What I’ve Learned From Fishing All Summer Long
The other day I visited my neighbours and we played croquet. The course ran up and down a domed knoll between some tamarack trees. I played through without wearing shoes. When I arrived at the fire pit where the croquet course began, my bare feet were immediately a hot topic.
There was talk of “grounding.” Some neighbours had heard of it. A few others had not. After about five minutes it was more or less agreed around the fire that it made sense that there would be some sort of physical benefit from contacting the earth with one’s own skin, that one’s static charges would be resolved — or something like that. It made some sense to me. I knew at least that I liked it.
I had only been back in town for about five days after spending two weeks camping and fishing all across Ontario. Perhaps I was still a little feral. I’d covered 4000 kilometres of road, give or take, and all without leaving the massive province. All without shoes, too, except for when wearing them was required in the stores where I bought supplies — then I would wear Crocs. I was travelling with my friend Luke, who drove a half-ton truck with four-wheel drive, and we had an old canoe strapped on top of it. Bent and banged up, hole-punched and bonded back together with some kind of liquid plastic sorcery, the aluminum canoe looked more like a trophy or a battleship than a fishing boat.
But it was our fishing boat, and fishing was all we used it for. It had been Luke’s grandfather’s canoe before he passed. In the spring, Luke and I took the boat fishing every day that we could. It was our new pandemic-friendly hobby. We had both come home to our mother’s houses in rural Southern Ontario during the worst of the coronavirus panic, when everyone was hoarding toilet paper and sharing memes about the apocalypse on Facebook. Sick of the anxiety and the judgement and the shame of sitting around doing nothing but watching and reading and hearing the news, we discovered that the best way to relax was to float around Conestogo Lake rhythmically casting out jigs and spoons and just talking, listening, one voice at a time. The only interruptions were usually from herons or osprey, whom we would scold for stealing all of the fish. How they did it, we did not know.
In the beginning it was Luke who caught the fish, if any were caught at all. The first day on the lake he caught a beautiful walleye, a fish I’d never seen. We’d been about forty-five minutes on the water, and he considered the fish to be a good omen. “I bet we can each catch our limit of these guys today,” he boasted. It was the species he’d been catching way up north, where he was living before the pandemic, where we would later go, at his insistence.
I asked him how many fish was the limit. We each had a sport license.
“Four each. Eight in all.” Luke grinned and strung his fish behind the boat and we came back to that spot at least five or six times, never fishing for less than eight hours and never again did we catch one walleye on that lake. The only other “eater” we caught was a sunfish, under a dock. Once we did hook a chunky bass but it leapt beside the boat and threw the hook. Another time Luke nearly caught a monstrous carp, but we don’t talk about that time.
So, after a costly lesson in boating safety etiquette from the provincial police, we purchased life jackets and a bailer, and we chose a new lake a little closer to home.
I was hooked. Sometimes I would wake up before dawn on a workday and just go fish the shore alone. My spot was a bank overgrown with shrubs that grew out from below the waterline. I stood alone in the fog, casting out into the dark, silent water.
I was losing lures to the weeds and sticks on the bottom, but I kept throwing hooks back in because I knew that something was there, biting. I needed a rig that would work. Finally I put a floating chartreuse jig head on the end, with a small split shot sinker one foot up the line, and a worm on the hook. I set it. I smiled and laughed and I reeled in the fish. It was a yellow perch, about five inches long. No monster, but a pretty nice looking fish. I threw it back and then I caught one after the other, some of them big enough to eat.
What I developed that morning, we now call the “whisper rig,” so named because it’s the tackle that I used to become the “Perch Whisperer.” Several times when Luke was skunked, I was able to divine a dozen or more perch into my hands from among the weeds with my whisper rig. “Perch don’t count,” Luke was always saying. “When we go up north, you’ll see. All anyone cares about is walleye and all they do is smash them on jig and minnow, all day long.”
Our trip north wasn’t until the end of the summer though, and so we kept putting up with the overfished south. Trying here and there and everywhere, I daydreamed of the promised north where the lakes were all devoid of jet skis and pleasure cruisers and water skiers and the waters were crammed full of walleye — of “absolute chungoid Walters,” as Luke would prophesy them to be.
We even tried the pond in Hillsburgh, my hometown. Kids were catching nothing with bobbers from the dock and we went to all the trouble of loading the canoe just to reach the lily pads on the other side. Luke wanted to see if there were bass over there. Towards evening, he put a plastic frog on his line, a “topwater lure.” He sat lazily with his feet dangling over the front, into the water, and he was wearing no shirt and a wide and frayed straw hat, looking like a subsistence fisherman from an ancient time. Suddenly he leapt in surprise and swore and nearly threw me overboard. I saw what had bit and it was a mean and green largemouth bass that had sprung at the frog. Luke reeled the frog in and guffawed and caught his breath. He was thrilled. The hooks on the frog were hard to set though; the design was “weedless” and they hugged the lure too tightly. He opened the hooks up with pliers and tried again. Again the bass attacked and this time the frog hooked it for a second but it flopped again and disappeared.
I switched to a jitterbug (another topwater lure, with more hooks) and right until nightfall we kept repositioning the boat and pursuing this tease of a fish. Always he would blast out of nowhere and attack the lure and vanish. Then he’d try it again on the next cast and then he would spook. I call the fish a “he” now, probably because he was nothing if not a bastard.
And in the end, I was the one who hooked him properly with the jitterbug. It was right after we said “ten more casts, then we’ll go home.” It was dark enough that we could see the stars. Luke paddled the boat to strafe the lily pads so the fish would have less opportunity to tangle and break the line. When we got him close to the boat, I pointed my rod low to the water, so he wouldn’t jump. It’s fun to watch a bass jump, but it’s no fun to lose them. Luke got him in the net and we had triumphed. I did not eat this fish. He had earned my respect, and I was not hungry. In some strange way, we had bonded. I held him in my hand for a long time and looked into his black eyes. It was a humbling and even cathartic experience, to come to respect a fish by sinking a hook into his face and dragging him across the water into my hand. As much as I felt sorry for what I’d put him through, I admired his tenacity even more. The fish’s mortal struggle put mine in perspective, and suddenly my own frustrations were insignificant.
The experience, I might say, was grounding. As was the big trip when it finally came time to go. We rode up all the way to the promised land, trying out lakes along the way, not catching much. We saw the stars and we loved them for shining. Finally, we arrived at the providential shores and we bought minnows at the gas station and we tied the boat to a sunken tree in the narrow bay of a sprawling lake with not a trace of humanity in sight, and there we smashed the walleye, just like Luke said we would. He caught the biggest walleye he’d ever seen and the fish was dubbed the “Chungus.”
We caught many more fish and we fried them up in a cast iron pan, covering each fillet in corn meal and Cajun seasoning from the store. Every simple pleasure was worth rejoicing, no matter how small, from finding edible mushrooms by the campsite to listening to the lonely loon on the water. We just camped wherever, driving the truck down bush roads until we found a spot on crown land where we could set up. Some sites were far better than others. Everything was a surprise, a blessing, an omen, a sign. We improvised tools and worked with what random crap we had packed. Not even on the first day had we piled anything in the back of the truck in any kind of order, and that was fine. Much of the food we packed disappeared within the mess and was lost to mould. We lost no sleep over it. We yearned to work with chaos, not against it.
And after three nights on Long Legged Lake, long after all the minnows were used up, the floor of our canoe was littered with carcasses and guts of fish and scavenged bait. Mussels lay cracked open, their meaty matter sliced into thick ribbons. Leeches that had been feeding on the carcass of the Chungus were swimming or dead in a closed dish. Dried quarters of worms were scattered between the severed tails of perch that we’d otherwise cooked and eaten already. The tails could be put on a jig and kind of look like a fat minnow, Luke had discovered. Indeed all of these we had set onto our hooks and tried for more walleye – to little acclaim compared to the wild success of our minnows on the first day there. It was fun and disgusting in turn to be killing and hooking and maiming so much wildlife just to try to snag some lunch. Sometimes I was squeamish, honestly. You gut enough fish and you start to wonder how easily you might have the good meat sliced off of you and the rest discarded where you came from. A wolf had come by the cook camp two nights in a row and defecated on the beach. What could it do to me, given the chance?
It’s a contentious subject, the killing of animals for food. Each of us seems to draw our own moral line, with some objecting simply to eat anything “factory farmed” and others refusing to touch any animal products at all. But when I get out there in the unforgiving wild and I trick a fish and net it and tell it “namaste” and slice it apart and eat it and watch the microbes and bugs and leeches and minnows munch on the rest, I get a sense that the entire process is sacred. Out in the woods, everything is eating everything else all the time, and I’m just part of the game, as vulnerable as any other creature. That, in the end is what is truly grounding. That’s why I sometimes don’t wear shoes.
Kyle McKinnon is an intern at Accenti, and currently studying English Literature at Bishop’s University. Having long admired the limitless beauty of nature, music and storytelling, he has travelled throughout Canada and Europe, listening keenly to the stories told with sincerity and compassion. Formerly apprenticed as a home-builder, he is sure to measure his words twice and to cut them once.