Finally the reel starts screaming and the rod throbs up and down violently. Adrenaline rushing through my blood, I jump across the deck to pull the rod out of the holder careful not to drop it into the water. I start to make progress on the fish but then he darts back down. Deeper this time. Neither of us are going to give up without a fight. The reel screams as the line is stripped from the reel. The fish begins to tire. I’m not giving up. I want to win. I continue to pull the rod up and reel down on the slack. My arm is fatigued. My wrist is cramped. My leg burns from the pressure from the fishing rod. This just pushes me to try harder to win this battle. My pain will be worth it after I win. The soreness will just be a reminder of the work that was put in to win the fight. This is one tough fish. I see the rewarding silver flash from the fish scales in the water. The salmon is nearing the surface. Netting the fish is a team effort as the fish attempts to squirm free. My dad instructs me exactly when to raise the fish and to reel so both our actions are in sync. He swoops down with the net and pulls up a keeper. “We have what we need. How about we call it a day?” says Dad. Riding back to shore I am absolutely thrilled to be able to ride back to the campground sitting in the bed of the truck with a full cooler. The locals will yell up, “catch anything?” or “are they biting?” My brother and I will reply proudly by holding up the fish as if it were a trophy. I think about how it’s just the natural cycle, the food chain. My stomach growling, I know dinner is quickly approaching.
Early in the day, as we walk along the side of the river, I can see the old scarred salmon swimming up the river and into the manmade concrete side stream into the hatchery. The salmon were born in this river. If the young fish survive their vulnerable beginning they swim downstream into the lake began their lives. Now they are returning to their birthplace to spawn and inevitably die. Their gray backs camouflage into the rocky bottom of the creek. Their back fins stick out of the water. I feel like a spy; I’m peering in on their uninterrupted world, this world that should be masked by a dark cover of water. We aren’t supposed to be able to enter that world, are we? I feel out of place yet so intrigued. I can’t take my eyes off of the river. I keep waiting to see more and more. My brother says pointing and voice filled with excitement, “Right there! Right there! See it, Hale?” The wounded 30-pound fish glide through the water with ease as if they were never in pain. Determined to get back to their birthplace, they fight the current. The scars tell the story of the fish bumping off rocks, scraping themselves swimming through shallow water and surviving encounters with predators, who, similar to me, were also concerned about what was for dinner. Some have sores on their sides from the lamprey eel invasive species that attached to them while they were in the lake to feed. Parting the water with their fin, they give away their position but only to a trained fisherman’s eye. I think to myself how nice it would be to catch this fish and take it home for dinner. Oh, how proud I would be to be skilled enough to trick them into thinking my bait is a part of that secret world and harvest such a creature. After seeing the salmon’s struggle, it turns my stomach to think that such carelessness could cause this creature to give its life to be wasted.
“Time to clean the fish,” Dad says. We pull the fish out of the cooler. Fellow campers walk over in awe. “Where did you catch that?” a little boy asks quietly in astonishment. “The lake” I happily reply. Their curiosity goes to show how fortunate I am to be able to experience fishing on one of the Great Lakes firsthand. With great care, Dad lays the fish on a wooden board. I hold the hose and gently spray the blood off the dark silver scales. I look at the salmon’s eye and wonder to myself what has this creature seen? What stories does he have to tell if he could? The eggs are exposed as the sharp knife slides through the scales starting at the gills, under the meat, gliding along guided by the spine to fillet the meat. Carefully, I place them into a plastic bag to save for bait on later fishing trips. One side of the fish at a time, Dad continues to skillfully clean the meat away from the carcass. He leaves the skin on in order not to waste a morsel. I am amazed as to what the insides of this creature look like. The tones of pink and orange are beautiful. Most would be disgusted by this. I’m not. The smell is fresh but without a doubt fishy. It is a fresh fish smell. There is a big difference. The scraps go into a bucket that later the campground will add to their compost.
Fire crackling, I take the fish out of the plastic bag and rinse the meat off with hose water. The fillets are placed into plastic tubberware filled with teriyaki marinade. Preparation is quick. I pull the grate out of the camping bin and find the small metal stake that holds the grate right above the flames. I hammer the stake into the dirt beside the fire careful not to pound my fingers. Delicately, I place the fish on the grate ensuring none of the precious meat falls through the slots. The grate is snapped onto the stake and swiveled over the fire. The sweet smell of the campfire, marinade and fish cooking is indescribable; it must be experienced firsthand. A verbal description will never overwhelm all your senses like this did. The amount of effort that is put into this meal in a way symbolizes the amount of work that was put into the salmon’s life. Preparation may not be lengthy but the effort put in to harvest the animal is. Sitting down in the folding camp chair, paper plate and flimsy plastic fork in hand, the hot steam from the freshly caught and cooked salmon billows up toward my face. It is the simple ability to provide for yourself and family that is so rewarding. The necessities are covered while we enjoy every minute of it. I haven’t thought about a laptop or a cell phone in a week. There are no distractions in these woods. This disconnection to society is nice because I break out of my everyday routine and see new things. I smell the mix of campfire and spices on the fish. The meat flakes apart with the slightest touch; this means it was cooked perfectly. Dad tells campfire stories as we enjoy our meal. He could entertain anyone for hours. He begins to tell his Sasquatch legend that we have all heard countless times. We never stop him because the story changes every time, always improving. We sit around as late as we can, fighting our heavy eyelids. I walk down to the bathhouse and get cleaned up for bed.
As I lay in my sleeping bag, my body feels so relaxed on the air mattress. A night’s sleep in a tent with the cold summer’s night air seeping through the screened windows is so revitalizing. It fills my lungs and refreshes my body. My sleeping bag is cold on my freshly tanned skin. Belly full, I think about the smell of the earthy lake water, the feeling of the sun pounding on my skin, and the sound of the rippling water against the aluminum sides of the boat. I think about the gritty dirty feeling on my skin and the growing layer of bug spray and suntan lotion on my skin. This should gross me out. Why do I like this so much? I try to explain this to myself. I try to find a reason. I keep picturing the sun setting reflecting orange and pink off the deep teal water. At the back of the boat, the poles are set in the rod holders. The waves rock the boat side to side in the most calming way. The boat’s engine hums and muffles the radio whispering in the background. The rod tips are pointed high with line trailing back a hundred feet behind the boat. The thin but strong fishing line guides the lures deep down into the lake. We slowly creep around the lake until the reel starts screaming.
Go catch a big one!