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  • January 19th, 2011

The Old Man and the Lake

By Joel M. Vance

It was 6 a.m.  The cabin was chilly (outside the temperature was dropping like a concrete parachute.  The wind rattled everything that could be rattled, including my composure.  The lake had whitecaps that looked like the climactic scene of “The Perfect Storm and we were getting ready to go onto this maelstrom in a boat that increasingly resembled Charlie Allnut’s wheezing old tub in “The African Queen.”

We got ready to launch and I checked to make sure the name on the boat was not “Andrea Gale.”  “We” was me, my son Andy, and son-in-law Ron DeValk and we were in northern Minnesota, lair of the wily walleye. It was late October, that brief Minnesota interval between summer fishing and more ice than you can chop through with a double-bitted ax in a month.

Andy spent the evening before fussing with rods and reels, tuning, checking line, sorting through a myriad of jigs and never-fail walleye lures.  I did what I do best–sprawl on the couch like a poleaxed boar.  I’ve found that all the fussing in the world is not appreciated any more by walleyes than is slack-jawed sprawling, so I choose to sprawl.  It’s what I do.

Walleyes are alleged to be on the prowl for pre-winter chow this time of year and we intended to check that thesis.  Either that or, given the weather, huddle in the cabin like Inuits in an ice block hut during a whiteout.

Low clouds spat rain against the cabin windows and the sound seemed to say, “sleet is on the way.”  Thinking to bring a bit of levity into the dire outlook, I sang, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, The sun will come out tomorrow!”

“Somebody oughta knock Little Orphan Annie in the head,” grumbled Ron sourly.

“Rain, rain go away,” I said.  “Come again some other day.”

“You don’t shut up, I’m gonna knock YOU in the head!” Ron snarled.

I visited what the resort euphemistically calls “The Biffy” and saw a can labeled “T.P.”and figured that stood for “tip” so I left a tip beside the roll of toilet paper in the can and prepared to challenge Minnesota in the pre-winter.  Ron was draining water from our boat and it ran through the drain hole like water from a fire hose.  Not a good sign.  At least it’s going out and not coming in.  So far…..

We clambered into the rocking boat and I remembered scenes from the Normandy Invasion.  At least no one was shooting at us.  I remembered that some of the landing craft went aground a hundred yards from shore and the soldiers had to wade or swim to the beach.  “A couple of guys down in southern Minnesota swamped their boat last week,” Ron said.  “They had to tread water for 30 minutes before they got rescued.”

I gulped and checked the snaps on my life jacket.  Ron put the spurs to his 30 horses and the boat leaped into the waves and I remembered how I got the lower back spasms that now make me walk like Groucho Marx.  It began with a Cree guide in Canada who drove his fishing boat like Dale Ernhardt and, I was beginning to fear, with the same end results.  He hit the tops of the waves with hammer blows that translated directly up my spine and I went from the pride of the YMCA to the pride of the Orthopedic Group.

Finally we reached the lee shore and my spine clattered back to semi-normal.  I’m sure an x-ray would have looked like a map of the Appalachian Trail, but at least the water was relatively quiet and I could enjoy my agony secure in the knowledge that we weren’t going to be swamped by the proverbial seventh wave.

All the fish, of course, had migrated to the far shore, reveling in the piscatorial equivalent of the Aqua Ride at Disneyland.  “We’re going to have to go back to the windy side,” Ron said grimly.  “That’s where the map said to fish.”  Goodbye lee side, hello lower back pain.

The map in question had been provided by our host who drew circles around what he said were the hot spots.  The circles were the approximate size of Rhode Island, so we narrowed our search to an area of about 100,000 acres.  Just right for a minnow the size of your little finger.

Ron turned on his fish finder and we found no fish.  We did find the depth, though, and a nice dropoff which is alleged to be where walleye hang out like guys in front of the Starbucks, waiting for the good-looking secretaries to come by for their lattes.  I threaded a reluctant minnow on a jig and sent it to the bottom and there was an instant tug, tug, tug.

“Fish on!” I screamed like Zane Grey, fast to a thousand pound billfish.  After an epic fight, not adequately described since Ernest Hemingway wrote about that old man, I brought my fish to gaff.  I guess a six-inch lake perch doesn’t exactly qualify as a literary icon, but you gotta write about what you know.

So…look for it in your bookstores: “The Old Man and the Piddly Perch.”

It ain’t much, but it’s all I got.


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1 Comment

  1. Michael Patrick

    January 28th, 2011 at 8:38 am


    Very funny, Joel. It’s Moby Dick of the Lake.

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