My father believed that his sole parental obligation to me, apart from keeping my gut full and my butt warm, was to teach me to fish. He was drawn to the sport not because it afforded moments for quiet reflection or self-assessment. It was because it provided him the opportunity to kill limitless numbers of living things without provoking public disapprobation or drawing the attention of criminal authorities.
He was a catch and release man. In Florida he caught mackerel and released them to a guy who put them in dry ice and sent them up North, where my mother released them into the huge freezer we kept in the basement. In Canada, we led the fleet in the annual slaughtering of pike regatta.
One year, my Dad decided that he needed a new challenge; that he wanted to find walleyes with bigger corneas. And so we set out for The Pas, Manitoba, a 1300 mile drive from our home in Chicago.
The Pas is fully entitled to its "The." Apart from the fact that it was party to a seminal Canadian Supreme Court decision (The Pas (Town of) v. Porky Packers Ltd. et al), it is also the launching point for serious fishing parties. In short, this is not any old Pas.
My father, brother and I reached The Pas by driving without pause for 36 hours. On arrival, we were surrounded by a school of fishing guides, each claiming to know where the big ones were. Since, as subsequent events revealed, we were the big ones they were referring to, their claims were technically accurate.
The next morning, our pick-of-the-guide litter showed up in a pickup truck with a big canoe in the back. We were going to "portage," a romantic-sounding word for carrying a boat upside-down until you reach navigable water or die, whichever comes first.
The march began, and it soon became apparent that my father, brother and the guide saw this as a burden-sharing arrangement. I, on the other hand, regarded my role as akin to that of an honorary pallbearer. The real work would somehow be done by the guide, the one with the M.A. in schlepping.
An hour later we reached the lake and launched, the guide assuming his position in the rear as the propeller, the rest of us preparing our minds and bodies for the imminent fish roundup. Before we were even fifty yards from shore, my father began to cast his line. On his third or fourth shot something hit the lure about thirty feet from the boat.
His rod bent and he began to fight the fish. The latter jumped out of the water long enough to display his impressive length and girth, then spit the lure from his mouth and went back to reading Architectural Digest. We were now unquestionably where the big ones were, and my father had begun to consider whether the picture of him and the thousand pound pike he was going to land should be blown up to the size of our living room wall.
Over the next several hours, we had lots of action. Big fish were snapping at our lures, then spitting them out like bad sushi. What we'd failed to appreciate was that big fish also have highly retentive hippocampi and, as a result, long resumes. We knew hook and haul. They had advanced degrees in self-preservation.
My father's casting grew frenzied. He'd tentatively booked a sea container and had made a down payment on five hundred pounds of dry ice. After several hours of playing hook and run, his frustration had grown exponentially. He was casting faster and incautiously. Then the inevitable happened: on a back swing his lure connected with my brother's face, about three-quarters of an inch from his left eye.
My brother was bleeding and pissed off. The barbed lure couldn't be pulled back the way it had gone in without doing more damage. It couldn't be pushed out because there was a loop at the other end of the lure that attached to the line. I considered the worst outcome of the situation: my brother wouldn't be able to lift his part of the canoe on the return portage.
The guide said he was going to head for a friend's cabin. Twenty minutes later we beached the canoe in front of a small log structure that had plainly seen its share of Canadian winters. It was surrounded on three sides by thick forest. No road, no utility lines, no lawn bowling pitch in the front yard.
An old man with a gray ponytail and suspender-suspended coveralls exited slowly from the door. He grunted in the direction of our guide, who grunted back at him. He then turned and led the way into the cabin.
The place was beyond chaos. The only apparent light source was a kerosene lamp in the middle of a table whose surface was littered with sardine tins and pages from girlie magazines. There was a bed frame with no mattress. There were antlers.
The guide started to explain our problem but the old guy, looking at my brother, gave the universal signal for "I get it." After pausing for a few seconds to plot his strategy, he opened a drawer and withdrew a hunting knife. He wiped it on his plaid flannel shirt and headed in the direction of my brother.
My father watched this tableau play out from a distance, occasionally turning his head to gaze wistfully out the window of the cabin, pondering the possibility that he might still score a skein of pike by tossing a bomb into the lake.
When the old man decided that his glasses and the knife were as clean as they were going to get, he put on the table in front of my brother an unmarked bottle containing a brown liquid. Then he took from the shelf a jar with part of a "Skippy" peanut butter label attached and poured the liquid into the tumbler to about the half way mark.
My brother hesitated to suspend his common sense and take a drink. Seeing this, my dad walked over, put his hand gently on my brother's shoulder, and drained the jar.
Our host/surgeon turned to his work. As everyone else in the room withdrew into his groin, the old man removed enough of my brother's flesh to free the barbed end of the lure. When he'd finished, and it was evident that my brother had around a 50% chance of survival, we headed for the boat.
As we began our return to the far shore, all was quiet in the canoe save for the swish of the guide's paddle. But as we moved ahead, my father became increasingly agitated. He began to toy with the rods. Then, without warning, he stood up at the prow of the canoe and cast two lines in different directions. My brother, the guide and I spent the remainder of the crossing at gunnel level.
Our transit to the far shore ended with nothing in the boat but us. The portage of the boat back to the truck was marked by our grunts, but not our words. We drove the 1300 miles back to Chicago in silence. My dad never spoke of the trip again, notwithstanding that, in its way, it was a terrific fishing story.
Thoreau said that many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. Thoreau never met my father.
When not in custody, Steinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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