This story, like The Dune, is one in a collection that I am writing based more or less on the summers I spent on Manitoulin Island as a child. It needs some editing yet, but I am sick of revising it for the moment, so I am soliciting your comments before I take it up again.
All The Other Fish
Do I fish? Well, sure, in a way. I’m certainly not a serious fisherman, not in an Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Ransome, Izaak Walton way. The difference, I think, is that I like the waiting part of fishing rather than the catching. I like the sitting and the thinking and the lingering. Catching fish only interrupts my fishing.
I do have a favourite fishing hole, but it’s for my kind of fishing, you understand, a fishing hole for those who aren’t actually interested in catching fish. It’s under a copse of cedars that comes right down to the water around a shallow bay, a tiny thing, maybe twenty yards wide and half again as deep, just the right size to keep a bit of water warm. On one side, facing into the afternoon sun, there’s a rock shaped almost like a seat, with a flat bottom and an angled back, set below the water just deep enough to come up to your waist when you sit on it, and there’s another to the left, a bit higher, a place for your cooler and your drink and your book and whatever else you want to bring with you, even tackle, assuming that you’re actually going to do much fishing, which I usually don’t. I mostly read a bit and think a bit and daydream a bit, unless I’m interrupted by catching a fish.
What’s that? No, I didn’t always fish like that. When my brothers and I were kids up on the Island, we were definitely fishing for fish. Not that we ever caught much. So maybe that’s what happened. Maybe I just got used to fishing for nothing and then started thinking that’s how it was supposed to be.
We did sometimes catch fish, of course. I remember once when my cousin’s grandfather took us out to ice fish for perch. We cut our holes, and we dropped our lines, just lengths of twine with hooks on the ends, baited with worms at first and then the eyes of the fish we caught, the dead going to catch the living. There was no way to reel in our lines when we felt a bite, so we ran with them across the ice until the the fish came flopping behind us in the snow. I don’t remember waiting for the fish, only running, as if we did nothing but drag perch from the lake all that night. There’s a picture still, in an album of my mother’s, or maybe my father’s, all of us standing with our catch on a string, all of us who were big enough to go fishing at the time, three or four of us anyway. We’re all wrapped in our winter gear and smiling past this string of eyeless fish.
Some of those fish had roe, though I might be remembering another time, and my grandmother fried them up in butter for breakfast the next morning. She always cooked breakfast for the whole Island, it seemed, not only for my grandfather and for the regular hired men, but also for the temporary help, and for her three sons, and for their wives, and for her ten or twelve grandchildren, not to mention anyone who might drop by at the breakfast hour, the vet out to help with a breach birth maybe, or someone asking a question of my grandfather the Reeve. There would be porridge for those who wanted it, and boiled eggs, and fried eggs, and preserves from the pantry, and frozen fruit from the freezer, and honey in the comb from who knows where, and homemade bread, and homemade butter. My grandfather always took boiled eggs, cooked very soft, thirty seconds or so, just enough to warm them. He would crack the eggs into a bowl and spoon them up with thick slices of bread and butter. Then he would pour himself a whole bowl of maple syrup, made by his own hands right there on the farm, and that would do for another slice of bread. Whatever syrup was left he would drink straight from the bowl. I doubt he had any of the perch roe.
There were so many at breakfast sometimes that we ate in shifts, some of us up early enough to help my grandfather with the chores before sitting at the long table stretching across the big farm kitchen, while others would trickle down over the next few hours, much to my grandmother’s disapproval. She had no patience for laziness, and the idea of sleeping in was offensive to her, but she would feed the late comers anyway, and they would listen to her lectures about sloth with easy tolerance. I often sat at that table from the moment I came in from chores until lunch was served, reading my book and watching one shift of breakfasters follow another. My grandmother would hardly leave the kitchen that whole time, maybe just to change some laundry or to bring something up from the basement. She made sandwiches to send to the fields, kneaded dough for bread, rolled pie crusts for the freezer, and processed whatever fruit and vegetables we had picked for her from the garden the day before. Sometimes I found myself pressed into service, shelling peas or chopping rhubarb or hulling strawberries. Those mornings all drift together, the sun coming through the windows at the end of the table as I look up to see the familiar kitchen things, the squirrel-shaped napkin holder made by some long dead relative, the pot holders kept by my grandparent’s from their days as missionaries in the islands, and the circa fifties vacuum cleaner, oval and green-blue, standing propped by the pantry.
All this to say that we did actually catch fish sometimes, but those were the exceptional cases. Far more often we caught nothing, though we fished as well as we knew how. We would usually walk from our grandparent’s house on Monument Road down Highway 542 to where the bridge crosses over the river, just where it meets the southern bay of Lake Mindemoya. We went there every day of the week sometimes, casting all down the banks of the lake and for a mile or more up the river. We would work methodically, talking only now and again, stopping only to eat lunch or sometimes to turn rocks in search of crayfish.
Fishing that river was always dappled. Dappled in a Gerard Manley Hopkins way, if you know what I mean, as in skies of couple-colour and rose stipple on trout that swim and whatnot, even if the trout never did make an appearance for us. Dappled because, though we never caught any fish, ever, we caught cool mornings with breezes that ran up along the stream bed, and we caught afternoons too hot to move except if we were knee deep in the water with the silver maples casting their shadows overhead and with the light broken by the leaves and then broken again by the ripples of the water. Dappled like that. And that’s why we kept fishing there, because the river was too perfect not to fish, too shaded and clear and overhung by banks of weeds and branches, too meandering and full of still pools and sudden holes, too dappled.
Sometimes, though, if we needed a change, we would go further, straight up Monument Road to Old SpringBay on the west side of Lake Mindemoya. The fishing wasn’t any better there, and the scenery was worse, just a long, empty, cement dock jutting out from a beach hardly worth the name. The walk was no pleasure either, the road unpaved until just before the lake, where it dipped down the hill past the trailer park toward the docks. The cars would pass us, kicking up dust that hung and drifted and settled on the roadside grasses until we kicked it up again with our feet. There were raspberries along the way, or chokecherries, depending on the time of year, but hardly worth the scratched arms and sticky fingers we were sure to get picking them. Even telling you about it makes me wonder why we bothered making that hike. The artificial beach was dirty, and there were always too many people from the rental cottages across the road, and all we ever caught were leeches anyway.
Actually, the leeches were more interesting than the fishing. They clung to our legs as we dangled them from the dock, and we scorched them with lighters, watching their bodies shrivel and fall, then thrash in the dust of the dock, whitening and drying and inching in search of water. I was never one to torture animals as a child, not even flies or ants, but the leeches were somehow different. We burned them and cut them and pulled them to pieces, killed them in any horrible way we could imagine, though they were no more deserving of torment than the mosquitoes and the horseflies and the other bloodsuckers that we killed without mutilation. We felt no remorse for them, and when we found too few victims on our legs, we waded through the shallows and scooped others into sand buckets, collecting roiling masses of them for our amusement.
Those docks at Old West Bay were also a reminder of a much earlier time that almost certainly took place somewhere else, somewhere with a peir that was wooden rather than concrete and with a broader bay and with a rockier shore, but a somewhere that I could never recognize again, because I was so young, and so a somewhere that became replaced by Lake Mindemoya in my imagination. My memories of that day are vast and ambiguous, the kind of memories that I only have from my early childhood, though I was already old enough then to be helping my younger brother detangle his line, knotted in great loops of slender nylon. The lake was immense, massive under a massive sky, and I was small, dangling my line and myself over the edge of a broad expanse, dangling on a bit of dock that jutted only a short way past the edge of everything. I don’t grow memories like that anymore, and I have a longing for them, for that world, broad and undefined, a world more of potential than of actuality.
In that world, as I worked to straiten my brother’s line, a fish rose to the surface, or what counted as a fish to us anyway, a sunfish probably, or maybe a rock bass, a perch at best, hardly worth keeping, certainly not worth the agony that it was about to cause. Only my brother saw it rise and nibble at the tain of the water, but in my mind, like so many other fish I’ve seen, it eases slowly up from the piling of the dock, waits inches below the surface, its body half turned, strikes on whatever bit of drifting food has drawn it from hiding, and then I can see the rod thrusting at the water and the line growing taut, but mostly I can feel the hook drawing up into my thumb, the line tugging at my hand.
My grandfather cut the line fast enough, I’m sure, and I’m also sure that my young imagination exaggerated the incident beyond all proportion, but even now that hook hurts me more than any other injury I’ve ever suffered. I screamed, and I kept screaming, my grandfather, with his unrelenting patience, saying all the while that screaming wasn’t helping anything, that closing my eyes would make it hurt less, and then he took advantage of my blindness to grab the hook with the pliers and push the barb through the heel of my thumb in one swift pain. I opened my eyes in time to see him snip the barb and pull the hook back through the wound. I laid on the dock, rough and wooden, my head turned to one side to feel the weather-etched grain against my cheek as my grandfather bandaged my thumb, with what I can’t remember, a ripped shirt maybe, or a rag from the car, and I resolved that I would never fish again.
I did fish again, of course, despite the hook in the thumb, but the memory of that day hung over the Old West Bay docks, wrongly but vividly, and we never caught anything there anyway, so I was always trying to get my father to drive us further afield, usually just to one of the Island’s innumerable docks, Manitowaning perhaps, or Kagawong. We had better luck at Kagawong, but there was a nicer beach at Manitowaning, and there was the Norisle there too, the old ferry that advertized itself as a museum but that never seemed to be open. There’s a theatre there now, just beside the ferry, or what goes by the name of a theatre on the Island, and there’s also something like a used bookstore beneath it, though I’ve never been there during open hours, which are haphazard and have little relation to the ones posted on the door.
Neither the theatre nor the bookstore was there when I was a child, or I don’t remember them if they were, though I do remember passing that building as we descended the switchback from the town to the docks, sharply downward toward the old mill, then back past the theatre on our left, and finally out toward the beach. We never bothered with a closer look. We always set our things up under the pavilion and then went straight to fishing from the long docks. The boys who were hired to run the marine fuelling station watched us with amusement, knowing as well as we did that there was little or nothing to be caught. We watched them too, their feet up on the windows of the booth, talking, smoking, tossing stones into the water, and infrequently, very infrequently, filling up a boat that was either lost enough to find its way into the harbour at Manitowaning or bored enough to visit the rusting hulk of the Norisle.
It was beneath the keel of the Norisle, actually, that I saw a small school of trout once, brown trout, I think, but I’m certainly not an expert on these things. The day was clear, and the lake was still, and I could see a long way beneath the water as I was walking up behind the mill, a few hundred yards around the bay from the beach and a short way beyond the ferry, when four trout came edging just off the shore. Three of them were a true brownish colour, the other one more silver, their dark spots sharply defined in the clearness of the water, the sun illuminating their fins like broken halos. They moved slowly, hardly seeming to move, drifting in tandem with their shadows, a double school of fish, and they found the shelter of the ship, became one with their shadows, and their halos were extinguished. They hovered there a long while, and I thought about getting my rod from the dock and trying to catch one of them, but it was more pleasure to watch them than to catch them, so I let them be until they turned together and headed away under the ferry out into the lake.
That was later though, when I already had children of my own. They watched the trout with me, my two sons, and never asked to catch them as I was sure they would. We just watched them, the three of us, and I found myself remembering a time when I had watched the pike in my uncle’s hoop nets much as my sons were now watching the trout, with real wonder, just before we pulled the nets over the side and dumped the fish into the bottom of the boat, wonderless. I used to have a picture, now long lost, where I’m holding two of those pike, a hand buried in the gills of each fish, almost as tall as I am. I have forgotten my expression in that picture, so I may have been smiling, but I wasn’t feeling happiness just then, when it was taken, only a kind of loss, a loss of the long, quavering, mottled bodies that had so recently been hovering in the nets below the surface.
Commercial fishing with my uncle that summer was filled with that feeling, filled with the smell of the water and of the boat warming in the sun, with the skip of the flat aluminium bottom on the swells, with the taste of black coffee early in the morning, too early, but then also with the fish that we caught without fishing, without waiting and daydreaming. Our fishing was all catching but no sitting, no reflecting, none of what I love most about fishing. The nets went over the side, and then they came up again, and the fish dropped into the totes one after the other, and there was never time for waiting, never time for wondering.
The problem with those pike, caught in the hoops, and hung by the gills, and dropped in the totes, was that they had no stories. Okay, okay, you’re right, everything has its story, but they didn’t have the kinds of stories that I want to catch when I go fishing. They didn’t have stories worth telling, stories with any wonder in them, stories with the sun dappling like a poem on a stream or with a school of trout drifting in their own halos. And you can’t go fishing for those kinds of stories like you go fishing for fish, finding the right lure or rod or bait or fishing hole. You can’t go expecting to catch them. You just go fishing, and you wait, and sometimes there’s a fish with a story worth catching, but usually there isn’t. Usually you just end up waiting, or you catch fish without much story at all.
I know, I know, I’m not explaining myself very well. Let me give you an example. I was on another lake once, Otter Lake, just south of Parry Sound, and I was idly casting from the dock, just because I wanted to be alone and to be on the dock and not to be playing cards in the cottage kitchen. I was standing on a bit of walkway on the far side of the boathouse, and I don’t remember that exact moment very clearly, but I’ve stood in that same spot many times before and since, so I know that I was listening to the sound of the motorboat nodding against the rubber bumpers, making the water slap and gurgle hollowly, and I was smelling the acid of evergreen forest, sharp, cut with the scent of some not too distant campfire, and I was feeling the temperature fall away with the sun behind the trees, and I was casting a small silver spinner out into the lake.
I have since caught any number of sunfish under that dock with my kids, but I had never yet seen anything caught there when I was casting that evening, so I was startled when I felt a strike on the lure, and more startled still when the fish ran strongly with the line. When it slacked, I reeled it in as far as I could, and then the fish ran again against the line and it jumped, in sprays of silver, it jumped. No fish has ever jumped for me before or since, and I stopped reeling, amazed, paused expectantly, hoping it would jump again, but then I felt it pull sharply again, and the line grew suddenly slack, and I knew that I’d lost it, and the lure too, the line was so light. Then, as I was reeling the empty line, the fish jumped gain, almost straight out of the water, less than thirty yards away, a bit to the left of where I’d seen it jump first, and it was my fish, because I heard the jingle of the lure as it thrashed its head in the cool evening air, the fish that I hadn’t intended to catch at all.
There was the time, too, when I caught a fish even without line or hook, with my bare hands, as all of us boys, some cousins too, were sitting in the mouth of the river at Providence Bay one the evening, later in the year, one of the last times we went swimming that year, and the water was warm beneath the cold of the air. I was half-sitting, my legs folded under me, stroking the water back and forth with my arms, and then I felt something in my lap, a bunch of water weeds perhaps, so I reached down, and I found in my hands a salmon, almost still, alive but apparently unafraid. I took my hands away in reflex, but when I returned them the salmon was there still, and so, as much by reflex again as by thought, I stood, lifting it from the water, and tossed it onto the bank.
It lay in the sand, its colour muted in the dusk, flapping lethargically. Wading out of the water, I knelt beside it, laid my hand on its side, and I felt that same loss that I had felt with my hands buried in pike gills, the same sense of unfairness, but I couldn’t bring myself to return it to the water somehow, not until a passerby began yelling about how fishing was illegal there and threatened to call the police. So I lifted it again, cradled it more like, walked it back into the shallows, released it, my body cold and shivering, but I wanted it back again the next moment, wanted to fish not just for any fish, not for the countless fish that were still unknown to me, but for that fish, for the fish that I had just been holding.
Those are the fish worth catching. The one’s you never set out to catch but that somehow end up being caught. The ones with stories worth knowing and worth telling, and so I don’t go fishing to catch fish. I go fishing to catch those fish in particular, to catch their stories and their memories, to catch the salmon that I cradled in my arms like a child, to catch all the others too, the eyeless perch on the string, the shadowed trout beneath the Norisle, and the bass jumping with my lost lure, these and all the other fish I’ve ever caught or failed to catch. I’m waiting for them, and I don’t need any others.