That summer the storms rolled in every few days, so that no sooner would the rivers I fished begin to clear than another thunderstorm would blow in, usually after dark. The next morning would break leaf-wet and steamy, the fishing ruined. On the hot days between storms we'd drive to a sandy stretch on the upper Eau Claire, where my daughter would chase minnows in shallows murky from rain and I'd anguish over not having caught a fish that summer.
My friends attempted to distract me by discussing plans for autumn bird hunts, but I was reluctant to put away my tackle. The seasons here are like separate countries, and when crossing the borders between them, one is obliged to abandon favorite customs and, in a sense, change languages. When I suggested a last fishing trip, my erstwhile companions spoke gravely of storm windows that wanted putting up and firewood that needed to be cut. But I wasn't ready to cross the frontier with them. So, on the fifth day of a rare rainless stretch, I decided to go fishing on my own. My wife drove the pickup through verdant Wisconsin countryside to the bridge over the Chippewa on County Road H. She waited in the cab, with our daughter asleep beside her, while I untied the canoe and carried it down to the riverbank. The Chippewa had fallen a foot from the highwater, according to the mark on the bridge column, and had cleared to a shade resembling iced tea. A broad river at this point, the Chippewa is the sum of all the alder-choked creeks and fast streams I might have fished that summer. Floating on it, I could sample a little of each tributary.
I loaded tackle and cooler into the canoe and walked it into the river. The 17-foot Shell Lake canoe is old and deserving of special handling, and I didn't mind getting my feet wet. Then I was drifting. Soon the river began to bend until the bridge, the truck and my family were out of sight.
The day was heating up. I paddled to the far bank, where the current was the strongest, and then eased up, letting the river do the work. The takeout at Meridean lay seven miles downstream and the whole day stretched before me. When a dragonfly alit on the still-wet blade of my paddle, I felt singled out for good fortune.
October 12, 1980
Rigging up a bucktail spinner, I worked the shoreline carefully, casting for smallmouths beneath overhanging maple and river birch. Often as not, the lure would get hung up in the branches, and I would have to backpaddle to free it. Then I'd have to take the bird's nest of monofilament into the canoe and untangle it. By the time I was finished and able to cast again, the terrain through which the river flowed would have changed, wooded banks having given way to meadows.
While drift-fishing the Chippewa, which is home for 60 species offish, one ranges over all sorts of piscine habitat: deep holes for walleye, a shore of upended trees to hide bass, and quiet backwaters where one can raise anything from pike to monstrous sturgeon. There are no bad stretches on the river, only different possibilities.
In an eddy behind a windfall, my rod bowed suddenly. Thinking I had hit a snag, I thumbed the release, which only served to send the line screaming off the reel. I had a fish; he was heavy and deep. When the run stopped, I began coaxing my line back, worrying all the while that the fish would snag a sunken limb. The line came in, and, looking over the side of the canoe, I could see the fish rising through the deep brown water.
Then the fish dived. It disappeared from view. My line drew taut against the gunwale as the fish swam beneath the canoe, putting great strain on the line. Finally it broke.
Adrift in midriver, I slowly reeled in the slack. The fish had felt enormous, and I felt at once drained and exhilarated by my encounter with it. I opened a beer from the cooler. The trip had just started and already I had lost the biggest fish I might have hoped for in an entire summer's fishing.
The beer had no taste; it was merely cold. I would have to stop dwelling on what had been lost, or I'd ruin a perfectly good day. After all, I had caught the fish, had failed only to separate it from the water. When the first beer was gone, I opened another and let the current carry me on.
Three miles down, the Chippewa forked, the main channel surging to the right of an island while I paddled left into Meridean Slough. The densely overgrown banks closed in, sunlight filtering down through the branches. How one's passage of the slough goes depends on the vagaries of weather. In this dry spell, the water was low and the trip would be leisurely, broken only by the occasional need to walk the canoe over a sandbar. But a cloudburst could make the going fast and casting difficult, like trying to fish from a moving car.
I had another strike but failed to land it. This trip was growing less promising, resembling an earlier journey taken in the spring, when the Chippewa was still high from meltwater. The bowman on that run, a part-time farmer, came with two spinning rods and a bow and arrow-to use on scavenger fish, which he smokes. Like an aquatic Grim Reaper, he harvested the river while I emerged at the end of the day empty-handed. A meat fisherman, this fellow approaches angling as just another form of husbandry, like keeping goats and honeybees. I had pictured him returning that evening to his farmhouse, thumping the heavy catch in the sink and saying to his wife. "Food, Verna."
I was hungry.
I beached the canoe on a damp stretch of the island that had been trampled under deer hooves and ate my lunch on a sun-bleached log. My sandwiches had taken on the flavor of the Styrofoam cooler, and I dined quickly, washing the food down with more beer. Two wood ducks wheeled overhead, and I followed their trajectory with a hand shading my eyes, thinking it was a shame there was only one summer to a year, so few summers to a lifetime. The solution to that shortage, my wife said, was to move to the Sunbelt, a remedy I dismissed out of hand. Without the seasons there could be no longing, no sense of imperatives.
Back on the river, storm clouds gathering downriver in the west, I gave myself over to paddling. The air felt still and heavy, the way it does before rain. I could paddle for shore and shelter or fish and risk a soaking.
Ahead, a great blue heron stalked the shallows of the slough. I stopped paddling, but spooked by the canoe, the bird lifted from the water, its broad expanse of slate-blue wings pulling its great weight skyward. The heron circled twice above the river and then dropped out of sight behind the treetops.
The heron had been fishing the fertile mouth of a feeder creek, emerging from its own secret wanderings in the dense brush. I cast over the drop-off where clear creek water mixed with that of the amber river. A long shadow drifted behind the lure before dissolving into the depths. My mouth went dry. Time for only one more cast before the canoe would drift away. I flung the enameled spoon almost to the bank and retrieved it jerkily, watching for the shadow's return. The lure passed over the drop-off again, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the dark swirl of pike angle across the mouth of the creek. It struck.
I set the hook, and the fish ran sideways to the canoe, trying to shake the spoon loose. That tactic failing, the pike shot directly at the boat, and I had to stand up and try to keep my balance and the line taut so the fish couldn't snap it under the canoe. Finally the pike came on its side to the surface. Bending down, I slipped three fingers inside a gill and hoisted my catch aboard.
Now the real fight began. The fish, a northern pike, thrashed against the canoe ribs until I whacked its duckbilled head with the paddle. Its long, serpentine body went limp, but its eyes still glowered. The northern was as long as my arm, green with golden spots and a white belly. When I laid it in the cooler, its head and tail hung over the sides.
Meridean Slough ended as the island tapered off, it and the river rejoining in a broad, swirling confluence. Two more miles of paddling remained, and I kept waiting for the raindrops to begin, but the storm never came. I could see filaments of lightning over the hills to the south and hear the far-off rumbling. But I had a fish. Let it rain.
The sun was still visible through the trees as I came to the takeout above Meridean. Below the cutbank, where a dirt road ran to the highway, an old man in Oshkosh overalls was still-fishing. Slipping into the water to pull the canoe ashore, I felt aged myself. And sunburned and happy. My wife hadn't yet arrived with the pickup, so I took the pike out of the cooler to clean it. The still-fisherman nodded at a pail of piddling walleyes when I asked about his luck. Then I showed him the northern, posing with my arms outstretched. Undaunted, he called it a fair-sized snake, explaining that walleye was the only fish he kept for the table. Too many bones, he said of the pike.
Crouching over the water, I slit the pike's white belly open and washed it clean. I didn't care about the little Y-shaped bones. I would skin and fillet the northern when I got home, then put it in the freezer to eat on some snowbound day when the flesh would still be sweet, tasting of summer and the river.