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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Milk Run

 

by Amy Yolanda Castillo

 

 

 

            Earl and Vic drove north every fall, to spend a week fishing the big water at Lake Kapogema. They came for the muskies—the elusive fish of ten thousand casts who were the biggest predators in the lake. There was no sense in laboring over smaller fish.


They always came in the middle of October, but there was no accounting for the elements. Sometimes they arrived at the lodge during Indian summer, when the biggest muskies could still be found shallow, prowling through the cabbage and the coontail. Other times it had just started to become cold when they arrived; then the fish were in deeper water, gorging on fatty ciscoes and fleshy bullheads.

 

            Now and then the men arrived at Kapogema when winter had already drawn a shivering curtain across the water. Then the fish were inactive, eerily suspended in the deepest parts of the lake. But this rarely happened, because as the years passed, Earl and Vic learned the rhythms of the land and the lake. Like all fishermen, they were students of time and tide.  

 

            For over twenty years they had paid Hugh to guide them. Hugh hadn’t improved with age. He chewed tobacco all day long, tucking ragged lumps of Skoal between his lower lip and pale pink gums. He spat into an empty plastic bottle and kept it in the stern of his sturdy old boat, underneath the seat where he worked the tiller. By midday the bottle was always half-full of sludgy black spittle.

 

            In the beginning the three of them learned about the lake together—identifying the bulrushes and stump fields, the weed beds and boulders, the sand bars and lily pads. They inked their discoveries onto a creased lake map they bought at the Phillips 76 station in Ridge Hollow. By now Earl and Vic had a milk run, a set of good spots that produced big fish year in and year out. They didn’t need Hugh anymore. They could have trailered in their own sleek fiberglass boats instead of settling for Hugh’s underpowered aluminum rig.

 

            Vic insisted on bringing Hugh anyway. “It’s a tradition now,” he explained. It was true. Year after year they came, and it was reassuring to know that the lake changed as little as they did.

 

***

 

            This year Vic and Earl came at just the right time. They had to fish in windbreakers and sweatshirts in the damp chill of morning, but later it became warm enough for them to strip down to shirtsleeves. Mornings blazed bright and early. The air was crisp and the skies blue and cloudless. The shadows grew long and the sun faded away between four and five o’clock. But the men continued to fish even when night fell. They simply posted the boat’s marine lights and snugged head lamps over their baseball caps.

 

            There were very few insects left—no biting black flies to plague them. The long, dense aquatic cabbage beds were beginning to brown and die. Minnows and jumbo perch darted through them, reveling in the oxygen-rich water, unconcerned with the predators that hunted the weeds.

 

            The muskies hadn’t moved to deeper water yet, so the men stood in the boat for endless hours, casting oversized baits in the shallows. They had seen fish, though not of the desired species. They caught fat largemouth bass and several dozen runt pike. The pike became a nuisance, an embarrassment of abundance. After a fashion, Earl and Vic became so annoyed with them that they grabbed the fish by the hooks in their mouths and shook them loose with a pair of pliers, letting them plop unceremoniously back into the water.

 

            So far, the muskies had gotten the best of the men. Vic and Earl traded off every hour, taking turns fishing from the casting deck on the bow—the best spot on the boat—and the center seat, next to Hugh. Vic was throwing a chartreuse marabou bucktail with an oversized Colorado blade and silver streamers, doing his best to churn up the tea-stained water. Earl patiently worked a black rubber spinnerbait deep through the coontail, tugging firmly every time he felt resistance from the weeds. He moved the rod in a long, languid figure eight at the end of every retrieve, hoping to see the silver flash of a big fish rising to follow the lure.

 

            It was uncouth for a guide to fish with his clients, but Hugh stood in the stern and matched Vic and Earl, cast for cast. Every so often he said, “you can’t catch a fish if yer line’s not in the water. Gotta beat it to a froth.” Then he chopped violently at the air with his right arm, showing them how he placed his casts in a fan pattern. Hugh fished Kapogema every day of the year. He knew all the tricks.

 

But Earl and Vic only had seven days.

 

***

 

            Before long, it was the last day of their trip and they hadn’t seen a muskie. Hugh, who fretted that the dry spell reflected adversely on his abilities, was beside himself. At daybreak, he jabbered to them while they loaded the boat—rationalizing, making promises, telling tall tales. “They say it’s ten thousand casts,” he said. “Ten thousand casts before you git one.”

 

            They settled into the boat, and it rocked under their weight. Hugh yanked the starter rope on his battered old Evinrude and it sprang to life. It took three quarters of an hour to cruise all the way across the big water, into a smaller bay. Then they started their milk run with a tried and true patch of curly-leafed pondweed that grew in the patchy shade of a skeletal deadfall.

 

            It failed them. Spot after spot, all the proven ground—it failed them. They drifted past a gravelly rock slide and then through fields of cabbage. They cast toward sandy shorelines. They gingerly tossed baits between rocky outcroppings. They second-guessed themselves, changing lures often, but to no avail. They tied bits of smelly artificial worms onto their hooks. They tried every trick they knew. Vic stood up and peed over the side of the boat. “Piss on this,” he said. But the lake was still.

 

            At high noon, which was easy enough for the men to tell without a watch, Hugh pulled up to a small island. It was more outcropping than island—one of hundreds that speckled Kapogema. The men jumped out and heaved the boat ashore, taking care to avoid the sharp rocks.

 

            Hugh squatted under a pine tree and began to clean six jumbo perch and a two pumpkinseed sunnies that Earl had taken in the shallows. Vic set up the camp stove, and Earl peeled a sack of red potatoes. He threw them in a pot with boiling water and salt, while Hugh sizzled the fish in a batter of flour and lard. The three men ate together, on their haunches under the tall pine, enjoying a simple meal made exquisite because they were outside, in the middle of nowhere.

  

            They finished eating, washed their dishes, and packed them away. Then they shoved off and continued the milk run. The food settled in their stomachs, and the sun began to tumble toward the horizon. They were tired.

 

            “Shit,” Hugh said. “Let’s move outta here. Do somethin’ different. Let’s troll.”

 

            “We’re not set up to troll,” Earl said. “We didn’t bring glass rods.”

 

            “That’s no trouble. It don’t have to be perfect. Just somethin’ different.” He handed them outsized trolling baits, jointed foot-long divers that would wobble and shake twenty feet down. Earl and Vic clipped on the baits and attached their rods to the planers on either side of the boat. They let out a good length of line and sat back. Hugh put down his rod and worked the tiller, trolling slowly through the bay. A community of furious loons scolded them.

 

            They spotted an expensive, high-powered bass buggy across the bay. It tore across the water at breakneck speed, kicking up an outsized wake. “Damn, don’t I hate them guys roarin’ through with those big motors all the time,” Hugh said. “No need for that kinda speed out here. There’s more to it than just goin’ fast.”

 

            “There are more people here now,” Earl said.

 

            Vic said, “It used to be that we never saw anyone when we came out here. Remember that, Hugh? How we’d fish this place dawn to dusk and never see but one or two other people?”

 

            “Ah yeah, I remember. And what guys we saw, they was fishin’ muskies too. Hard guys, beatin’ the water to a froth, like us.” He paused. “But it ain’t been that way for five, ten years now. Lake’s gettin’ crowded.”

 

            “It’s really not that crowded, all things considered,” Vic said. “Kapogema’s part of the state park system now. It’s protected.”

 

            Hugh narrowed his eyes. “If you was from ‘round here, you’d know that was the problem. Never saw a water skier in my life, not until Kapogema got taken by the state. Now there’s houses all ‘long the southeast shore. Not old-time cabins, mind you. Big houses, with docks stretchin’ alla way out into the water. You just wait. Five years from now, this place is gonna be all teenagers and loud radios and fancy pontoon boats. And in the meantime, there’s no good fishin’ to the southeast anymore, on account of those people in the fancy houses are puttin’ somethin’ in the water to kill the weeds, so’s they can swim without ticklin’ their toes.”

 

            “I hope you’re wrong,” Vic said.

 

            Earl said, “He’s not.”

 

            The men fell quiet. There were more loons now, a different group, hoo-hooing and diving and yodeling. Hugh trimmed up the outboard, and they floated over some boulders.

 

            “This part of the lake is still quiet,” Earl said.

 

            “Oh yeah,” Hugh said. “It’s still wild. Fact is, there’s Indian savages out here.”

 

            “Come on,” Earl laughed.

 

            “Naw, it’s true. I ain’t sayin’ they’re runnin’ around in feathers and war paint, but there’s ‘nuff of ‘em to cause problems. Truth be told, a real nice young couple went missin’ out here a few years back. Turns out they was on their honeymoon, come up north to camp. Last they was seen, they was in their canoe. Nothin’ ever turned up. Canoe, tent, clothes, nothing. How you figure somethin’ like that happens?”

 

            “Hard to say,” Vic said. “But it isn’t fair to blame the locals.”

 

            “I’da thought the same thing, ‘cept for what happened to me last year. I took some guys northeast, out to Sucker Bay. We stopped for lunch, made a little fire, and then one of my guys points at the bay and says hey, ain’t that a whole bunch of fellas for one little boat? I looked and sure enough, it was a little fourteen footer, loaded down with Indians. Eight of ‘em in that little boat, and Sucker Bay was rollin’. Four foot swells, choppy as hell. Dunno how they made it. Didn’t give a damn, mos’ likely. Anyways, soon as we seen they was Indians, one of my customers went for this little .38 he kept in his tackle box. False bottom. I told him, ‘let it be, just gimme a minute,’ and he stuck it in the back of his pants. Well, those Indians pulled up and got outta the boat, but they didn’t say nothin’. Just sorta spread out around us. I seen a shotgun in their bow, and they made sure I seen it, if you know what I mean. They didn’t pull it on us, but it was there all the same. Anyways, I said hey fellas, cold as a witch’s tit, ain’t it, howdja like a little hospitality? And then I gave ‘em a bag of sandwiches, and a six pack of Schlitz we had in the cooler. Granola bars too. They took it all and left, and the guy in the stern runnin’ the boat, he says to me, ‘you all take real good care now.’”

 

            “It was a shakedown,” Earl said.

 

            “Yup, that it was.”

 

            “But that doesn’t mean Indians are running wild here,” Vic said. “Or that they’re murdering newlyweds.”

 

            “Nope, I guess not. Leastaways not so’s you could prove it in a court of law. But there’s law and there’s common sense. Friend, that was a raidin’ party we come across out there in Sucker Bay.”

 

            Then they were quiet again, and puttering past the loons. The sun was falling to the horizon like a lost star, and the sky was all soft spun gold. Orange and yellow leaves dropped from leafy poplars and tumbled into the water, where they spun about and finally floated away, carried by gentle, rolling swells. A stout scrub oak, weighted down with scraggly branches, swayed in the breeze.

 

            “Wind’s pickin’ up,” Hugh said. He opened up the Evinrude’s throttle a bit.

 

            Earl’s rod bent almost in half. “Fish on,” he cried, and pistoned the rod up, reeling in line whenever his quarry gave him slack.

 

            “Big ‘un, by the look of it,” Hugh said. He shut off the outboard.

 

            “You see it yet?” Vic asked.

 

            “Naw, she’s still deep,” Hugh said. “Helluva fighter, though, ain’t she?”

 

            Earl fought the fish for thirty seconds, then a minute. Then two. “Something’s wrong,” he said. “If I didn’t feel her moving, I’d swear I was hung up on a stump.”

 

            Then the fish stopped fighting. There was some resistance, but it was desultory. Earl pulled and reeled, pulled and reeled.

 

            “I wonder if she’s sick,” said Vic. He was standing at the side of the boat, ready to dip the landing net into the water. “It’s not like a muskie to give up when she’s deep. I would have thought she’d come boiling up out of the water.”

 

            “Maybe you got a big pike on,” Hugh said. The men all nodded. Hooked pike plunge deep, looking for cover. Hooked muskies rocket out of the water, splashing and flipping, twisting and shaking. Which one of the two a man decided to fish for depended on his nature—whether he liked to burrow in deep and hold fast, or whether he liked to come out swinging.

 

            Now they could see the fish rising up, a long, dull black blur. But it should have been silver—sparkles and flashes as it came into the light, then bars and spots and pointy pink fins on closer inspection.

 

            “Something’s wrong,” Earl said, and heaved the rod up.

 

            What he pulled to the surface was a loon, tangled up in braided green fishing line. The line was wrapped around the wings and neck and pressed tightly across the bird’s face, slicing into its right eye. Half of Earl’s crankbait gaped out of the loon’s mouth. The other half of the lure—the jointed part, with the four aught treble hooks—was stuck in the bird’s gullet.

 

            “Swallowed it,” Vic said.

 

            “Shit. I never seen one of ‘em do that before,” said Hugh. “I seen a lot, but I ain’t seen that.”

 

            “What do we do?” Earl asked.

 

             “Heard talk of ‘em chasin’ baits, but never heard of one dumb ‘nuff to take it,” Hugh repeated.

 

            Vic dipped the landing net into the water and scooped out the loon. He gently laid it on the boat’s carpeted floor. He rummaged through his tackle box and produced a pair of hemostat forceps. Then he began to trim away the line, first freeing the bird’s eye, then its throat, and finally its wings. The loon shivered.

 

            “He’s very young,” Vic said. “See how he’s mostly still brown? He doesn’t have all his pinfeathers yet. That’s why he doesn’t have spots.” He tried to smooth down the loon’s feathers, which the fishing line had pulled apart.

 

            “I guess he was down there fighting me,” Earl said.

 

            “Oh yeah. Look at the wings on him,” Hugh said. “They gotta be three feet acrost. Maybe four. Yeah, that’s a helluva ruckus he can raise.”

 

            “He’s an adolescent,” Vic said. “He hasn’t mated yet. See how his eyes aren’t red? They only turn red for mating.”

 

            “What do we do with him?” Earl asked again.

 

            “They say a loon can live to be thirty years old,” Vic continued. “Fifteen to thirty years. Those are the best estimates.”

 

            “How do you know all that?” Hugh asked.

 

            “Read it back at the lodge. There’s a guidebook in the john.”

 

            “What’s wrong with his leg?” Earl asked. “It’s flopping around.”

 

            Hugh picked up the bird and laid it upside-down in his lap. “I expect it’s broke,” he concluded.

 

            “How? He was in the water.”

 

            Hugh pointed to scrapes in the flesh of the loon’s legs. “Likely he got it tangled in the line and tugged. Broke it clean.”

 

            “He panicked,” Earl said. “He fought me.”

 

            “Yup. Fought hard. Good as any fish.”

 

            “I don’t know what to do about that bait in his mouth,” Vic said. “I could cut part of it off at the joint, with my bolt cutters. But he’ll still have a hook in the roof of his mouth, and another farther back.”

 

            “I think you ought to try,” Earl said. “I think he would be more comfortable. He could close his beak more, with that part of the lure out of the way.”

 

            Vic took the loon from Hugh and kneeled down on the floor of the boat with his bolt cutters. He snapped off the back end of the bait and worked it clear of the loon. He wrapped the bird in Earl’s sweatshirt. Then he sat down on the bench across from Earl. They looked at each other. “He needs a vet,” Vic said.

 

Wordlessly, Hugh yanked the starter cord and opened the throttle all the way. Earl and Vic bounced up and down as Hugh turned the boat into the swells, cresting each and slamming down again with a thud as they raced across the bay.

 

            The loon began to shiver and pant. Earl asked Vic if they should give it some water.

 

            “No,” Vic replied. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not a vet.”

 

            Earl poured cool water from his canteen into his palm, and drizzled it into the loon’s open mouth. But the bird let it dribble out of its mouth without swallowing any.

 

            “I don’t think he can swallow,” Earl said. “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

            “He might,” Vic said. “You never know.”

 

            “That bird ain’t gonna make it,” Hugh said. “He’s hurt grievous.”

 

            They fell silent, banging across the waves for twenty long minutes. Then Hugh suddenly shut down the Evinrude, and they were drifting.

 

            “Dunno why I run off like that, thinking I was goin’ back to the launch like a blame fool. I shoulda thought of somethin’,” he said.

 

            “Thought of what?” Earl asked.

 

            “If the game warden gets wind of me keepin’ a wild thing, he’s gonna take it all. Boat, motor, tackle. Maybe my guide’s license.”

 

            “He won’t find out,” Vic said.

 

            “They’re like flies on shit since Kapogema went to the state.”

 

            “I don’t see how anyone will find out,” Earl said.

 

            “You can take that chance on your own dime. I got too much to lose. And just so’s you know, they’d confiscate your gear too. Anyway, that bird’s gonna die.”

 

            “You can’t know that,” Vic replied.

 

Earl reached down and stroked the bird. Felt the prickly quills where its pinfeathers were growing in. Touched the places where waxy feathers covered up soft baby down.

 

            Then the loon took the choice from them. It gasped, and then it was still.

 

            Vic picked it up. The bird was limp in his hands. “Dead,” he said. “So that’s that.”

 

            Earl said, “I’m glad, I guess. I was starting to worry we might have to put him down ourselves. Maybe clobber him with an oar or something.”

 

            “No mind,” Hugh said. “Don’t know what we was thinkin’, bringin’ him inland. There’s laws ‘gainst keepin’ wild things.”

 

            “It’s a shame,” Earl said. “I just wish I hadn’t hooked him.”

 

            “Nothin’ you coulda done about it,” Hugh said. “We wasn’t after no birds. We was fishin’.”

 

            “We all have to go sometime,” Vic said. “You just have to hope you go easy.”

 

            “That bird’s number was up,” Hugh said.

 

            “How do you suppose we should bury him?” Earl asked.

 

            “Throw him over,” Hugh said. “We can’t be draggin’ no dead loon ‘round at the lodge. Warden’ll get wind of it for sure.”

 

            “We should put him back where we found him,” Vic said.

 

            “I ain’t burnin’ gas goin’ all the way back acrost the bay on account of a dead bird,” Hugh said. “But how ‘bout this? Let’s bury him at sea. Sink him proper.”

 

            Earl looked at him blankly.

 

            “Loon’s a divin’ bird,” Hugh explained. “No place he’d rather be than at the bottom, with alla them bitty fishes.”

 

            “That’s a good idea,” Vic said. “That’s how I’d want to go, if I was a loon.”

 

            Hugh picked up the bird and began to extract the rest of the bait with a pair of pliers. At one point he had to tug, and looked at Vic and Earl apologetically. “No help for it,” he said. “He’s dead, anyhow.” He yanked the lure free. Blood trickled from the loon’s mouth and soaked into Hugh’s trousers.

 

            “We need a way to sink him,” Vic said. “Do we have something heavy?”

 

            Hugh felt around under his seat, opening up a small compartment below the gas tank. “I got this.” He held out a rusty drift anchor. “I don’t never use it ‘cause I got that big cinderblock on a chain for when I need to stay put somewheres. But this here’s ‘nuff to sink a little bird.”

 

            Vic and Hugh wrapped the drift anchor’s chain around the loon, securing the ends with a short length of nylon rope. Vic knelt down. He held the loon and the anchor on the water’s surface, but he didn’t let go. “Maybe we ought to say a prayer first,” he said.

 

            “Naw,” Hugh said. “I ain’t prayin’ over no bird.”

 

            “You can say a prayer if you want,” Earl said.

 

            “I already did,” Vic said. “Just thought you two might like being a part of it.” He let go, and they all watched as the loon slipped away.

 

            “I ain’t prayin’ over no goddamn bird,” Hugh repeated. He started the motor and they putted away. “Anyways, there’s some good lookin’ rocks thataway. Whatta you say we throw out some casts?”

 

            “Yes,” Earl said. “That would be good right about now.”

 

            Vic picked up his rod and tied a new leader onto the end of his line. “I’m putting on a new one, just in case,” he said. “I’d hate to lose a big fish because I got sloppy about my leader.”

 

            “Let’s hurry up and hit those rocks while there’s still daylight,” Earl said.

 

            Hugh turned them toward the boulders. “Tell you what,” he said. “If this spot pays off, I’m callin’ it the Coffin.”

 

            “Maybe you could call it something better than that,” Vic said. “Something to do with loons.”

 

            Then they all stood up and cast to the boulders, one cast after another, each placed perfectly. The sun began to sink below the horizon, but they didn’t notice right away, even though they were squinting into the sunset.

 

            “Say,” Hugh told them, “Castin’ does my heart good.”

 

            “It’s like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake,” Vic agreed.

  

Then the sky turned purple, and the air chilled. For a while, none of them noticed. The men knew exactly when the sun would go down, because they read the Farmer’s Almanac. No matter. Sunset surprised them every day.