On Father’s Day, I often drift back to the summer when my dad took me on my first fishing adventure.
I was just a little guy, but my dad decided I was old enough to accompany him to Canada. So off we went to Lake Despair, a secluded body of water in Ontario.
For a city boy, it was quite an eye-opening experience. Our cabin at the water’s edge was no Ritz. When I asked my dad where the bathroom was, he led me to a little shack in the back where flies were buzzing about.
“How do we flush?” I asked my dad, looking at the two-holer facilities.
Dad laughed and said, “You don’t. This is an outhouse. You just do your business, hold your breath and get out of there.”
Then there was the fishing. I had caught bluegills, bass and crappies on our first trips back in Illinois. But I had never seen fish with razor-sharp teeth that seemingly had a mean streak.
I remember how we went out on the lake for a few hours after we got unpacked. My dad had hired a guide for the next three days, but we were on our own for the first evening.
My dad rowed us around in a small aluminum boat, and we fished the weedy shallows near our cabin. He tied a red and white Dardevle spoon to my line and instructed me to cast to the edge of reeds that jutted out of the water.
On one of my first casts, I watched as a wake emerged from the weeds and ended with an explosion at the end of my line. I pulled back and watched as a northern pike burst out of the calm surface and arched as it tried to escape.
It looked like it was big as I was, and my heart raced. I can still picture it to this day.
I eventually got the fish in, and my dad proudly proclaimed, “Maybe I didn’t need to hire a guide.”
The trip only got better. The next morning, a Native American guide whose family had for generations lived in the area drove up our cabin in a loud, beatup truck.
After we exchanged greetings, we piled into that truck and headed for another lake. I remember that the door wouldn’t shut, and it would spring open every time we would round a curve. I also remember how I would almost fly out, saved only by my dad grabbing me by the scruff of my shirt.
Once we piled our fishing equipment and our cooler into the boat, Arnie, our guide, started the motor and headed into a wilderness the likes of which I had never seen.
I wondered why he cut the motor at one point, until I saw him pointing at a bear along the bank.
Once we got to a beautiful bay, Arnie told us it was time to cast. We caught several smaller northerns right off, and I was happy. When I cast to an area where logs filled the bottom, I felt my lure come to a stop and I announced, “I think I hooked a log.”
I tried to hand the rod to Arnie, but he gruffly said, “Logs don’t swim,” referring to my line that was slowly cutting through the water to my right. “You have a big fish.”
I fought that fish for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes in reality. Once Arnie slipped the net under the fish, I was in awe. I had never seen a fish that big.
We also caught walleyes that day and Arnie filleted our catch on a boat paddle, then peeled some potatoes and threw them into a frying pan sizzling with grease. He also opened a can of beans and put it in the fire. A few minutes later, we had a shore lunch that I can still remember.
We continued to fish for hours over the next few days and I never got tired of it. There was something new to see every day—waterfalls, beautiful islands, loons and even a moose wading through the shallows.
I could tell by the look on my dad’s face that he was thrilled that I was taking to the world that he so loved.
Don’t get me wrong. My dad was by no means an expert fisherman. But he loved being outdoors.
I think a lot of that had to do with his job. He was in charge of a large accounting firm in our hometown of Rockford, Ill., and he put in long hours, sometimes even returning to work after dinner.
He was a great guy, but he was serious, often stressing about his job without voicing it. But when he was outdoors, he was a different person.
He was relaxed and we had a chance to bond. We would talk about everything – from my little-league team to the days he grew up on a farm.
That trip began a long relationship in the fishing boat. My dad and mom went in with their friends and bought a cottage on a lake in Wisconsin and we were up there almost every weekend. We would slip out to fish every morning before the girls woke up and we learned where every productive hole on that lake was located.
Every time a storm was slowly approaching, we would rush to the boat and head to the bubbler – a spot where water bubbled up from an adjacent lake. We knew the walleyes would be hitting for an hour or so before the storm hit.
My dad and I continued to fish until he became older. When he was started to get frail, we reversed roles. I took him to Canada, this time to Lake of the Woods, for one last trip.
I remember how he got excited to catch walleyes and giant crappies when our guide pulled our boat over a hump.
It wasn’t long after that that dad’s health went downhill. He and mom spent the winters in Florida and we got together a few times to do some fishing on the Gulf of Mexico. But eventually, things got worse and it was obvious that he didn’t have much more time.
I still remember our last conversation. It was a little awkward at first. Dad was a proud man, and he didn’t want to admit that he was about to die.
But suddenly his face brightened as he changed the subject.
“Hey, do you remember Arnie?” he asked.
Yes, Dad, I’ll never forget.