As my buddy John and I drifted over the transition area of mud, rock and gnarled tree roots that popped up and grabbed our bottom bouncers which surveyed the underwater scene for walleyes on the Missouri River impoundment, our eyes turned to a shore angler along the backside of the bay. His nine-foot rod was doubled over, and while some of his lifting suggested his bait had found a snag in the curve of deep water that ran next to shore, the pounding of the rod tip in response to each crank on his reel proved otherwise. We watched him battle the fish to the surface and then into the large mesh cradle of his long net, specifically designed for bringing in just such an opponent.
“It’s a mirror carp,” the man in the green jacket shouted with all the excitement of an angler who had landed a 30-inch walleye or a state record muskie, “I haven’t caught one of these in eight or nine years,” he concluded with a request for a photograph as we drifted by.
Obliging, we reeled up our offerings and got close enough for John to snap a few pictures with his phone and send them off via text message to the obviously excited shore angler. In the midst of his celebration I saw his rigging and a sense of befuddled amazement crept over me. Here on this lake – loaded with eater walleyes, monster northerns and a population of large crappies — this guy was fishing carp, like a European angler, complete with a two-rod holder and a beeper that went off with the slightest trembling of the rod tip. At his side was a container full of homemade dough and a package of corn, the former he molded around his lead sinker before casting it out with a splash and the latter he threaded onto his hook with the hope of catching the plentiful nuisance fish patrolling the water. Admittedly, as we moved out and went back to our trolling, I was mesmerized by the brown-and-gold oversized scales of the mirror carp, before he sent it back into the lake.
As we pulled away, John connected with the first walleye of the day which promptly found its way into the livewell. Shortly after rebaiting his rig, his rod doubled over with a mighty opponent on the other end. It stayed low, thundering down into the dingy water and gave every suggestion of another walleye, only much bigger. As John gained on the fish, I saw it flash sideways under the boat. It was too wide to be a walleye and too silver to be a crappie. After another run or two it came to net, and I identified it as a drum, and again a sense of strange amazement settled in.
In the net, pumping its down-turned mouth, it conjured up memorable battles with redfish in the salt flats of Florida’s Gulf coast, and as I lifted it out of the water, the emerging sun lit up its purple-silver sides with an iridescence reminiscent of the sheen on a mourning dove in a September game bag. In that moment it became more than just a rough fish as John declared it his first drum ever and I began trying to recall if somewhere in the past I had landed one, or just seen them caught by others. I figured I hadn’t and suddenly found myself wanting to catch one and hoped that by the end of the morning I would, in order to check it off my life list with certainty and do battle with a fish that gave all it had in its fight on the way to the boat.
For the next three hours we sorted our way through walleyes and saugers and stacked a nice set of fish in the livewell to take home. Interspersed with the target fish for the day, John landed two more drum, each one bigger than the last and providing memorable battles for my co-angler. As we crossed the threshold into the snaggy area on one of the final passes, my rod jumped. I dropped the tip to the bite and swept it forward connecting with a heavy opponent. It rolled and dove under the boat, and I advised my fishing buddy that it was going to be my drum for the day, the secret jealousy subsiding in hopes that I would land the hard-charging fish below. But as I horsed it out from under the red and gold hull of the boat, a sense of odd disappointment washed over me. It wasn’t a drum at all, but the biggest walleye of the morning which did its best to evade the net with a drum-like doggedness.
The fish felt like a consolation prize, which obviously I know seems weird in any conventional angling sense. The disappointment that went along with the walleye into the fish box on the bow of the boat was easily covered with a joke or two, but the fact that I was drumless began to weigh on me as we ended our trip and headed back to the launch in the rising winds. It was beyond explanation, and perhaps due to the combination of the man so excited with catching a carp and the thought that I may never catch a drum — which, based on their populations in the flow was not likely, and a silly idea that generated a laugh as we headed out. Truly though, the morning was a lesson that beauty — be it the golden cat eye scales of the mirror carp or the silvery sheen of the drum — much like the joy obtained from doing the kind of fishing a person enjoys most, is something that is held in the eye of the beholder…in our outdoors.