Therapy on the Mawgi

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After an eight hour swaying doddering journey north along the canyon and mountainous stoney treed hills of the Lake Superior valley and into the flat boreal lowlands on a train of just a timeworn engine baggage and passenger car, Robert Jorgensen stepped down into a warm August evening at Suspan Ontario. The middle aged conductor in a plaid shirt, looking affable and worn like the train, serving as baggage and break man, passed down Robert’s luggage from an empty baggage car. Two short horn blasts issued into the sunny evening and the train was quickly off. Joe Samick, looking dustier and a little more gray greeted Robert with the usual curt nod and silent ride in his old battered red truck. Robert didn’t bother asking about the fishing because Joe would have given some touristy answer and he didn’t want to put him through the trouble. They bounced by single story houses, a few derelict sinking and crooked along a dirt road running parallel to the rail tracks then turned and banged violently over them to Joe’s lodge two kilometers away. Every year for twenty-five years he rented a cabin in late summer when the other cabins were mostly empty until the moose hunt which suited him fine and he thought Joe wasn’t bothered by the lull either.

They piled bags inside by the door of a small simple cabin of light stained log shaded by tall red pines. He thanked Joe then rested his hands on the sink counter looking out the wide kitchen window over a small sloping field of long grass to the river and small rapids dropping a few feet to the lower Mawgi. It was more beautiful than he remembered, sparkling through the entangled spruces and he took a deep involuntary breath that seemed to banish some of the oppressiveness he’d been carrying a long time. The river would be his for this week. Except for Joe’s lodge and a few boat houses on the same stretch of river there’s not a cabin or house the entire thirty-nine kilometers of the Mawgi.

“Emma wants to know if you’re coming for supper. It’s all ready,” said Joe standing in the open doorway looking somber and determined Robert should accept his wife’s offering. Inside the cabin there seemed to be a band of darkness around Joe’s tired light blue eyes and Robert had to blink and focus to make the illusion vanish.

She couldn’t know how hard the generous offer was to accept but Joe probably did. She would have fussed and timed supper to his arrival and she cooked fine and it was a gesture of affection not business. For the past month in a world of concrete and a tidy middle class neighbourhood Robert had imagined the feeling of being on the river and as he looked out the window knew he could catch supper quick, having fresh pickerel for the first time in a year.

“Tell her I’ll be right over,” he said looking to the river.

Parts of upper Mawgi in August are too shallow for outboard motors. Boulders cluster along shore here and there and plenty lay treacherously just beneath the surface, reaching up from the brown murkiness. Shallow stretches have weeds covering the width of the river, floating flat on the surface, pale green, straight with the current. Mud, weeds, coarse sand, and rocks are often visible through the brown tinted water and fishing is lean. Pickerel dwell more abundantly downstream in deeper cooler parts and the lakes it branches into, and local tourists use motors and aluminum boots to reach them. Robert instead preferred the quiet pace of a canoe. He’d never see fishermen above the rapids in late summer and the wilderness seemed to gently envelope him, worries dissolved, and the river, trees, and air seemed to come alive and it was calming and welcoming.

Six warm gentle diffusive days passed in slow paddling, drifting and padding four or five kilometers upstream, all the time fishing while the things that gripped his spirit loosened a little each day. The birds could be so noisy he imagined it sounded more like a jungle. He’d seen an osprey and eagle locked in battle and tumble out of sight into the trees with piercing screams and dry branches breaking. If he didn’t see a moose he’d pass broken lily pads and weeds floating along the shore, water muddied, the horse and deer flies circling wildly where a moose had just been, and they’d descend on him frenzied and buzzing. Beaver and muskrats were often busy on the river and the last three years he saw lots of bears. Last summer one followed his canoe along shore all the way back to camp.

Every evening after a late supper and reading in the bug hut he liked to finish the fading day with a short walk from camp down a sloping dirt road to the small rapids and stand on the big rocks casting. He might get one or two pike or a pickerel but he just wanted to be by the river, watching it change in fading sunlight to the hum of the small rapids.

“Trying your luck again?” said Joe sitting on the porch smoking as Robert walked by with his fishing rod.

“Just enjoying the river. It’s a nice night.”

Joe seemed amused Robert would bother when fishing was so lean in this part of the Mawgi.

The sun was low now, behind the still trees and the river had a darkening green surface you could only see into where you were standing. Clusters of water bugs made quick swirling lines on the dark shiny water around rocks and close to shore and lines of current constantly changed where it opened and then it got smoother. He stood on a boulder at the bottom of the rocky channel casting a diving lure into the open water, reeling against the current often bumping rocks and had to clean dark green algae from the treble hooks.

After a half hour he was ready to quit and noticed a very old orange floating minnow shaped Rapala, scuffed with black and scratched in his tackle box. The fluorescent orange stood out bold in the fading daylight. He’d taken it a few years ago from his father’s garage, hanging ignored on the window sill and it remained ignored in his tackle box. He tied it directly to his line without a swivel and swept his rod fast, testing its action and it dug and wiggled a couple of feet below the surface. He cast to the largest boulder at least three meters hidden below the shiny surface and a meter above. He kept the bail open, letting the current float his hook past the rock then swept hard and let it drift back, giving short jerks until his line was straight and rod pointing downstream then swept long and hard again. Several times he did this, each time drifting the Rapala back without casting, submerging only a couple feet on retrieve. It was the first time he fished this way and hadn’t thought about how he might use the lure before he cast.

He had a hard weighty strike thinking it was a pike but after pulling it against the current a few feet he wasn’t sure because it gave short jerks. In the fading daylight close to his feet, a pickerel flashed deep gold in the dark water with a white dot on its tail. It was thick and deep. He already caught his limit and released it carefully taking a moment to think, I’ll try again just to see.

He pulled his hook against the current more forceful this time, pulling fast, drifting back more erratic and had a hard strike on the fifth pass. The strike was so hard he couldn’t believe it was pickerel again and bigger than the first. He was excited but closed his tackle box and went back to the cabin.

“So, how’d you do? Asked Joe still sitting on the porch smoking.

“Couple of nice ones.”

“Where are they?”

“I had to let them go.”

“Oh ya. Couple of nice ones eh,” he said not quite believing him.

*****

In the cool still morning with a thermos of coffee Robert settled on the rocks above the open water instead of taking a canoe upstream. The sky was clear and sunlight broke through the trees making golden tips on the slow rising mist over the river. He cast the orange Rapala into the mist to the same rock he fished the day before, pulling hard and feeling the vibration of the crank bait much faster than it was designed for and within five minutes caught a thick pickerel. The hook’s only going down a couple of feet. They’re coming up right from the bottom and hitting hard like a pike or a bass.

He didn’t get a strike around the rock again and cast into the closer ripples. Using the same method he quickly caught four fish, releasing the smallest. Now he was certain. The aggressive technique provoked violent strikes, exciting fish that might otherwise have held to their cover and the rocky bottom amplified the violent action he gave the hook. He looked at his watch. He’d been fishing for thirty minutes. He marveled how hard the pickerel hit and fought. He thought it must be like teasing a lazy cat into pouncing on a string.

He strung four fish on a yellow plastic rope and when walking by the main cabin Joe was coming out the door carefully with a coffee.

“Where’d you go?” he said looking up from his cup.

“Just fishing from the rocks.”

“Ya? What you use?”

Robert held his rod forward with the beat up Rapala. Joe looked puzzled. There wasn’t even a sinker and he shook his head.

“Really?” he said suspiciously.

He cleaned his catch outside while gnats and tiny moths whirled about like glowing living dust in the warming sun and chipmunks ran boldly close to his feet. The fish felt cool and firm and their tails flapped when the knife cut into them. After removing the fillets he opened their pink intestines with the tip of his knife finding one full of fat shiners and another with cray fish. He fried four fillets in smoking hot oil for breakfast keeping the rest for lunch and drifted in and out of sleep in the screened bug hut shaded by tall pines. It was the best vacation he’d been on for a long time. He fished pike in the afternoon, looking for big ones finding plenty of small and tired of taking them off the hook he caught so many. He knew he’d have to go downstream with a motor to get to the really big ones.

That evening he sat at the kitchen table looking at the orange Rapala and decided to remove the first two treble hooks and pinched the remaining barbs flat with pliers. He knew it was well balanced and wondered how it would affect the action but he wanted to release fish safe as he could. Joe was sitting on the porch smoking when he headed to the river.

“Not much down there this time of year,” he said.

“I bet I can do it again.”

Joe laughed.

“Ya? Didn’t you get your limit this morning?”

“Just catch and release. I fixed my hook,” he said holding his rod up with the Rapala.

“You were just lucky this morning.”

“Come on down and you’ll see.”

“Maybe I will.”

He fished above the pool just below the small rapids instead of the open river. He hopped a few rocks getting to an island of white faded logs tangled against big iron gray boulders surrounded by tufts of long grass, willows and bright yellow buttercups growing from coarse sand and gravel. With an hour of daylight he cast over the pool to the faster current where it channeled to open water. He didn’t worry about snags with the shallow diving Rapala and experimented with his new technique. In only a couple of minutes he had a hard strike. He heard the rumble of a four wheeler through the churning rapids and Joe was watching him. He scooped the stout pickerel into the net and held it up and Joe nodded approvingly, shut off the bike and lit a cigarette. He released it and cast again in the shallow ripples. It was too easy. No snags, hardly any casting, just adjusting the technique to the current and quickly had another hard strike. None of pickerel hit tentatively. After catching and releasing three more it was nine-thirty five. He went back to the road and Joe was still smoking on the bike.

“That’s’ something,” he said eying the beat up Rapala.

The next evening four locals stood quietly on the rocks casting intently, different kinds of bait in the open water. Robert watched from the river bank and one of them caught a small pickerel. He just watched then went back to the cabin.

*****

He decided to spend his last day downstream using a boat and motor. Eighteen kilometers below the Mawgi rapids the river branches to a small lake referred to as the Expansion about two kilometers across. The river narrows and deepens entering the lake and the current is smooth and stronger and anchors usually drag on soft bottom a ways before securing.

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Illustration by Gabrielle Fogg.

It was the middle of the week and only two boats moved, slow along the far shore, just white specks disappearing into the exiting river. He anchored twenty meters into the mouth and put a six inch perch-coloured diving crank bait on a twelve pound test line. He cast to the lake along the grassy bank using long fast sweeps, short rests, quick jerks and a brisk retrieve hoping to draw out pike. For twenty minutes he fished this way sweeping the river mouth and the first pike followed his lure, drifting up slow close to the boat. Sunlight broken by the water shimmered on its wide green back and white spotted side, and it drifted down slow, turning lazily, disappearing in the denser green water.

At least twenty, and he marveled at the beauty of it.

He cast for another fifteen minutes and a second pike followed, smaller and not aggressive just like the first but an impressive sight. He reeled in fast, quick to have his hook back in the water and worked it hard for a half hour and was ready to fish pickerel. On the last cast his lure stopped dead and he drew his rod back hard and a heavy weight moved his line slow across the river mouth. Then the reel hummed against the drag taking line fast to the open water. It was weight he’d never felt before and he focused to subdue his excitement. It pulled more than half his line out before slowing and arching. He thought about pulling anchor to drift to the fish but imagined trying to pull the anchor holding his rod, starting and controlling the motor if he needed to, and the possible risks of losing the fish. He decided to fight it from where he was. He held his rod up trying to draw the fish in but it was solid. It drew out line easily a couple more times and Robert payed close attention to what was remaining on the open face reel.

For twenty minutes the fish held, took line and held again and he felt it weaken slowly. After fifteen minutes of careful pumping and retrieving it was ten meters away, holding deep and he kept steady pressure until it slowly started coming up. He knew he had something very special and it was far from over. His line arched quickly around the boat and he stumbled to the bow reeling fast and was stunned. He felt it in his stomach like suddenly going downwards fast. It was holding a  meter below the surface in the sunlight, its huge tail fanning slow, so big it looked surreal, and it ran upstream again and suddenly turned around passing close in front of him and he went to the side of the boat holding his rod high. It tried drifting deeper, pushing weak against the pressure then turned and settled into the current. He drew his rod over his head reeling and pulling slow again and again until the pike was beside the boat. Two more short runs upstream and it started turning over, the large perch-coloured crank bait half out its mouth. He’d only seen pike like that in fishing magazines. It looked magnificent under the warm noon sun and breeze rippled river, suspended and magnified in glowing water.

The exhausted pike settled facing upstream close to the boat and his rod bent deep with just the current pushing its weight. He took the net in his right hand to scoop it from the head. He did it nervous and clumsy not taking his eyes from the fish and thought his aluminum rimmed net looked small and ridiculous. He bent his knees to do a quick sweep and the fish made a slow long deep stroke boiling the water, turning away from the boat and swam slow downwards and his rod bent, slow and curving down then sprang up straight and his line was crimped and coiled loose. He watched the pike swim, slow and smooth down through the luminous water, its massive fanning tail disappearing into green sun streaked depths. He continued to look down then sat.

Well, over thirty, thirty-five, maybe.

There wasn’t a sound of another thing human, just small waves tapping the boat and a breeze moving through the long grass and tall poplars.

It was the fourth time he hooked a once in a lifetime fish and each time failed to bring them in and wondered why for a moment but laughed at himself.

He’d never see a pike like that again.

The breeze picked up, further stirring the leaves, raising their sonorous shush and he looked past the lake to the low country. Small hills merged very far away over the lake and he could make out islands of tall poplars like tiny shimmering threads over the evergreens and he thought very simply and without doubt God made it all.

He didn’t regret spending his last day here and it wasn’t long until the initial anguish gave way and he changed his hook for pickerel. The day, the water and the pike were ingrained in his mind in a special way and he knew he’d have the pleasure of remembering it many times. He went back to the cabin with four small pickerel and Joe was sitting on the porch smoking. He didn’t bother telling him about the pike.

When it was dark he packed, bracing for change ahead. But it had been a good week and he’d be able to take it back with him and it would last.

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About the author: Glen Louttit was relocated from Thorold, Ontario at the tender age of 6 when his mother moved their family back to her home town in Northern Ontario. He grew up in Oba, Ontario where the population during his lifetime never exceeded eighty-five. It was shocking and beautiful and after a short time Glen forgot that he ever lived in southern Ontario. Always a writer, over the last two years Glen has written a collection of short fiction, most of it set in the North. Says the author, “I think some of these stories came out of a longing to be there. At fifty seven years old, living and working in the Sault, I look forward to retirement so I can go back.”

To read more by Glen click here.

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