Behold the fisherman:
He riseth before the dawn and waketh the whole household.
Great are his preparations.
He leaveth full of hope and returneth after the day is long spent
Smelling strongly of drink and the truth is not in him.
So reads the plaque in the clubhouse of the Coleman Lake Club, which is nestled in the woods of northern Wisconsin. The club was founded in the 1880s, and on its 10,000 acres of birch, oak, pine and aspen are five ponds and five lakes, not counting Lost Lake, which cannot be found. In those 10 bodies of water one can catch—in order of preference—brown, rainbow and brook trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, yellow perch, sunfish, bluegills, crappies and the regrettable sucker. As in all the northern Great Lakes region, the wildlife is spectacular. Red fox, black bear, muskrat, otter, porcupines, beaver and whitetail deer abound. I have seen ospreys, great blue herons, woodcock, grouse and a roomful (mine) of bats. An alarmingly large snapping turtle once kept me from approaching her eggs, which are the shape of Ping-Pong balls and have the consistency of wet leather. The pride of the club, however, is a faithful pair of bald eagles, who return to Coleman Lake year after year, having survived even though the giant pine that held their original nest was felled by lightning.
But it is the trout fishing that people come for, and while the smaller ponds are stocked with brook trout and what my cousin calls clone rainbow (15 inches, 1¼ pounds, two jumps), the larger ponds and lakes contain giant, native brown trout. Big Jumbo, they are called. Seven years ago a man named Spencer Moseley, captain of the 1942 Yale football team, became a legend of sorts by taking on a Jumbo alone at night, armed with only a fly rod. He had forgotten his net and fought the beast well over an hour before, flashlight in mouth, he scooped the exhausted brown into his rowboat with a raincoat. It weighed 8 pounds, 14 ounces, breaking the club record by a Beamonish three pounds. A year later, a 9½ pound brown was caught.
I returned to Coleman Lake this summer for the first time in several years and was delighted on my first morning to spot a bald eagle as it flew over Brock Pond. It glided regally in the blue sky, its white head and white, fan-shaped tail sharply contrasting with the rich brown of its body, bringing a mournful yodel of alarm from the loons fishing nearby. The fishing the first two days was only fair. The clone rainbow, which had been reared in a hatchery on food pellets, were striking our leader knots more often than our flies.
On the third morning, my fishing partner, Sally Lee, and I drove to North Pond, where the trout are all native. It is an eerily lovely body of water, perhaps three-quarters of a mile long, dotted with hundreds of dead standing trees, burned out in some turn-of-the-century fire and later inundated when the old dam was built and the pond formed. On my cousin's advice, I was fishing with a sinking line, sinking leader and weighted black woolly worm. Shortly after dawn, I watched one of my casts disappear into the swirling deep and felt a reluctant tug. The disappointing fight was quickly explained when I pulled up a 14-inch sucker. I have always been told that suckers devour trout eggs by the thousand, like czars eating caviar, so I gave it a whack on the side of the boat and tossed it overboard.
Thirty seconds later we heard a loon cry out, and Sally shouted, "Look!"
Soaring in above the tops of the pond's dead trees was the eagle. It passed over the boat, circled and descended. The sucker, belly up, floated not 25 feet from the boat. The eagle glided lower, lower, and as it reached the fish it threw up its wings, splashing down talons first. Its yellow, hooked beak was open. Suddenly it was up again and winging away, its 7½-foot wingspan carrying it upward with even, patient beats. The sucker was gone.
Sally had snapped a picture, but she did not look happy. "I think I jerked," she said.
"You could sell that to National Geographic. That was incredible."
"I think I jerked. I was too nervous."
After a sight like that, it hardly mattered that the bottom-feeding sucker was the only fish to find my woolly worm all day. That night it rained. A change in weather often brings good fishing, and the next afternoon we returned to North Pond in search of Jumbo.
We had hardly arrived before the loons began carrying on again, and Sally spotted the eagle. It flew across the lake and came to rest in a tree at the far end, the white of its head and tail showing against the evergreens.
"I wonder if it recognizes us," Sally said.
I considered this too implausible a remark to reply to, but two hours later, when I hooked my first fish, I had reason to believe she was right. My nine-inch brook trout was making as much of a fuss as it could, splashing beside the boat, when Sally again cried, "Look!" To my amazement, the eagle glided directly over our heads, perhaps 15 feet in the air, with an eye on my tiny trout. Without further ado I netted the fish, and the bird came to a perch across the pond, halfway up a dead tree. From there, he gave us his best E pluribus unum stare.
"He wants it," Sally said.
"So do I."
"I think you should give it to him."
If we had brought a camera or had six other brookies just like it, perhaps I would have. As it was, I would not be bullied into throwing my only fish overboard on the off chance that the eagle would swoop down, take it and appreciate it more than it had the sucker. I also did not want to face my cousin with another empty creel. I dropped the brook trout in the bait box; Sally pouted; and the eagle waited in stony silence.
We picnicked on cold chicken at dusk. The mosquitoes picnicked on warm ankles. I had brought a bottle of Pernod, a yellow, licorice-flavored liqueur, which I have discovered has a numbing effect on mosquito bites when taken in moderation—or excess. The sun appeared for the first time all day, then dipped beneath the cloud cover, and the wind stilled. The clouds turned pink.
I tied on a Marabou Muddler, which I suspect is what the taciturn Mr. Moseley caught his Big Jumbo on. It is a wet fly with a round, bristly head and a gaudy white feather above a narrow tinfoiled body. Sally rowed me to one of the several places my cousin—who knows everything—refers to confidentially as "the best water in the lake," a spot marked with submerged logs, stumps and weeds. I was throwing an attractive line, the Pernod having relaxed my motion just so, when in the middle of a retrieve a fish hit. Before I could strike, the slack was gone, and I felt as if someone were trying to pull the rod from my hands. The fish exploded from the water, shaking violently. I bowed through instinct, and it fell back with a terrific splash.
"Big Jumbo!" I screamed. My voice, to my surprise, was quaking.
"Be careful of the log," Sally said.
It was too late to be careful of the log. The log had somehow appeared between the boat and the fish, and the wily Jumbo was making a left turn around it.
Sally pulled on the oars. The fish broke water for the second time, and I dipped the tip of my rod. There was just enough slack in the line that the leader did not break; I got a good look at the fish. My heavens, what a brown.
"Did you see that? Did you see that fish?" I shouted.
We circled the log, and I pulled in my slack. The fish dived now, but it was swimming away from the weeds, into the channel that ran through the pond. It was a heavy fish and my bamboo rod was bent at a crazy angle. I held it high, trying to keep the fish from the bottom.
It turned and made a slow pass toward the boat, veering under the stern. Its spotted tail slid into, then out of, view in the dark water. The line and leader rose into sight on the other side of the boat, and the fish jumped again, into the sunset. It made an enormous splash.
That was its last jump. It ran out 20 feet of line, then went deep, circling twice more behind the stern. On each pass, the fish came a bit higher, and I picked up a yard or two of line. After a half hour, it was back on the west side of the boat. The sun was down. We were perhaps 15 minutes from dark.
"We don't have a flashlight," Sally said.
"I don't think we'll need one."
The brown was tired, its dorsal fin and tail—as big as my hand—flipping above the smooth surface 20 feet away. Its body was sideways to the boat, and I eyeballed the fish as longer than the blade of the oar, which was 30 inches.
"He's ready," I said. "Water me for the kill." I nodded toward my mosquito medicine. As Sally raised the bottle of Pernod to my lips, the brown trout suddenly flopped its tail and head, trying, I think, to hit the leader with its tail. The drink spilled down the front of my shirt, so that I stank of licorice.
Jumbo's head swung toward the boat, and I started to inch him in. His tail splashed feebly. He is spent, I thought.
I heard a loon cry.
I did not have time to look. I did not need to. Peripherally, I saw something dark, something fast and so bizarre that I raised my arms around my head. There was a great splash from my fish—no, above my fish, on my fish. The eagle beat its wings again, sagging from the great weight. The line went taut as the eagle rose. It strained and snapped.
The eagle made a slow circle. It gained height. The fish was flipping in its talons. The loon had stopped now. The eagle passed over the trees on the shore, and the sky darkened around it.