The coffee maker gurgles to life at 3:30am. Lights blink and steam begins to whisper its song of roasted fragrance. Before the alarm radio turns on, I am up and feeling my way down the hallway steps, grasping the handrail with one hand and bracing against the wall with my left. I know I am sleepy and do not trust my feet on the polished wooden steps. I fill my favorite steel thermos, a gift from the Norbert Buchmayr Society, with the pungent French Roast and add a dash of real maple syrup. Within minutes I am out the door, headed to the truck and surveying the night sky, looking for signs of weather. It looks like a clear day, the stars are still shining brightly and there is a wisp of wind from the Southwest. The pressure appears to be steady but the forecast is for clouds moving in and a barometer to be dropping later this morning.
In the truck, I search for my favorite old radio station, WWVA 1170am, from Weirton, West Virginia, which sometimes comes in on clear nights all the way up here near the Canadian border. There is something magical about radio waves that carry that far and I enjoy the crackling sound reminiscent of my radio youth of the 60’s. I chuckle to myself as I think “Times were simpler then”, recognizing that my grandparents used those same words when I was growing up. For them the world was changing in fearful ways; communism was a threat, kids played “rock and roll” and shook their bodies violently, as if convulsing in some primitive animalistic mating ritual. We could trust those we elected to office and our country was the world leader in productivity and prosperity. Now, my generation fears what the advent of video games where kids learn to kill without empathy will lead us. Government and corporations are blended together in one authoritarian entity dictating to us what we hear, see, feel and eat. The world is frighteningly complex. Just like it was for our grandparents.
But as I drive through the pre-dawn, with the window rolled down I can smell the lake turning over its summer depths and wafting inland. I inhale deeply. I swear I can smell the fish and the seaweed. It calms me.
Pulling into the boat access, I am alone. I wander down to the shoreline and breathe in the blessing of pre-dawn on the lake. Headlights pierce through the canopy of maples and oaks and reflect off of the lightly rippling surface of the lake in sparkling crystals of light. My friends have arrived, towing the old Hawk 18’ center console boat. We greet each other with our traditional teasing. “Barely made that 15 minute rule! I was gonna’ leave without you!” I say to Chris. Our friend from Michigan, Rudy replies, “That would have been tough to do Carleton. Seeing as how we have the boat!” “Yeah, well. Details like that won’t stop me!” I reply. A round of “How are ya’ Bro’s?” breaks out at once between the three of us, like long lost brothers.
We launch the boat from Chris’ little Volvo wagon as he swears again that he doesn’t need anything bigger. There is a nice ripple on the water and a very slight shade of dark purple and green in the horizon to the East. The motor fires to life quickly and Rudy shoves us off the wooden dock. The smell of the outboard mixing with the fresh, clear water is intoxicating. As we pull out of the bay I am reminded of the scene from “The Perfect Storm” where George Clooney’s character describes the joys of pulling out of the harbor, “the fog’s just lifting. Throw off your bow line, throw off your stern. You head out to South channel, past Rocky Neck, Ten Pound Island. Past Niles Pond where I skated as a kid. Blow your horn and throw a wave to the lighthouse keeper’s kid on Thatcher Island. Then the birds show up; black backs, herring gulls, big dump ducks. The sun hits ya’. Head North. Open up to 12 (knots). Steamin’ now. The guys are busy; you’re in charge. Ya’ know what? You’re a goddam swordboat captain. Is there anything better in the world?”…I am lost in revelry, pretending I am a swordboat captain. It’s universal. Whatever boat you run, whatever lake or pond you pull into, whoever your crew is, you are a part of the Universe and you can feel your soul swimming in the dawn’s first light.
We pull out of Converse Bay and head South past Garden Island with the cliffs of the Adirondacks catching the first golden glows of the sun. The spray from the wake is sparkling as drops of water fly in an arc from under the hull, wave after wave of compounded beauty. I’m sitting on the bow grinning as I take a pull of the travel mug of coffee and swear I am in heaven already. Rudy and Chris are looking off in the distance, alone with their thoughtsand focused on this moment of transcendence.
Chris is piloting his boat with a deft hand. Our faith in our captain is undaunted. We know that he has seen his share of storms and steadily maneuvered through heavy seas. We are bound together by a sense of supreme contentment, alive and aware of the present.
Slowing the boat down to 2.6 mph Rudy and Chris turn their backs to set the downriggers. I grab the wheel. A brief discussion of which lures to use is quickly decided. Cop car down at 33’ and a Sausage and Gravy cheater down halfway to the ball on the port side. Starboard will be a Michael Jackson at 40’ and a Strawberry Milkshake for a cheater. On the port side, just ahead of the rigger, we play out a tadpole diver with a brokeback Rapala 100 pulls back. On the starboard side we feed out a lead core flyline with a Magog smelt imitation. Between sips on the coffee and jokes about jelly donuts, we all keep an eye on the rods. And then we wait.
As we are drifting in our conversation to the dangerous territory of politics, the flyline on the starboard gunwhale begins to sing. It whizzes. We all turn around quickly and someone yells “Holy Crap!” Rudy begins to laugh. He’s up to his tricks again. He likes to reach behind his back and tug the line real fast. We all laugh and are caught up in the moment, when the starboard rigger releases. This time it’s for real! “Fish On!” I yell. Rudy is closest to the line and grabs it, raising the rod over his built-for-a-center football shoulders. “It’s a pig!” he says as the rod begins to thump downward in a heavy pulsing action. Rudy steps back and reels in line, when suddenly; the line starts spooling out of control. The big fish is on a run. He dives heading for the abyss of Lake Champlain’s 300’ bottom. I hear Rudy say a quick prayer that he doesn’t go all the way to the bottom. It is a moment of connectedness that transcends our short lives. His prayer echoes in silence off of the Adirondack cliffs. He waits patiently for the reel to stop screaming and gently at first, then forcefully, horses the rod over his right shoulder and reels down hard. Whatever it is, it’s heavy.
As if time were suspended, we all watch with amazement at the power of this piscatorial king of the deep as the fish fights to stay down. Minutes pass by like hours, all of us wondering if the 8 lb test line will break. Rudy skillfully plays the beast, letting him run when he wants and dive when he feels the urge. We all know that the trick to boating a behemoth is to tire him out and slowly work him to the rippled surface.
After four minutes of wrestling, the fish finally surfaces and rolls hard on his side to shake the hook. Rudy keeps his line tight and, once again, wrestles for control. The beast of the deep begins to tire. Like a large saturated tree stump, Rudy reels him in to the stern and steps back for Chris to net his trophy. Chris swipes under the exhausted fish and finds that he barely fits in the net, bending the pole. Into the boat he comes, eyes blazing with fury.
Rudy unhooks the spoon from his jaw with a pair of pliers and hoists the fish up to his chest. Even against Rudy’s massive torso, the fish looks like a monster. “Holy Mackerel!” I exclaim. “To be correct, Carleton, this is a holy laker!” retorts Rudy.
Pictures are taken and Rudy is crowned King for the Day.