One of my earliest memories was Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s big home with its very high ceilings in Cincinnati. I was 4, and my aunt gave me a tackle box. As I examined the various fishing lures, my father said, “Be careful that the first fish you catch isn’t yourself.” I didn’t understand him until a few minutes later, when I returned with a treble hook dangling from my finger.
By now, I’ve fished in a lot of places—New Zealand, Ireland, the Bahamas, Florida, the American West—and some unusual spots— Antietam Creek and South Fork Creek, just where the dam broke unleashing the Johnstown Flood. In all of those places, it’s been fly fishing, the sophisticated cousin of the down-home bait fisherman. But for me, fishing will always mean a worm and a hook in the Les Cheneaux Islands, a group of 35 islands in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s where I learned and where I’ll fish every summer, as long as I’m able.
It all started with family fishing trips on the Captain Bing, a World War I lifeboat my grandfather bought on Mackinac Island in 1920 for $100. He installed an inboard engine, changed the name to the Captain Bing (from an old Father Goose tale), and started a tradition of pirate picnics. Everyone, old and young, dressed as pirates and we’d picnic on one of the islands. And some time during every outing since the Roaring Twenties, we all sang the song:
“Captain Bing was a Pirate King, and he sailed the broad seas o’er.
On many a lark, he sailed his bark, where none had sailed before.
But when he found… that he had drowned, it took him unaware, for,
Captain Bing was a Pirate King, and he sailed the broad seas o’er.”
When I was a kid, Dad took us on “Bing fishing trips” with 10 people fishing, many with cane poles extending far over the gunwales of the battleship-gray steel boat. One of our favorite spots was Bosely’s Channel—a quiet, narrow channel between Big LaSalle and Little LaSalle islands. The setting was pristine— with great blue heron, kingfishers, banks lined with birches and pines, lily pads and, under the water, fish swimming somewhere nearby. We would sit there on the long side benches, and I, being an agile little kid, would spring from back deck to bench, across to engine cover and up to the bow. When others got bored, I didn’t. I wanted to catch more and bigger fish. Perhaps it was a way for me, by far the youngest of five, to get attention. My father helped and encouraged me, from a very young age. And perhaps I liked fishing initially because of his attention; I’m just surmising why I like fishing more than just about anyone I know.
I learned to drive a boat alone by age 5, a 1920 wooden seasled that was the forerunner of the Boston Whaler. We called it the No-Na-Me, an Indian-sounding, tongue-in-cheek version of its real identity—the No-Name. My idea of heaven as a boy was to pack a lunch and take the No-Na-Me with its five-horsepower engine three miles down the island. I stayed close to shore always. My boat was small, low in the water and very slow— and the main channel in the ’60s was full of big cruisers and speed boats. My destination was Bosely’s channel, where I would fish for hours.
My parents didn’t worry. Dad had taught me to drive the boat. I was a good swimmer. And it was a different time—an era of freedom. And so I sat there fishing, pulling up my little anchor and changing spots along the quarter-mile channel every so often and peering into the water, listening to the sounds, watching the birds, and catching fish. And then making the hour-long trip back, hand on the tiller of my little craft.
My older brother Bob taught me how to clean fish. How the insides worked fascinated me, including cutting open the stomach to see what the perch were eating. And I wanted to do a good job so my sisters and mother wouldn’t be bothered by seeing any blood along the backbone.
In those early days, we mainly fished around the boathouse— a big boathouse with a double well and a two-bedroom apartment above it. The boat well was perfect on rainy days, and it had a seemingly endless supply of perch. On the far side of the boathouse was a marsh—the land of pike—but I didn’t graduate to pike fishing until later.
Dad was often back home in Cincinnati on business, so I tagged along with Bob and his friends. Being five years younger, I was tolerated and occasionally provided comic relief. Once, we fished on an abandoned old dock, after a rain. I slipped and fell off the dock with my rod in hand. And when I climbed back up, soaking, and held my rod up, one of the older guys yelled, “Look—Doug has a three-inch fish on the line!” And the story grew that I was pulled off the dock by a minnow.
We seldom traveled far from our island to fish, but once such occasion was when old Mr. Siebenthaler visited. He was in his 80s and had been a friend of my late grandfather. I was probably 8, and it was Dad, me and Mr. Siebenthaler, who wore the first fishing outfit I’d ever seen—vest, special pants, fishing hat—which seemed very fussy, like his personality. It was my first visit to what in my family was called the Ten Dollar Hole, because my great-uncle Walter had paid an Indian guide $10 to row him there back at the turn of the previous century. There were $1 and $5 holes. Ten dollars, however, was a very high price—and it was six miles rowing one way. It’s still the best fishing spot in the islands.
On that trip, Dad insisted that I not make any noise or vibrations, and I could tell this was on account of Mr. Siebenthaler. The old gentleman seemed to disapprove of my being along, and that was before the calamity that ended the trip. Namely, at some point, though I’d tried and tried to hold it, I had to go to the bathroom. But instead of just taking a leak over the side, which would have been normal but apparently not acceptable with Mr. Siebenthaler, Dad dumped our bait out of the minnow bucket and told me to use that instead. I’ve never understood why he did that—until writing this story. It finally dawned on me that Dad was probably tired of our cranky old guest too and figured this would be the easiest way to end the trip.
When Victor Shoberg, the Swedish immigrant and local fishing guide, had obnoxious clients in the boat with him, he’d shut ‘em up by saying: “Ya don’t haf to be veddy smart to ketch feesh—just a leetle beet smarder dan da feesh.” The other one of his sayings I remember was, “If the feesh are biting, you von’t need much bait. And eef dare not, you von’t need much eeder.”
Victor was a memorable character of my youth up there. In the late ’60s, he was in his 80s, but every day he went out alone in his old wooden launch. By then, he was a thin, old man in loose, old clothes with a broad straw hat and about 10 cane poles over the side with bobbers. After fishing, he’d stop by the boathouse with a basket of perch for my grandmother. My grandparents had been friends with Victor and his wife since before World War I. One summer in the ‘50s, Victor was convinced he was dying. As the story goes he just lay in bed awaiting death, no matter what anyone said, including doctors. Days became a week, and Victor wouldn’t budge. When my grandfather heard about it, he told Mrs. Shoberg he had an idea that he thought might work, and with her OK, he invited friends to the Shobergs’ home where they held a wake for Victor. Friends came to call, entered the bedroom and solemnly commented on how good Victor looked, even in death, and what a fine man he’d been. It went on for some time, until Victor started saying—to no avail—that he wasn’t dead. “I’m here!” the laconic Swede said, “I’m alive”—and finally he jumped out of bed to prove it.
I caught my first big pike, a 10-pounder, with Victor’s son Con, an outdoorsman hero in my mind who took me out one night with a group of men when I was 10. And when I returned to the cottage that night with that huge pike (still the biggest I’ve ever caught), I was a conquering champion. Con was the local real estate agent and county commissioner. And he was one of the two grownups I would approach at cocktail parties and say, “Hi Uncle Con, how’s the fishing?”
The other was Dick Powell, longtime president of the Writers’ Guild and co-creator of “Hogan’s Heroes” (he dreamt up Sergeant Schultz), and the acknowledged fishing expert of his generation among the summer set. It was with Dick that I first returned to the Ten Dollar Hole as a 12-year-old—it was too far for my slow boat to go. Dick always came back with stringers full of big bass and the occasional big pike (he once caught a 20-pound pike there). But the one time I went with him, no one in the boat caught a thing, and when we later went trolling out on the open lake, things got worse. I noticed a seagull trailing behind us in the water and following my line in a monotonously regular arc. “Dick, do you think maybe that seagull’s hooked on my line?” It was, and after slowly reeling in my catch, Dick gently removed the treble hooks from the frightened bird’s diaphanous white wing.
* * *
As I got older, I graduated to bigger boats, and I ventured farther into the outer islands with friends. In high school, fishing took a back seat because groups of 20–30 of us—guys and girls—would take boats out to empty islands, build fires and frolic until late into the night, returning under a full moon, or watching the shooting stars as we skimmed home along the smooth, flat, glassy water.
During college and until my mid 20s, I still fished but not as much. I wasn’t up there that much, but I did continue my streak: I’ve never missed a summer.
One day in college, I opened my dorm room door and a huge landing net—silver aluminum with green netting—fell to the hard floor with a clank. In it was a note from Dad: “Let’s go fishing for salmon.” Five years would go by, but we did.
I always learned things when I fished with Dad. As a kid, I’d pinch a night crawler into thirds or quarters to save bait (which I used my precious allowance to purchase). And one time, when Dad put a whole night crawler on his hook, I complained about his profligacy. “If you want to catch a bigger fish,” he said, “You need a bigger worm.”
Another time I was lying on a flat rock overhanging a stream by our farm in Ohio. I was looking straight down and dangling a hook right in front of the nose of a big bass. I was 10. I told Dad about the fish and said he wouldn’t bite no matter what I did. He walked over. “Let me see your rod,” he said, and let the hook sink beneath the big fish and then jerked it up, snagging him and landing the big largemouth bass. It seemed totally unfair, but I understood the lesson.
On the day we finally went salmon fishing in the U.P., I was 25, and Dad was almost 70. He had heard that anglers were standing shoulder-to-shoulder on Carp River, catching the big Chinook as they entered the stream. I had a different idea, though, and did a little reconnoitering. So that afternoon, when Dad, brother Bob and I got in the car, I had the keys and got into the driver’s seat. Rather than turning left at the blinking light to drive the 15 miles to Carp River, I turned right.
“Where are you going?” Dad asked, surprised. I told him I had a different spot in mind. “But they’re shoulder-to-shoulder at Carp River!” Uncharacteristically, he was fit to be tied—he simply couldn’t believe I was not going there. And when, five minutes later, we arrived at quiet and picturesque McKay’s Creek, I pulled to the roadside and got out with my rod. Dad stayed in the car, which was totally unlike him (but hilarious to me). Bob stayed too, but came running when, on my second cast, I tied into a 23-pounder. It fought like a tyrant, splashing and running. When I got him close to shore, Bob swiped at him with the big net, but missed and the salmon went on a long run. When I finally got him close again, Dad had appeared on the banks. He grabbed the net and didn’t hesitate, walking thigh deep into the river, netting and wrestling the thrashing monster back to shore.
It was the biggest fish any of us had ever caught in Michigan—and we were thrilled. We caught seven or eight that day—on a stream with no one around but us. It was the last time we fished together—Dad died several years later—but I remember that day well. A refreshing late September chill was in the air, along with the smell of wood smoke from a distant fireplace. And we all found our favorite spots along the banks of that stream, fishing while the birch trees dropped their yellow leaves into the dappled water.
The next year, when Bob and I were home in Cincinnati for Christmas, the phone rang and it was Con Shoberg asking for Dad. After Dad got off the phone, we asked, “What did Con want?” Con was calling because the land along the entire length of Bosely’s Channel was for sale. It was 150 acres and more than a mile of lake frontage. And a very reasonable price.
“What did you tell him?” we asked.
“I told him, I wasn’t interested,” Dad said, but after a pause, continued, “but that I thought you two might be.”
And so it was that I came to own what I have always thought is the most beautiful spot in the islands. Years later, Con told me that he had called because 40 years earlier, my grandfather had told Con that if Bosely’s Channel ever came up for sale, he was interested. Con and Granddad had thought the world of each other, and though Granddad had been dead for 25 years, Con had made a promise.
* * *
When my three children came along, a new era of fishing began for me. With three children within 42 months, the early morning— 5:30–7:30 a.m.—was the only time of the summer day when I could get away without shirking my family duties. And so I went fishing…
At some point when I was a young guy, I remember thinking it would be a wonderful thing to understand a whole ecosystem of a place somewhere—how all the elements fit together to make a living world. And by now, I’m well on my way to understanding the islands where I live every summer—from the contours of the lake bottom to the mesmerizing multitude of stars in the night sky. The rocky points, the sandy bays, the marsh beds, trees, plants, and island paths. The insects, the mammals, the birds and the fish. And now I have become the guy people ask about fishing at cocktail parties, overseeing the Yacht Club’s annual fishing contest and counted on to make humorous reports at the annual meeting.
Why do I love fishing? The beauty. The people. Because of nature. Because of the action and the stories, which go back as far as stories have been recorded. Our islands are the place where the Ojibway Indian chief Shab-wa-way lived—the figure on whom Longfellow based his “Song of Hiawatha.” And it was Shab-wa-way who is credited with creating the first fishing net after studying a spider.
One time, when Dad put a whole night crawler on his hook, I complained about his profligacy. “If you want to catch a bigger fish,” he said, “You need a bigger worm.”
Regarding spiders, you may not know that every summer night, they enshroud every square inch of every surface of every thing. I didn’t know that until I arose early to go fishing one foggy morning, and it was only then, with so much moisture in the air, that you could see that, overnight, spiders had covered the entire forest—top to bottom—and every structure—with silver webbing that shimmered, visible only with the early fog. And if you happen to go out in a boat in the fog, even if you’ve driven the waters your entire life, prepare to get completely disoriented. But remember, as Dad once told me, “Just because you’re lost doesn’t mean your compass is wrong.”
* * *
What is fishing? It can be camaraderie. My best friends know how to fish.
And my dog Stormy knows too—by my movements and the sound of the reel as a big fish takes out line.
And I like taking people fishing who appreciate it. I’ve taken so many that I’ve simply forgotten. Some guy in his 30s will say, “You took me fishing once when I was a kid.” Which is nice, except in its reminder of how much time has passed. One that I remember well was one of my sister’s sons—Jeremiah. He was having a difficult time—being 12— and on our trip, I helped him catch and land a 9-pound pike. That’s a big one (with big teeth). I put it on the stringer, and we returned home victorious. He would be a hero.
But when we reached the dock, he picked up the stringer and it slipped from his hands and into the water. The big fish was gone. Victory also was gone, and now Jeremiah would have to deal with the ignominy of mishandling a big fish, which would surely die needlessly on the stringer. It was heartbreaking, remembering the psyche of a 12-yearold. The pain on his face said it all.
“Well, let’s just drive around in the boat a little and see if we find it,” I said, with very little hope. But you just couldn’t leave the situation where it was—it was too bleak. We made a series of passes, with Jeremiah and my 10-year-old son, Henry, on the bow peering into the depths. Nothing. We did a few more just for good measure. And more and more, until we’d gone beyond what was reasonable and simply moved on faith. Finally I said, “We’ll take one more pass,” and 20 seconds later, I spied the bright yellow line of the stringer a few feet below the surface. I gently lowered the big salmon net, and moments later Jeremiah was holding his trophy fish again—with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.
Many people, however, don’t like fishing in general, and there are a great many specific things about it that they don’t like. For instance, getting up early. Being out in the elements. Not having a bathroom. Not having coffee or food nearby. Not liking to touch the bait. Not knowing how to work their reel and cast the bait properly. Waiting around while “nothing is happening.” Not getting bites while others are. Or having a fish on the line and missing it for any number of reasons, which they don’t understand. Catching a fish and then having to touch it. Taking the hook out of the fish’s mouth. And simply the idea—much less the practice—of cleaning a fish.
I am not one of those people. I understand that probably most people don’t like fishing. And that’s fine. But I confess that when someone complains about any of the aforementioned aspects of fishing—while we’re out on a fishing trip—it makes me think less of them. The more complaining, the more they earn an indelible black mark in my mind.
* * *
Some things in life you learn—as Aristotle famously said—by doing. And so it is with fishing. How to know when a fish is considering your hook and when the time is right to pull back and hook him. The feel of whether your anchor is holding or slipping during a rough day. How and where to cast your line.
And there are things you learn by either reading or from a wise elder. For instance, don’t fish the morning after a clear night with a full moon, because the fish have had enough light to feed all night. But if it’s a full moon and it’s a beautiful night and you’re 16, you can sit out at the end of a long dock with your buddy, a boom box and a six pack and throw your hook, laden with worm and a big weight—way out onto the bottom of a sandy bay, where a roaming catfish will grab it. The one night I did that, I caught a two-pound catfish, but despite what I tried, I couldn’t get the hook out of the sandpapery tough skin of his mouth. The longer you don’t succeed, the thinner the fish’s chances. And to make it worse, this catfish didn’t flinch; he just uttered little grunting noises—like human groaning—in that moonlight as the life ebbed from him. Before he died, I promised him, I’d never go catfishing again, and I never have.
Air pressure affects fish, especially big fish, which is the kind I fish for. In high pressure, their air bladder is compressed and they’re comfortable, swimming and feeding at will. But when the barometer falls, that bladder swells, creating discomfiture. The fish hunker down without eating until the pressure rises again. So when the barometer is rising after having been low, it’s a good time to find hungry fish.
There are other things, however, that remain a mystery. For instance, sometimes a spot suddenly “turns on,” and fish hit anything that moves. In 15 minutes, it turns off again.
For me, fishing is always a sublime mixture of elements, and among them my desire still remains to catch the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. Why? Who knows? I’ve learned that it doesn’t make sense to question why you love the things you love. It’s enough to simply love them.
For me, it’s difficult to beat the feeling of waking in the pre-dawn light, and quietly getting dressed and whispering to Stormy, “You ready to go fishing?” Descending the broad, wooden front steps of our big, 110-year-old cottage and entering the beginning of a new day. Walking onto the creaking boards of the dock. Making sure everything’s in the boat— tackle box, rod, bait, the big net Dad gave me and a towel to wipe the dew from the windshield and the seat. And then quietly calling Stormy who runs the length of the dock— clippety clip—to the boat and leaps in.
We start the engine and pull away, slowly at first to a little distance away so as not to awaken anyone with the engine’s roar. But then, opening it up, as the boat lurches out of the water to plane—and then flying along the glassy surface—wind in your face and hair, as the channel opens into a large bay and you survey what kind of day it’s going to be. Off to the left—to the east—the light from the still invisible sun begins to add color to the landscape. Now turning west, giving a wide berth to a rocky point and then between the line of boathouses on the mainland and the long dark silhouette of evergreens on Marquette Island. Watching for waterfowl and the occasional circle of a fish surfacing—watching for anything and everything—skimming along over four miles of glass, Stormy perched in the bow, snout in the air. Then a few sweeping rounded turns, around this island and that, we approach the spot, and slow the engine. We idle ahead into the shallow water, just between a submerged rocky point and a line of reeds surrounding another island.
Cutting the engine, we drift into place. Cleat the anchor off the bow. Pull a big night crawler from the white Styrofoam box and drape it over the hook. A gentle cast sends the worm 25 feet from the boat, where it plops and sinks slowly to the bottom. Every few seconds, pull the rod tip toward the boat, then slowly turn the reel and take up the slack. The sun peaks over the trees, and early birds break the quiet—sometimes a crow, sometimes a seagull, or ducks muttering as they feed, or the prehistoric squawk of a heron, or the crazy trumpeting cacophony of a sand hill crane. All the while slowly drawing the line across the bottom, waiting for that almost imperceptible tension that indicates it’s time to open the bail and let a little line out. Let the fish take a little. Wait just a second or two. And then gently draw in the slack. Waiting to feel that heaviness at the other end.
When we do catch one—whether big or small—Stormy goes bonkers, snouting and biting the fish as it flops around on the bottom of the boat. If it’s an unusually big one, I weigh it and might take a picture, with the fish next to my size-12 shoes for perspective. And then it’s back in the water for him.
Increasingly, I’d rather let the fish—and everything else for that matter—live and enjoy this world as long as possible.