Wake up at 5:15am to get ready, darkness of the day still holding the sun at bay. Push out of my head the knowledge that 1) I haven’t been fishing since I was nine and 2) I’m about to ride out the farthest and deepest yet that I’ve been on Lake Michigan. Take a shower, layer up, throw on big, black waterproof boots, step out the door. Head to fellow Old Town resident / local artist Jim Blanchard‘s house. He promptly hands over an add’l fleece and a raincoat, the former I put on and the latter I leave hanging on his porch handrail, forgotten. We throw a few last items into the boat, but since Jim B. has readied all of the preparations the day before on his own (including all the lines, poles, spoon lures, and the hitching of the boat trailer to his van), we leave promptly.
Jim B. suggests we hit Potter’s Bakery for some donuts and I heartily agree, having heard that this 80-year-old Traverse City staple is not one to be missed. We park the van, step outside, and are greeted with an unexpected but welcome fluorescent brightness that highlights the newly baked delectables to behold. Making note of the kid-friendly smiley- and animal-decorated cookies for Jackson’s sake later, I select two straight-glazed donuts for myself, we complete our transaction and head out to Leland, MI, to put in.
Forty minutes later we arrive at the Leland marina. We take the poles from the back of the van and move them into the boat, then Jim backs the boat into the launch deftly, tasking me with little (cognizant as he is of my noobness) save holding the dock line. With no small amount of amazement I contemplate the fact that by holding a small rope I am keeping an 18-foot angler boat from floating away. After the van is parked, we hop in, Jim makes a few last minute checks (specifically to the backup motor he has recently purchased), and he fires the boat’s main 125hp Mercury engine up.
The sun is just starting to peek through. I’m suddenly sorry that Jess isn’t here, knowing that the first time either of us will have watched the sunrise on the Big Lake looking toward shore will be now, and she will have missed it. No time for reverie, though. We must get to the spot quickly while dawn is at hand, as any fisherman knows (except for me, of course). The sight of other boats already on the hunt inspires Jim to get us out of the marina and around the breakwater quickly, and as soon as we’re clear, Jim hits the throttle.
I am not prepared. The boat lurches forward without preamble, and before I can process it we are hurtling headlong toward North Manitou Island at 30 mph, bouncing savagely atop the swells. Still sitting and clutching my coffee thermos (a treasured Father’s Day gift w/ photos of Jess and Jackson emblazoned upon it), I have to make the split-second decision to either hold on to the console to prevent falling on my ass or continue holding the prized coffee container; I manage to place it between my knees and grab hold as a temporary solution. It will be a thirty-minute ride, however, and after a few minutes I can maintain the awkward position no longer and the thermos falls; but, I hear it clunk to the stern, and breathe a sigh of relief.
Mini-crisis averted, I look back toward the coastline, and the Sun, like God’s awakening eye, rises above the treeline, and it’s splintering of the darkness is breathtaking. These moments, never spoken of aloud by old fishing hands, beckon them time and again back to open waters.
We reach the spot a half-mile out from the ranger station on the North Manitou shore and, slowing to two-and-a-half mph, Jim instructs me to drive and to make ‘callouts’ (I know neither how to drive a boat nor what a ‘callout’ is). Jim explains that I’ll be fine on the former and gives a quick definition of the latter. After showing me how to identify the fish on the sonar, I take the wheel, and it is indeed fine – at first, anyway (Later, while simultaneously trying to keep the boat pointed toward another on the horizon, doing the callouts, making sure we are remaining parallel to North Manitou, and working to maintain the proper depth (sheesh!), I turn a tad too sharply and cause a couple of the lines to tangle).
After Jim methodically completes setting the poles for the trolling session, we immediately get a bite. Jim grabs the pole and quickly hands it to me , saying, ‘Here you go, man, this is what we’re here for!’ I frantically begin reeling it in, not knowing how to lock and release the line based on what the fish is doing, which Jim patiently shows me while I continue to pull in the salmon, I now determined not to let my first big-water catch end in disappointment.
In what seems like a small eternity to my non-athletic arms, I stare w/ growing expectation at the fish coming ever closer to the stern. Jim grabs the fishing net, and as I heave the pole up as hard as I can to get the fish as close as possible, Jim scoops the ten lb.-er out of the cold, dark water of Lake Michigan. I can’t believe I’ve pulled it off. It is, as Jess would say, effing exhilarating.
Without batting an eye Jim dumps the salmon into the back of the boat, explaining that the ones we see in-town are brown and going up the river to die; while fish like this one, still deep in the Lake, are shiny, healthy, fighting for life. I can see he is right, and then, glancing down, the eyes of my watery prey and my inexperienced-self meet, and, despite the fact I can imagine his curses, warning me (‘See you in the next, life, punk’) , I grin uncontrollably. Silvery bastard, you are mine.
Time passes, and after Jim brings in a couple more salmon himself, we head back. As we did going out, we haul ass on the way in, and this time I remain standing and hold on to the t-top canopy structure, contracting my knees like springs every time we bounce over a swell. A shipping channel runs north-south between North Manitou and Leland, and on the way back I spot a tanker several miles to the right of us; thus, I take very small notice of the increased choppiness of the water residing in the lane, which has claimed many a boat on stormy nights. But the sun is high now, glittering off the deep blue water, and I am smiling, with no fear.
As we near the marina, Jim has me take the wheel, while we are still at speed. I see now that this is how most people learn to do such things; little-to-no instruction, just do it. As the rocky breakwater comes closer and closer into view, I wonder when it will be appropriate to slow, but say nothing, trusting that we will at the last possible moment – and that is when we do. We bank hard right around the breakwater, and power nearly all the way down to idle into the marina.
As we head home I know I’ve crossed some sort of threshold, and am also unable to put a descriptor on it. But there are no words for this moment of completion, aside from the overwhelming desire to return to the water and do this again.