The Magic Places
There are enough of these magic places still that anglers speak of them with reverence. They occupy our conversation over a cold beer in a faraway lodge, or in the passing comments we make traveling the highways of this great country. They are the places that are both hard to find and right in front of us. They are the small lakes and winding rivers that intersect our lives. These are the places where the water reflects the blue sky and the summer wind stirs our imagination as we toss a line over the bow, cut the Evinrude, and drift with a yellow straight-tale grub affixed to a hook.
We are connected to these places by memories, and by this constant desire to kindle the flames of that contented feeling we first experienced on some long ago day when a father or an uncle took us fishing for the first time. Maybe it’s because of that, or maybe it’s because in those halcyon days the world seemed fresh. Keeping that sensation of freshness alive matters more with each passing winter. A canny bass fisherman knows the shoreline reeds and tall grass cast late afternoon shadows in secret coves and hidden bays across Wisconsin and Minnesota. Down deep in those shadows the bass feed on minnows; relentless shoreline hunters as the sun eases down like a molten doubloon tossed across and azure horizon. A burst of water-lilies in the shadow of an old plank pier offer the angler an opportunity for the bite of a lazily gliding northern pike.
The quiet coves and sun-splashed inlets, free of computers and the nonsense of social media, bring a solitude punctuated by the choices we make from a case of colorful artificial jig combos. Sometimes there is an urgency in our actions. “He’s down there,” a friend told me once as we fished a familiar cove, “and he’s mine today.” He was referring to a rather large northern we had seen the day before in this same spot, and we had failed to catch it. We hadn’t seen much fish in the shallows this day, but of course they were down there. They were always down there. Catching them was another matter entirely. My friend caught his northern, but in a different spot. The bounty we receive is dictated perhaps by terms we have never understood. There is skill involved, and a knowledge of fish and ecosystems, and there is luck. Fishing such magic places invokes a philosophical pursuit every fisherman knows well. Time in the boats with a line in the water gives each man or woman time to ponder the vast mysteries of life.
The night fisherman has the heavens above and myriad galaxies sweeping past in a heartbeat, the flash of falling stars a constant reminder of our mortality. How many fisherman, I wonder, have wished upon a falling star as much because of a learned cultural reflex but also in response to some atavistic desire to embrace and understand the unknown. To debate in solitude the benefits of live-bait rigging over a tackle box overflowing with colorful plastic lures is to engage the memory banks with images of crappie and bluegill, or largemouth bass and panfish. Fishing is relaxing, to state the obvious, but what is obvious to a fisherman is not always recognized in a society prone to hated-filled electronic communication. So the angler retreats and comes home simultaneously; it’s a way of driving the mind pollution away and recharging one’s spiritual battery.
The fishing pole in hand, an array of lures, and reasonable weather is all a man can ask for. When I fish I seek a familiar shoreline, a quiet place where the sun can warm my back and the scudding clouds are mirrored by the pristine depths of a sandy bottom; and then, suddenly, I glimpse the silver flash of gills as my lure strikes the water. There are times when fishing alone is vital, and yet other times when good companions are necessary. Competition is one thing, but truly admiring a fellow angler’s cast or the instinctive way he chooses the spot for his lure to drop all helps to fill the afternoon with a fraternal appreciation for the great outdoors.
Everything that we understand about ourselves can be summarized in the singular act of fishing. We define ourselves by our actions and by the lures we choose and by the sun-dappled coves we float in, with rod and reel in hand, a contented smile on our lips. The 10-20 pound monofilament line is standard issue for bass and northern pike, and in the event a record-breaker is hauled in the happy fisherman gets bragging rights on skill in handling the torque and axis rotation. There are times where I’ve fished myself to the point of exhaustion without necessarily fishing well, and with little to show for my effort, I allowed the boat to glide into a shallow bay, the water-lilies rustling against the boat’s aluminum side. Sometimes I’ll lift the camera and snap photos, or I might just bask in the cool shadows thrown by the towering shoreline pines. If I’m especially lucky, I’ll watch an eagle swoop soundlessly from above as its talons snap a fish from just below the surface. Such a sight is awe-inspiring and not without its own irony, because the American eagle is infinitely better at catching fish than any man yet born.
I am not skilled at small talk, and don’t enjoy the chatter when it is so obviously intended as filler for a day that requires no filler. Choose your fishing companions carefully. This wisdom I have heard repeated countless times, and it should never fall on deaf ears. A lousy companion is immediately recognizable in a boat, and if such darkly comedic rumors are true, a poorly chosen fishing companion is responsible for more than one intoxicated northwoods homicide. I recall with clarity a conversation I had with my uncle who was an avid hunter and fisherman. Perhaps the moment lingered because I heard it in a Wisconsin saloon beneath the glare of a five-point buck guilty only of bad taxidermy and who appraised us with the accusing glass stare of a ghost while my uncle sipped a tall glass of cold Hamm’s beer. It was the late 1960s and my uncle, who despised the counter-culture longhairs as “aberrations,” but nonetheless availed himself of the sexual revolution by taking up with a buckskin clad girl who, in his words, was “great in bed, but lousy at fishing and housekeeping.”
When he was in his cups, as it were, and the sparkling carbonation in a cold glass of beer loosened his tongue, he casually remarked to the bartender that if the Herb Albert album spinning on the turntable wasn’t soon replaced by Glen Miller he would demonstrate a lifetime of expertise with his 12-gauge Remington. Nearly in the same breath he vowed that never again would he allow a no-good downtrodden hippie chick ever talk him into coming along on a fishing trip again. “There’s no reason to ruin a good day fishing by taking along a girl I won’t marry.”
Being prone to reflection, I seek out the same fishing spots that my uncle favored, which is easy to accomplish given I am now overseer of the property, and I think of the old days with far greater frequency than any old-timer should publicly admit. I smile thinking of his contradictory nature, and that of his brothers, and on those hushed afternoons just before summer’s end, when you can sense the coming of the season’s first frost, I acknowledge my luck to have had such good companions in the boat, and for an all-too brief moment they are with me again.
The magic places we favor are as varied as the angler himself. Because I am surrounded by some strong-willed women who fish with the same intensity as any male angler, I have broached the subject of jigs and lures in my quest to identify the best techniques. One man’s poison, I soon learned, is a woman’s cure. The many generations of knowledge passed down by fathers, brothers, uncles and sisters are on display at any northwoods flea market.
Musky lures are particularly fascinating. Hand-carved lures painted with care by some long forgotten fisherman are common enough, and sell regularly enough that most flea market vendors make a point of keeping a box of them handy. With their rusted hooks and painted eyes, they adorn a shelf or tackle box as a reminder of a bygone era before everything was made from plastic in a Chinese factory. A musky lure, carved in the silhouette of a loon hatchling, is a piece of Americana. Any lures made by Heddon and Son out of Michigan prior to the first World War are highly prized by collectors, as are those made by the Shakespeare company. A wooden minnow or underwater spinner in its original box can be quite valuable. I’ve talked to collectors who concentrate on finding any lures from the Creek Chub Bait Company out of Indiana or any Pflueger minnows. Collecting lures is a favored past-time for the sentimental angler who will never admit to sentiment. “My pa owned one like this,” you might be told, followed by a description of some magic place where they fished on a spring day long ago.
On any of the thousands of lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin are secret coves and bays known to only the fisherman who covet the solitude. It is here that they come to fish, and while they fish to listen to the sound of the wind in the tall pines; and to smell the pines on the warm breeze. The act of fishing and their awareness and love for the outdoors is something that is sacred. I know an inordinate number of northwoodsmen who, when they’re not fishing, haunt the antique shops looking at old lures or rummaging through moldy boxes containing dimpled copies of Outdoor Life or Field & Stream, forever in search of that one story discovered in youth but lost in adulthood. I have searched unsuccessfully for several decades but to date have failed to locate several old magazines with grizzly bears on the cover that my aunt kept at her cabin. I’ll know them when I see them. Maybe just looking for them is enough.
The labyrinthine enigmas of a fresh-water lake on a July afternoon offer a bromide for the disaffected wanderer. Each lake has its special cove, shadowed inlet or dilapidated pier where a day alone with a line in the water is like a salve on a wound. The public misconception exists that fishing is a sedentary activity and unhealthy. Ask any angler, no matter if it’s a fly fisherman, bass fisherman or deep sea fisherman, and you’ll receive a treatise on the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle.
Of equal importance to the fisherman is the boat upon which his day is measured. From a leaky bark canoe to the sleek, aluminum bass and panfish boats with bow and aft casting decks, anglers rely on their boats to get them to that magic place. I’ve fished in Jon boats and from a pontoon boat and shiny new aluminum trailer boats. Perhaps my favorite was my father’s old varnished mahogany runabout, The Honeypot, a four seater that cut like a bullet across many a lake and river.
Like most runabout owners, my father relied on an Evinrude outboard motor which helped propel The Honeypot across the surface of Lake Michigan and other waterways. Such boats are treasures, and often I spy them at anchor or resting next to a pier like some otherworldly creatures, haunted with memories and anxiously waiting to come alive with a sputtering roar. Photographs of our boats are integral to any family album, carefully pasted onto the album page as a reminder of the sunlight on our faces and the feathering spray blown out in our wake by the blazing Evinrude.
I once brought a nephew to our northwoods cabin, situated on a lake and far removed from Chicago’s neon distractions. I observed with amusement his inability to adjust to seven days on a lakefront. He discovered that although the scene was relaxing, he was in constant motion. The simple act of walking thirty feet from the cabin to the pier was, after just two days, enough exercise to cause his unused muscles to protest. Constantly getting in and out of a boat, using one’s arms with a rod and reel, and gulping down all of that fresh Wisconsin air, complimented by the occasional tick problem, resulted in a physical collapse where he was flat out and shaking the timbers with his nasal buzz-saw. Afterward, he vowed never to go fishing again.
There is an unwritten history of the magic places that can be found on the road. I have found them in Wyoming side-trails, or down in New Mexico and Arizona. These are the places off the beaten path; the small lakes and nameless rivers discovered by accident but never forgotten. I cannot stop myself from pausing at any waterway to study the curving shoreline, watchful for a glimpse of a bronze head or the silver glint of a fluctuating gill. I travel to Wisconsin most often these days, my home away from home, and there on the lake but thirty feet from my porch, the water offers up its revelations, mysteries and the endless miracles of nature. If I am to be guilty of being religious, then it is this – a religion of pine-scented breezes and the silhouette of a circling eagle above a pristine lake as I gather my gear and trudge down to the boat for a day in a magic place. A man truly owns only what he knows, and I know such places are my remedy. I need nothing else.
NOTE: Thomas McNulty is the author of a biography about actor Errol Flynn and the Western Novels Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, Coffin for an Outlaw and The Gunsmoke Serenade. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
Text and photographs copyright © 2017 by Thomas McNulty.