When ultra-hot weather drags on as it has (I've experienced more 38C days in the past three weeks than over my entire lifetime), and Whistler's otherwise lovely lakes become both unbearably crowded and annoyingly Swimmer's Itchy, I find myself longing for the amphibious expanses of my native Central Ontario, where a cool, dark lake pools in every dip and hollow left by Pleistocene glaciers, canoe-equipped cabins dot the landscape, and you can be in-and-out of the water, should you so choose, a hundred times a day and never miss a beat. When I start missing those summers in the near north, thoughts and memories of adolescent innocence (a.k.a. naïveté and stupidity) quickly accumulate. And at the front of that line (ha ha) lurks the only fish story I have from childhood.
It was at the family cottage in Haliburton, an area just south of Algonquin Park, during one of those hot, hazy spells that July in Ontario is infamous for. Days would start out misty, the sun working hard to evaporate the previous night's rain, and wouldn't fully vanquish the fog until about 10. After that, gruesomely still air would modulate from warm to scorching to uncomfortable before coalescing into another spectacular thunderstorm of drops so large and densely packed that the surface of Lake Kashagawigamog (longest lake name in Canada!) looked like a gunmetal cheese grater. My brothers and visiting cousins loved to swim when it was like this — essentially a single aquatic continuum between air and lake. Either because they didn't grok the hazards, were too drunk to care, or needed to finish their euchre game in peace, our adult caretakers allowed — even encouraged — us to be out in the water as lightning crashed down all around. It was after one such downpour, in the humid flush of dusk with fluttering bats and kamikaze swallows skimming off an insect hatch, that I'd packed fishing tackle into my canoe and readied to paddle out in search of "Grandpa."
Grandpa was a largemouth bass that prowled the small bay fronting our cottage. I didn't really know how big he (or she) was, but reckoned it was larger than the three to four pounders (pre-metric days) I regularly hauled in. This I'd ascertained by actually hooking the beast on several memorable occasions: on spinning tackle, with a rubber minnow in his jaw, I'd wrested him close enough to the gunwales to see a flashing eye as he rolled over and snapped my line; fly-casting with surface poppers (floating lures that mimic a frog, with a convexity up front that goes Pop! Pop! as you jerk the line in — like a dinner bell for large bass), I'd twice watched the water boil as Grandpa inhaled, and, in one of those instances, my rod bent double and canoe tipping dangerously, he'd cleared the water over lily pads in a huge, angry, head-shaking leap straight out of a television fishing show before spitting what proved to be a fragile homemade lure.
Eventually, I'd decided only live bait could win the day. So there I was on the dock that evening hoping a bucket of frogs would entice what my 12-year-old mind construed as the Lunker of the Century. My father, bless his barbarian heart, had shown me how to hook a frog through the lower lip (an anachronistic skill as odious as it sounds), but figuring that unnecessarily painful and likely to drown the critter as you reeled it in, I tried hooking one through the webbing of its foot where there weren't so many nerves and the line could trail behind as it swam (I feel sick even writing this; I can't even imagine someone using a live frog as bait today). Before getting into the canoe I tossed my line casually off the dock just to see how it worked. The frog swam seemingly unperturbed. I was just about to reel it in when, ten metres away near the hollow end of a sunken log, the water exploded.
Before I had time to react my rod arced before the panic of a pissed-off fish, the taught line etching frantic zigzags on the water. When my brain finally kicked into action, I used everything I'd learned from past fights to play the fish I was certain must be Grandpa into the shallows between the dock and the deadfall. Though the sun had already grazed the horizon, I could still see the fish's form against the sandy bottom, and was able to keep him from running into cover. Three times he jumped and splashed down hard, three times I was awed by the size of his glistening form.
Somehow I kept my head, and eventually coolly pulled the spent fish up onto our beach. My parents — alerted by shouts I hadn't even known escaped me — pressed against the cottage windows, applauding. It wasn't a big deal by the standards of, say, an Alabama Bassmaster, who would pshaw at even a measly 15-pounder, but for a northern lake, Grandpa's six titanic pounds was impressive. Not only did my month-old rubber minnow adorn his lower lip, but a handful of other lures as well, rusted spoils that now went directly into the upper tray of my tackle box with other proven enticements.
At the time, it felt like I'd hunted down Jaws, and my father wholeheartedly joined in the fawning, graciously offering to have the fish mounted, which he did, hanging it in a prominent place. (When my brother and his wife took over the cabin and set about remodelling, I was asked to "please take your ugly fish" but refused on the basis of it being de facto valuable cabin lore; they've since warmed to its garish form.) When I visit Haliburton and look at Grandpa today, of course, the inevitable shrinking effect of time has reduced him to mere lacquered whimsy — a creature so small and innocuous I can barely believe my own fish story. Nevertheless, Grandpa was a monster of the mind one hot July day, and I had mastered the monster.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.