|The Musky Man with The Great Fish|
I didn't catch the fish that is probably responsible for my infatuation with fishing. In fact, I didn't even see it get caught. Indeed, I hadn't even been born yet. But my fate was sealed, it seems, one summer day on Lake of the Woods, on the Minnesota/Canada border, back in the mid-1960s. The guide knew the big musky was there, but so far it had not been caught. Through what I now recognize must have involved at least some luck, the great fish inhaled my grandfather's big top-water Marathon Musky-Hawk spinner. Then, through what must have involved at least some skill, my grandfather landed this fish. Photos were taken at lunch on one of the rocky islands, and then again later at the dock. Then he called my grandmother to let her know he was bringing this one back home, to hang on the wall. "Like hell,", she replied, and so the great fish instead spent the next decade or so on Grandpa's office wall. Up to this point, I had only seen photographs, but upon his retirement, the fish finally came home, where it found a spot...in the garage.
|First photo: Guide in the shirt, Grandpa in the jacket|
|At the dock, with my father|
Grandpa's routine was largely the same every day: he woke up very early every morning, hours before sunrise, and headed straight for the nearby golf course. There, he fished the golf course ponds. He had been a plumber by trade, and had been clever enough to work out a deal with the pro: Grandpa would do any routine plumbing tasks that the pro shop required, in exchange for nothing other than permission to fish the ponds. The pro agreed, provided that Grandpa didn't interfere with the golfers. And so, his fishing routine was the same each morning. He'd start at the pond closest to the first hole. Shortly before sunrise, the first golfers would arrive. He knew that from the time he first saw headlights in the parking lot, he would have 19 more minutes of fishing at this pond before he had to move to the next. It didn't matter if the fishing was good - he had to move. But several of the course ponds fished well, and by staying just ahead of the first party, he could fish all of the ponds in rotation, until finally he was forced to gather his gear and leave. Then, home he went to clean his fish, change his clothes, and head back to the course...to golf.
I was fortunate enough to live close enough to my grandparents when I was a child that I could visit often, and when I did, my routine, too, did not vary. I would greet Grandpa, give Grandma a kiss, and head straight for the garage. There I would spend as much time as I could staring at the mounted musky, fantasizing about what it must have been like to catch that fish. For my entire childhood, I was convinced that this fish was the baddest-ass of all bad-ass fish, and of course it only logically followed that one would have to be quite the bad-ass fisherman to catch the most bad-ass of all fishes.
|Grandpa, the Bad Ass (about age 16)|
|Grandpa and his pal, Louie, with a stringer of bass|
And so, it was pretty exciting to me when I was finally old enough to go fishing with Grandpa. (I had, by this time, already spent considerable time fishing with my father - no slouch himself - but of course, it was Grandpa who had caught The Great Fish.) When I stayed with my grandparents, we almost always went to one of the local cafeterias the evening before for dinner. I doubt I could stomach the food now, but I recall at the time being pretty excited about the fact that when I reached the end of the line, right there before the cash register, I was face-to-face with The Desserts. The Desserts!! So many choices!! What to do!? I always got a piece of cherry pie.
Early the next morning, Grandpa would wake me up early and we'd skip breakfast, get into his yellow Malibu, and head for the golf course. It may be that my memory is hazy after 30 years, but I seem to recall some of the most fabulous largemouth bass fishing imaginable. Given that there were several of these ponds, and we had them entirely to ourselves, the fishing may really have been as good as I remember it. Then again, the fishing is always as good as we remember it, isn't it?
On one of these trips, when I was perhaps 8 years old, I caught my first big bass. Unlike the spunky 10 to 12 inch one-pounders that were so common, this fish was 16 inches and weighed two-and-one-half pounds. I could not have been more proud. Of course, Grandpa typically caught one bass of seven to eight pounds each year, but he was bad-ass, so this was to be expected. When he caught one of these big bass, he would take it home, clean it and eat it, and then hang the head on a nail on the back of the shed. Over the course of the next year, this big bass head would rot and dry, so that by the following spring, it would be almost unrecognizable. Almost as if on cue, Grandpa would catch another big bass and replace the shriveled head with a fresh one. I know, because I spent hours staring at these bass heads, too.
|Young T.J. Brayshaw, with big bass|
|Grandpa, with bigger bass|
When I was old enough to drive, Grandpa got me a summer job working at the golf course so that I could fish the ponds myself. At about this time, I became serious about my bass fishing. I read all the magazines, but most of all, I read B.A.S.S. magazine. Unlike Grandpa, I approached my bass fishing scientifically. I took water temperature measurements and learned all the latest ways to rig plastic worms. I learned how to finesse a worm, slowly working it across the bottom, one finger touching the line so I could feel every move the worm made. I tried to explain all of this to Grandpa, but he refused to change his methods, which largely consisted of tossing out a pre-rigged plastic worm and reeling it back in. All I could do was watch him and shake my head.
I never caught a bass of more than about four pounds from those ponds, while he continued to catch seven and eight pounders. I now shudder to think of what an asshole I was.
My grandfather died of cancer when I was twenty. The last weeks were tough because the pain medications he was taking sometimes made him hallucinate. Sometimes during conversations, he would suddenly begin yelling at me for spilling all over the place something that, because of the drugs, only he could see. But on their 50th wedding anniversary, he instructed my grandmother, who was taking care of him during these last days, not to give him any pain meds. As a result, he was completely lucid that day, and while he must have been in great pain, it never showed. The entire family spent the day together, celebrating their half-century marriage, and we all spent some time speaking with him alone. When he and I spoke, we didn't talk about how he was going to beat the cancer, because it was clear this wasn't going to happen. Because I was in college, and would be going back to school soon, we both knew that this was likely to be our last conversation, and indeed it was. He told me then that one thing he truly regretted was that he and I never got a chance to go musky fishing in Canada.
While I remember this conversation like it was yesterday, one of my most vivid memories of my grandfather was from one of those early fishing trips to the golf course, over ten years before his death and now, it occurs to me, over thirty years ago. He was trying to change lures, but was having trouble threading the fishing line through the small ring on the lure. He called me over and asked me if I would do it for him. "Here," he said. "You do this. You've got young eyes. They make these rings so God-damned small nowadays."
I swelled with pride, partly because he clearly trusted me enough to have me tie his knot for him, but also because he swore in front of me. I was afraid I might get in trouble if I swore in front of any adults, but I recall many times, after that, when I was alone fishing, mumbling under my breath every time I tied on a new lure "They make these rings so God-damned small nowadays." I practiced this so often, surely I must have sounded just like him.
|Grandpa, in hat, my father (shirtless) and childhood friend fishing in Canada, late 1950s|
[These two musky stories were merged into one, and published in a slightly different form in the Spring 2014 issue of "The Drake" magazine. Thanks to Tom Bie and "The Drake" for putting it out there.]