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  • July 3rd, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


There is a photograph in the Vance archives of a man, his back to the camera, standing at the edge of the Macon Lake, a Shakespeare fiberglass fly rod in hand, tickling the edge of the water weeds with a popping bug, teasing the bluegills lurking there.


The man is alone, but not lonely. He is the perfect example of a man completely at peace with the world, with himself, and completely free of care and woe. It is a photograph that I treasure, because it is of my father, taken probably about 1960 by me, and developed and printed in my rudimentary home dark room.


My father was a passionate fisherman but not an accomplished fly fisherman. He never quite mastered the art of casting a fly of any type, never quite mastered the concept of the line doing the work, not the lure at the end of it. He had grown up first of all with a cane pole down on the Missouri farm from which he sprang, lobbing a chunk of chicken liver into the nearby Chariton River in hopes that a catfish would inhale it.


Later in life, he married a girl from Birchwood Wisconsin, a town embedded in the lake country of the North West part of the state. Nobody there knew much about fly rods either, save for a couple of strange types who eschewed the use of stiff steel Tru temper rods, equipped with casting reels, strung with fishing line that had to be hung up to dry after each day’s  fishing before you could use it again. You began the day by breaking off a foot or so of terminal line, figuring that it had weakened enough that sure as hell you would lose the trophy fish of a lifetime if you didn’t.


My father not only married the girl from Birchwood; he also married into that culture and abandoned his cane pole for his own True Temper rod and he sprung for an upscale Pflueger Supreme reel, at that time the Stradivarius of casting reels. He also abandoned the chunk of chicken liver for a Pikie Minnow equipped with 3 treble hooks as ferocious looking as a barracuda .


No more did he look for channel catfish; now the quarry was northern pike and walleyes. It was a day when Big and Little Birch lakes and their bigger cousin Chetac still contained large specimens of those fish which you can see in old photographs of grim faced anglers at the day’s end holding up either end of a laden stringer. The years would pass until day’s end would see, if you were lucky, a stringer of bluegills.  Birchwood became the Bluegill Capital of Wisconsin. Those photographs of yesteryear represented what we now call “the good old days”.


Among those old photographs is one of my dad and his fishing buddies grouped around a table in one of the several lakeside resorts, drinking from bottles of Bruenig’s lager, a brewery, now-defunct, located in nearby Rice Lake, telling stories of the day’s fishing. I was but a tadpole in those days of yesteryear, not part of the fishing club yet, not even close to being included in my dad’s piscatorial parties.


I longed to go with my dad, maybe trolling the shoreline of Birch Lake for bass or walleyes, but it was not to be. He had a two and a half horsepower Evinrude motor which somehow came loose from the transom one day and sank in 80 feet of water and to this day it resides in the depths of Big Birch . But while the big guys fished, rowing because of the loss of the little outboard, my cousin Pat and I were relegated to fishing with cane poles and worms off the town dock for bluegills and yellow perch. There is a photo of the two of us side-by-side, probably six years old, each holding a stringer aloft with one tiny bluegill, each the size of our tiny palm. They wouldn’t have been good bait for the walleyes and pike the big guys were hunting.


During most of the year my dad was caught between two worlds, working for a living in Chicago. Far to the north were his fishing buddies in Birchwood, and far to the South were his fishing roots in Missouri. In Chicago he had one of the Great Lakes, Michigan, at his doorstep and it was there that we connected as fellow anglers for the first time. The lake was several blocks from where we lived on the south side and a pier jutted out from the shoreline, always studded with pole and line anglers, perhaps reverting to their rural roots in the only way available to them.


Dad and I fished for yellow perch and what we called lake herring (ciscos). Both were prime eating fish, but neither were likely to appear in family photographs of triumphant days on the water. Those photos were reserved for the times that dad and his fishing buddies scored. Cousin Pat and I were lucky to have that one pitiful reminder of our fishing.


It wasn’t that my dad was an inattentive parent, but I suspect that in his initial life plan the concept of a child did not take center stage. It didn’t help that I was a whiny little kid, heir to virtually every known childhood disease—tonsillitis, measles, chickenpox, mumps and probably some others as well. I was the quintessential “are we there yet?” kid, and I’m sure it was a relief to both my parents when I preferred to play out of sight and out of mind (something that was possible in those long ago days), or to curl up with a book of outdoor adventures checked out of the local library. I spent far more time with fictional outdoorsmen than I did with my dad.  I would be a teenager before dad recognized that I was destined to become an adult and that perhaps I was old enough to be included as one- of his fishing buddies.


It has taken me more than 80 years to realize and appreciate how much my dad shaped my life. Father’s Day had not yet been declared a day to commemorate when my dad died in 1967. My mother was his life and I was a peripheral part of it for much of my growing up. It was not until we moved from Chicago to Missouri that dad and I began to share the outdoors. The Cutoff Lake, an oxbow of the Missouri River, separated from the main channel in the 19th century.  It became our playground for hunting ducks in season and for fishing during the clement months. It was a muddy old lake, devoid of pike and walleyes, but rich with catfish, carp, and other fish commonly derided as “trash fish.” But we set trot lines for them (being sophisticates in fishing, we declined to call them “trout lines” as the locals did). There was magic in running our trot line by the light of the moon, the silence of the summer night as deep and restful as sleep itself. The occasional thrashing of a hooked fish dragged to the boat was the only interruption in those moments. We didn’t talk much, not wanting to interrupt the tranquility of our isolation from the noise of daily life. It was just dad and me, fishing buddies.


We still visited Birchwood in the summers, but most of his old fishing buddies had been left behind in Chicago, had died, retired, or otherwise vanished into memory. So had the fishing for stringers of large pike and walleyes.  Overfishing for far too many years, left perch and bluegills as the fish of choice. Those tiny bluegills that Pat and I caught off the town dock (which also had vanished) were merging over time with the laden big fish stringers of yesteryear.  Even Bruenig’s lager vanished into the beer mists of time along with those big fish.


My folks moved to a rental house at the Macon Lake, the Missouri town’s water supply, when I was a sophomore in college and a new world opened up for dad and me. This was clear water as opposed to the muddy old Cutoff, and the fish were largemouth bass as well as the familiar bluegills. I swiped an old frog color Jitterbug from my dad’s battered tackle box, a relic of those halcyon days in Birchwood, and went fishing at the lower end of Macon Lake. I probably was casting with my dad’s Tru Temper rod and Pflueger reel, although lost in the drama of the moment I don’t remember. As the old plug burbled back toward me, there was a great sloshing sound and shortly I landed a seven pound largemouth, the largest bass I have ever caught.


Dad bought a car topper boat, a watercraft about as reliable for two fishermen as a surfboard. We were fishing a strip pit for bluegills and bass when for some reason we simultaneously leaned the same way and the next thing we knew we were submerged. The boat rocked back upright so we didn’t lose any tackle, but we surfaced at the same time facing each other, each clutching a fishing rod. My dad still had his cap on. We looked at each other for a long moment and then did the only thing that seemed appropriate—we burst into laughter.


Dad and I had a number of memorable years as fishing buddies until physical infirmity laid him low, and after my mother died in 1965, his life effectively ended.  He simply could not cope with the loss of the one person in his life who meant more than his own life. First, he lost a leg to phlebitis, and then he lost his will to live. Living 100 miles away, with a wife and three small children, I couldn’t be there for him and the one person he wanted to be there no longer was. It took two years for him to follow her, trying too often to ease his pain with alcohol which only delayed the inevitable return of overwhelming misery.


More than a quarter of a century has passed since my fishing buddy died and time has faded the inevitable grief but the memories that remain sustain me. In my mind I can see again the two of us surfacing after free diving the strip pit, breaking into laughter, a shared moment in an ignoble adventure.


And there is in a faded scrapbook of family photos a photo of a man at the edge of a lake lofting popping bugs over the weeds in hopes of hooking a little bluegill. A man, who at that moment, was totally at peace with himself, and with the world.  My dad, my fishing buddy .


A world of yesteryear that for a moment was frozen in time









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  1. CJ

    July 3rd, 2020 at 5:33 am


    Okay, tears here.

  2. Jim Low

    July 5th, 2020 at 8:55 pm


    What a poignant recollection, Joel. Thanks for this.

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