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  • March 21st, 2011

A Thousand and One Wisconsin Nights

By Joel M. Vance

It was a story told around the old kitchen table in the north woods cabin, the table covered by a red-and-white checkered oilcloth with cigarette burn scars in it.  The story about the time that my Grandfather stuck his hand in the northern pike’s mouth.

Stories told around the cabin

My grandfather was an old time Missouri fisherman, but he’d never been farther north than Salisbury in Chariton County—ten miles from home.  He’d never seen a pike and the biggest fish he ever caught was a flathead catfish.
His gear of choice was a fish trap he’d made himself, using his carpentry skills to fashion something as effective as it was illegal.   He waded the muddy waters of the old Chariton River, hauling his traps, with one eye (he only had one, thanks to a wood-splitting accident) out for the game warden.
Then my father invited him on a fishing trip to my mother’s home town in northwest Wisconsin.  The town was Birchwood on a chain of lakes including Red Cedar, Balsam, Little Birch, Big Birch and Big Chetek, all connected by waterways, but interrupted at the foot of Little Birch by an old Northern States Power Company dam.
My grandfather had never seen water as clear as there was in Little Birch when he and my father launched an old wooden boat powered by a 3.5 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor.  The Chariton River tended to be almost chewable, feeding the Missouri River, universally known as the Big Muddy.
They fished off Snake Island in Big Birch, reached through a sinuous channel called The Narrows.  A spidery trestle spanned The Narrows, carrying Soo Line freight trains.  The weedbeds around Snake Island were a hangout for lunker northerns.
I’m not sure how my grandfather mastered the intricacies of casting, using his callused thumb as a brake on the braided line.  That was light years more difficult than lobbing a fixed line on a cane pole and watching for the first twitch of a cork bobber
But he hooked and landed a 15-pound pike and did what he’d done all his 70 years in Missouri—he lipped the fish, the way he would have lipped a catfish or carp.  This time, however, it was as if he’d stuck his hand in a working lawnmower.  It took a while to stop the bleeding and he vowed to stay away from fish that could have you for supper.

Grandpa and his pike

Then there was the time that my dad hooked another enormous pike.  He was fishing with my Aunt Vic who was a rowdy type.  My father, at that time still more a Missouri farm boy than a north woods angler, dragged the pike over the side of their boat onto the deckboarded bottom where there was the detritus of a hundred fishing trips sloshing around in an inch of filthy water.
The pike went wild, still with most of its fight left.  It thrashed violently, knocking over an open tacklebox (a clearcut violation of commonsense north woods angling) and scattering River Runts, Pikie Minnows and Johnson Silver Minnows in every direction.
My aunt let out a north woods whoop and leaped on the huge fish like a rodeo rider settling on a Brahma bull.  The two of them had a wild ride for at least 10 seconds and the judges, had there been any, would have scored her for a perfect performance.
It took a while to get all the hooks out of the two of them.  She went home bloody but unbowed, while the pike went home on a stringer.  Actually, the pike and the two bruised anglers went to Hud and Bud’s bar to explain in great detail the ferocious fight to a more-or-less admiring crowd (more, when my father stood them to a round of Bruenig’s Lager, brewed in nearby Rice Lake).
Hud and Bud were my Aunt Vic’s brothers and Birchwood was pretty much owned and operated by the Soper clan.  My aunts, Vic and Mugs (Viola and Margaret), were photographed as teenage girls riding atop a load of logs of a size only seen in pioneer days.
That’s because it was pioneer days when the photo was taken.  My grandmother came overland in a covered wagon to Birchwood and opened a café to feed the loggers who were busy cutting the virgin forest.  She also raised a brood of eight kids which gave me a plethora of aunts and uncles to set a bad example.
One uncle, Orville, brother of Vic, Hud and Bud and the rest, managed to drop a tree on his leg and the local sawbones lived up to his nickname by amputating the leg on the kitchen table while Aunt Vic watched, not with revulsion, but with fascination.  She later became a registered nurse.
When the first airplane landed in a cow pasture in Birch Lake, the teenaged Vi Soper was the only one with guts enough to go for a ride with Monk Morey (how could a barnstorming pilot be named anything else?) and she screamed with delight when he did aerobatics over the little north woods town.
My mother, Ann, was the baby of the Soper clan.  She migrated to Chicago where she met my father who had migrated there from Missouri and they got married and would return to Birchwood for vacations dragging me along.  She’d hobnob with the Soper girls while my father went fishing and learned about fish-with-teeth the hard way.
I hung out with various cousins, all of whom knew more about fishing than I did.
My grandmother, the patriarch of the town, was the soul of rectitude…but her husband, who died before I was born, was the town bootlegger and it was not until I was grown and with children that someone in town told me she had been my grandfather’s lookout when she was a youngster.  “If the revenue people came I’d run and warn him,” she said.
I must have looked shocked.  He was only a yellowed photograph to me.  “You didn’t know?” she asked.  “You didn’t know he was the town bootlegger during Prohibition?”
No, I didn’t—the Soper clan held their secrets close to the vest and stories about Grandfather were somewhat vague, but did not include mention of outlawry.  I suspect if I probed far enough I’d find that he didn’t always abide by the loose fishing regulations of the day either, making me two-for-two on outlaw grandpas.
Legal fishing gear in Birchwood was a mixture of advanced technology and Neolithic leftovers.  My father’s reel was the best freshwater mechanism available, a Pflueger Supreme.  It lacked anti backlash and other refinements of the modern casting reel, but it was built like a Patek Philippe watch and, with a careful thumb on the spool, launched a Dardevle spoon halfway to the moon.
There were fairly limber jointed rods being used before Christ, but apparently the innovation hadn’t made its way to Birchwood.  My father’s rod was a four-foot Tru Temper steel rapier with the approximate tensile strength of a bridge girder.  It could have been used by d’Artagnan and his lusty Musketeers to tweak the sweetbreads of pesky Dutchmen.
The weak link, literally, was the silk fishing line which had a tendency to rot and break at inappropriate moments (with the fish of a lifetime bucking and sulling on the other end).  Each night my father looped his wet line here and there in the cabin to dry it while the anglers sat around the rickety table and told about how Bert Broughton, a local guide, caught a nice bass from under a neighboring boat even as the boat’s anglers from Chicago were whining about the poor fishing in Big Birch.
Birchwood was a fishing town.  There was a veneer mill, but fishing was the way most folks made a living.  Some of those who didn’t guide anglers ran one of the two bars in town to serve the thirst of visiting anglers from Illinois or Indiana, or worked at local resorts on the chain of lakes that stretched for more than 20 miles.
The Birch Lake Inn perched on the banks of Little Birch Lake and served a walleye dinner that pacifists would kill for.  There was a Sinclair “filling station” on the corner of Main Street, run by a widow named Jane who looked tough enough to knock down full-grown Hereford steers with one punch.  She was, however, a gentle giant, always with grease on her hands and blowsy blonde hair sticking out haphazardly from beneath a stained Sinclair cap.
She looked tired and had sad eyes.  I felt vaguely sorry for her, although at 10 years old I was too young to know why.
And there was an ice house, filled with blocks of ice cut during the long winter from Little Birch and Big Birch Lakes.  Few had electric refrigerators, so there was constant demand for ice during the summer.  It was a kid hangout, the kind of attractive nuisance that today results in negligence lawsuits when kids get injured (or suffer frostbit butts).
We kids perched on the sawdust-covered ice blocks, reveling in the chill while it was 90 degrees outside and the lake was busy manufacturing a dog days smell that permeated the town, along with the pungent scent of melting tar from the blacktop streets (the few that weren’t gravel-covered).
We didn’t know about attractive nuisances—the small world of Birchwood was our playground, dangerous or not.  An old barn behind my Aunt Pill’s house had a haymow door 15 feet or so above a pile of moldering hay.  We played War, getting shot and falling dramatically onto the pile of hay which, fortunately, didn’t have a rusty pitchfork hidden in it.  Older cousins were getting shot at in obscure places like Saipan and Tinian
Hud and Bud stashed a bunch of illegal slot machines in the attic of Hud’s barn and my cousin Pat discovered them.  We broke into one and found it full of quarters, more money that we’d ever seen. We needed a good excuse to account for sudden wealth.  That night we walked to town with my mother and managed to discover four or five quarters apparently lost in the roadside weeds.
She was a trusting soul, but not that trusting and after about the third quarter we pounced on with cries of discovery she had figured out that we weren’t extraordinarily lucky.  After the fifth one she had us quailing under intense interrogation.  No need for waterboarding or sleep deprivation—we broke almost instantly and my butt stung for a week from the subsequent whipping.
Pat once picked up what he thought was a firecracker that hadn’t gone off and stuck it in his mouth.  “Look,” he said.  “I’m smokin’!”  A moment later he was—the firecracker exploded, burning his mouth and stopping up my ears.  Kids got hurt.  I tripped running in a cut-over pasture and jammed a weed stalk down my throat.  I spit blood all the way home.  It hurt too much to howl, but I howled internally.
Aside from firecrackers and weed stobs, Birchwood summers were for fishing.  While the men were teasing pike around Snake Island, Pat and I dangled worms we dug out of the rotted manure pile behind my grandmother’s house off the rickety town dock and caught lake perch and bluegills.

Cousin Pat (left) and me with monster bluegills

It’s no wonder I developed a fishing habit as powerful as an opium addiction.  Now I’m busy developing my own fish stories.  But even as I’m telling them, I have a frisson of nostalgia over those long ago tales told around a battered kitchen table with the yeasty smell of Bruenig’s Lager hanging in the air like jasmine perfume in Scheherazade’s desert boudoir.
There was the one about my uncle who supposedly caught a 13-line ground squirrel and stuck it on a huge hook and lobbed it into Spider Lake (the statute of limitations on cruelty to animals has expired, as has the uncle).  The frantic animal, swimming toward safety, never made it.  There was a massive swirl and the squirrel disappeared.  My uncle landed an eight-pound largemouth bass.
Did it happen?  Probably not, but who cares.  It’s part of the family legend and that’s good enough.

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  1. Glynn Harris

    March 21st, 2011 at 2:29 pm


    Joel….Quite frankly, this old southern boy enjoyed the fire out of that “lippin’ the pike” story. You still have it, my friend!


  2. Karl Miller

    March 22nd, 2011 at 9:18 am


    Good fishing tales my friend. We did some fishing together and, as I recollect, our most rewarding catch came from an icey watering trough at the Cutoff Lake, The fishing for cold beer was great sport– there was no catch and release that night.

  3. Michael Patrick

    March 25th, 2011 at 8:07 am


    Beautiful recollections and photos. Black and white photos for some reason always seem more real to me.

    • Larry Sifford

      March 30th, 2011 at 6:31 pm


      Had a good laugh with all Joel…Having grown up in the Ozarks as a boy, your stories remind me so much of other men I knew in these hills and valleys…Thanks for the word pictures!

      • joelvance

        March 31st, 2011 at 5:04 am


        Small town is small town, no matter where it is. Lots of good memories of good times.

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