Like a lot of kids, I learned how to hunt and fish from my father. Even though we rarely had the opportunity to pursue species other than deer, ducks, catfish and panfish, he took me every chance he had. Some summers, we towed our small boat and motor to Ontario, where we'd fish for walleyes, smallmouths and northern pike. But college and a career took me away from home, and one day I realized that Dad and I had not been fishing together for far too long. And with my father nearing retirement, I knew it was now my turn.
I owed Dad a fishing trip.
A few months later, we were in a floatplane headed for a remote lake in Manitoba, where we would stay in a tent and fish for three days until the plane returned for us. We'd target walleyes for dinner, but we were both hoping to tangle with a big pike.
On the second day, we motored into a wide, shallow bay, rimmed by glacial rocks and pine trees. Its sandy bottom, almost devoid of vegetation or structure, was easily visible through the clear water.
With the light-colored bottom, it was easy to watch our lures as they darted through the cold, crystalline water on a windless day. Almost from the very first cast, shadowy torpedoes began to appear in the distance, like mirages, as soon as our lures hit the water.
As we retrieved our spoons and spinners, those shapes would slowly follow, sometimes approaching from multiple directions. And suddenly it began. On opposite sides of the boat, two hard-charging pike simultaneously slammed into our lures and took off.
Because the bay was so shallow, the fish made long, powerful runs near the surface. We could see their broad backs knife through the water, occasionally interrupted by a head-shaking splash or a boil of water that would ignite yet another run. Fighting the fish from one side of the boat to the other, we traded places a few times and eventually landed them both. We'd found our own "Bay of Pigs."
Cast after cast, our lures were stalked by predatory pike, most of which were 10 pounds and up. We hooked and unhooked so many of the toothy predators that we were getting fatigued. To our amazement, they kept coming. We'd already pinched the barbs on our lures in order to unhook the fish faster, so it was time for a new strategy. We began yanking our lures out of the water when it looked like a "small" pike (anything that appeared less than 15 pounds or so) might hit them.
I remember Dad and I looking at each other and laughing out loud at the absurdity of the situation: We were struggling to keep 15-pound pike away from our lures so that the trophy pike — visible in every direction — would have a chance to get there first.
For a magical 90 minutes we watched, and caught, some of the biggest pike we'd ever seen. When the fish finally disappeared, we sat down in the boat for the first time that afternoon, shook our heads and smiled. In all our times fishing together we'd never had a day like that. We both realized just how rare it was.
When my folks moved into assisted living several years ago, there was enough room to bring along only a few of their possessions. But one of them was the mount of Dad's 21-pound pike, the biggest fish he ever caught and the only trophy he ever kept. A man who was a stellar athlete most of his life, he'd earned plenty of accolades in his day. But that pike, and the memories of an extraordinary day fishing with his son, remained special to him for as long as he was able to remember.
The pike is mine now, as are the memories. And they're more special than ever.