Late Thursday night, early Friday morning we left town for Wisconsin’s Door County. There were the inevitable problems with packing, a brief episode in which we thought the keys were locked in the trunk, and then a not-so-brief detour in which we dropped off a friend of my traveling companion at an O’Hare hotel. Then, lost in the maze of highways that encircle the airport, we spent an hour trying to get on the Tri-state Tollway. The car had blown out its exhaust pipe only that day, so we snaked back and forth below the trestles of the tollway, sounding to the natives of the suburbs like some group of stoned high school kids having trouble finding the party. The tollway is laid out in a frustrating manner meant to maximize the amount of time one must spend on it, and we passed several southbound entrance ramps before finally returning toward O’Hare and getting up onto the toll road shortly before 4 AM. My traveling companion filled two mugs with coffee from the thermos, mugs with plastic caps and small holes to let the coffee through, a crafty idea except that it took me a few sips to discover where the hole was and I burned my lips twice. The entire ordeal had about it the same rush and bustle as life in the city — recreation on a deadline.
Still, once we rumbled past the trucks leaving Chicago and the more numerous ones sitting with their lights glowing softly in the dimness near the toll booths, we were off, and we passed the cheese and fireworks stands across the state line and went on to Milwaukee. The horizon was only just beginning to brighten when the lake came briefly into view, and we cruised through clean Milwaukee, which seems even cleaner and quieter at the end of the night, before the day begins. Churches rose on both banks of the expressway, and at ten to five we passed a factory with a huge, impressive four-sided clock (the Allen-Bradley Corp., we noticed on the way back), well lit from within so that it glowed against the city and the slowly brightening sky beyond. We were making good time.
My traveling companion, Goodtime John, works for a sporting-goods company and had arranged a boat charter on Lake Michigan with a captain he knew in Sturgeon Bay. We were driving up early to get some golf in before the rest of his friends joined us Friday night. We’d go out on the boat early Saturday morning.
We drove down across creek beds where the fog rose in heavy banks and stood solid, up across a low hill where a church sat with a glass cross, lighted from within like the clock of the Allen-Bradley plant. The sun rose like an orange rubber ball, and I turned out the lights and we rumbled on, getting off first at the wrong exit (the business-district branch of Highway 42) and asking directions from a woman who was just opening up a gas station.
Then began the long part of the journey down a two-lane highway, slowing every once in a while to wind, at 25 miles an hour, through some hamlet, passing school buses and cars that turned from this road to nowhere — Highway S — off onto another letter-labeled road to nowhere, County Road G or maybe XX. The road swung out, giving us a brief glimpse of the lake, then in again into the countryside, and the temperature of the air outside changed accordingly.
We arrived around eight o’clock and went straight to the nearest open golf course, which was actually the third one we stopped at. There I led the examined life of the golfer for the first time this year, stepping onto the course without benefit of sleep or any earlier practice sessions, and discovered that if I didn’t concentrate on keeping the head steady and swinging easy not only would I play poorly but I would probably fall down at some time during the round. Temper, too, had to be monitored. That in mind, I played steady golf, not bad for the first time out, playing bogey ball on the front side and only slightly worse on the back. The clubhouse was run by an old, retired Navy mate from Great Lakes who had met his wife in Chicago, and we talked over a couple of beers before checking into the hotel and taking a nap before the working crowd from Chicago arrived.
Which was never. No one showed. Good-time John called friends back in Chicago who said at least one fellow had left, but he never showed. (We later found out he had decided to blow it off at the last minute.) Two other friends of John’s, sporting-goods acquaintances from Green Bay, did finally arrive at 10, and we went out to a nearby bar for more recreation. Returning at 2:30 AM, with a date to meet the boat by 5, we discovered we had no clock, and of course, this being Wisconsin, there would not be one at the desk to phone up (what would John Madden do?), so we set John’s wristwatch for 4:15 and slumped in various positions on chairs and on the floor and napped, but not before John’s friends had finished off the pizza we had ordered earlier in the evening.
I awoke, barely, some time later and noticed the sun rising, a beautiful sight except that I wasn’t aware that the Wisconsin farmers had arranged it so that the sun rose early, at 4 AM, so they could get a quick start on the chores. The watch said 5 o’clock. We had slept through the alarm, although at the time there was much talk over whether it actually had gone off at all. We hurried out into the cold morning, another deadline blown.
Everyone else knew the captain, Corky, and from what they said about him he seemed a gruff old salt. He was not going to be pleased about waiting. There seemed to be some doubt about whether he would go off by himself. When we pulled up at the dock, the boat was there but he was not, but a few minutes later he arrived with his mate, having gone out for breakfast, laughing, “Oh, I should have known,” in a Canadian-sounding accent, about how he should have remembered who was on the trip and that there was no way we would be on time.
The sun was still only just rising; a thin line of light ran across the water from the boat to the horizon. We ran out through a channel and out into that lake. Corky said it was a little rough and that a small-craft advisory was out but that we probably shouldn’t worry.
The mate drove the boat while Corky set the lines, running four downriggers at various depths off the back end of the boat. Weights carry the lines down as much as 90 feet, and a unique little gadget holds the line to the weight but is set to release when a fish hits. Therefore, fishing Lake Michigan for salmon and trout is, as a sport, not unlike sitting in the backyard. One sits on the deck of the boat and waits for one of the lines to release just as one might sit on the deck of a pool. We sat in the back on the deck and talked. John’s two friends sat upstairs with the mate, which, as it turns out, was not a good idea. The boat rocked and rolled. We went down into the cabin to get some coffee and then came back up.
We would catch only one that day, and because it was my first time out I was allowed to bring it in. It happened almost without our noticing it and without warning. Suddenly, Corky jumped at one of the rods and said, “Ooh, there’s one”; he pulled it from its holster and handed it to me. The reel buzzed as line ran out. I held the rod high and let it arch. Rather than everything slowing down, just the opposite happened; although when I think back I remember standing over the rod for quite a time before reeling in, I can also recall that I seemed to simply stand for a while and then reel, as one waits for an el train to come and then steps onto it when it does. I held the rod high and let the line hold for a time, not going out, not reeling in, remembering that a fish expends a great deal of energy in simply remaining in the same spot. (Forgetting that fact had once cost me a muskie, although that’s another fish story.) Then I began to reel, lowering the rod, gathering the slack, and raising it to begin again. I remember doing that forever; then, at what was about the halfway point, the fish ran again, the line buzzing off the reel as I again held the rod high and arched. I began to reel again. The fish came more willingly, and I saw it being towed toward the boat, about 40 feet out, and remember being surprised to find it so close to the surface. It had seemed that the fish had been simply a presence near the bottom of the lake, and now that it was near and visible I was a little startled and almost let down. Then it crossed the back of the boat in its last fight, trying to hang the line up on one of the others; I raised the rod and crossed the boat. The fish didn’t leap, but it spun crossly, wagged its head in the water, and turned away from the net, which Corky held near the surface. I reeled it back in, held the rod low, gaining the last slack, then raised the rod as Corky I slipped the net into the water and dragged in the fish, a Chinook salmon well hooked on the lure. There was never really much doubt about landing it.
The water grew rougher and John’s two friends grew sick. They passed a bucket back and forth as we sat below, talking, hoping for the next fish. Like his friends, it never came. The roughness of the water and the strain our two companions were putting on the mate (who had to empty the bucket and kept commenting on the mushrooms from the pizza) forced us in early, near noon. The light from the sun, by this time, splashed in a wide swath upon the surface of the lake. We got off the boat and John’s two friends went to the nearest restroom as we sat and talked to Corky, who said it was awful but you simply had to laugh, telling tales of times that had been worse than that.
The fish lay at our feet. Its gray coloring turned, at its spine, to a darker, bluish near-rainbow of colors. Unlike pictures in a book, it had a wide girth; its strength was evident even in death. It was no trophy, however, and we turned it over to a nearby fillet shop, where for a dollar they took it into the back room, bringing back two huge salmon fillets, and wrapped them in paper.
John’s friends dropped us at the hotel and left abruptly. We returned to the room and sat weary, then had a couple beers and returned to the golf course. Even more concerned about exhaustion, I held myself steady and swung easily and shot a 41 on the front, then somehow held on and managed to break 90 for the day. John staggered in less elegantly. On the way back to the hotel, too tired, almost, to drive, we bought onions and butter and homemade slaw and German potato salad and went back to the hotel and collapsed.
That night, we trimmed two steaks from the fillets and wrapped them in aluminum foil with sliced onions and slabs of butter and slices of limes (we’d forgotten lemons). We took the package and a couple of beers and took it out to a gas grill near the pool. Rain clouds, which had threatened all afternoon but held off, gathered over the lake and moved in. The first few drops fell, then held off again. Mosquitoes buzzed nearby. We could hear the fish cooking in the foil and opened it a couple of times to check its progress. Steam rose from inside and made us hungry despite the exhaustion. We sat and waited. For the first time, the long weekend was beginning to seem more like fun than work. We took the fish inside, warmed the potato salad, and sat down. It was not terribly tasty, not a delicacy. The lime didn’t add as much as a lemon might have, and we had deliberately underspiced it to get the taste; but that taste was good, very good, and the fish was more tender than any I could remember.