The Big Ones Always Get Away

We sat back to back in the small motor boat. An old Evinrude ten horsepower motor hung from the stern. A cooler rested between us and held a couple of beers, some water and a ham sandwich or two. We didn’t talk much. After fifty-years what more was there to say?

Over the years we had caught fish in the lake and in this very spot. They had been small ones and medium ones. But it seemed that the big ones always got away. We decided that was the law of fishing.
Over the years we had fished together many times and in many places. We traveled to the Outer Banks and tried the surf, inlets and bridges. We caught fish every time, except for the big ones. We had caught blue fish at the Jersey shore and bass in cold Pocono mountain lakes. But even after fifty years, the big one still eluded us.

Today the lake was calm. No other boats were near to cause a wake and there was no movement on the water. Early fall brought a breeze. The weather was warm but not hot. The boat drifted. It was a fine day to sit quietly and wait for the big one.

From time to time one of our red and yellow bobbers danced a bit on the surface of the lake. A bite? Or just an underground current in the lake? Earlier in the morning one of the bobbers actually disappeared under the water. Now that was a bite for sure! My friend tugged on his pole and felt the wiggle in his fingers held loosely around the line. Got one! He reeled it in. About a six inch perch. We laughed and high fived each other. He unhooked his catch and tossed it back to be caught another day.

The sun rose high in the sky. It must be time to eat.
So we rested our fishing rods on the side of the boat, the bobbers stationary on the lake. Flying insects stopped briefly on each rod.

Opening a cold beer I told a story of how my grandfather kept bottles of Coke cold by tying a string to them and tossing them into the lake. My friend smiled. He had heard it as many times as I had told it.

We ate our ham sandwiches and sipped the beers and paid very little attention to the fishing rods. Suddenly my friend broke the mood, “Hey! My bobber’s gone!” He grabbed the rod and tried to reel it in. His fiberglass rod bent in half. He probably hadn’t checked the drag in years (ever?) and the line flew off the reel. He clicked the drag on and the rod almost jumped out of his hands. Oh, baby, we said. This is the big one; a monster! Don’t let him get away.

He fought that fish for twenty minutes. Up went his rod hauling the fish closer and then down with him cranking as hard as he could. Then up again and down. Cranking, cranking, bringing the monster closer to the boat and my waiting net.

We caught a glimpse of it. A huge trout; two feet long. And really heavy! My friend was tired but fifty years of frustration were being drained from him as he cranked in that fish. I stood ready with a net; as if I had ever landed a fish that size.

The fish was close to the boat now; only a few more yards. I leaned over the side and dangled the net near the line. Closer and closer it got. The fight seemed to be gone from the trout. We had won. But just as the huge trout reached the side of the boat, it jumped and flapped against the side of the boat. I stumbled and missed with the net and the fish was gone.

I thought my friend was going to cry and I was going to join him. I was too ashamed to tell him it was my fault; that I should have netted him earlier. But he just said that the big ones always get away. We each cast once or twice more. Honestly, we had lost the heart for any more fishing that day.
That was the last time we fished together.

The day he left I was thinking of calling him to give it a shot. His wife called me; told me my friend was gone. One minute he was here and the next minute he was there. She told me there had been no pain and that was a good thing. She asked me if I would eulogize him at the funeral. I cried a tear and said sure, I’d love to. With fifty years of memories I would have a lot to talk about.

But I didn’t. On the day of his funeral, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. But then I remembered what my daughter told me the day her sister got married. As the maid of honor she was expected to make a toast. Have you written it down, I asked. No, Dad, she told me. I’m just going to speak from the heart. So that’s what I did.

When I walked to the podium, his family, friends and the congregation grew still. I stood there, took a deep breath and told them of my friend, the fisherman. First, though I engaged in a bit of nostalgia about my grandfather. No, No, not the Coke story!

There was a plaque on his wall that read “Allah does not deduct from the allotted time of man those hours spent in fishing.” If that were true, I said, my friend would have lived to be a hundred and four instead of seventy-four.

I told the story of going ocean fishing in a rental boat that would only turn one direction. I told them about the first time he took his grandson fishing. I told them about the bachelor party aboard a fishing boat where it rained all day.

Finally I told them about the big one that got away that day on our lake, about how it had been my fault and mostly about my friend who never blamed me. And then I ended with as close to a prayer as I’ll ever say.
“If there really is a better place I know my friend is sitting in a boat on an ice blue lake sipping a cold beer and catching a big one any time he wants. Save me a seat, pal. It won’t be too much longer.”

Tim Tobin holds a degree in mathematics from LaSalle University. He retired five years ago from L-3 Communications after more than forty years as a project manager and software engineer. His speculative stories appear in Separate Worlds Magazine and The Moustache Factor. His western stories and poetry appear on the Rope and Wire web site.

© Copyright Tim Tobin 2012