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The ecstasy of gold

It was one of those spring days we’ve had an abundance of: warm but not quite hot and just windy enough to make it feel cool. As a result, the river was quiet. The fact that it was midday left only me, following a long morning run that ate up most of the front half of my day, and a couple of boats scattered up the two-mile stretch I patrolled under clear blue post-frontal skies, propelled one way by the rising gusts and slowed as I turned back against them. All the while the click-and-wiggle of the perch crankbait tapped out signals from the bottom of the flow: a slow drag when it hit the mud in nine feet, a hard tap when it found a rock or boulder in the depths, and a steady whir when I found water over 10 feet.

The afternoon wore on toward the dinner hour, and I sunk into the comfort of the captain’s chair, my bottom half dead weight following the morning’s workout. As tiredness crept in with the lack of action, I decided to troll the final stretch before returning to the marina. In the chute that paralleled the empty shore fishing area where normally a number of anglers stood on cloudy days and those with more favorable winds, I cruised along feeling the bangs and bumps of the rocks piled below in the snaggier stretch when suddenly one of them pulled hard, and hard again. I stood up and lifted the rod.

With the heavy bend of a fish on the line, I snapped out of my daze under the bright sun and strong southerly winds that pushed against the boat as I slipped it into neutral and spun between the current pushing down on the stern and the wind pushing upstream on the bow. As the fish neared the surface, it sparkled with a bright gold that extended long and thick behind the drab perch crankbait precariously pinned in the corner of its mouth. As I adjusted to the flow and the spinning boat, I lifted the rod tip and changed the angle ever so slightly and the shining walleye shook its head, dove and disappeared from sight and the end of the line. The crankbait resumed its wiggle and my fatigued legs buckled with disappointment.

In what should have been the last five minutes of my day before crossing the shallows to the western channel of the flow, I spun back in a circle and cruised the area again, longing for a second shot at the fish. Drifting back through the chute, the crankbait bounced hard off the rocks that had sent the walleye to the trailing treble on the lure. This time, however it hung up hard and the drag peeled from my reel, ting-ting-tinging out the gray line. I turned and went back over where the bait was snagged but to no avail and I was resigned to break it off.

“I should call it quits now,” I said to my lab, Ole, who had stood up to inspect the most recent change in direction, but defiantly, I didn’t.

Tying on a new clip and a firetiger patterned bait, I sped back to the start of the run and began another pass, hoping to connect with a fish, if not the fish that had shaken loose and sparked in me some sort of good-money-after-bad degeneration in the late afternoon. In the same spot, along the same rocks, the new bait hung up again and I spun the boat back around, trying to loosen its grip on whatever pinned it to the bottom. Again, with a series of jerks, pulls and reverse revs of the motor I was resigned to break the line; a second crankbait gone in as many passes and the growing memory of the large walleye lazily rolling to the surface burning along with my fury. I didn’t discuss my options with the dog as I hastily tied on a third crankbait and turned the boat around.

It was at this point I felt like Tuco from the “Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” as he enters the cemetery where the Confederate treasure is buried and in a classic scene which conveys his lust for the gold and what he is up against, he and the camera spin around again and again amidst the thousands of anonymous crosses. I could almost hear Morricone’s theme in my ears as, maddened by the loss of the fish and a second five-dollar lure, I turned into position and again went zipping down the channel. While I hoped my dogged pursuit would connect me with the golden prize, it once again ended in the disappointment of a hard pull and a lost bait. Reeling up the slack, I whipped the frayed line in the air like a white surrender flag and reluctantly collapsed back into the seat.

Righting the boat I drifted downstream and humbled like a gambler who had dropped his last twenty into a slot machine with nothing but a set of blank spaces to show for it, I cruised across the shallow mud flats to the eastern channel and the rock jetty which led to the launch. Tying the boat off, I silently took the dog and the rods back up to the truck and made a quick note on the dash sticky note of things to do. “3 Crankbaits” is all it said, a fitting summation for the off-afternoon’s search for golden treasure in the rocky depths that sometimes take more than they give … in our outdoors.

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