to a hole where muskies have been living since the last ice age.
The sparkling lure sank for a brief moment. I stripped the line hard to imitate a wounded fish. Then, in a violent flash, the lure literally disappeared. The ferocious tug almost loosened my grip. The rip of line burned my left hand. “Fish on!” I yelped, as if Moby Dick had been struck.
The huge musky did a powerful roll on the surface, probably seeing the boat and the Ahab-like fisherman standing proud. Seeking the push of the current, the leviathan headed down stream. The anchor dropped and on board the shipmates yelled advice. “Hold him over here. Watch out for that damn log. Look at the size of that thing.”
Due to my injuries from other battles in youth, my legs began to shake. After ten minutes of struggle, with a flyrod bent half over in agony, I wanted to sit down, or somehow be helped, but it was my struggle. To have given in would have been a sign weakness, failure, and left my ego crippled, flaccid in embarrassment. I pulled hard to bring the massive fish close to the boat to be netted by the now floundering crew who had already failed on numerous attempts. Each time the musky detected the net, it bolted to fast water.
“Ya gotta get him over here. He’s damn close to four feet. Pull, you old coot.” Then in an exhausted moment, the fish disappeared into the giant net and held. A great yell went out as the captain of the ship who thought the Pequod would be finally heading home all loaded in glory, celebrated.
I fell into the chair. “Look at the size of that monster.” Came rolling out my stalwart shipmate.
“I can’t believe I did that. Christ, my legs are still quivering and my shoulder’s pounding.“ I thought. The others had great smiles and offered fists of victory.
Quickly, as the fish was lifted from the water, pictures were taken in a rather unceremonious manner and the monster, the ultimate goal of a fisherman’s life, was quietly returned to the Chippewa. The fish was one of those monsters in life that require a fight. But, once tackled there is a certain satisfaction in just letting it go realizing maybe it will be a struggle for someone else, when it is bigger, stronger. Maybe that person will fall overboard, break his equipment and fail, but maybe also win, or survive to fight another day.
Reminds me of an old saying from an outhouse in Jasper National Park that said, “I used to struggle to find out where it was at, but now I realize the struggle is where it is at.