Like most people who grew up in the Midwest, I have a fish story. But, unlike many of the tall tales of the kind you’d hear from a drunk at a local bar, I promise: mine is completely true.
In the early fall of our eighth-grade year, Mark Dominiak, one of my best friends at the time, joined me and my family on a weekend visit to our cabin near Hayward, Wisconsin. Deep in the woods on the small Mirror Lake, it was Mark’s kind of place. Mark, you see, was, even at that age, an avid outdoorsmen. He had been hunting and fishing for years, so he was looking forward to checking out the place that I had told him so much about.
Over the weekend, we shot off fireworks and generally ran around the woods like idiots. I remember trying to convince him that we should take one of the guns left at the cabin by one of my uncles and shoot them. Wisely, he told me that this would have been a bad idea. Besides, he told me in a serious voice, it would have been against his gun safety training. Mark was always a smart guy.
For the last morning of our weekend up north, we came up with a grand plan: we would get up at dawn and take the cabin’s rowboat out to fish for the fearsome but prized lake predator of the Northwoods: the musky.
Dawn came much sooner than I expected. I was not — and am not — a morning person. “I don’t want to go anymore,” I told him as he tried to wake me and pull me out of bed. “Come on,” he insisted. “We’ve gotta catch our musky.” Peer pressure won out, and I reluctantly put on a sweatshirt and jeans against the chilly September morning. We loaded the boat with fishing gear from the cabin’s basement and the kind of breakfast you’d expect two eighth-graders to pack — a 12-pack of Coke and lots of beef jerky — and shoved off into the morning haze.
And so we fished. And fished. And then we fished some more, all without success or even a nibble from the fish we were sure swam right beneath our boat. For three hours, we futilely cast our lines at various spots around Mirror Lake. Dejected, we finally gave in, and Mark started rowing us back to shore.
For some stupid reason, I decided that I should try one last cast. Using a bright orange and black lure that Mark had brought with him, I launched my line into the still water.
The strike hit my line so hard that I almost dropped my rod. “I’ve got something!” I shouted, trying to hang on as my rod bent an impossibly sharp angle. “Hold on!” Mark yelled back at me, and, as the experienced fisherman — which I was most certainly not — he started giving me instructions. Fearing that I would screw up and lose the monster of a fish that was furiously fighting me, I handed the rod to him and took the oars.
“What do I do?” I screamed at him. “Row towards shore!” he shouted back.
I’m sure that it was an amusing sight, one that I wish that I could go back to watch. Two boys yelling at each other out in the middle of a lake at eight o’clock in the morning, empty cans of Coke rattling around the bottom of the boat, all with a giant fish doing everything it could to free itself from our line twenty feet or so away.
We were four or so docks from my family’s cabin, so I picked one close to us and started rowing the boat towards it. Mark, meanwhile, was handling the fish like a champ. It was still some distance out, so we couldn’t tell what it was, but we both hoped that we had gotten our musky.
After what felt like an hour, we bumped up against the dock. I climbed out of the boat, and Mark, rod in hand, followed. Finally, in the four-foot water next to the dock, we could see the fish that, by dumb luck, we had managed to catch: it was a musky. And it was, by far, the biggest fish I had ever seen.
Standing there, I looked over at Mark: “What do we do now?”
Before Mark could answer, the rod bent sharply and the line — which was probably at least ten years old — snapped.
“He broke the line!” Mark yelled.
I opened my mouth to answer, but Mark had already leapt off the dock. Fully clothed. On top of the fish.
Seconds later, his head emerged from the water, and I could see that he was straddling the fish, a hand in each gill.
“I got it!” he shouted. “And I’m walking this thing home!” he continued, with the kind of confidence you only hear from professional athletes before a game and eighth-graders who dive on top of fish in four feet of lake water.
Through weeds and branches and still in his clothes, Mark walked in the chest-deep water holding tight onto the stringer he had pushed through the fish’s jaw, with me rowing alongside.
After I landed the boat back at our cabin’s dock, I raced inside to tell my parents about our catch while Mark waited in the water. My parents were still sleeping and far from thrilled to have been woken up so suddenly by their loud and panting son, but, after they saw the fish for themselves, they agreed that it was a pretty impressive creature. We posed for a photo in the water holding up the fish, Mark drenched, and me pulling up my pant legs to keep them from getting wet. In the photo, which my mom submitted to the Pioneer Press for their fishing page, it looks like I’m grabbing my crotch.
My parents, being pretty great, even back then, decided that we needed to mount the fish. I’m glad they did, because I think that I knew even back then that I was never going to catch a fish like that again. The taxidermist told us that it was 48 inches long and weighed 25 pounds or so. A big fish by anyone’s standards.
Today, that fish is above the door of the cabin my parents built about nine miles from Mirror Lake. Next to it hangs that photo from the back page of the Pioneer Press: Mark drenched, and me, grabbing my crotch.