As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed Him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed Him.
— Mark 1:16-20
My father got home at about 6:00 p.m. that day. Easy to remember, because you could always set your watch by him. I can only imagine how happy he must have been to leave the city behind every day with the piles of work, concrete, and buildings quickly giving way to rolling farmland, pristine woodlands, home, and family.
It was always comical to watch him walk in the door in a business suit, quickly duck into his room, and emerge moments later in his official lake uniform. His idea of lake wear consisted of a white terrycloth jacket, an old pair of canvas deck shoes, faded blue trunks that did little to mask his skinny white legs, and his old army fatigue cap from basic training.
This getup usually indicated that we were going fishing, but we were never entirely sure until he went for the rest of his standard gear. That consisted of a beer cooler, a pack of lucky strikes, zippo and fishing rod.
One of my brothers and I were eagerly waiting on the porch until we finally saw my dad make a move for the tackle room. “Let’s go fishing,” he said. With that, we both ran for our own gear, grabbed our rods and dashed down the hill to the boat.
I had a brand new rod that I couldn’t wait to try out. My other gear consisted of a green plastic toolbox stuffed with all kinds of lures, jarred bait and other nifty tackle… mostly useless stuff I never used, but the kind of props that made a kid feel like a real fisherman.
Our boat was an ancient one that came with the house. It sat there on the lawn about 10 feet from the shoreline, a dull red paint job covering untold layers of paint beneath. The wood of the hull was old and waterlogged, which meant that the boat weighed a ton when we struggled to launch it in the water. The oars were rough and full of splinters, so navigation was quite a chore. It felt like trying to row a battleship across the water, and it didn’t seem to want to obey the commands of my little arms and puny plans.
As I recall, it was very dark that night. The lake was fairly calm, with no moon and only a handful of stars twinkling overhead. The only other light came from the fore, where I could just make out the burning ash of my father’s cigarette, which glowed brightly then faded at intervals, like a little lighthouse far off in the distance.
We were bound for a point about 100 yards straight off the end of our pier, based on some information from a map of the lake we recently discovered. We found the old map among some dusty stuff in the attic. It was a framed blueline survey, faded and weathered, but complete with many curious symbols, doodles and notations indicating all the lake’s fishing holes.
The spot we chose was simply marked with a little red dot and the words “rock bed”. It seemed like a good place to start since it was the closest one to our home.
It was a great mystery to me how the author of the fishing map could have possibly known there was a rock bed beneath the surface. All I could see from our approach was the dark surface of the lake waters stretching off into the night. I carefully checked our position relative to the pier.
When I was satisfied we were precisely in position, I gently let the anchor line out, carefully counting off every yard of rope until it settled on the bottom. It was somewhere around 30 feet, give or take a yard. We were anything but quiet as we settled in, and between the overkill of bug spray and cigarette smoke, I was certain that the fish could not only hear us, but could smell us to boot.
We gave it our best shot for about the next hour and a half, sitting quietly at times, cracking jokes here and there and making easy conversation about fishing. My younger brother was pretty serious about everything that he undertook, and occasionally alternated with cracking jokes and acting silly. My dad was a bit of a brooder at times, mostly he was quite the comedian. I fit in there somewhere as an entertainer of sorts, longer on the setup and stingy with the punch line… more of a contemplative, and less of a brooder.
It was a good group that night, just the three us on a peaceful outing. The only problem: we only had a few little fish to show for the effort. My dad was stretching and clearly ready to pack it in. My brother was fussing with his tackle in the middle of the boat and I could tell that he was getting tired as well. I had just reset my sinkers and loaded a fresh night crawler on my treble hook harness.
While my dad got up and started heading for the anchor, I had just dropped my line to settle the sinkers on the bottom and was hoping that my big, fat, juicy worm was looking pretty tasty hovering two feet off the bottom of the rock bed. “Just give me a couple more minutes,” I said to my dad. “I think something is nosing around my line.”
Really I made the last part up to buy more time, but about a minute later I actually did feel a quiver on my rod with a nudge or two on the line. “Wait, dad.” There was another tug at my line, then it went slack again. “Did you see that?!” My dad sat back down for a minute and lit up another cigarette.
There’s a classic scene in the movie “Jaws” where the old shark hunter, Quint, finds himself in just this situation. The audience can’t see what’s taking the bait, but everyone knows it’s got to be the big one.
Click… click, click. The reel lets out a smidgeon of line. Quint, played by Robert Shaw, scans the impenetrable waters aft of the boat while his shipmates are distracted by other duties. Click, click, click… click. The instincts of the seasoned fisherman take over as he eases into the big chair bolted to the deck. He quietly straps himself in with the safety harness and guides the handle of the rod into the holder. Click… click… click… BAM!
Suddenly there’s a big fish on as the line runs off the reel! Well, that’s kind of the way it went down for me, and suddenly I was in for a big fight with a formidable opponent on the end of the line, and it was big!
The line played out this way, then that way. I was jumping all over the boat trying to stay with the fish. Suddenly it headed for deeper waters as the reel let out about another 30 yards of line. I carefully fought back, worrying the whole time that the test weight of the line might not be sufficient for this whopper. No sooner did I work it back in close, then the rascal made a hard dive down under the boat. It was a terrible struggle to keep it away from the anchor line.
Somehow, my dad managed to get the anchor up and out of the way without getting tangled in my line. At that point, I swear that the fish was actually pulling the boat. As I think about it now, the only detail that escapes me is the length of the fight. It might have been no more than three minutes. It could have been three hours. I only remember that at some point I worked the fish close enough to the surface until it finally broke the water, long enough for me to get a look at its size and colors.
It was a large mouth bass. The biggest I had ever seen. Then. Now. Ever! “Get the net,” I yelled. Bodies, gear and tackle were flying everywhere, and yet no one could seem to get the net down there to help me bag the prize. “The NET!” “GET THE NET!” Nothing but blank stares from the captain and second mate, as it dawned on me that we had forgotten to bring the net.
I struggled for ideas, but fear of losing the fish and impatience finally won out, so I tried to haul it up by grabbing the line. For an agonizing second or two it seemed as if I just might pull it off.
And with that, I recoiled to the floor of the boat with a thud. My rod was still in my hand. I could see the broken line dangling off the end, waving gently back and forth against the dark vault of the heavens.
My dad and brother were looking over the side of the boat… speechless. Everything in the boat was dead silence, as I sprawled there with a sick feeling like no other. I was absolutely sick. Shocked, angry, sad, empty… utterly defeated. I probably yelled at both of them, vented, made some excuses.
On the way back to the shore, I had plenty of time to reflect on all the mistakes I had made and the things I could have done differently. There was still so much I had to learn if I was ever to become an expert fisherman. True, we did quite a few things right that night. The right spot, the right equipment, the right bait, the right techniques… we were somewhat quiet, even if not ‘really, really quiet ‘as my grandfather had first taught me many years prior. Of course we forgot the net.
I grappled with the fact that there was an important rule I had abandoned at a key moment in the struggle: you must be really, really patient. It wasn’t enough to be patient for some or even most of the outing, you had to see it all the way through to the very end. Persevere. Finally, and I must say that it took many, many more fishing trips for this lesson to clearly unfold: you must be really, really humble.
The big one got away that night, and I wasn’t really prepared for the crushing defeat. In fact, I almost swore off fishing after that for good. In hindsight, maybe the rule of humility should have been put into place first to make all the others that much easier to follow. Still, I truly loved fishing, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we were right back at it early the next morning pursuing “The Lunker”, as he came to be known, and searching out other spots for a seemingly endless variety of challenging fish.
Oh, there were plenty of other lunkers after that, and a good many that got away as well, but with time and experience I never really seemed to get so bothered by it anymore. Besides, as the lore of the infamous Lunker grew and spread around the lake, we started to notice other boats and fishermen trying their skills at the rock bed off our pier.
We never did hook him again, but I’d like to think that eventually one of the other folks hauled him in. Guy, gal, young, old… I’ll never know what kind of a fisherman landed him, but I’ll bet you my prized tackle box that whoever they were, they were very, very humble.
Sts. Peter, Andrew, John and James, pray for us all