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Fishing with Grampy at Turtle Lake

June 2, 2020

It is warm today, nearly 85 degrees, and my thoughts have turned to the cooler air at Turtle Lake in northern Wisconsin, where I spent summers with my Granny and Grampy. It is about the time of year we’d load up the car and head north to the lake for a few weeks of swimming and fishing. I remember my first time fishing with Grampy and learning about just where those fried perch came from that Granny made so well.

***

First off, we needed worms. Down slope from the vegetable garden in the shade behind the garage and near the fish shack was a patch of dirt, its shape a perfect rectangle, like an unplanted flower bed. Nourished with coffee grounds, egg shells and vegetable peelings, the earth of the bed was loamy and black and cool to the touch. Grampy had turned the earth with his pitchfork so many times you could sift the dirt through your fingers without encountering lumps or clods. This was the worm bed.  We used the pitchfork to unearth the fat earthworms. They wriggled and twisted, objecting to their exposure to unaccustomed daylight. I plucked them up, one by one, and placed them gently into a half-pound coffee can along with a few crumbles of damp earth.

Before we set out with our long cane poles, Grampy produced a slim canister of peppery-smelling chewing tobacco. “Time for a pinch of gladiola blossom,” he said, in a voice at once rumbly with phlegm and high-pitched with old age. He never spat tobacco on the ground. There was a soup can handy on the pier for that. He walked beside me down the hill to the lake, limping a little because of his bum hip.

The lake glittered in the sunlight, and tall grasses lined the shore a few yards from the weathered wood of the dock. An old wooden barrel sat on one corner of the platform at the end of the dock. This was Grampy’s barrel, the place he always sat to fish. I sat on the edge of the platform with my legs dangling toward the water. The sun was warm on my back, and insects droned in the afternoon air.

Before we could begin fishing, I needed to thread a worm onto the hook tied to the end of the fishing line. The hook was huge. Grampy told me that its size made it easier to attach a worm, that it was the perfect size for a beginner. I struggled with the task, nearly gagging at the slimy feel of the desperately wiggling worm. My first attempts failed – the worms fell off almost immediately. Eventually, I figured out that you have to skewer the worm multiple times to get it wound around the shaft of the hook. I was horrified, but also eager to please Grampy. I wanted to catch fish with him, and this was the only way to go about it.

We sat for a long time, casting our hooks, watching the bobbers in hopes they would dip into the water. When the bobber gets pulled under, that means you have a fish. I lost a few fish along with the worms, but eventually I caught a perch that was big enough to keep. Later, Granny would fry it up for us for supper, along with the fish Grampy brought in.

Before that, though, the fish needed cleaning. This was more stressful than hooking worms, but Grampy said if I was to be a fisherman, I needed to see how fish are prepared for cooking. It’s important to know how food gets on the table, he said.

After we’d caught enough, we brought the pail of fish to the cleaning table behind the storage shed. There, I learned that you first have to stun the fish by giving it a solid whack on the head to make it stay still. Then, you had to slice the belly open with a sharp fish knife, and scoop out the guts. The guts get thrown into a tin pail under the cleaning table, and it would later be emptied back into the lake. It wasn’t long before the smooth wooden surface of the table was slick with fish slime and guts. Finally, we had to cut off the head, and toss the body into a pan of cool rinse water. Grampy didn’t filet the fish. At supper, we’d eat carefully to avoid the bones.

***

The house at the lake was sold after my grandparents died, and I no longer fish. I am happy, though, that I spent those afternoons fishing with Grampy, helping food get to the table for supper. I’ve learned how to fry a perch, and I look forward to many fish dinners here this summer, grateful for the fishermen who caught and cleaned the fish for our meals.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mrs. B permalink*
    June 3, 2020 6:34 am

    So glad you enjoyed it, Carol!

  2. June 2, 2020 10:35 pm

    Love this fishy tale! I have never fished and this really brought the process to life.

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