When I was ten years old I hooked into the fattest fish I had ever seen in my life. Or maybe it was my brother who finally lured the beast, I honestly can’t remember. Regardless, this sucker was sleek, brown, slimy, and big. And we—my brother, my cousin Jake, and I—had it hooked.

On Bear Lake, in a sacred region that Michiganders refer to as “Up North,” the men on my dad’s side of the family would gather for our annual fishing trip. The Gorter Guys. We’d eat steak with Sweet Baby Ray’s, play Texas hold’em with pocket change, drink (root) beer, and fish our hearts out. We jumped in the water to feel the icy chill of a lake whose blue depths were infinite. I stuck a leech to the back of my hand just to see if it would actually suck my blood (it did). My brother knocked a prized fishing pole overboard and we watched as it sank into that bottomless lake—a visual that neither I nor my Uncle Pete will ever forget. We saw bald eagles soar, heard the serenade of bullfrogs, witnessed the mythic lake sturgeon swim past our dock like a living dinosaur. After a long Michigan Winter, this retreat, every May, marked the beginning of summer adventures.

That lake taught me some important lessons. First, fishing is a worthy way to spend every waking hour of three consecutive days, and more days, too, if one has the luxury. The second, I think, had something to do with the importance of male family bonding, but we were there to fish, afterall. Why else did we drive three hours? Suffice to say both activities were equally important and accomplishing one meant accomplishing the other.

The Fish. Yellow perch, largemouth bass, muskie, Northern pike, lake sturgeon, crappie, warmouths, sunfish, blue gills, swedish fish; the list goes on. And then there’s the most prized of them all, the fish all of us coveted for its sweet white flesh and elusivity. 

Walleye.

Lurking the rocky bottom, deep in the black abyss of Bear Lake, the walleye patrols his kingdom. With oversized eyes and a torpedo-shaped body, the walleye is Michigan’s barracuda. Next time you go for a peaceful swim in the lake watch your toes, because walleye strike anything with a lifelike jig to it.  

That last sentence is false. Walleye are highly selective, and even the most lifelike bait will hardly garner their attention. For all we knew their very existence in Bear Lake was fabricated. We almost never caught walleye. Almost. 

When my brother, Jake, and I saw that massive fish we knew exactly what it was. And we knew exactly how it was going to go when we got back to the cabin. The uncles would ask if we caught anything. “Eh, nothing really,” we’d shrug, and then we’d pull our twenty-five-inch walleye from the live well. Jaws would drop. All glory would be bestowed on the three greatest sportsmen, forever inscribed in Bear Lake’s legends.

We reeled in the lake monster with grunts, whoops, and cheers. Sweat dripped from our foreheads and heartbeats raced. And then someone got the net, someone scooped, and all of the sudden there it was, captured, in our boat. In our boat! Not Uncle John’s high speed bass boat; it was in our rusty-bottomed, floating-piece-of-tin boat!

With triumph on our faces we docked the old boat, and when the time came to reveal our catch, like we knew they would, jaws dropped. I watched with bemusement as Uncle John’s smile fell from his face; he saw that we were holding not a walleye, but a dogfish. A slimy-skinned, not-good-for-eating freshwater dogfish. He was so keen on being excited for us. His heart sank that day, like Uncle Pete’s rod.

Later that night we de-scaled a walleye for dinner. An actual walleye. Caught by, you guessed it, Uncle John, in his bass boat with the fish monitor and the cold ones. Man, did that fish taste good, and around the fire that night, bellies full, we dreamt of future fishing trips, future catches, and that elusive walleye at the bottom of the lake.

Years later while collecting fish samples for wetland research I caught countless dogfish, or bowfins, as they’re referred to more respectfully. Each time I wrestled one from the net to take its measurements (they are a strong fish; honestly I’m impressed we ever reeled it in) I thought back on our catch, back to Bear Lake, and never did I measure its equal. That fish Up North had to be, easily, twenty-five inches…heck, it could have been twenty-seven or twenty-eight, now that I think about it. Heck, it could have been…

2 Comments

  1. Chad Westra

    Love your storytelling, Jon. It really takes me back to up north Michigan summers growing up! It was always rumored there were walleye in our lake—I never saw any proof.

    Reply
    • Jon

      Thanks, Chad. Michigan summers are legendary, and about as fleeting and out of reach as those dang walleye.

      Reply

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