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  • January 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

My Uncle Al wasn’t imaginative enough to nickname the pike—calling it Scarface, for example. To him it was just “that goddam fish!” but he was obsessed by it.
It was a northern pike he had hooked and lost twice, a pike of a size not seen by him or any other Birch Lake angler in many years, certainly not in his considerable lifetime. It was an anomaly, a throwback to the pioneer days before Birch Lake was invaded by armies of modern anglers, armed with the fishing industry’s latest technological weapons.
Pike of that size in the early days had to worry about a few Ojibwas with rudimentary spears or, somewhat later, a few white anglers with Tru Temper steel rods, Pflueger Supreme reels and braided line that often was rotten enough to break with a sharp tug.
The big northern sulled in the weedbeds around Penny Island and had a whitish scar running across its forehead, perhaps from a gaff that missed or from who knows what. Maybe even a fish spear just missing through a hole chopped in the thick ice during the winter.
It had been there for a long time, gaining length and weight and the scars of battle. Al figured it would run upwards of 35 pounds and, while he made a fair sideline income from guiding tourist-anglers, he carefully avoided guiding them anywhere near the haunts of the big fish.
He didn’t want anyone catching that fish but him. Fortunately for Al the day had passed when the trophy anglers invaded the lake. Virtually all of today’s fisherpeople, including the ones Al guided, were after bluegills and lake perch, small fish in abundance. Rarely did anyone venture through the Narrows into the wide part of the lake where Penny Island crouched almost unnoticed.
The monster pike lurked around a weedbed on the far side of the tiny island. Al would approach the weedbed with the caution of an errant husband sneaking to an assignation—fearful that an alert fellow angler would ferret out his secret and beat him to the huge fish. Not that it would be easy, even if you knew where the mighty fish lay. Trophy fish don’t get that way by being dumb.
But in one of his rare generous moments Al took the Methodist minister fishing on a Saturday afternoon, figuring to earn some afterlife points which anyone who knew him would agree that he needed. In the spirit of Christian charity (and because he figured the minister was not much of an angler), he drifted near the Penny Island weedbeds. And, wouldn’t you know it, on the good reverend’s very first cast there was a brutal strike and the Holy Rod bowed as if in genuflection.
“Got a big one!” cried the minister, reeling furiously as the fish bore toward the boat, intent on sawing itself off on any sharp protrusion.
As the big fish circled the stern of the inelegantly-nicknamed Birch Lake Bitch, Al saw the telltale white scar on the big fish’s head and realized that his personal Holy Grail was about to come home to Jesus, not to him. Heaven can wait, he told himself grimly as he surreptitiously reached down with his filet knife and sliced the line just above the leader. “Ah, geez, reverend!” he exclaimed. “He cut the line on the motor! Hell…I mean, heck of a bum deal!”
The minister, to his credit, did not say any of the things Al would have said in similar circumstances, murmuring only, “Ah, well, the Lord moves in mysterious and sometimes painful ways. Perhaps I wanted it too much.”
His sermon the next day concerned the sin of coveting. Al, in the very back of the church more out of curiosity (and a niggling sense of shame) listened as the preacher cautioned against breaking the Tenth Commandment and Al substituted “catch” for “covet” and added “fish” to “neighbor’s wife, house, male servant and ass.” He glanced up as he left the church and murmured, “Sorry.”
It was a week later when retribution, whether divine or not, visited Al in the Bluegill Bar. He had gone fishing early in the afternoon and near sunset he hooked into a nice northern near Snake Island. It proved to be the biggest pike of the season, a 15-pounder—far from his scarfaced obsession, but a nice pike nonetheless and one worth showing off at the Bluegill Bar. Al figured bragging up his fish before he took it home and filleted it was worth a few free beers from his bar rag buddies.
The Bluegill was an old building faced with lake rocks that looked more like glacial till than a building front. The heavy wooden door bore the patina of a quarter century of winters and summers and the abrasions of a zillion thirsty patrons. The interior was dimly lit and so were most of the people inside.
When Al brought his pike inside the buzz stopped instantly, save for the oompah stomp of Frankie Yankovic on the jukebox. “Holy hammers, Al!” boomed one of his grizzly compadres. “Hell of a fish! That calls for a brew!” Of course virtually anything called for a brew at the Bluegill, but Al had been right that the northern was worth some free Bruenig’s Lager. Even Olaf Swenson, the bartender, bought him one on the house.
Some time later, warmed by the glow from four Bruenig’s, Al made the mistake of his life, not that he hadn’t made more than the average share of big mistakes to that point. But no previous error would prove as dream-shattering as what happened after he agreed to guide the beefy loudmouth tourist in the ridiculous shirt and baggy shorts.
“You the guy that caught that big fish!” The booming voice belonged to a large, fleshy man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts that looked big enough to hold a circus in. He was the antithesis of anybody Al normally would have wanted to socialize with. But Al was flush with good humor created by the fish and the beer. At that moment he was unusually benevolent and he smiled and nodded.
“Hell of a fish,” man said. He plopped down in a chair, uninvited, and said, “Name’s Brewster Mulligan. We got a bet over there,” he said, nodding toward a table with several other obvious tourist types. “They bet me I can’t catch a pike worth bragging about. You ever guide?”
Al began to nod yes, squinted at the sweating, florid foreigner, had second thoughts and was poised to say no when Mulligan added, “I’d pay you a gob to take me out. I just wanna rub them guys’ noses in it. Tell you what, we got a hundred bucks bet that I can’t catch a pike as big as that one you just brought in…and I’ll split it with you if you can put me on a big northern.”
The mention of fifty dollars tied Al’s tongue. He was congenitally short of funds. And his usual guiding rate was $25 a day. The fat guy was offering double pay. Al’s bar tab, always looming, was approaching the point where Olaf would demand payment or cut off his Bruenig’s pipeline, an event not to be contemplated. It was a no brainer.
“Ain’t no guarantees,” Al said.
“I don’t buy anything without a guarantee,” Mulligan said. “Bad business.” It sounded like a joke, but Mulligan didn’t laugh. He frowned, sweating in the thick beer and smoke atmosphere of the Bluegill Bar. Once again Al had second thoughts but the appearance of another bottle of Bruenig’s, sweating and cold, eased his concern.
They shook on it—the large man’s sweaty, soft palm, and Al’s horny old hand. Al wiped his hand on his overalls. They would meet in the morning at the town dock where Al moored his ancient wooden boat.
The beefy man said, “You can call me Mr. Mulligan, now that you’re working for me.” It sounded like a joke, but Al heard a hard note in the man’s voice that made him once again wish he’d turned the guy down. But a deal’s a deal and fifty bucks is roughly 3.5 cases of Bruenig’s Lager.
The next morning was overcast with enough breeze to stir the lake surface. Al was gassing his old Johnson outboard when Mulligan appeared, hauling a casting rod and a tacklebox the size of a boxcar. He threw both in the boat and said, “Let’s get this show on the road. I got a buffalo-sized hangover and I don’t need a bunch of crap.” He pulled a pint of Old Forester from his pocket, blew like a spavined horse and uncapped it. The glugging sound the booze made as he chugged from it was audible in the back of the Bitch where Al fiddled with the outboard.
Great way to start the day, Al thought. Nice guy. Al’s geriatric outboard coughed a few times, but then it had had a catarrhal condition for years. They set out and Al trolled along Birch Lake’s shoreline for a while, but knew that the shallows across the lake held more promise for a pike angler. And the money was more or less conditional on Mulligan catching a bragging size (and bet-winning size) northern.
The Bitch wallowed across the main body of the lake toward Snake Island. “This is where I caught that pike last week,” he said. Mulligan snarled his reel almost hopelessly on his first cast.
“Goddam it!” he yelled. “If you’d get the damn boat where it oughta be that wouldn’ta happened!” He picked fretfully at the mess and then threw the rod in disgust toward Al. “Here,” he snarled. “I’m payin’ you—you fix it!” Al, glowering but silent, mindful of his guide’s fee, pulled endless loops from the buggered reel.
Finally he managed to free the tangles and reel the line tight to the spool. He tightened the drag slightly and handed it back to Mulligan who was busy knocking back another slug from his pint. Al noticed that the formerly full pint was about half gone. Either he had taken a long time to free the reel or the guy was a speed drinker. Al wouldn’t have minded a belt himself, but he would rather give up drinking than beg for a bump from a human moose flop like this guy.
“Gotta keep your thumb on it or she’ll backlash every time,” Al said, as mildly as he could, although he wanted to jam the rod, reel and all, where the sun rarely if ever shined.
“Yeah, right,” Mulligan muttered. “You just keep the boat where it oughta be and I’ll take care of the fishing.” He took another hefty hit from his pint and wiped a meaty hand across his mouth. “Don’t need no hick tellin’ me how to fish,” Al heard Mulligan mutter and he took a deep breath and thought of a phrase he had heard on the “Law and Order” television show—“justifiable homicide.”
Al maneuvered the boat along the shore, nursing the five-horse Johnson like a conductor’s baton. Mulligan’s next cast overshot the shoreline by five yards and nailed an overhanging birch tree. Mulligan hauled on the rod like a man possessed. “Come loose you rotten son….!” he snarled. With a muted pop and hiss the line parted and the rod sprang to attention. Fifty feet away the red-and-white Dardevle swayed in the birch tree. “Well, if that isn’t the goddamndist….you got too damn close to the bank, dammit!”
Al was increasingly less mindful of his guide’s fee and more mindful of the penalty for premeditated murder. Still, he figured a jury of Birch Lakers, given the circumstances, would not only exonerate him, but set him up at the Bluegill Bar for ridding the world of a nuisance. He sighed and vowed to guide only women, mousy little men and kids from now on.
They were drifting across the narrows toward Penny Island, but Uncle Al figured this guy couldn’t even hit the water with a bad cast, much less a good one. Mulligan had opened his mammoth tacklebox, and slipped the trays wide out, exposing more lures than Al had seen in his lifetime.
Mulligan picked out a River Runt, bristling with treble hooks, and a new steel leader. He tied the leader on and snapped the Runt to it. Meanwhile, Al drifted with the current which would take him around the end of Penny Island and toward the lee shore where, perhaps Mulligan could cast into weedy shallows without hooking himself, Al or a passing airplane.
The antique Johnson outboard coughed, sputtered and died. Wavelets slapped against the boat. As Al bent over his tubercular old outboard, Mulligan resumed slopping awkward casts toward Penny Island.
“Holy Jesus!” Mulligan shouted. “I got one!” Al looked up from the defunct outboard and with the prescience born of a lifetime of fishing knew instantly that Mulligan had hooked his scarfaced fish. He instantly fumbled for his filet knife. If he couldn’t cut the line somehow, he was halfway prepared to use the knife on Mulligan. The idea that this obnoxious outlander could steal his trophy was unimaginable.
But there would be no surreptitious cutting of the line this time—Mulligan did the unthinkable.
As the huge fish made a dive to go under the boat, Mulligan countered with a mighty heave that brought the fish out of the water like a Polaris missile…and into the boat, filled with pike rage. The fish landed in Mulligan’s lap and thrashed demonically, teeth and treble hooks flashing.
Mulligan howled and fell over backward into his open tacklebox. Al watched horrified as his client screamed in pain, a 35-pound northern clubbing his vital parts in front and a confusion of sharp hooks assaulting his backside. “Get him off me!” Mulligan screamed. Al had subdued many an active northern, but not one this big and not one this active. He wanted no part of it.
Mulligan managed to push the fish into the bow of the boat long enough to squirm around and reach in the tacklebox. Al noticed that his butt bristled with lures, all with one or more hooks imbedded in Mulligan’s ample flesh. Mulligan came out with a .45 caliber pistol and before Al could shout a warning, emptied the gun into the pike…and the Bitch, which began spouting water from a half-dozen holes in its bottom.
Quiet returned to Birch Lake. Mulligan sprawled across the bow seat groaning in pain, his multi-hooked butt in the air. The dead pike lay in the bow which gradually was filling with water. “Jesus!” Al breathed, wishing he could emulate the Savior and hike to town atop the waves, leaving the whole mess behind.
It took more than a half hour of improvising stoppers for the bullet holes and bailing before the Bitch once again was seaworthy. Mulligan spent the entire time cursing Al, the boat, the fish and his rotten luck. Somehow the entire episode had become Al’s fault. “If you’da done your job…shoulda known better than goin’ with some hick….get these goddam hooks outa me….what the hell’s the matter with you!” And so on.
Al began to regret that Mulligan had emptied the gun because it left no bullets for him to use on the loudmouth. He gave Mulligan a mirthless grin, looking remarkably like the toothy pike. “You got your big fish,” he said between clenched teeth. “What’s your complaint?”
“Damned if I’m gonna pay for this!” Mulligan yelled.
Al sat back in the stern and said, “Fine—you can walk home then.”
Mulligan pointed the empty pistol at Al, then realized he was out of ammo, made as if to lunge toward Al and howled in pain as the myriad Pikie Minnows, River Runts, Dardevles and Bass-Orenos reminded him of their presence. “Just get me to a doctor!” he snarled, turning to hug the seat in front of him.
Al snapped his grimy fingers. “Money,” he said. There was a long moment of standoff until Mulligan realized that he couldn’t win. “Here!” he snarled, painfully extracting his billfold. “Take your goddam money!”
Al tried to hit every wavelet en route to the Town Dock, each time jarring Mulligan who was folded frontward over the bow seat, his looming backside pointed toward Al. Al eased the boat to the dock and tied it off. “I’ll go get somebody to take you up to the doc,” he said.
“You better hurry or I’m gonna sue your ass!” Mulligan snarled. “Worthless old bastard!”
Al gimped up Main Street to the Bluegill Bar and pushed through the creaking door into the dim interior. There were only a couple of grizzled potato farmers, moodily nursing longneck Bruenig’s Lagers. Dust motes swirled in the hazy sunlight filtering through the dirty windows. The geriatric ceiling fan squeaked rhythmically as it stirred the stale, beer-flavored air in the bar.
“Gimme a draw and a shot,” Al said to Olaf Swenson. He plopped down on a barstool and rubbed at his stubbly jaw. “Jesus, what a day!” he growled.
He threw back the shot and followed it with a gulp of beer. He brooded over the empty shot glass. “How about can I use your phone?” he asked. Olaf set the bar phone in front of him and Al looked at it with sour distaste, as if he thought it might bite.
“You got a hot date, Al?” Olaf asked. “Or tryin’ to get one?”
Al thought of the lost pike, the slob who had stolen his fish, the man now sprawled over the bow seat of the Birch Lake Bitch with a covey of treble hooks buried in his ample butt, the trophy pike drying and dull in front of him. It was a mental picture that brought a momentary frisson of pleasure to Al’s otherwise glum mood.
But then Al realized he likely never would see a live fish as big and as desirable as the one the loudmouthed stranger had stolen from him and that blackened his mood once more. “You gonna use the phone, Al?” Olaf asked.
“No big hurry,” Al said, knocking back the rest of his beer. “Gimme another shot and a beer. I got all the time in the world.”

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