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A surprise killing by the bay

It’s late in the day. Our friend Jessica is sautéing shrimp in the cottage kitchen. Her husband and daughter are playing a leisurely card game nearby. It’s the dénouement of a long sunny day that’s been chock-full of activity and adventure. I don’t think we can possibly cram another highlight into this 12 hours. It began with a warm run followed by a cold swim, and has seemed to stretch on forever from there.

Suddenly, there’s a commotion down by the water. Felix has been patiently throwing out a fishing line all day, with only one or two little fry to show for his efforts. But an hour ago an inlet friend came over for drinks and gave 15-year-old Felix a veteran’s lesson in bass fishing: one-third of a worm on the hook, no bobber, throw the line out, let the weight sink it to the weedy bottom, then reel it in slowly, with a little tug every four seconds. Repeat, with patience. The fish are lurking there; tempt them gently and they will come.

Felix swallowed up the advice with enthusiastic gratitude and went back to work, right off the end of the dock.

It’s pushing 9 pm, and our dinner is nearly on the table. But more important things are happening down by the water. Felix has hooked something large, improbably so, given his unsophisticated tackle and lack of even a net for landing his catch. Twenty minutes ago, just after his impromptu lesson, he hooked a small perch, to great acclaim from us. We took photos of his wiggly, six-inch conquest before he tossed it back in the water. We figured that was the end of it.

But this is clearly different. Felix is hollering, raising us (begrudgingly) from our gin-and-tonic ennui. I notice a big splash as he drags the fish closer to the surface. I put down the kerosene lamp I’m preparing for the dinner table and race down the rocks. Felix’s father Dean is right behind me.

Skinny Felix gives a mighty tug, flipping his rod deftly, and suddenly there’s a fat, green creature on the dock. At first, I think he has hooked a turtle, given its size and girth, but no, this is a fish, the biggest I’ve ever seen pulled out of Georgian Bay. Now it’s flopping madly. Dean says it’s a smallmouth bass. I find the name ironic, given the huge maw on this gasping, gaping specimen.

• • • • •

I’m fish ignorant, because, if truth be told, I rather despise the sport. When guests come to our lakeside cottage on Bayfield Inlet they look around and inevitably ask, “How’s the fishing?” or “Where’s your tackle?” I can only reply meekly, “That’s not my thing” or “I’d rather be sailing.”

It goes back to my childhood. I grew up by the Pacific Ocean. My Dad never fished, but Mum got obsessed by crabbing on the mud flats of Tsawwassen Beach, near our home. We’d walk out on the ebb tide and grab the crabs as they scurried for deeper water. My sister did it with her bare hands, but the rest of us used barbecue tongs.

I never loved the activity. Creepy, crawly, slimy things just repulsed me. And killing them – which involved throwing the live, wiggling crabs into a cauldron of boiling water – felt barbaric, even as I enjoyed the toasted crab and cheddar sandwiches we were munching happily an hour later.

At 10 I made a new friend, Ron Kay, who loved fishing, so I followed him down to the old fish cannery pier in Point Roberts, just across the border in the U.S. He baited my hook, and removed anything I caught. It was fishing at a distance, along for the ride, and quite reluctantly.

Unfortunately, Ron had a sadistic side. After we’d caught a dozen inedible bullheads in our quest for an ocean perch he would start to slaughter the ugly little creatures instead of throwing them back alive. He’d jump on them with both feet, exploding them like blood-filled balloons. Or he’d perform live surgery, removing a tiny heart, smaller than a pinky fingernail, and watch it beat once or twice before it went still.

My natural squeamishness and the trauma of my early angling experiences left me with a lifelong aversion to the activity, even if I’ve ended up spending my holidays on an inlet that attracts fishers by the score. I don’t mind if others pursue it now, but I can’t lead the charge or provide much advice. I was a ’fraidy-cat then, and I’m no different now.

I can kill mosquitoes, but nothing much bigger than that. I’ll go to great lengths to remove a moth or a spider from the house – alive. My twin sister lives in the Yukon, where she hunts moose, traps mink and fishes arctic char with her northern friends, sometimes for weeks at a time. I can watch 40 hours of The Killing on TV, in Danish, but real-life killing of any kind is just not in my blood.

The irony is, I feel a certain fish atavism. I love the underwater so much that I took up scuba diving this winter. Four weeks ago I was 50 feet below the surface of the St. Lawrence River near Gananoque, swimming with all shapes and sizes of river fish. Earlier today, Dean and I were snorkeling near the open, following a water snake in the clear, frigid water. The underwater is cool; I could almost live there.

So I love fish, marvel at their environment, admire their survival, but am adverse to their killing, even though I’ll buy them fresh from a nearby vendor and then cook and eat them, skin and all. I’m into everything about them but the angling. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know.

• • • • •

It’s panic on the dock now. Felix is ecstatic, but a little careless as his catch flops around, hook still in its mouth. It’s capable, I think, of getting its large body to the water so I step on his rod while Dean searches for a rock. Felix picks the fish up by the tail and whacks it several times on the wood. I wince. Then he takes Dean’s rock and thumps the beautiful fish on the side of its head. Blood pours from the gills, staining the fish and covering the dock in crimson. I look away. I don’t disapprove, but can’t really participate either.

The fins flutter rapidly and then the flopping ceases. Soon, the mouth is no longer moving. I’m not enjoying this part of the show. I’m not even sure how Felix, a gentle and artistic boy, can manage the slaughter, which he does with cold efficiency, but not pleasure.

I can’t stand the carnage so I return to the cottage for a bucket. I admire Felix’s catch, but I want to wash away the forensic evidence as soon as possible, and help him prepare the fish for documentation. “Bring a tape measure!” he yells to me before I return to the lake to mop up the gory scene.

Dean is in a kind of seventh heaven. He’s a professional photographer, with a new camera that’s almost as large as his son’s fish. By extreme good fortune, it’s that dream time of the day for natural light: the low sun is bathing the lake in soft orange. Everything glows. I know that Felix’s trophy photo is going to be the most lovingly, beautifully shot picture in the history of Georgian Bay.

photo 2

Felix’s beautiful small mouth bass. (click to enlarge)

I marvel at the colour of Felix’s glistening fish as he displays it with both hands. The eye is frozen in a black and orange stare. We’re all giddy with excitement. The tape measure says 17 inches. The fish looks like it could feed a family, or two.

Felix proudly carries it up to the cottage to show his mother and sister. He plays with it for a few minutes while we fire away with the cameras. Then he wraps it in a plastic bag and places it in the coldest part of our little propane fridge.

We all sit down to dinner, breathless now, with plates of steaming shrimp, noodles, snow peas and a huge warm baguette. We pour wine and say a toast to the amazing little episode that Felix’s catch just provided as an exclamation mark to our wonderful, outdoor day.

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ann Hedley #

    You don’t remember fishing with your Dad at Roches Point? I always thought the most exciting part of those early morning adventures was getting to sleep the night before in the boathouse.
    I guess you’ve seen from Facebook that Ron Kay is a fisherman now!

    August 4, 2014
    • No, I don’t remember that at all Ann! Did we catch anything? Who baited the hooks? Removed the fish?

      August 5, 2014
  2. Your murderous sister #

    If you want to eat em someone’s gotta catch em!

    August 4, 2014
    • I guess that would be my murderous twin sister, Beth. She’s quite the expert at fishing and that stuff. None of the ambiguities I feel.

      August 5, 2014
  3. I am with you Art. I gave up killing rattlesnakes after making two belts. We feed the birds every day, the ravens during baby making season – bread makes good little raven baby food– the nocturnals at night (ringtails, skunks, foxes, and things never seen.) Nancy even makes pets of Daddy Longleg spiders. I have to put up with a few spider webs in various corners. However, there is a certain kind of fly, bred in water (from my pond) that look like pollywogs, but develop legs, wings, and maturity enough to rise to the surface and fly away. I confess to practicing fly genocide with my pool strainer, I captured them continuously until my arms became tired, thus releasing thousands of the them of a pesty life. We also kill mosquitos, kissing bugs, and other blood suckers. Never-the-less, deep down we consider ourselves animal friendly. Good writing Art. PJ
    PS: check out http://www.,ericjohnsenmusic.com for you second cousin’s musical website.

    August 11, 2014
  4. David #

    Very touching story, lots of movement and drama, but you didn’t tell us if you filleted it for breakfast or what! I have a similar aversion to the gory parts, but we have an avid fisher on our lake, and last month when Debby’s school buddies were at the cottage, fishing was activity number one. Apparently the bass are pretty wormy this time of year, but we did end up with about 6 perch of a moderate size, until they were filleted, which leave us with 6 pieces about the size of two toonies. They were fried up into an appetizer, light and and tasty except they got kind of overpowered by some Thai chilies added as a garnish!

    August 19, 2014
    • David: Felix and family left first thing the next morning, so he took his fish with him and cooked it up the next day for supper, at another cottage further south. I realized that eating the fish would have finished off the story nicely, and I could have taken dramatic licence — but didn’t feel I could, given that it was Felix’s fish. Small addendum: the next I was texting Dean (Felix’s dad) and got a reply back about the fish, with the note, “this is the gentle, artistic boy speaking.” !!!

      August 21, 2014
  5. You made me think I had been there Art! My only memory of fishing at our “southern” Georgian Bay cottage was a pile of worms in a Chinese food take-out container and my dad insisting that I pull one out and hook it. It even makes me squirm to think of them now, especially a kind of hairiness that erupted on their skin when the hook went in. Worm pain? Beautiful writing:)

    August 20, 2014
    • yes Sheila, fishing means killing two slimy things — the worm, then the fish. double trouble!

      August 21, 2014
  6. Cecil #

    I feel the same way about fishing. I can’t bear the killing part. There is ample fishing on our beaches and my mum was determined to make a fisherman out of Paul. She outfitted him with a casting rod, reel, and all the necessary gear. As good fortune would have it, he caught a striped bass shortly after moving here. Claire (Jensen) was distraught at the sight of the beautiful fish on the end of the line and immediately burst into tears. And I begged Paul to throw it back. He has never tried again. As a family, we just don’t have the stomach for it.

    Plus, I don’t like the visual reminder of the size of fish I am swimming. The less I know the better.

    Cecil

    August 20, 2014
    • I have a hunch that fish fear is simply a fear of the unknown, Cecil. I always hated that feeling as a kid (the worst was jellyfish, because it is very possible to swim into them, whereas you never really ‘hit’ a fish when swimming). But as I see more and more fish underwater (snorkelling and scuba diving) it’s less and less of an issue. It’s just like Jaws — fear of the unknown. In reality, fish keep away from you, just like the water snake in my story.

      August 21, 2014

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