The muskie landed smack into the canoe, exactly between Jim and me.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, July 7, 1945.

“How’s about a little side bet?” inquired Jimmie Frise.

“On?” I inquired.

“Who gets the first muskie,” said Jim. “After all, this is an auspicious occasion. It’s the first time we’ve been muskie fishing for five years. For you and me, it is the fifth freedom.”

“Then,” I submitted, “it is too sacred an occasion for betting. This fishing trip ought to be, actually, a sort of religious rite.”

“Aw,” scoffed Jimmie, as we shoved off from the summer hotel wharf and started paddling, “you always mix up your sport and your politics. Or your philosophy. Let’s just go fishing.”

“Okay,” I said, scanning the reedy shores eagerly. “But I don’t want to do any betting on who gets the first muskie. I just want to soak in this feeling of being fishing again in my native lakes. I could be dead five years, killed by a bomb on the road to Dunkirk, instead of sitting here in this canoe looking for good spot to cast. I could have been blown to bits by shells in Italy, by machine-guns in Normandy; I could have been torpedoed 50 times at sea, or crashed into the Atlantic or the Mediterranean in thousands of miles of flying…”

“And I,” cut in Jimmie, “could have died of pneumonia in the raw winter of ’41 or got an infected toe during the hot spell we had here in 1942….”

“Jim!” I said indignantly.

“But it’s true,” assured Jim, from the stern of the canoe. “We waste too much time thinking about life instead of in living. Every man can have his choice. He can either do what he likes or what somebody else likes. He can live the way he wants to live or the way his wife and family want him to live. He can do with these few hours, days, weeks, months and years that are allotted to him what he wants to do, or he can be bullied, wheedled, coerced, chivvied and jockeyed by society around him into wasting it all.”

“Wasting?” I snorted.

“Look,” said Jim. “The general impression is that society is organized by the majority of mankind for the general benefit of mankind. If that were so, why are so many people poor and distressed and harassed? If that were so, why are so many people living silly lives, like squirrels in a revolving cage, spending their one, only and very brief life doing what somebody else wants them to do, instead of doing what they themselves would like to do?”

“Life,” I explained, “is a co-operative enterprise. The perfect society would have all mankind living for all the rest of mankind.”

“Poppycock!” cried Jim, swinging the paddle. “That is the sort of bunk the smart rulers and owners of the world have been pushing, through schools and teachers and preachers, for hundreds of years. A few thousand years ago, when the big boys discovered that all the little people, if ganged up, could destroy them, they founded schools and colleges and churches and institutions for a stable society and began controlling the little people of the world not with clubs and swords but with ideas and ideals. You can bludgeon a million people far more easily with an idea than with a club.”

“Jim,” I expostulated. “This is treason. This is worse than communism.”

“Sure,” agreed Jim. “It is the next thing after communism. Communism is old stuff. It is just the latest scheme to keep the masses of the people happy and under control of the big fellows.”

“Who,” I demanded indignantly, “are the big fellows?”

“Whoever,” explained Jim, “wants to run the rest of us for their profit or amusement.”

“Amusement?” I protested.

Plan For the World

“Certainly,” said Jimmie, “When it becomes dangerous to try to run the mass of us for profit, the ambitious guys among us abandon that motive and adopt instead the motive of their own amusement. It’s the sense of their power they wish to enjoy. The old-fashioned and easy way of feeling power was by means of money. But the masses have got ugly. It is no longer safe, it isn’t even possible to convert your sense of power into money. The masses have got it all taxed and super-taxed. So, the ambitious guys among us adopt ideas and ideals instead of money. So long as they can be boss, so long as they can enjoy the sensation of their power, they are happy.”

“You make it look very horrible,” I muttered.

“It is horrible,” agreed Jim.

“Okay, then,” I countered hotly, “what does your new, super-communism suggest we do?”

“Kill off anybody who exhibits the symptoms of having the feeling for power,” said Jim. “Don’t just imprison them. Don’t just make laws to try to circumvent them. Kill them. The way you would kill rattlesnakes, tigers or malignant germs that might threaten the life and well-being of mankind as a whole. Destroy all the would-be leaders. Wipe out the people with initiative, ambition, and greed. It is all the same thing.”

“Why, Jim, you would bring the whole world to a standstill!” I cried.

“No,” corrected Jim. “Nothing mankind can do can bring the world to a standstill. That is the one little thing we have always overlooked. We have produced an endless and bloody series of Caesars, emperors, kings, protectors, dictators. Each has tried to impose his idea of the perfect life on the world with sword and fire. Each has gone down to dust and even his marble statues are mere disfigured remnants in museums. Museums in some land other than his own, as a rule. But the world goes round and round. Every day, the sun comes up the same as it did for Augustus Caesar or Hitler or for you and me this morning.”

“Yet each of these great and ambitious men,” I pointed out, “for all the blood and ruin of his passing, pushed the world ahead another step in its slow advance from barbarism.”

“You mean?” inquired Jim, steering for the shore, where a very inviting bed of rushes extended out by a rocky point – an ideal spot for a feeding muskie.

“These ambitious men, these Caesars, kings, protectors,” I offered, “each do something to forward their own selfish ends. They organize their own people. They develop science. They build roads, improve agriculture, build factories. They first exert their sense of power to improve their own nation in order to be strong enough to impose their power on surrounding nations. Thus science and industry are advanced.”

“At what a price!” exclaimed Jim.

“Then, to beat them, to destroy, them,” I pursued, “all the surrounding nations, and eventually the whole world, has to come abreast of the conqueror’s nation.”

“Then you approve,” demanded Jimmie, “of conquerors and of war?”

“I approve,” I said cautiously, “of that instinct in human nature which causes most men to compete with one another and which naturally brings forth a few men, as the result of the competition, who are extra-competitive, who are over-ambitious, who get out of control and sometimes, in their avid sense of power, bring trouble and often ruin on their fellow men.”

“You approve of them?” cried Jim.

“I said I approve of the instinct,” I corrected hastily.

“It’s the same thing,” said Jim.

“No. I think we can some day master the instinct of competition,” I submitted, “without destroying it, just the way we mastered the horse without destroying it. Back in the dawn of time, when men found that they had to kill and destroy most other animals, either to eat them or else to protect themselves, they found the horse. It was not particularly good to eat. It was not particularly dangerous, as were tigers or wolves. So they tamed the horse. I think we can tame the competitive. instinct in mankind. Some want to leave it wild, like a tiger, preying on us all. Some want to destroy it, like a tiger. I prefer to think of it as a wild horse, which we can tame and breed for our very great help and use.”

“You’ll never tame it,” said Jim. “It is the basic wild instinct of human nature.”

“We’ve nearly got it tamed now,” I declared.

“And you can say that,” protested Jim, “at this moment of the world’s history when the bloodiest war of all time is barely over!”

“With Europe a mass of ashes, ruin and nameless graves,” I proposed. “I think some profound ideas are bound to emerge. It was out of ruin and agony in the past that all our greatest ideas emerged.”

“Behead everybody,” cried Jim, “who shows the symptoms of ambition!”

“Behead us, then,” I triumphed, “for being so ambitious as to try to catch a muskie!”

“That’s different,” said Jim. “That’s just having fun.”

“Not for a muskie, it isn’t!” I pointed out, laying down my paddle and picking up my bait casting rod.

“How do we know a muskie doesn’t enjoy fighting us on the end of a line?” countered Jimmie, slowing the canoe and setting it sideways on, for me to cast towards the inviting rocks and weeds.

A Feeling of Power

“We’re here, Jim, right in this canoe, in this spot,” I reminded him, “because of that initiative deep in human natures, because of the competitive spirit in human nature. You and I are really here because we wish to compete with one another. We are here because we are tired of the dull routine, of our everyday lives. We want a little excitement. We want to exert our little sense of power, such as it is. I have power over this rod, this reel, this line. I have power to cast this lure. I have power and cunning to know just where to cast it, in the best hope of getting the biggest reward. I wish to exercise that power. I wish to feel that power. Baffled and beaten by my normal life, frustrated by editors, haunted by creditors, my life under control of hundreds of people around me over whom I have no power whatever, I come fishing here in order to exhibit what power I have.”

“Cast right in past that boulder there,” suggested Jimmie.

“Listen,” I said. “Leave this to me. This is my power I want to feel. You wait till your turn, and then feel your own power.”

“Okay, it’s exactly five minutes to ten,” said Jim. “I paddle you until five minutes to eleven. Then turn about, hour for hour. Let her go.”

I cast.

Those of you who don’t know the delights of a bait casting rod will have difficulty following me here. There is no sport like the bait casting rod. Unlike golf, in which you hit a ball and have to walk after it, with a bait casting rod you cast a lure and then reel it back to you. Like golf, bait casting is an exercise of skill in both distance and accuracy. You like to be able to cast the lure a long distance, when necessary, as in golf you like to make a good long drive. And as in golf, you like to make your approach shots and putts with skill and precision. More than three-quarters of golf is approach and field shots. More than four- fifths of bait casting is the making of accuracy casts at a certain rock, a certain log, a certain open space among the lily pads or rushes.

And you don’t have to walk after them.

You reel them slowly, enticingly back. Aw, bait casting has it all over any other sport you can think of. To be a practical bait caster is to experience that sense of power to its full. And you don’t have to hand in a score card, either. And you don’t even have to have somebody with you, some partner. You can get in your own boat and cast in solitary joy. If you catch fish, it is luck. The fish happened to be where you knew they should be. If you don’t catch fish, it isn’t your fault. The fish simply weren’t where they should have been. Your sense of power, of self-respect, is not damaged as it is in golf by a bad score.

“Take off that spoon,” said Jim, in the stern, “and put on a yellow and white plug.”

“Mind your own business,” I said, feeling my first cast slowly and letting the little spinner sink. My lure was a small brass and nickel spoon, on a seven-inch piano wire shank, with a weight of lead moulded right on to the piano wire to make it weighty enough to cast smoothly. Behind the spinner was a bucktail colored streamer concealing the good big bass hook. A hook that would hold the biggest muskie in the lake.

“On a day like this,” said Jim, “the muskies won’t be very active. They won’t be roaming around looking for food. They’ll be snoozing down amid the weeds, in the shadow of lily pads. You want a good bright, lively plug that will create a commotion and stir up the sense of power of the muskie. Irritate him. Challenge him. Employ your sense of power to awaken the sense of power of the muskie.”

“Now you are beginning to understand nature,” I applauded.

“Me, I’m going to use that jointed flap-doodle-bug, plug,” said Jim, “the red and yellow one with the silver spangle paint on it. I’m going to startle the muskie into feeling his authority is being flouted. A muskie rules, his bay or section of shore the way a dictator rules his nation. With endless vigilance, with tireless alertness. Let him see some creature ignoring his majesty, and the muskie takes a bang at it whether he is hungry or not.”

“I wish you understood human nature,” I said, “as well as you do muskie nature.”

“Take off that sissy little spinner,” said Jim.

“Mind your own business,” I replied.

“Hey, cast over past that little spur of rock sticking out,” hissed Jim. “There’s a deep shadow behind it. I bet it’s a pool 10 feet deep. The perfect spot for a royal snooze.”

“Look, Jim, you just paddle, see,” I said. “I do the casting. I do the picking of the spots. Your turn is next.”

However, I cast past the little spur of rock. It was, an ideal hole for a muskie. Behind the spur, the rock dropped sheer into a dark shadowy pool sheltered from the sun by rock and tree and the bush beyond. All around, for hundreds of yards, were stretches of lily pad bed, rushes and rocks where the dictator of these parts could find plenty of minnows, frogs, crawfish and the dainties of a muskie’s voracious appetite.

My lure sped in a smooth arc through the air. The little spinner spat lightly into the water a foot beyond the point of the rock spur. I commenced to reel almost at the instant the lure touched the water. As if it were some little frightened creature that had inadvertently fallen off the rock, I reeled it excitedly past the tip of rock and, stopping the reel for an instant, I let the lure pause and stagger on the very edge of the deep pool. A frightened, excited, bewildered little lure…

Action Stations

With a surge that washed waves three feet up the spur of rock, an enormous muskie rolled up out of the depth. His back, seeming a foot broad, arched out of the water, his back fin curved like a stallion’s neck. His vast reddish gleaming tail lifted and smote the water with a slap like a paddle. He dived. I struck.

With a sharp, slick snap-back of the rod tip, I set the hook in the muskie’s jaw.

“Glory!” roared Jim, starting to back the canoe away from shore.

We were about 30 feet out.

“Back, back!” I yelled.

When my hook jagged home in the huge fish’s jaw, he seemed to pause and hang suspended in the water the fraction of an instant. He shook his head. I was holding a tight line.

Realization dawned on that muskie in a lightning flash. He knew he was hooked.

“Baaa…” I screamed.

Through the water, straight for the canoe, came a great surging wave. I reeled madly. Jim backed madly.

But straight under the canoe raced the big fish, barely missing the bottom. We could feel the hump of his passage under us.

I had reeled. Not quite as fast as he had swum.

I felt the line tighten.

The muskie, feeling the sudden tension, rose for the surface and leaped.

My line was so short, his leap brought him round in an enormous, muscular curve of gnashing jaws, thrashing tail, every ounce of his many pounds of green and bronze energy flailing for its life.

Up and round he came.

Smack into the canoe, exactly between Jim and me.

His first gigantic convulsion threw my tackle box overboard. His second savage thrust pitched the lunch basket four feet in the air and overboard.

“Hey… hoy… who.. !” roared Jimmie.

“Ho, hi, wha…!” I joined.

But the thing was fated. The muskie lifted three feet in the air, and landed at my heels. He lifted four feet in the air and landed crossways within six inches of Jim’s knees.

His next crocodilian spasm upset the canoe.

Canoes always upset as if they had been built to upset. Smooth, slow, perfect.

I was still hanging on to my rod as we clung to the canoe and pushed it ashore. But when I reeled up, the muskie was gone.

We had lost our lunch, both tackle boxes, our clothes. Jim’s rod had stuck under the thwarts.

As we sat on the rock, looking at the soggy canoe and the quiet water glimmering in summer beauty before us, Jimmie raised his wrist watch. Shook it. Listened to it.

“Hmmm,” he said, “now we won’t know when my turn starts.”

Editor’s Note: Back when Jimmie was drawing for the newspaper, original art was not considered valuable. He would create these illustrations for the weekly series, or his Birdseye Center comic, and after the printers were done with them, it would be returned to him. More than likely, his early work (1910s-early 1930s) would just be thrown out after use. Later in his career, when the art was returned to him, he would often give away these originals to people who visited him at his office. A reader has sent me a picture of the original artwork for this story, where you can see the vivid colours.

Original Art, 1945