By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 13, 1945
“Ducks,” insisted Jimmie Frise.
“Muskies,” I asserted emphatically. “This week-end is the last of the bass and musky fishing in Ontario. It closes the 14th.”
“Ducks,” repeated Jim doggedly. “This week-end is really the beginning of the duck season. They’ll be flying this weather.”
“Jim,” I presented earnestly, “the year 1945 is over this week-end as far as fishing is concerned. Gone forever, 1945! We’ve got the rest of October and November to shoot ducks. But this week-end will never come again.”
“Ducks,” said Jim.
“Have you no sentiment?” I demanded indignantly. “Don’t you realize that there are just so many fishing seasons in any man’s life? When a season ends, it is like a chapter of life closed. We shall not pass this way again.”
“Ducks,” said Jim.
“Aw, ducks!” I scoffed. “The silly things. There you sit, shivering in a clump of dead grass, crouched down. Minutes pass. Half hours pass. Hours pass. Far off, on the horizon, flock after flock of ducks sweep away, like wisps of smoke in the distance. Then all of a sudden you hear a rushing, whistling sound of wings. You jerk awake. Over your head, go six ducks, skating through the air, slithering and sliding in fright at the sight of you quivering below. You yank your gun to your shoulder and blast off. One, two. And then you slowly lower your gun and watch the six ducks vanish in the distance.”
Instead of resenting my contemptuous description of duck shooting, Jim’s eyes gleamed with delight.
“Gosh,” he said, “it’s wonderful!”
“But you missed them,” I pointed out.
“That time, maybe,” said Jim. “But tell me how foolish it is to shoot at ducks coming in to decoys.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “There you crouch, in a clump of frosty bulrushes, on a damp box sogged into a quaking bog. A nasty east wind rattles the rushes around you and coils up the back of your clammy canvas coat. It spits rain a little.”
Jim’s face wore an ecstatic expression as he listened.
“As you peer amid the clattering rushes,” I continued, “you can see your decoys bobbing in the cold gray water, 15, 20 yards out from your hide. They are silly looking things, decoys. All facing the same way. All bobbing busily. You think they look like ducks. So do the ducks.”
Jim took a deep breath and clutched an imaginary gun to his stomach, as he crouched in his chair.
“For suddenly, far off,” I related, “your eye detects a flicker of movement in the gray, dismal light of dawn. Yes. Over on the far shore a flock of 15 blue-bills has curved away and is heading for you.”
“Fifteen!” whispered Jimmie, sliding the safety catch off the imaginary gun clasped to his bosom.
“They are fanned out,” I hissed, “in a wavering, shifting line of fast racing birds. They are going to pass a quarter of a mile to the south of your hide.”
“Aw,” regretted Jim, relaxing the gun.
“But, no!” I cried. They are wheeling! They’ve turned! They have spotted your decoys!”
Jim sank down deep in his chair, his eyes piercing the office wall.
“A mile a minute,” I grated in a low, dramatic tone, “that weaving, shifting line of blue-bills races towards you. They bunch! In the air, they seem to huddle as they flare up and wide, past you and your stupid decoys, bobbing busily on the water.”
Jim sat crouched in his chair, not turning his head, not daring to move.
“Up and wide, they flare,” I hissed, “and swing in an arc, still bunched. Then they begin to fan out. And as they fan out, they begin to drop. THEY ARE COMING IN!”
Jim’s knuckles turned white around the imaginary gun.
“They Taste Weedy”
“Lower, lower,” I muttered, “they are dropping, fanned out. They are 15 feet above the water. They are 10 feet above the water. They are floating in, on set wings, at silent, incredible speed. They are going to pass over your decoys about eight feet up, and land up-wind of them. Their wings are set, taut, curved, to brake them against the breeze…”
“BANG! BANG!” yelled Jim, leaping to his feet and taking aim with the imaginary gun pointed at the office wall.
And with a huge sigh, he fell back into his chair and said:
“How many did I get?”
“One,” I informed him, disgustedly.
“One?” protested Jim.
“As usual,” I advised him, “you fire into the bunch, instead of picking your birds and leading them. You got one. And it just happened to fly into your shot pattern.”
“I picked two drakes,” protested Jim hotly.
“You got one,” I informed him. “A hen.”
“Shucks,” said Jim disgustedly.
He stared into space until the imaginary scene I had built for him out of thin air had slowly faded.
“We’ll make it duck shooting this weekend,” he stated firmly.
“We’ll go fishing,” I retorted. “It is the grand finale, the finish, the glorious end of another fishing season gone into the dark limbo of the past.”
“Fishing,” asserted Jim, “is for May, June and part of July. By the middle of July, you are already sated with fishing. You are already sneaking up to the attic to fondle your guns.”
“There is no week in the whole year,” I countered, “to equal the second week of October for musky fishing. Maybe because it is the last, it is the loveliest. It is fraught with farewell and good-by. The shores are sentimental with autumn’s sweet, tragic colors. The sun is already paling. The wind of October is fitful.”
Jim began scanning the office wall for more blue-bills.
“In the water,” I pursued, “the weeds have died. And the muskies, who have hidden in the weed beds all summer, have fled the stinking water of the weed beds for the hard shores. The rocks.”
“In two and three feet of water,” I insinuated, “off these hard shores, amid the boulders, the crevices and along the sunken logs, the great muskies of autumn lie waiting and watching. For two reasons have they come into the shallows: to escape the stench of the decaying weed beds and to feed up against the winter on the little fishes and frogs and crawfish that dwell along the shore.”
“Slimy things,” yawned Jimmie.
“You drift in your skiff,” I wheedled, “along the shore, maybe 60 feet out. And you cast, cast, cast. Towards the shore. At every shadow of rock or crevice or log. You cast your plug and reel fast. Unlike in summer, you don’t have to reel slow and deep. You reel fast, your plug just skimming the surface. For when one of those fresh-water tigers sees your bait, he leaps on it like a famished tiger. He is in shallow water. He can’t go down. There is only one way for him to fight, when he feels the sting of your hooks. And that is up!”
“They taste weedy,” sneered Jim.
“Eight pounds. 10 pounds,” I exulted, “maybe 15 or 20 pounds of lithe, green, solid muscle. On the end of a fragile little casting rod. Twenty pounds of solid muscle, leaping, frantic, threshing, boiling in the water, in that cool October sunlight, against that lovely soft tragic shore …”
“I,” said Jim, getting up with finality, “am going duck shooting.”
“Very well,” I said bitterly. “I am going fishing.”
“After all these years,” said Jim, “you’d think a guy would get his full of a stupid sport like combing the water with a wooden plug.”
“After all these years,” I retorted, “you would think an old friend would not desert you on the last day of the fishing season of 1945.”
Jim stood looking out the window for a minute and then said:
“What we can do, we can go together to Blue’s Landing and you can fish and I can shoot. There is good musky fishing there. And the place whistles with ducks.”
So that was the solution. Blue’s Landing is an old favorite of mine for late season fishing. The old hotel is practically deserted by this time, save for a few lean and taciturn Yankees, who know about the mystery and glory of October musky fishing in the shallows, and come all the way from Memphis and Omaha to indulge in it here in the less popular resorts of Ontario. The Americans who come in summer are noisy and lively characters who fish hard and get a lot of sunburn. Those who come in October are silent, cold-eyed Yanks, with very old clothes and very costly fishing-tackle boxes and tailor-made split cane rods made in Bangor, Maine, and costing close to a hundred dollars.
They do not interfere with you, they eat by themselves, they do not crave any company, like their summer brethren. The autumn musky fishers from Mobile and St. Louis are prayerful men.
Voices in the Rushes
But when Jim and I drove in the dark into the hotel yard at Blue’s Landing, there were too many cars huddled in the October night. And inside, I could hear the whoopee of duck hunters.
When I pushed in the front door with my armful of rods and tackle boxes, half a dozen rosy gentlemen around the log fire, in loud hunting shirts, greeted me with stony stares.
When Mike, the hotel handyman, came out from the kitchen, I asked him if there were no gentlemen in the house this fall.
“Oh, yes,” said Mike. “But they’ve gone to bed.”
And he winked meaningly with a nod towards the living-room, where the duck hunters were greeting Jim heartily around the log fire.
“I’ll go to bed, too,” I said, “How’s fishing?”
“Mr. Vince got an 18-pounder this morning.”
So I went straight to bed, giving Mr. Vince’s room a friendly nod as I passed his door. Mr. Vince being an aged gentleman from Wheeling, West Virginia.
Jim came in after I was abed and tried to get me to come down and hear some of the stories that were going around the log fire. But I bade him good-night.
And very early in the morning, long before light, the old hotel was shaking and squeaking with the rising of the duck shooters and the musky fishers.
It was, in fact, a fact, I could hear no sound from Jim’s room and hoped I was ahead of him. But when I got down to the lamp-lit dining-room, there he was in his hunting shirt at the large table with the strangers of the night before. At separate tables, scattered around the room, were the musky fishers, singly, or two by two, but mostly singles. Mr. Vince was by himself. I. went and shook hands warmly and then went to a table of my own. That is the spirit of the autumn musky fisher.
Bacon and two eggs. Home-fried potatoes. Toast, coffee. And pumpkin pie. A good sound breakfast. Eaten rapidly. Because the duck hunters are already scraping their chairs away from the table and, with loud talk, scattering out into the hall to pick up guns and pull on waders and canvas coats.
As arranged with Mike the night before, I got the little red boat which Mike had hidden in the reeds some distance from the boathouse. Mr. Vince had his canoe and John Jacob, the Ojibway, for his guide, and they vanished away into the first mists of dawn. Outboard engines whined and roared as the duck hunters blasted off into the murk. In one of the outboard skiffs, I saw Jim perched up very chummy with a crew of his overnight buddies.
I waited until Mike brought the red skiff from hiding and shoved off to row the quarter-mile to McDuggan’s rocky shore across the bay. The mists of daybreak were still thick when, one by one, the outboard engines died in the distance. And a great silence fell over the world. The hunters were creeping into their hides. The musky fishermen were silently drifting along their favorite rides, flinging their lures towards the stilly shore.
There was just a tinkle of breeze. Little wavelets ruffled the water. I came to McDuggan’s shadowy shore, let my oars drag and began to cast. Not a sound broke the eerie silence. It was still too dark to see the best spots to hit with the lure. Suddenly, over my head, I heard a rushing sound which swelled into a squeaking whistle, and I could make out, for an instant, half a dozen torpedo-shapes hurtling through the air. Black duck, maybe, or mallards. They were heading straight up the shore, so I held my cast and listened. But no shots rang out.
“Heh, heh, heh,” I said to myself, and cast.
Slowly the dawn grew and I could make out the rocks and crevices of the shore. The wind drifted me at a pleasant pace. I did the full mile of rocky shore without a rise of any kind. But so great is the expectation, in musky fishing, that you don’t really need a fish.
There were tall bulrushes and reeds for the next mile of shore with all sorts of lily-pad beds.
“Hey,” came a muffled voice from the first clump of bulrushes, “buzz off!”
“That you, Jim?” I called back.
“Ssshhh!” came a sharp rejoinder. “Beat it.”
Instead, I cast deliberately at the lily pads. As reeled in, I could hear mutters and mumbles from the rushes. I drifted, with occasional pulls on the oars to keep me straight, along the reedy shore, while dawn grew into day. A lovely, chill, misty day, ideal for muskies.
A figure rose out of the rushes.
“Will you,” demanded a voice profanely, “get the heck out of here? There’s no fish along here. You’re chasing all the ducks away.”
“What ducks?” I demanded scornfully.
“You’ve scared off three flights already,” declared the figure in the rushes. “Now get the heck out of here before somebody accidentally shoots your tub full of Number Fives.”
“I’m perfectly within my rights,” I said, aiming a cast for the lily pads 10 feet from where he stood.
He sank out of sight with growls.
By now, it was quite light and I could see the hotel at the foot of the lake, as well as Mr. Vince’s canoe far up the opposite shore and a couple of other anglers’ skiffs at likely spots.
As I was watching Mr. Vince, I saw a flock of what appeared to be red heads come spanking out of his direction. They raced across the lake towards me. But seeing my boat, they hoicked up in a beautiful climb and turned towards the hotel end of the lake.
At the same time, I heard shouts, groans and imprecations from half a dozen places in the reeds.
There She Blows!
Then I heard Jim’s voice:
“Greg! Greg! A huge musky. Just rolled. Hey. Here!”
He was in a point of rushes a couple of hundred yards up.
I rowed smartly towards him. His decoys were spread amid the lily pads.
“Where?” I demanded, as the skiff coasted in.
“Right among my decoys,” hissed Jim urgently. “Cast. Cast.”
I cast the weedless lure close ashore and drew it splashing and skittering among the lily pads and decoys.
“Go ahead, he was a 20-pounder, right under my nose,” urged Jimmie.
I cast and re-cast. There was no response.
“Come in,” urged Jim, “and pick me up and I’ll row you along here. He may be cruising up and down.”
“You stick to your ducks,” I said, suspiciously.
“Come on,” wheedled Jim. “A great big green monster …”
At which moment, from down the hotel end of the lake, a long line of speeding bluebills hove in sight, and I saw an expression of agony strike Jim’s face.
“Get out of here!” he roared. “Or come in here and hide that red tub!”
The flight swept far away to the other shore. Behind it came another and another.
“Get out of there, get out of those decoys!” bellowed Jim. “Or come in…”
“I knew what you were up to,” I retorted, as I snagged a lily pad from my weedless lure. “Trying to get me to let you get hold of this boat …”
“Will you come in and hide that boat?” demanded Jim menacingly.
“I’m perfectly within my rights,” I announced. The season is still open. This is a famous fishing lake. I don’t see …”
Far off, a couple of guns barked with that futile sound that means long shots and missed.
“Spoil sport!” yahed Jim.
“You’ve got all the rest of October and November to shoot,” I stated.
“Will you get out of my decoys?” demanded Jim.
At which moment, from the next point of rushes north, gun went off and a scatter of shot slashed the water about 10 feet outside my boat.
“Sorry,” a voice called, “My trigger caught in the rushes.”
And at the same instant, in the water where the shot had lashed, there was a sudden large boiling of the water, the immense dark green back of a musky arched up, a large reddish tail lifted and slapped the water.
“There!” yelled Jim.
I made a quick, backhand cast. My lure chucked into the boil before it had subsided. I felt the slow, savage tug of a big fish. I struck. The lake seemed to explode.
“Give him line! Let me in. Row with one hand. Hold him. Get me in that boat …”
It was Jim roaring from the weeds.
In musky fishing, once things start to happen, all is a dream.
Somehow, Jim got in the boat. Somehow, we fought the fish back through the decoys and the anchor strings and the lily pads and got into the clear. Seven times, the big fish cleared the water in arrowy, horizontal leaps 10 feet long. From the rushes came the yells and cries of advice that goes with a big fish.
And after horsing him up and down the shore for half an hour, we got him tired and hit him on the head with the numbing-stick and hoisted him aboard.
“The great thing about sport,” said Jim, as we shook hands, “is co-operation.”