By Erin Kuhlmann
I sit at the edge of the moldy, wooden dock that extends out into Blueberry Lake. It’s part of the chain of lakes associated with Bear Island in northern Minnesota. Grandpa and I drive three and a half hours every year to spend the weekend fishing. As I wait for Grandpa to wake up so we can head into town for bait, I dip my big toe into the water and watch the ripples grow across the surface.
After a short breakfast on the porch, watching the sunrise over the tips of the pine trees, Grandpa and I drive forty-five minutes from the cabin to the local bait shop. On our way into town we spot a few deer grazing in a small meadow. Grandpa pulls the car over so we can watch. The deer stand in the meadow bowing their long necks to the tall grass. Their ears twitch and rotate like tiny satellites, picking up every sound wave that emits emitted through the meadow.
“Look over there,” Grandpa says and points out the window to the smallest deer in the herd. “It’s a fawn. Only fawns have spots. Must have been born this spring.”
I gaze out the window to where Grandpa has pointed and see the fawn weaving between the legs of another deer. It’s slender limbs wobble a bit as if it were trying to balance on a pair of stilts. The chestnut fur contrasts with the rows of round, white spots that dot the curve of its back.
“Why does the fawn only have spots? I ask Grandpa.
“Because when they grow up the spots disappear.”
I turn in my seat to look at him. “Disappear?”
“They fade away after a few winters.”
“But they’re so pretty. Why do they disappear as they grow up?”
He chuckles and ruffles my hair. “Everything changes as it grows up.”
Grandpa turns the car back onto the road. The noise of the roaring muffler scares the deer away from their meal and into the birch and pine tree forest. I watch out the open window as the rows of trees pass us by hoping to spot more deer on our way into town. I don’t.
Before too long, Grandpa turns the car into the gravel parking lot of Skube’s Bait Shop. Grandpa had taken me here earlier this summer to receive my official fishing license. The outside looks like the inside of a can of baked beans. The familiar giant fish with green and gold scales, it’s mouth wide open, hangs above the screen door.
I wander around the store peering in the tanks of small fish—most of them minnows— swimming in huddled groups, trying to keep warm in cold water. Grandpa shuffles me along to the back of the store where the refrigerator that holds the insects is. I grab three round Styrofoam containers labeled ‘night crawlers’ and one container of dead grasshoppers. Grandpa pays the man who owns Skube’s and we are sent on our way with a “happy fishing” and our bait for tomorrow morning.
The best time to catch walleye is during dark hours like the middle of the night or the early morning. Walleye feed when their prey can’t see, giving them an opportunity to catch the prey off guard. My grandpa once told me that walleye feed best on a full moon, but I thought of it only as an old fish tale that several elderly men tell when I have a free ear listening. So Grandpa and I decide that we will fish on early mornings—four in the morning to be exact.
Grandpa shakes me from sleep and drags me to the edge of the dock where our rods, bait, and hooks are waiting. I grab the smaller of the two rods and get to work putting on the clear fishing line. I have to measure out the length in order to get enough line to cast at least a hundred feet. After the string is measured and cut I spin it tightly around the reel and then up through the loops until I have enough string hanging off the edge to attach a hook and a bobber.
I first carefully tie my standard red and white stripe bobber a few feet above where I will tie the hook. Next, I loop the string through the pore-sized hole at the end of the hook. I choose a small hook, a size eight, because the smaller the hook the better the chance for a bite. I struggle to tie a small knot with my nimble fingers getting in the way. I’ve lost a few fish by not tying my knot tight enough.
After stringing up the rod and tying the hook and bobber to the end of the string, it’s time to put the bait on. I choose a night crawler because they’re easier for the walleye, or any other kind of fish, to see than dead crickets. I pull one of the night crawlers from the moist dirt within the Styrofoam container. The long, pale worm wiggles and thrashes in the grip of my fingers, almost in hopes that if it is slimy enough it won’t suffer death. “I’m sorry,” I whisper to the worm as I spear the middle of its lithe body with the hook. A small speck of pink blood bubbles out and again, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Bait on the hook, it’s time to cast off. Grandpa helps me pull my arm back far enough to get the line to reach into the deep end of the lake. I stretch as far as my shoulder and arm will allow me and then I whip it forward, bringing the rod along with it and releasing the button on the reel and let the line fly through the air. A zipping noise sounds as it soars over the water and lands with a plunk, sinking into the dark water of the lake. The bobber floats on the surface as I sit down at the edge of the wood dock next to Grandpa.
For most of the morning, we sit quietly and listen to the sounds of the woods around us as we watch the soft, orange sun rise slowly over the tops of pine trees. We hear the common loons call out to each other as if saying good morning and the gentle waves crashing along the shoreline. The faint smell of wood and lake algae comes and goes as I watch my bobber move in time with the steady waves.
Sometimes if the fish aren’t biting, Grandpa tells me stories about his life. He tells me about the war and what it was like fighting over in the Pacific. I learn about the types of people he encountered and the losses he suffered through. He tells me about his wedding. How the ceremony in Grace Episcopal Church was flooded and lit by candles due to a hurricane ripping through Galveston, Texas two days prior.
Grandpa smiles as he tells me about Grandma being upset her wedding dress ruined by water damage and I almost miss my bobber breaking the water’s surface. I grasp the rod tight in my hands as the line wheezes further out into the lake. “Reel her in,” Grandpa shouts as he gets to his feet to help me pull the fish in. Quickly I let my fingers turn the crank of the reel. The fish on the other end of the line fight to swim the opposite direction of the dock. I feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety as the string gets closer to the dock. I worry that I’ll pull up a tiny perch or by some bad luck the fish escapes with a full belly.
The line tenses as I continue to reel the fish in. Closer and closer the line gets to the dock. My heart races and sweat builds in my palms. The rod begins to slip through my grasp as I reel faster and faster. Finally, the line breaks the water’s surface and I’m ecstatic; I see a fish at the end of my hook. The fish’s scales are olive green and gold. They flank the slippery body and inside its mouth are rows of sharp teeth.
Grandpa and I pull the fish out of the water and I hold it up for him to see. “Would you look at that? You caught your first walleye,” Grandpa says in amazement.
He takes his camera and snaps a picture of me grinning toothless as I hold up my first walleye. We unhooked the walleye from my line and Grandpa tells me not to throw it back into the lake like I do with all the Sunnies I catch.
“It’s too big not to fry up,” he tells me as we walk back up to the cabin.
I object the whole way back to the cabin where Grandpa will measure and weigh my fish. Again, Grandpa tells me we’re eating my prize. “It’s the best fish you’ll ever eat. You’ll thank me later for not letting you throw it back into the lake.”
With that, I begin to cry as we make our way into the cabin. Grandpa turns around, sets the fish down, and pulls me in for a hug. He smells like syrup, pinecones, and spearmint. Quietly he rubs my back and then whispers in my ear, “Remember the fawn we saw yesterday?”
I nod in reply. “This is like a fawn losing its spots. This is all a part of life and a part of growing up.”
“But I don’t want to lose my spots,” I cry into his warm, flannel covered chest.
“Oh you won’t lose your spots. You’ll get new ones just like the fawns will get a new grown-up coat of fur,” he tells me as he wipes tears from my cheeks.
I let him weigh my fish as I silently sit at the kitchen table and watch. My walleye weighs seventeen pounds and is twenty-seven inches long. It is the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. I decide to skip out on the preparation in order to stomach the animal without bursting into tears at the thought of my dead fish. I adopt a new eating motto: if I don’t see the animal alive before its dead, I can eat it.
Later, the sun sets behind the trunks of the pine trees and the loons call out their goodnights. Grandpa dips the meat in lemon batter and fries it to a golden brown color. He serves it with garlic potatoes and string beans picked from the garden behind the cabin. We take our plates and silverware out to the edge of the dock.
The taste of the walleye catches me off guard. Flaky meat breaks between my teeth and it has a sweet, lemon taste. It’s the best mixture of texture and taste. I tell Grandpa, “I’m never eating fish sticks from the freezer again.” He smiles as he chews his own piece of walleye. We sit side by side watching the constellations twinkle and enjoy the catch of the day.