My First Lunker

Lake Erie in the ’70’s. Lake Erie’s triumphant return from the pollutive meddling of the previous decades. The lake was just getting her lungs back, and on this day, the walleye were still making their slow march to resurrect sport fishing in the Western Basin. But not fully. So that day, we were fishing for catfish.

Pollution or no, Dad had to have a boat. Seems almost a crying shame, a fisherman with a Great Lake on his back stoop, and no boat. This day it was a small, fiberglass number. The model eludes me, but my family dubbed it “The Little Red Boat.” Which sounds like a fine model name to me.

My dad. brothers and I headed a couple miles off shore and cast our lines in the water. Sinkers and night crawlers, that was the tackle for the day. Plenty enough to catch the occasional catfish with a sheephead or two on the side. I was using an older pole with a Zebco 101 bait casting reel which worked just fine when it wanted to (which was just about half the time). If I had wanted the line to go beyond 20 feet, I’d have to help it along, pulling it out from an eternal tangle in its mechanism. And the cap was stripped, taking a bit a bit of trickery to keep it to stay on.

I had gotten a couple of catfish, which despite my reel’s protests, I was able to bring in. But then I had a whopper of a hit. My pole bent nearly in half and rattled against the side of the boat. I jerked it to set the hook, but the rod barely moved. Which probably didn’t matter much– the fish, it seemed, had set it itself. If it was a fish. It felt to my young arms as if I’d snagged the entire bottom of the lake.

But it was a fish, and as I pulled, it gave. Tiny, electric pulses zipped down my spine. My hands reeled with fury. “Take your time,” Dad said. I knew that. I’d caught fish before. I knew to take my time. Little snippets of such advice like that had been burned into me by Dad:  “Set the hook,” “Put it down, he’ll be back,” “We’ll leave after this next beer.” But this fish was different. This wasn’t a casual catch. This was something to boast about later. A fish with an air of importance.

I slowed down as best I could, kept the rod tip up (remembered that one all on my own). Which was the  only thing I could do. If the battered reel had ever had drag, it had long forgotten what the hell it was. The dial to set the drag was sunken into the reel, driven in there by collisions with rocks and ground; dirt from the shoreline of dozens of fishing expeditions were mashed into its innards. There were times when I’d turn the handle and the line wouldn’t advance. But that was from a failing in the reel’s workings, not the sing of drag. The fish pulled the tenuous lifeline of nylon string between it and the boat. These times are when panicked questions pop into your head: When was the last time I changed the line? What pound test was it? I was young, but I knew the perils of old fishing line– by personal experience.

The closer the fish came, the more the reel failed. I turned and turned. Every now and again, the line would catch and bring the fish inches closer. But then, it eventually stopped. Too much for the old Zebco. I turned and turned the reel, hoping that the tired closed faced would gain traction, but it just couldn’t.

Then disaster.

The lid popped off with a quiet shouck. If anyone knows anything about the old Zebcos, they know that the only thing keeping the reel’s insides in was the cap. The internal mechanism fell out. The tiny nub that caught the line and kept it from spilling forward now useless, the line gave way. I grabbed what I could. The reel’s guts in my hand, I pinched the fishing line and stopped it from unwinding. But that was all I could do. I couldn’t bring the fish in anymore. I could only sit and feel the slow, powerful tug tug tug of the leviathan on the end of my rig.

Then Dad was on the side of the boat, leaning over and grabbing the line. He pulled the string by manually, wrapping it over his hands. And without a landing net, he hoisted it out of the water: to my youthful eyes, one of the biggest shovelhead catfish I had ever seen. It was a marvel. Its nearly blue-hued skin, glistening and smooth in  the summer sun. And I had caught it. Well, mostly. Dad had technically landed it. But then wasn’t the time for particulars.

And it was in the boat. That made it officially official. I had caught my first lunker.

I’d like to think I’d learned a lesson that day: something about the importance of keeping your gear in shape; keeping your line strung evenly and fresh. But that was about the last thought in my head. That kind of thinking was for later days, more mature and refined, when logic was less important than the rush of new experiences. A time when little else was as satisfying as hearing the thud of a prized catch thumping around your cooler.