THE MISSING FISHERMAN
A memorial to a father, a friend, a teacher and a fisherman...
To Tom Dunn in a nursing home in Naples, Florida...
At 91 he is still smiling as he sits alone
in a nursing home and
replays his own memories of a distant time... back when friends and family, work and
play were so easy and natural. And of those recollections of the past,
memories of happy times on the water, of fish landed and lost, and stories
filled with good humor always seem to take
center stage for this old fisherman.
Thanks for the memories, Dad.
T J Dunn, Jr.
THE MISSING FISHERMAN
The first of four legs of my trip to northern Manitoba went well. As I stepped lively toward my gate at the Minneapolis airport for the next flight, I began to feel the relief and calm that comes with leaving behind the hectic pace of 10-hour workdays. Home is Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and a few more plane rides would bring me to Edmund Lake Lodge in far northeast Manitoba. The memories of previous trips to the pristine wilderness and the unfailing fishing rewards it offered to modern day fisherman bounced across my consciousness. I mentally played back some favorite experiences at the camp as I walked through the airport terminal… twenty pound northern pike, fast walleye action, camp life, shore lunches and happy companions. And Dad.
His toothy smile and scruffy beard, reminiscent of Ernest Hemmingway, captured my attention. Dad. Gosh, I wish you were here right now and we were going fishing together again. If I could just take your hand and steady you… help you rise up out of that wheelchair and allow you to leave the nursing home behind, I would. I might even tell you, as you used to tell us years ago, to “step lively, now”.I feel a bit guilty going without you. You flavored every fishing trip with your happy humor and funny stories; and you set fishing endurance standards the rest of us never achieved. I remember my very first fishing trip so many years ago. You took my hand back then and steadied me, a curious and stumbling 5-year old, on the steep bank of the Erie Canal near Rochester. You told me to hang on tight and not to drop the old Maxwell House coffee can with the night crawlers you caught the evening before. "Don't drop the can, now" you said. And three steps later I did. It rolled down the bank, spilling worms and dirt along the way. After your hasty retrieval of our bait I was curious that you didn't scold me at all. You simply sat me down at the water's edge, baited my hook and told me to hang on to the pole no matter what... while you fished along the bank for big pike with your fly rod. It wasn't long before a fat sunfish impaled itself on my hook and I begged to go home immediately to show mom.
As if it was just yesterday, I can still hear your voice awakening me on so many early morning fishing adventures. “Hey”, you’d say, “wanna go fishin’?” Since you filled me with great expectations of big fish as fast as we could reel ‘em in, I’d always arise quickly, anxious to join you as we sought the day’s watery rewards.
At my gate and with a few minutes to kill I could not stop thinking of the world’s most enthusiastic fisherman, now broken and weak in a 91-year old body. Even now, as your day draws to its inevitable close, your thin, cold and shaky hand still gives me strength and confidence. The sparkle in your eye is dimming and as you slump deeper into your recliner you still smile and laugh through the pain and fatigue each day presents to you. So Dad, this trip’s for you. I’ll catch a big one for you . . . like the ones you'd catch right where I was just about to make my next cast!
On the lake . . .
I wish we had more fishin' trips in our creel, Dad. I’d motor you around, take you to all our favorite places where the big pike triggered that wide smile of yours. I’d even gladly listen to you clear your throat every ten minutes, too. That hacking, raspy, throat-clearing noise you’d make sparked some secret jokes about you. We all learned to imitate you quite well. Protected from your wrath by your poor hearing, we’d sometimes “ahhehem...ahhehem” to each other right after you'd clear your throat. Like a chorus of sore-throated hounds, we’d hack and gag and giggle for a few minutes behind your back and you’d pretend you couldn’t hear us. Then, when we had teased you long enough, you’d command in a low voice, “Knock it off or I’ll bend your teeth”.
I fished by the big, rounded rock today at the mouth of Evening Bay behind the camp. That was our first stop, Dad, on our very first trip up here. We laughed like kids in a new sandbox when we caught a 37-inch northern on the third cast. We could see 20-inch walleyes silhouetted against the two big boulders ten feet down. We fished for two hours in that one spot before our excited imaginations envisioned even better fish haunts. So off we went with the wind in our faces and bugs in our teeth for new sandboxes to play in.
As my guide motored up to the narrows today I couldn’t help crack a smile thinking of how you would spit on every lure just before your first cast with it. You’d hold it out in front of you and bark at it “Now go get ‘em” as if you were a coach and the lure needed an earnest pep talk just before doing battle. And if I wasn’t having any action for a while I’d play up to you and inquire “It’s probably from not spitting on the lures, huh, Dad?” You'd allow for a few moments of silence to add a little drama and reply “Either that or you’re not holding your mouth right”. I heard you say that a thousand times when we were fishing and somehow it always seemed funny! And invariably, whenever you felt a strike you’d announce with truly spontaneous excitement, “Oooh. . . this is a good one, Teege”! Big pike or a side hooked six inch perch… it didn’t matter. "Oooh, this feels like a good one…"
I told the guide to make a run up the Margaret Channel. On this day, Dad, it’s not how you’d remember it years ago when it had a proud, strong flow of fish-filled water making soft eddies on the surface. The channel is very low now, with scarcely any movement of water. I took a few casts right where Paul and I watched you and Johnny trolling up the center of the wide channel gabbin’ with each other like two old friends. Occasionally we'd hear you two hollering, “There’s another one!” as you snapped your rod back after a strike. You and Johnny, both hard of hearing, had to “speak up,” as you’d always say, so you could hear each other over the low rumble of the trolling motor. Fifty yards away Paul and I could hear everything you guys said as plain as day. “They’re like two little kids at a birthday party” said Paul, as we listened to you exclaim “Can ya believe this action? I’ll bet the bottom of this channel is paved with fish!”
Well, not this year, Dad. The low water levels have kept the big Northerns and walleye farther out in the main part of the lake. So as the guide moved me out of the shallow river I nevertheless looked back at that place... and time... and could plainly see you and Johnny, lines trailing back behind the boat, a gentle “V” wave expanding outward on the water surface behind the boat, and your heads bobbing in laughter at some silly joke you shared. “Hey, did I ever tell you the one about the drunk and the telephone pole . . .?” Voices and visions from another time blended with the present; it mattered not whether they were real or remembered as I watched your boat moving farther and farther away, slowly passing out of sight on a river of remembrance.
I sped past Sandwich Island where years ago you, Johnny, Paul and I ate our box lunches and talked about the fantastic fishing. You were still in denial about being hard of hearing and didn’t hear me say I was going to set up my camera for a picture of us four fishermen. I put my paper plate down and walked about 20 feet; kneeling in the low brush of the island I fumbled around a bit, trying to find a suitable and sturdy camera stance for the time delayed photo. Suddenly your voice, rich with annoyed puzzlement, rang out, “What the heck ya doin’ down there, Teege?” I mumbled a reply about the time delayed group photo, which you evidently could not hear because I saw you turn to Johnny and Paul and ask, “Just what in the living hell is he doing down there, anyway?”
After some explaining you finally understood my mid-meal rummaging in the brush and your eyes lit up in recognition. You put your plate down, took off your sweat stained hat and said, “Oh, well in that case…” and proceeded with grand and dramatic gestures to lick your forefinger. With elegant sophistication the moistened finger was carefully passed across your bushy eyebrows, first one and then the other, to smooth them out so you'd look perfect for the photo.During lunch I gave you a big "thank you, Dad" for sending us three guys to college. I spent 7 years at U. of Illinois and lots of your money. I confessed to you once that I spent most of it on the pinball machines at the corner pub. You thought for a moment and calmly replied, "Well, at least you were putting it to good use". Paul graduated from Notre Dame where he studied all the time... mostly novels. Johnny graduated from Michigan State University and got a degree in outdoor stuff but he was never quite able to actually verbalize what the degree prepared him for... so he's selling insurance and has a fantastic array of fishing boats, gear and other outdoor toys.
"Yea, thanks, Dad" echoed Paul and John. And then the inevitable "Larry never even went to college and..." lecture would start. Our youngest brother, Larry, we discovered, was really strange and different... he didn't like fishing. We still loved him anyway although we felt sorry for him. "Ya know, boys" and we sat still for yet another parable about Larry, "besides Sally who got married, wasn't Larry the only child that didn't go to college? And he's doing great now! He surprised all of us, didn't he?" And we'd answer with the only ammunition we had "Yea, but Dad, he doesn't like to FISH". We'd all laugh at ourselves as you remarked, "Oh, that's right, poor Larry".
Big DonAcre Bay still produces some real trophy pike, Dad, just like it did 15 years ago. It’s too shallow now so I couldn't get all the way back to the end this year where we caught some real lunkers years ago. Whenever the action did slow slow down and we felt sorry for ourselves you would philosophize about our poor luck. You’d soothe our wounded egos by stating “At least we scared the heck out of 'em!”
Due to some very nasty weather this year my first four days at the camp I only managed to scare the fish. Thirty-five mile per hour north wind and cold, cloudy conditions really hampered the action. Finally on Thursday morning the weather turned bright and calm, perfect conditions for seeing big fish in the shallows and actually being comfortable. I remembered how you referred to miserable and nasty conditions... you'd say it was “colder’n a kitchbitty”. Of course we'd have to ask what a “kitchbitty” is and you’d say, “Ask your mother”. More than once when an ominous summer storm approached and promised thunder, lightning and rain “coming down in buckets” you’d use a favorite descriptive. “Ooooh”, you’d say, “Look at that sky. It’s blacker than the inside of your hat.”
Back at Edmund Lake Lodge during supper the fishermen and guides always quizzed each other about the day’s successes and failures. I caught two trophy pike today; the first, a 44-incher, was caught on my second cast. The second was 42 inches and we barely managed to cradle it before the 6 pound test line and tiny Mepps Minnow spinner that delicately held the big fish fell from its jaw. And there you were again, Dad. I remembered your favorite way to reply to another curious fisherman whenever asked what part of the lake you were fishing when you caught a big one. ”Where did you catch that one, Tom,” someone would ask. For emphasis in setting up your corny reply you would make the inquirer repeat his query.
“I beg your pardon”, you’d say, and the question was repeated.
“Where’d you catch him?”
With mock seriousness you’d open your mouth extra wide and point your index finger right up to the roof of your mouth. In garbled words and finger to palate you’d say, “Hhrright ahbout hhhere.” Long ago the entire family quit asking you where you caught your fish. After a successful day on the waters of Iron Lake, Little Duck, Vieux Desert or Lake Wisconsin, no one who knew you dared ask where you caught your fish for fear of hearing you reply, “I beg your pardon?”
As all fishing trips do, mine came to an end. I know that, like you, Dad, if I don’t visit here again, I’ll always have good memories of the place. You will always be a big part of any Edmund Lake Lodge reminiscing Paul, Johnny and I do. The funny stories you told, your genuine love of the sport of fishing, your unwavering optimism that “today’s the day” we would have success.
If you had been here I gladly would have cast the other way so you could have hooked that 44-incher. I would have embraced the moments at breakfast when you would have ordered your standard “oceans of coffee, black-no cream-no sugar; lots of bacon…crisp; two eggs-basted; whole wheat toast, lots of butter.” You were quite particular about breakfast, weren’t you?
I’d trade a big fish to have you catch just one more, Dad. And so would the rest of us. Would I trade my good health and take your place in that nursing home wheelchair? The answer is that I will someday... when it’s my turn to experience the debilitation and frustration that aging brings. And just as you always conducted yourself as a gentleman, a sportsman, supportive father and a teacher, you teach us yet today how to face challenges much bigger than a cruel north wind in an open boat in northern Manitoba. You’ve taught us how to bravely endure the wreckage and torments of a failing body and mind. You've taught us by example to stand up with courage and good humor, with wide smiles and still-funny stories, to the discomfort and helplessness the aging process, like a dark approaching storm, sends our way at the end of our time here. I honor who you are, Dad. And thank you for your guidance, generous provision and unwavering support. I thank you for your understanding and patience during the times I failed or made errors in judgment. Your firm discipline and wise counsel always renewed my own self-confidence, and buoyed me up, just as you did fifty-five years ago after I dropped our can of worms and watched with apprehension as it rolled down the bank into the canal.
And today as I return from an
extraordinary fishing trip to Edmund Lake
I thank you for holding my hand so many years ago along the Erie Canal
when you guided me to my first fish.
T. J. Dunn, Jr.
The old fisherman took his last cast at 10:23 a.m. on December
He was my backup, my inspiration, and my friend.
Now missing from the lives of those who knew him, we will long retain and pass on a sense of his presence.
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